‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ by Shehan Karunatilaka

Mordantly funny, brimming with pathos, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida looks to explore and expose the carnage of Sri Lanka’s civil wars – and identify the killers of acclaimed war photographer, Maali Almeida.

But this is no grim realism of a novel. Almeida himself is our narrator and, in finding himself, in 1990, in the afterlife bureaucratic waiting rooms awaiting his fate, discovers he has just seven moons left before his eternal fate is determined. He is dead for real and not, as Almeida first suspected, simply hallucinating from pills taken. This high-stakes gambler, gay man and atheist has been murdered by some faction or high ranking official. His dismembered body is, with so many other victims of the wars, sinking in the Beira Lake.

Those seven moons must be used wisely to identify his killers, contact the man (DD) and woman (Jaki) he loves most to help them find his body and to lead them to a hidden cache of photos that will expose the highest levels of corruption. Only there’s plenty of threatening distractions, lost souls and violent spirits getting in the way, as well as time needed to find out exactly what he can and cannot do as a dead body.

Described as part ghost story, part whodunnit, part political satire, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, set in the In Between before proceeding toward The Light seven days later when the Tigers, the Army, the Indian peacekeepers, the JVP terrorists and state death squads were all killing each other at a prolific rate. A time of curfews, bombs, assassinations, abductions and mass graves, the afterlife offices are busy: bloodied activists, politicians, intellectuals, journalists mingle with civilians and the military minus arms, legs. The waiting room is not for the faint-hearted.

Embroiled in afterlife red tape, mirroring his friends’ attempts to discover his whereabouts (not helped by the hedonistic lifestyle enjoyed by the photographer before his demise), Almeida reflects on personal memories of war, the photographs he took, his own moral and ethical dilemmas as well as an awkward relationship with his mother. Jaki was seen by many as his official girlfriend yet DD, son of a government minister, was the love of his life – even if he constantly cheated.

It’s a frenetic novel that is incisive, frustrating, funny, confusing. Karunatilaka’s prose is informal, jagged and, in content if not style, he channels George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. A refreshing sophomore novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida unexpectedly won the 2022 Booker Prize, lauded by the judges for its ambition in scope and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques.


Honest if singularly paced, Cake sees a personal tragedy having left the sardonic Claire Bennett suffering from chronic pain. Through her support group, she becomes obsessed with the reasons behind the suicide of a younger woman in her group.

Scared physically and psychologically, addicted to painkillers, Bennett (Jennifer Aniston – Dumplin‘, We’re the Millers) is hard work for those around her, particularly for devoted if taken-for-granted housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza – Babel, Thor). But an obsession with the death of Nina Collins (Anna Kendrick – Up in the Air, Pitch Perfect) leads Bennett on a path of acceptance to her grief.

Directed by Daniel Barnz (Won’t Back Down, Beastly), a disarming sense of humour underlies this congenial if overly controlled tale with the sparky relationship between Claire and Silvana a highlight.

Rating: 59%

‘Pin Cushion’

Quirky yet ultimately tragic mother/daughter debut feature from writer/director Deborah Haywood, Pin Cushion is a bleak tale of bullying and social acceptance as mother and daughter struggle to start a new life in a small town.

A hybrid of grim social realism and sugar candied fantasy, the quiet, nuanced narrative sees the pair surviving on the margins. A club-footed Lyn (a superb Joanna Scanlan – After Love, The Girl With the Pearl Earring), herself ostracised by neighbours and community centre members, can only watch as daughter Iona (newcomer Lily Newmark) seemingly fits in with the trend-setting trio of girls at school. But, in a tale redolent of Mean Girls, she is but a lamb to the slaughter as the likes of Keeley move to keep the newcomer in her place.

Understated yet intense, Pin Cushion is a beautifully crafted short feature (80 minutes) with convincingly real performances from its small cast.

Rating: 74%

‘The Crown’ (Season 5)

The engagement and turbulent early years of marriage with its breakdown of Prince Charles and Diana were covered extensively in season four of The Crown. And whilst the eventual outcome is known by every viewer, that particular narrative at the end of the season was seemingly and royally shut down by the indubitable Queen (Olivia Colman) who refused to entertain the idea of divorce for the future king.

The latest and penultimate season, along with ushering in a complete cast change, places the divorce and Diana’s (Elizabeth Debicki) revenge against the Royal family centre stage as we move into the 1990s and the period immediately prior to her tragic death. It’s a period of high drama for the Queen who not only has to deal with her eldest son and his troublesome wife, but is soon to experience her annus horribilis where the marriages of three of her four children breakdown topped by the destructive fire at Windsor Castle.

