‘Venus as a Boy’ by Luke Sutherland

An intriguing novella of some 145 pages, Venus as a Boy traces the tale of a youth both bullied and a bully growing up in the Orkney Isles to the streets of Soho and the world of drag queens, alcohol and abuse.

The early story is a vivid portrait of life in the remote and desolate Scottish islands – if anything really did go wrong, what with Orkney being so remote, you’d be fucked – the unappreciated rugged beauty associated with total boredom. Setting fire to fields, gangs and best friends fighting with each other, navigating a dysfunctional family is the tone of Sutherland’s semi-autobiographical story. But it’s the outsider, Finola, who becomes our narrator’s bestie – but such is the horror of taunted verbal and physical abuse by the bored gangs, Eva, the reclusive, slightly crazy Czech aristocrat, takes her daughter off the island in a hurry.

The stillness killed me…It was though they’d left in the middle of things…The bedroom still smelled of them. Of the three of us. The bed was unmade. I tried to see the shapes of their bodies embedded in the sheets…In the end I stripped and raked through the cupboards. Found a petticoat and vest that fitted and smelled so much of the love they had given me…I went back there every day. Dressed up in their clothes. After time I smuggled the clothes back to my bedroom. First off I just wore them in bed, but as the shit with my dad got worse, as his rage made him insane, I wanted to be with Finola all the time.

It’s time spent with his girlfriend, Tracy, that he discovers his gift for sex and reducing his partners to grateful tears and ecstasy. It’s a skill set he takes with him first to Glasgow and then the streets of London, a skill that brings him a mix of joy and grief: unexpected love affairs, sexual encounters – All girls at first. I shagged the boss’s wife in the walk-in fridge; Saturday-night line-ups with a handful of waitresses. Guests galore after that. Off-duty police on the roof terrace; prom queens from the Bible Belt; the gorgeous boys I buggered in the copse across the river… they always ended up in tears or trances, convinced they’s glimpsed Heaven or heard the voices of the dead.

Sadly, these later sections of sexual conquest having left the island for work in London’s sex trade loses a deal of magic in its prose and storytelling. But at this stage Venus as a Boy takes on extra layers of poignancy as he looks to recapture his first love. First, the gorgeous Wendy (formerly Elliot) comes into his life and when he loses her, she is replaced by Pascal, a neo-Nazi abused sexually aggressively by the narrator.

Venus as a Boy is equally strange and beautiful: part poem, part queer myth with its indented paragraphs and single line entries. An experiential narrative that denies description – hence the degree of quotation from this slight, often sordid, frequently engaging story.

‘The Poisonwood Bible’ by Barbara Kingsolver

A best-seller, The Poisonwood Bible is an epic novel of the Prices, an American missionary family who, in 1959, moved from small-town Georgia to the village of Kilanga on the banks of the Kwilu River in (then) Belgian Congo.

It’s a sweeping story of colonialism, Africa itself, privilege, revolution, family, religion, tradition as the family of six (parents plus four daughters) arrive at the time of political upheaval and internecine power struggles: just months after their arrival, the country gained independence. Most Europeans left immediately, fearing a violent civil war following democratic elections as powerful tribal leaders fought for power. But the evangelical Nathan Price refused to leave, putting his family in the hands of God and His will, determined to save Africa for Jesus.

Never has a family been so unprepared for life in an African village, such was the naïveté of the Prices. Add Nathan’s blind religious fanaticism along with the villagers deep cynicism and mistrust of Christianity as represented by the family and it was a mission bound to fail. But the level of failure, foreshadowing the fate of the democratic Congo, deeply impacted on the lives of the surviving family members and created deep fissures.

The book is narrated by five different characters, Orleanna Price and her four daughters Rachel, twins Leah and Adah along with the youngest, Ruth May and spans 40 years (with the main focus is the first 12-18 months). Each speaks in the first person although Orleanna recounts in the past tense, sitting as she is back in the US many years later, full of pain, remorse and guilt for the death of her youngest child. Her husband, although the main catalyst for events, is given no voice. It is Leah, originally the strongest supporter of her father, who carries most of the narrative.

