‘The Uncommon Reader’ by Alan Bennett

An unexpectedly laugh-out-loud novella, The Uncommon Reader looks to the value of books and reading as seen through the eyes of a special individual and latecomer to the pleasures of curling up in a comfy chair, book in hand.

When the corgis disappear round the back of the palace, in following them QEII stumbles across the mobile library and its one user, kitchenhand Norman. Ever polite and not wishing to cause offence, the Queen borrows a single book (Ivy Compton Bennett) and, whilst hardly the best belated introduction to the joys of reading, she is hooked.

Much to the dismay of her staff, her renowned punctuality slips, the current book is always to be readily at hand and Norman is brought up from the kitchens as her literary advisor and library boy (the mobile bus is cut by the local council as a cost cutting exercise, regardless of the its high profile user). Private Secretary Sir Kevin struggles with the new interests of the Queen – as do visiting dignitaries and the prime minister himself as the Queen’s main topic of discussions are based around books.

The Uncommon Reader is a delightful diversion as the president of France is asked his thoughts on Jean Genet and Alice Munro becomes a favourite when, on a state visit to Canada, the Queen’s supply of books from the palace is ‘lost’ in transit (Sir Kevin really was not happy about the latest hobby). A guest at a function as a notable Canadian, Munro is only too happy to supply the Queen with copies of her many books.

Short and sweet, it’s light, warm hearted and respectful with some absolutely priceless dialogue as Elizabeth moves through a surplus of gay novels (Norman’s visits to the library…) followed by the classics.


Two brothers deal with the aftermath of the Great War and the traumas they experienced.

1923 Nantes and Marcel (Grégory Gadebois – J’accuse, Angel & Tony) has not spoken a word since returning to his mother’s home. A deeply unsettled older brother, Georges (Romain Duris – The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Heartbreaker), having fled to French colonial Africa, unexpectedly returns in an attempt to find meaning to his life.

Directed by Emmanuel Courcol (The Big Hit), Ceasefire is an elegant unfolding of the two brothers’ lives as each look for closure. With the pre-war French way of life disrupted and permanently changed, both men struggle as they as support an ageing mother waiting for positive news of missing-in-action third son, Jean.

With its subtle commentary on war profiteering and colonialism, Ceasefire is gentle and nuanced – arguably a little too gentle and nuanced. Georges’ sojourn in Africa is too quickly passed over, the love affairs of the two brothers a little too restrained and polite. But beautifully shot and acted, Courcol’s debut feature remains meditative and thought-provoking.

Rating: 62%

‘Black Bird’

Inspired by true events, this six-part miniseries is a wholly engrossing prison drama narrative based on the book In With the Devil by Hillel Levin.

Successful, cocky jock James Keene (Taron Egerton) may be a former star college athlete and ex-policeman’s son, but caught drug dealing and gun-running sees him sentenced to 10 years without parole in spite of a plea bargain. A natural born charmer, Keene is seen as something of a potential asset by the FBI in a case where a second appeal against conviction is looming. The authorities fear child-killer Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser) could walk free.

Agent Lauren McCauley (Sepideh Moafi) puts a deal to Keene. Transfer from his soft minimum security to Springfield, Illinois – the maximum security prison for the criminally insane: elicit a confession in an attempt to find the bodies of as many as 18 young girls the soft-spoken Hall is suspected of murdering. Walk free. No tall ask – Hall is known as a serial confessor but who withdraws his confessions a day or two later. His current conviction is based, according to his lawyers, on a confession obtained through duress.

Interweaving prison, the ongoing investigation and events in Hall’s past, Black Bird slowly unfolds. Only the prison psychiatrist knows what’s going down and, over time, a strutting Keene is emotionally and psychologically affected. Guards and other inmates inevitably impact but the focus is on Keene and Hall as the former slowly wins over trust. Outside prison, McCauley and local detective Brian Miller (Greg Kinnear), the man first responsible for arresting Hall, desperately search for evidence that will keep the suspected killer inside.

Hauser is psychotically extraordinary as Hall, a quietly spoken outsider. But behind that withdrawn demeanour and downcast eyes is a manipulative schemer: it’s no easy task facing Keene. Whilst Hauser is a standout, Black Bird is packed with strong performances, including the final appearances of Ray Liotta as Keene’s ex-policeman father. It’s a gripping six episodes.

Rating: 83%


Without question, Ghostbusters is one of the least comedic comedies around, a poor choice all-female remake of the classic 1980s Bill Murray starrer (which itself was not that funny).

Serious physicist Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig – Bridesmaids, Wonder Woman 1984) loses her university tenure and finds herself collaborating with old mate Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids, Spy) in the paranormal and the ghost invasion of New York. Teaming up with subway worker Patty (Leslie Jones – Coming 2 America, TV’s Saturday Night Live) and nuclear engineer Jillian (Kate McKinnon – Bombshell, TV’s Saturday Night Live) with her increasingly bizarre weaponry, the intreprid four set out to rid the city of the ghoulish threat.