But, as Imelda Staunton takes on HRH, there’s a shift in the overall positioning of the series. It’s ‘the system’ that is immutable, not the Windsors themselves. The demands of service determine futures and outcomes. The Crown has shifted its support base. To emphasise this stance, Diana, throughout season five, is portrayed as petulant whilst there is noticeably more covert sympathy for Charles (Dominic West) as his patience with his (soon-to-be-ex) wife as well as his out-of-touch mother comes to the fore.

Yet, The Crown’s most scandal-rich season is sadly somewhat dissatisfying as the episodes bounce between the central royals and key individuals who make up the 1990s narratives. It becomes a quagmire of storytelling as introductions are made, histories revisited. There’s a stoical sense of fair play in season five with more of the royals getting to be heard yet the result is a season teetering on melodramatic soap. The Cairo backstory of Mohamed Al Fayed (an immensely likeable Salim Daw) to his present day ownership of Harrods is important for futures but Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville) revisiting her love with Peter Townsend is not. The fate of Tzar Nicholas and the Russian royal family aligned with present day political manoueverings with Russian President, Boris Yeltsin (Anatoliy Kotenyov) is dramatically somewhat dull whilst the portrayal of the friendship through carriage-riding between Prince Phillip (Jonathan Pryce) and Penny Knatchbull (Natascha McElhone) is unnecessary, verging on gossip. Such episodic stories deflect – the biggest scandal of all, that of the infamous Princess Diana live interview on the BBC with the now disgraced Martin Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah), could have easily dominated season five. That, along with the allegorical retirement of the now passed-its-sell-by-date Royal Yacht Britannia could, and likely would, have created an engrossing season five.

Instead, with its flitting between stories and characters, the depth of character from Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth in earlier seasons is missing as Stanton is not given enough rein. It’s the superficial storytelling with its lack of depth that undermine this all too familiar tale.

Rating: 60%

‘Walking On Glass’ by Iain Banks

The second novel from Banks and following on from the mordant, gothic wit of The Wasp Factory, Walking On Glass is a very different proposition altogether. Three seemingly interdependent narratives, three different voices.

Set in pre-champagne socialist Islington and Clerkenwell in north London of the 1980s, art student Graham is in love. Naive, innocent, romantic, he has his heart set on Sara ffitch, recently divorced out of an abusive marriage. But it being Banks, even as Sara appears to respond to Graham’s interest, nothing is straightforward.

In the same Islington streets, a paranoid Steven Grout only just copes with the world around him. Constantly sacked from menial labour-intensive work, a wearer of hard hats to prevent gamarays affecting his thoughts, Grout is truly on the spectrum. His one joy is getting blindingly drunk.

And then, on a planet that transpires to be Earth in the distant future, a Banksian Gormenghast sees two elderly protagonists, Quiss and Ajayi, struggling with a captivity they desperately look to escape. Forced to provide the answer to the question What happens when an unstoppable force meets an unmovable object?, the two must complete almost impossible board games (blank dominoes, Chinese scrabble) before being able to provide what they think is the right answer. Their quest is stretched out interminably with the ever-impatient Quiss using the downtime (Ajayi needs to learn Chinese in order to play the latest board game) to explore their imprisonment.

Three seemingly interdependent narratives, three different voices. Yet there is the inevitably of a collision of the three as alternate chapters explore the three stories. And that’s a fundamental problem with Walking On Glass, a novel that is disparate in its telling and somewhat dull – Graham is a dullard, Quiss a bully, Grout tedious. None of the three separate narratives are particularly engaging – although admittedly the full extent of Banks’ dark imagination was not expected in the full reveal of the love story. And the funnel that conjoins the tales is less than impressive. Whereas The Wasp Factory was full of cruelty, sadistic carnage – and deep, sardonic wit, Walking On Glass is a skip in the park, a suburban angst of little and unconvincing consequence. Sara is mean, Quiss potentially violent but it all feels pre-The Wasp Factory, that the reality being the Islington-set tales were written considerably earlier than the first novel.

‘Midnight in Paris’

A return to form by Woody Allen after a generally lacklustre decade or so, Midnight in Paris is an intelligent, entertaining 90 minutes as nostalgic writer Gil Pender (Owen Wilson – Hall Pass, The Grand Budapest Hotel) experiences a very different Paris to those he travelled with.