Whilst Rachel, a white-blonde 15 year-old who strikes fear in many of the ultra-superstitious villagers, concerns herself primarily with the superficialities of appearance and a deeply academic Adah deals with her disability (the left side of her body is completely paralysed), it is the idealistic Leah who explores the culture around her.

Having arrived in Africa worshipping Nathan and believing in his views, so the realities of the Congo and the selfish foolishness of her father slowly change Leah’s values and beliefs. The racism and social injustice around her results in a crisis of faith leading, ultimately, to a loss of religion. It is followed by marriage to idealist Anatole, a teacher and initially Nathan’s church translator, and they become a part in the struggle for a real African independence. It is Leah who continues to live, for the most part, in Congo, raising her children in spite of the occasional political imprisonment of Anatole. More surprisingly, Rachel also continues to live in Africa – but an apartheid South Africa is more to her liking and character.

The Poisonwood Bible is a broad sweep of a novel chocked full of characters – from the Prices and Anatole themselves through Mama Tataba, the live-in housekeeper who walks out having had enough of Nathan Price’s contempt; Chief Tata Ndu and his many wives; Tata Kuvundu, the spiritual leader in the village; Eeben Axelroot, the highly questionable South African mercenary pilot – the Prices main contact with the outside world and smuggler of diamonds. He eventually becomes Rachel’s first husband and ticket out.

Whilst the novel does occasionally become bogged down in detail, Kingsolver’s novel, which took more than five years to write, is an extraordinary achievement, capturing the extreme culture clash of small town US with a traditional African village. But the writer also looks to the politics of the day – the extreme wealth of the country controlled by so few and with major US interference in internal politics. It’s a fascinating insight into the second largest country in Africa.

‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ by John le Carré

The third John le Carré novel to feature George Smiley sees him take something of a minor role.

Having left the Secret Service at the end of the first novel, Call for the Dead, Smiley found himself in a murder mystery at a private boys school in the second (A Murder of Quality). In this, one of le Carré’s best known spy stories (owing in no short measure to the Oscar-nominated 1965 film starring Richard Burton), Smiley has slipped back into the backrooms without much fanfare.

But it’s Alec Leamas, a British agent, who is centre stage. Station Head of the Berlin office, Leamas has had some considerable successes against the East Germans. But the novel opens with the last (and best) of his double agents shot crossing the border. Recalled to London, Leamas and Control set up a plot to deceive the East Germans and sow disinformation about Hans-Dieter Mundt, the hated head of the Abteilung. 

Tame by today’s standards, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was something of a revolutionary espionage story when published in 1963. Neither intelligence services come out of the narrative well – it’s not just the communist countries engaging in expedient amorality in the name of national security! And Leamas is burnt out and disillusioned – hardly the stereotype of the nationalistic spy.

Le Carré’s novel was awarded the 1963 Gold Dagger Award from the Crime Writers’ Association for Best Crime Novel: in 2005, the fiftieth anniversary of the awards, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold was awarded the Dagger of Daggers – presented to the stand-out among all previous fifty winners.


A visual stunner as cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, Bladerunner 2049) joins forces once again with director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) to produce a gloriously shot breathlessness of a war film.

Charged with preventing two regiments and 1600 men heading into a trap set by a seeming German withdrawal, Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman – The King, Game of Thrones) and Schofield (George Mackay – Pride, Captain Fantastic) must cross the desperate no man’s land trenches of mud, death and decay.

It’s a somber mission – made the more urgent by the fact Blake’s brother is an officer in one of those two regiments. Fast-paced, underpinned by a building score (Thomas Newman – Skyfall, Bridge of Spies), intent and individual desperation sit alongside the immensity of the horrors unfolding around the two young men.