Unfunny scenarios and misfiring jokes, with even the subversive hiring of the male dumb blonde eye candy, Kevin (Chris Hemsworth – Rush, Thor) quickly falling flat, results in a Ghostbusters as directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, A Simple Favour) full of noise and chaos but with neither spirit nor thrills.

Rating: 30%

‘Game of Thrones’

A groundbreaking eight seasons, a medieval tale of power as families battle against families, brothers fight brothers, sons battle with fathers, daughters rise against gender-assignation, dragons control the hoardes, the dead rise to confront the living. All this and so, so much more in its 73 episodes whilst racking up no less than 59 Emmys over that eight season period.

Unfolding like an amalgamation of the histories of European countries and empires (with more than a little magic and fantasy added), nine noble families fight for control over the lands of Westeros. As power ebbs and flows, kings, queens, princes, princesses, noblemen, commoners come and go, murdered, killed in battle or, occasionally, die of natural causes.

But as the seasons slowly edge towards the bloody climax, it’s the dominant Lannisters established in the luxuriant city of King’s Landing and now under Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) who looks to face down the people of the North led by the Starks and John Snow (Kit Harrington) along with the claimant to the throne, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the Dragon Queen. But there’s also the very real threat from the far north from that ancient enemy, the army of the dead, who return after being dormant for millennia.

Regarded by critics as one the best television series of all time, Game of Thrones is a huge investment in terms of time and emotions as principal characters evolve over the eight seasons. Each family is given its story with its history and current position within the power struggles but empathy from an early stage is invested in the Starks when head of the family, Ned Stark (Sean Bean) is unjustly executed by the Lannisters. Known for his sense of honour and justice, his crime – to have discovered all three children of the king’s wife, Cersei, are from the ongoing incestuous relationship with twin brother, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). It sets the course for ongoing confrontation between those loyal to the Starks and those who believe their best interests lie with the wealthier Lannisters. That, along with the claim to the Iron Throne by Daenerys Targaryen, based across the Narrow Sea but slowly building her followers, is the core of the Game of Thrones.

Individual stories evolve as the two Stark daughters, Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams) find themselves pawns within the system – a somewhat simpering Sansa is married off to not one but two Lannisters before emerging as a powerful head of her family whilst a no-nonsense Arya goes off on her own personal journey of self-discovery. But it is the third and youngest Lannister sibling, Tyrion (the superb Peter Dinklage), who is central to the eight seasons and the machinations of power. A dwarf blamed for the death of his mother during childbirth, he is very much the outcast of the family. Rejected by his father (Charles Dance) and siblings, a hard-drinking womaniser initially disinterested in politics, its Tyrion who, in switching allegiances, effects the course of events throughout.

Impossible to sum up all its strands and characters, Game of Thrones, based on the series of books A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin is thrilling television that, whilst there are inevitable palls in its dramas, ultimately delivers a powerhouse of imagined and real history of power and all its ramifications.

Rating: 80%

‘Parallel Mothers’

An engrossing, restrained drama from Pedro Almodóvar (The Skin I Live In, Talk to Her), two single women give birth in the same hospital on the same day.

Looking to redress injustice from the early years of the Spanish Civil War involving her family and the village of her birth, successful photographer Janis (Penelope Cruz – Nine, Volver) becomes involved with married anthropologist, Arturo (Israel Elejalde – Love Above All Things, Amador). An unexpected pregnancy and a shared hospital maternity room with teenage Ana (Milena Smit – Libélulas, Cross the Line) upend Janis’ life in many different ways.

A nuanced melodrama, Parallel Mothers is quietly tender, an intimate exploration of love and motherhood.

Nominated for 2 Oscars in 2022 – best actress (Cruz) and soundtrack (Alberto Iglesias).

Rating: 72%

‘Young Mungo’ by Douglas Stuart

The sophomore novel from Douglas Stuart and a perfect accompaniment to Shuggie Bain, his Booker Prize winning debut, Young Mungo returns to the Glasgow of Stuart’s youth. A visceral coming-of-age, we are once more deposited into a world of abuse, alcoholism, violence and hatred. Yet, through the eyes and experiences of 15 year-old Mungo, we also see gentleness, love and loyalty.

Glasgow in the 1970s and an alcoholic mother more absent than present for her three children with a narrative centred around the youngest boy: comparisons to Shuggie Bain are inevitable. Yet, in its vivid telling, Young Mungo is more than the family drama of the earlier novel. Set within the same violent public housing estates, lines are drawn between protestants and catholics. Sectarian violence can erupt at any moment – much of it orchestrated by Mungo’s older brother, Hamish, an angry teenager already a father and living away from the family home. Unlike Shuggie Bain, it is the sister, Jodie, who provides the support – a hardworking schoolgirl who is forced to take evening work at a local pizza house to ensure food in on the table and some of the bills are paid. Ma has a new fancy man and a nighttime job – the only problem being that she has’nae told him she has kids.

