‘The Red Sea Diving Resort’

Extraordinary true story as Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service, lease an isolated diving club resort on the Sudanese shores of the Red Sea. The purpose? To use it as a base to smuggle out Ethiopian Jews fleeing for their lives from civil war.

It’s 1979 and, based on Operation Brothers, a headstrong Chris Evans (Captain America, Snowpiercer) leads a covert team of agents. There’s sceptism in Jerusalem over such a plan. But a Sudanese general (a suitably threatening Chris Chalk – Detroit, 12 Years a Slave) responsible for the region is so suspicious of the sudden reopening of the resort, real tourists are bussed in!

A hugely successful operation, with thousands saved. But plodding direction and a stolid script (Gideon Raff – TV’s Homeland) sadly fail to do the story any real justice.

A Netflix Original

Rating 42%

‘Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’

It’s loud, bombastic, funny, gruesome and enormously entertaining. In other words, a true Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained) feature.

An excellent Brad Pitt (Twelve Years a Slave, Moneyball) as an out-of-work stunt double to best mate, Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant, Titanic), himself a washed-up TV star from 15 years earlier looking to make a career in the movies, meanders through 1969 Tinseltown in the lead up to the Manson Family murder of fledgling star, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie – I Tonya, Suicide Squad). Only Tarantino being Tarantino, he subverts that particular storyline.

It may not be his best, but an arguably overlong Once Upon a Time is Tarantino’s wistful love-letter to the 60s, Hollywood and American pop culture. And, in spite of that underlying storyline and gruesome violence, it’s remarkably tender.

Nominated for 10 Oscars in 2020 including best film, director, actor, original screenplay, won 2 – supporting actor (Brad Pitt) & production design.

Rating 83%

‘The Dark Room’ by Rachel Seiffert

The stories of three ordinary Germans and how war – and World War II in particular – impacts on their lives forms the basis of Rachel Seiffert’s debut novel.

Born with a non-serious congenital condition – a missing muscle in his chest – Helmut is a boy who is sidelined by sport-playing schoolfriends and, as a young adult, is unable to join the German army at the outbreak of war. Instead, an embarrassment to his working-class, Nazi party member parents, Helmut stalks the streets as a photographer, documenting the slow depopulation of Berlin.

Lore is a young teenage girl given the responsibility of taking her siblings across a Germany decimated by war and zoned by the Allies. With parents arrested as senior members of the Nazi party, Lore needs to keep heads low and find a way from Bavaria to the northern port of Hamburg and the home of her grandmother.

The longest story is that of Micha who, in 1997, researches the role his beloved grandfather, Opa, played as a Waffen SS member stationed in a small Belorussian village. Alienating his family in the process, travelling alone to the village on three separate occasions, Micha becomes obsessed with the need to identify and face the truths of the past.

The Dark Room is a fascinating, if somewhat uneven, exploration of guilt, innocence, truth and morality. He never fires a shot, but how culpable is the patriotic Helmut? Micha meets Jozef in Belarus, a collaborator who did not believe the anti-Semitic propaganda even as he murdered Jews – it was simply ‘a lie that made sense.’ For him, 40 years later, there is no point where apologising can bring redemption, such is the gravity of his actions. In the strongest narrative, as Lore finally arrives with her siblings in an almost unrecognisable Hamburg, it is the grandmother who asks her young charges not to judge their parents. ‘They are good people. They did nothing wrong.’ Micha would strongly disagree with such a comment 40 years later.

Deceptively simple in style, The Dark Room is a provocative read that was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize – but which lost out to Peter Carey and True History of the Kelly Gang.

‘Norwegian Wood’ by Haruki Murakami

Whilst Norwegian Wood is not my personal favourite Murakami novel, the poignant and nostalgic love story, developed from a short story (Firefly) and set in 1969/70, shot him to superstardom in his native Japan on its publication in 1987 (much to his dismay at the time).

As his Boeing 747 comes into land at Hamburg airport, the playing of the Beatles song Norwegian Wood through the tannoy system sends Toru Watanbe on a trip down memory lane of events twenty years earlier.

A student in Tokyo, Watanbe is far from his family home in Kobe, where his best friend Kizuki, at the age of seventeen, took his own life. A conscious decision to put as many miles between him and the sad events, Watanbe meets, by chance, the beautiful but emotionally fragile Naoko – former girlfriend of Kizuki.

A strange, distant friendship evolves. But Naoko is too unstable (her sister also committed suicide) and is sent to a distant sanatorium by her family. Left in Tokyo, a lonely Watanabe is adrift, an outsider in a world of unequal friendships, casual sex – and an unrequited love for Naoko. An occasional visit to the peaceful solitude of the sanatorium provides him with contact (and where he meets Naoko’s room mate, the older and wiser Reiko). But with the arrival into his life of a lively and impetuous Midori, Watanabe finds himself having to make choices.

Elegant, elegiac and deeply profound, Norwegian Wood is no saccharine-sweet nostalgia trip. Instead, its an urgent attempt to preserve an exquisitely painful time and address, full-frontal, death and grief and abuse – yet with a warmth and gentle, experienced wisdom.