It’s a powerful, beautiful film but its impact is slightly undermined by what is essentially an amalgam of several experiences: just too much happens in too short a time. In focussing on the intimate and personal, 1917, unlike Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, for example, where experience is shared among the many, pushes the level of believability.

A minor caveat, but a real one in a war known for its doomed futility and cannon-fodder death of millions.

Nominated for 10 Oscars including best film, director, original screenplay, original score, won 3 – cinematography, visual effects & sound mixing.

Rating: 80%

‘A Stolen Season’ by Rodney Hall

The story of four main characters in a triptych of ruined lives, hopes and aspirations, A Stolen Season is poetic, intricate, personal and deeply political. But for all that, it’s not a particularly engaging narrative, hoisted as it is by its own petard of academic cleverness.

Adam Griffiths: Australian soldier fighting with the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ in Iraq and hit by a missile whilst guarding a controversial British war correspondent. He was wounded so badly he was initially notified as dead. Yet he survives and is brought back to some kind of existence in an exo-skeleton, the latest and best in experimental bionics. He returns to his wife, Bridget, and their small home in Melbourne.

A marriage that was already on the rocks, Bridget finds herself trapped, supporting a man who must navigate every pain-wracked minute of the day, who can barely speak: He is her monstrosity, hers and hers alone.

Interspersed into the dominant story of Adam and Bridget are the two lesser narratives of Marianna Gluck and John Philip Hardingham.

Like Adam, Marianna Gluck, adrift and isolated in a central American jungle, acknowledges she is the kind of monster who must learn step by step – and always painfully – how to behave in the age of humans. Her life has been ruined by men – or, specifically, one man, the embezzling impostor who called himself Manfred Leber and to whom she was married. A former dance teacher, Leber was one of her pupils. With Leber discovered and, having taken flight, Marianna realises her old life is over as she sits, alone in the tropical heat, addressing the purpose of her life. 

John Philip Hardingham provides the shortest of the three narratives. A man of immense wealth, with speculative investments in places as far apart as Archangel, Abu Dhabi and Adelaide and an extended family connected to aristocratic and royal blood around the globe, Hardingham is approaching 70. An unexpected legacy provides the opportunity to disrupt the complacencies of his family. The bequest is sketchbook after sketchbook of the most shameful sort – women’s pudenda by J.W.H. Turner. A huge investment in the building of a gallery to house the work is made without revealing the subject of the work until the grandest of launch nights in Melbourne with family members travelling far and wide….

A Stolen Season is a demanding novel as the links and connections between the three narratives are sought. The fact they are tenuous does not make it particularly easy – lots of symbolism of towers, monsters, decisions made, powerlessness and uncertainty. Rodney Hall is something of an Australian man of letters – novels (12), books of poetry (15), and many books/articles of non-fiction: it gives you a clue to the style and prose of this particular generally unlikeable novel. He has won the Miles Franklin award on two seperate occasions (1982 and 1994): A Stolen Season was shortlisted in 2019 but lost out to Melissa Lucashenko and Too Much Lip.

‘Jojo Rabbit’

Nope – could not come at it at all. A slapstick, overly sanitised WWII pic as seen from a bumbling, 10 year-old Hitler Youth member is VERY hard to swallow. And with Jojo (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis) taking Hitler himself as his imaginary father-figure friend, Jojo Rabbit falls and flounders in very deep water.

Director Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), with his self-proclaimed “anti-hate satire”, looks to Jojo discovering his humanity when finding young Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie – Leave No Trace, The King) hiding in the attic, put there my mom, Scarlett Johansson. But it’s all inconsequential, superfluous and disingenuous with much of the cheap humour falling deservedly flat.

Nominated for 6 Oscars in 2020 including best film, supporting actress (Johanssen) and film editing, won 1 for adapted screenplay.