Disillusioned and disatisfied, the Hollywood screenwriter travels to Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams – Mean Girls, Spotlight) and her wealthy parents. Harking to the bygone days of the French city in the 1920s, a late night walk sees Gil find himself in the company of Dali, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Bunuel, Cole Porter and the Scott Fitzgeralds. Travelling between the two time periods, spending time with Adriana (Marion Cotillard – La vie en rose, Inception), the American gradually becomes aware of himself and his desires.

A star-studded cast inveigle their sense of fun in playing the iconic cultural characters of the early twentieth century, thus ensuring Midnight in Paris avoids overt intellectual posturing and self-aggrandisement (with the exception of the splendidly and annoyingly pompous Martin Sheen). Instead, Allen’s film is full of insightful whimsy and a great deal of fun.

Nominated for 4 Oscars in 2012 including best film, director, art direction, won 1 for best original screenplay.

Rating: 74%

‘A Family Man’

A minor, predictable feature that nevertheless remains engaging enough as the tale unfolds.

The long working hours of husband/father trope is explored as Dane Jenson (Gerard Butler – 300, Greenland) prioritises his high-pressure career over time spent with wife Elise (Gretchen Mol – Manchester by the Sea, TV’s Boardwalk Empire) and three kids. With the boss (Willem Dafoe – The Florida Project, The Lighthouse) looking to name his successor in the dog-eat-dog world of headhunting, Jenson finds himself in competition with Alison Brie (The Post, TV’s Mad Men). But when eldest son Ryan (Maxwell Jenkins – TV’s Lost in Space, Reacher) is taken ill with a life threatening disease, Jenson is forced to reassess.

With the city of Chicago an integral character within director Mark Williams’ (Honest Thief, Blacklight) slick, pull-on-the-heartstrings feature, A Family Man is undemanding hokum – but eminently watchable, if immediately forgettable.

Rating: 48%

‘Good Luck to You, Leo Grande’

Earnest in its exploration of sexual awakening for a widowed 60something year old woman, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is original as it is important.

Retired schoolteacher Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson – Love Actually, The Remains of the Day) hires sex-worker Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack – TV’s Bad Sisters, Peaky Blinders) for a day of adventure and sex. An innocuous hotel room provides the setting for the nervous, sexually dissatisfied Nancy as the two, through conversation, form a bond. So much so a few weeks later she hires the charismatic Leo again.

Directed by Sophie Hyde (Animals, Life in Movement), a confined, understated tale of two people unfolds. With a brave, empowering performance from Thompson and a supportive, nuanced McCormack, the two hold the screen alone for more than 90% of the 100 minute running time, resulting in an utterly compelling depiction of not only an older woman’s sexual experience but the unravelling of many of Nancy’s rigid beliefs and values.

Rating: 75%

‘Wings of Desire’

A paean to the (then) divided city of Berlin, the langourously paced Wings of Desire gently and artfully questions mortality as angels watch over the people living their daily lives.

Shot in both colour and black and white, Damiel (Bruno Ganz – Downfall, The Party) yearns to return as a mortal, to experience sensory feelings of emotion and taste. Falling in love with a trapeze artist, Marion (Solveig Dommartin – Faraway So Close, S’en fout la mort), he and colleague Cassiel (Otto Sander – Faraway So Close, Rosa Luxemburg) visit others as observers, watching and guiding but never seen (except by children). A visiting American director (Peter Falk – TV’s Colombo – as himself) unable to see Damiel is fully aware of his presence.

Lyrical, sensory, atmospheric, with its ceaseless camera movement, this iconic European New Wave film of the 1980s from director Wim Wenders (Pina, Paris Texas) encapsulates the zeitgeist of the time. Featuring, among others, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Wings of Desire is a wordy poem to the mundane, a visual diary of the everyday as, like the angels, we overhear thoughts, hopes and aspirations.

Rating: 77%


Unconvincing and predictable, a high gloss, high octane thriller with a duplicitous police detective looking for some form of personal revenge fails to convince.

When successful LA sports agent Derrick Tyler (Michael Ealy – About Last Night, Barbershop) visits Vegas and finds himself in a one-night stand, what he does not expect is to see the woman again. Attacked in his own home, the detective assigned to the case is Val Quinlan (Hilary Swank – The Homesman, Million Dollar Baby). What follows is a confusion of violent and messy plotlines unravelling with Quinlan’s motivation not always apparent.

Directed by Deon Taylor (Black and Blue, Meet the Blacks), Fatale is chock full of generally unlikeable characters, leaving little interest in their fate.

Rating: 34%