A makeshift pigeon dovecot on wasteground becomes a focus for Mungo. Initially drawn to this out-of-place structure, he befriends its keeper, James, a youth not much older than himself. Both boys are lonely souls with James living virtually alone: his mother died recently and his father works on the North Sea oil rigs – two weeks work, one week off. A sense of sadness pervades as the two find solace in the pigeons and, eventually, each other.

The friendship evolves into a dangerous first love for both. The threat of discovery is constant: the punishment unspeakable when Mungo discovers James is catholic. Their dreams of escaping the terrors of Glasgow become more urgent, particularly with tensions rising on the estates and Hamish calling for local youth into battle. Their young love is countered by Jodie’s illicit sexual affair with a teacher at school: a miserable and manipulative relationship involving furtive encounters primarily in a caravan outside the city.

Interspersed within the gentle unfolding innocence of first love and the harsh reality of city life is the weekend fishing trip for Mungo to a loch outside Glasgow. Entrusted by his mother to two men she met at AA and who she barely knows, the boy is confronted by abuse, drunken banter, confused affection resulting in Young Mungo steering into a dark and wholly unexpected place.

Whilst not quite reaching the visceral heights of his first, Stuart’s novel is a gripping lyrical achievement. Characterisation is extraordinary – many appear for but a few pages (the shopkeeper and local farmer near to the loch, for example) yet are fully rounded people whose life stories are seemingly present in their fleeting presence within the narrative. Young Mungo is a confidently written and outward looking novel that firmly endorses the name of Douglas Stuart as a major new novelist.

In a quite extraodinary and inexplicable decision, Young Mungo failed to make even the Booker Prize longlist for 2022.


With its inevitable comparisons to Cabaret (but without the benefit of the frisson between the excesses of Berlin and the early Nazi Germany years), Burlesque is a somewhat vanilla all-dancing, all-singing cliche. Yet, predictable and templated it may be, it’s still something of a feelgood treat as Ali (Christina Aguilera – Get Him to the Greek, Pitch Perfect 2) takes LA by storm.

Packed full of music (with Cher and Christina Aguilera heading the bill, no surprises there) and stage based dance numbers, writer/director Steve Antin offers little in terms of originality of narrative. Wannabe star Ali ups and leaves hicksville for the bright lights, eventually finding her way to Burlesque, a rundown club owned by Cher (Moonlight, Mask) struggling to stay afloat. Waitressing is Ali’s way in as she charms most of those around her. But to be able to sing the way she does in a club that lip syncs…… It doesn’t take long for Ali’s talent to be unearthed. Throw in a side story of property development and a couple of love affairs and that’s Burlesque.

It may not win any awards for originality, but the music shines with several diva songs on offer. Built around the music is life in the club – with the stand out chemistry to be found between Cher and long standing friend and Burlesque’s gay costumier, Sean (Stanley Tucci – Spotlight, Julie & Julia). It’s daft, it’s cheesy – but Burlesque is also immensely entertaining.

Rating: 66%

‘And Then We Danced’

Set within the macho world of traditional Georgian dance with its feats of endurance and masculinity, And Then We Danced (directed by Levan Akin – Certain People, The Circle) subverts as Merab (an extraordinary Levan Gelbakhani) finds himself challenged by the arrival of potential rival, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili).

Passionate in its telling with glorious scenes in the rehearsal room, And Then We Danced is a powerful coming-of-age drama. Linked with Mary both personally and as a dance partner for many years and on the brink of joining the National State Dance company, a dormant sexuality is awoken within the extremely likeable Merab, putting his world entirely at risk.

A conventional narrative it may be, set within conservative Georgian society, but the heartwarming tale of And Then We Danced is one of personal rebellion and self identity with Merab finding unexpected support by a member of his family.

Rating: 73%

‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’

A full throttle combat narrative that is simultaneously a thoughtful and meditative martial arts feature from director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Eat Drink Man Woman), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was, on release in 2000, hugely successful both critically and at the global box office. It became the first subtitled film to break $100 million at the US box-office.

A violent past is hopefully laid to rest as the charismatic Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat – Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Monkey King) gives up his legendary Green Destiny sword, a blade of heroes, into the safe keeping of Governor Yu. But a fearless young warrior steals it, forcing Mu Bai and respected warrior Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh – The Lady, Crazy Rich Asians) to confront the thief.

Beautifully told, tradition of 19th century China is both respected and challenged as Governor Yu’s daughter Jen (Ziyi Zhang – Memoirs of a Geisha, The Grandmaster) questions the gender role imposed on her. The phrase Wo Hu Cang Long (crouching tiger, hidden dragon) also alludes to desire and behaviour that must be repressed within court society.

Nominated for 10 Oscars in 2001 including best film, director, adapted screenplay, editing – won 4 for best foreign language film, cinematography (Peter Pau), original score (Dun Tan) and art direction.

Rating: 74%