Rating: 36%

Best of Year (2019 – Male Performance)

Another strong year for male performances even in a year that was less than memorable in terms of quality films (with a couple of notable exceptions). There was a whole bevy of excellent supporting roles – Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in The Irishman, Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Anthony Hopkins and The Two Popes, both Syun-kyun Lee and Song Hang Ho in Korean sensation, Parasite: add child star Zain al-Rafeea in Capernaum and all of these could have featured in the top five performances for the year (as well as Taron Egerton for Rocketman and Adam Driver with Marriage Story).

But in the end, my top five male performances for 2019 are:
5: Jakob Cedergren, The Guilty
4: Robert De Niro, The Irishman
3: Marcello Fonte, Dogman
2: Timothee Chalamet, The King
1: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

The fact he held the screen for virtually the film’s entire 85 minutes is indicative of the power of Jakob Cedergren’s performance in the Danish film, The Guilty.

A surprise omission from this year’s best actor nominations, Robert De Niro is a powerhouse in Scoresese’s magnum opus to the gangster flick, The Irishman – my choice for the best film of 2019.

Something of an unheralded film outside its native Italy (except on the arthouse film festival circuit), Dogman was a dour drama set in a poor neighbourhood of the Naples urban sprawl. Yet as a timid dog handler and part time cocaine dealer, Marcello Fonte is superb – and Marcello Fonte collected, among other awards, best actor at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and the 2018 European Film Awards.

The fourth major Netflix streaming film of the year was The King, but it was overshadowed by The Irishman, Marriage Story and The Two Popes. It did pick up some love in Australia – as an Australian/Uk co-production, the film garnered 13 nominations in the AACTA awards, winning four. But Timothee Chalamet has been overlooked in what is one of most impressive performances to date.

But there’s no denying Joaquin Phoenix gave the year’s best performance – an extraordinary bravura performance plumbing emotional depth and physicality. Winner of the Golden Globe a couple of weeks ago, Phoenix should comfortably pick up the Oscar for which he was nominated just two days ago.

Best of Year (2019 – Female Performance)

Not a particularly good year for film in general and 2019 certainly saw a paucity of standout female performances on film (although a few excellent streaming TV series offset some of that). And as mentioned in a previous article, having missed the Melbourne Film Festival, my ‘film count’ for the year was considerably lower than in previous years.

But, top five female performances (with Jessie Buckley in Wild Rose just missing out) for 2019 were:

5: Jennifer Lopez: Hustlers
4: Scarlett Johansson: Marriage Story
3: Joanna Kulig: Cold War
2: Renee Zellweger: Judy
1: Nicole Kidman: Destroyer

A renaissance for Jennifer Lopez and her supporting role in Hustlers as a group of upmarket strippers decide to turn the tables on their Wall St clients. As the queen bee of the group, Lopez is deeply impressive.

It’s been a good year for Scarlett Johansson – Jojo Rabbit, Avengers Endgame (as well as an uncredited cameo in Captain Marvel) which has seen a whole slew of award nominations. Stand-out performance is Marriage Story, the intense Noah Baumbach drama about the breakdown of a marriage.

Seen very early in the year, Cold War and Joanna Kulig picked up a number of awards in the previous year – including Kulig’s European Film Award for best actress. The black and white shot film is an impossible tragic love story – a sad ballad of time and place where a magnificent Joanna Kulig sings her way to fame in 1950s Poland. 

Renee Zellweger collected the Golden Globe for her performance in Judy and the Oscar is hers to lose. The film itself isn’t great but Zellweger’s heartbreaking star turn injects life into an engaging yet by-the-book biopic.

A somewhat unsung performance from Nicole Kidman in Destroyer, however, tops my list for the year. Kidman’s intractability and so out-of-character unpleasantness as a police detective, a train-wreck of an alcoholic prone to violence and off-the-rails behaviour struggles with colleagues and her estranged daughter.  It makes for a mesmerising two hours with a star turn from Kidman.