Tanna – a remarkable film

This is a review of the film Tanna

On the South Pacific island of Tanna (part of the Vanuatu archipelago), the women of the Yakel tribe are joyfully preparing for the initiation of the beautiful young Wawa as a woman.  She is turn is delighted by the return to the village of Dain, the chief’s grandson, a Pan-like figure with his pipes and head-dress of long, green leaves. The carefree tropical forest idyll of rhythmic communal dancing and song is shattered by an attack by the neighbouring Imedin tribe, in what has become an ongoing feud. It is decided to cement peace by invoking the tribal laws of Kastom, which advocate arranged marriages between tribes. What will be the outcome of the refusal of the young lovers Wawa and Dain to give each other up?

Based on a true chain of events in the 1980s which led to the recognition of love marriage as a part of Kastom,  this film makes a powerful impact not only through the stunning photography, but also the acting ability of a cast of native tribespeople with no prior knowledge of cinema, or life beyond their village, and also the clear evidence that an apparently primitive residue of “uncivilised native life” may in fact be a cohesive society, based on well-developed values which  can make our media and celebrity-dominated culture seem rather hollow.

The film’s authenticity stems from the fact that at least one of the directors lived with the tribe for months, observing their customs and winning their trust.  Unselfconscious in their semi-nakedness, they go  about their work and communal celebrations, moving with a striking grace or dignity, not to mention their fitness in covering miles of rough terrain. We see how they are at one with the lush forest, weaving skirts and cloaks from grass, twisting leaves into headbands and necklaces, using a small inverted tree as a broom to sweep clear the forest floor around their huts, clearing the ground efficiently for planting aided only by a pointed stick.

When in need of advice they ascend a nearby continually active volcano to sit at the crater rim where the erupting lava is linked to the spirit of the goddess Yahul.  This is not some sugar-coated Rousseau fantasy of life as a savage,  but a convincing portrayal, by turns humorous, violent or poignant, of a vulnerable way of life. This deliberate rejection of colonisation and conversion by missionaries (the background history makes interesting reading) is unlikely to survive much longer, but one understands the desire to preserve it in preference to one in which the villagers  have exchanged their native skills of self-sufficiency for a life of poverty in a money-based economy corrupted by the worst aspects of “civilised western” life, or of parroting some debased form of Christianity. As Dain says of a group of happy-clappy evangelised tribespeople, “These Christians freak me out”.

“Mrs Osmond” by John Banville – over-egged pastiche when would have preferred author’s own voice

This is my review of “Mrs Osmond” by John Banville

John Banville’s sequel to “The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James develops the plot further to explore Isabel Osmond’s response to the bitter realisation that her husband has married her solely for her money and has been concealing from her a sordid and humiliating secret. I felt at a disadvantage at first in not having read “The Portrait of a Lady”, since this would have enabled me to gauge the degree of Banville’s success in attempting to mirror James’s style. Yet, knowing the details of the original would have spoiled my enjoyment of the way John Banville gradually reveals the details of what has led to Mrs Osmond’s distress.

Although it seems acceptable for a writer to produce a prequel or sequel to a deceased author’s work, I am less sure about artistic method of trying to imitate his style – a painter who tried to produce pictures in the style of Monet would after all be condemned as “derivative”. I agree with reviewers who feel that Banville has “over-egged” his efforts to emulate James – his convoluted flights of fancy often weighted down with unrelenting alliteration and jarring metaphors, to the point of seeming ludicrous and digestible only in small quantities, unrelieved by James’s subtlety and excuse in having been born in an earlier age when what we now regard as flowery speech and excessive refinement were the norm for the privileged classes: “Her thoughts moved in large, loose loops, but at least once every round they revisited, like a planet at its perihelion, the question of what precisely Miss Janeway’s portentious remark might have been meant to mean”.

Or to take a more irritating overworked passage: “Europe had been her fate, and so it was still. Yet she should not have allowed her aunt to thrust her upon that fabled continent so precipitately, as a free-trader’s posse might snatch from the doorway of a dockside tavern some poor young hearty fuddled on rum and press him into a captive life on the roiling ocean; indeed, she should not have allowed it. Her aunt was not to blame that she was lashed by unbreakable bonds to Europe’s mast”. And so on.

I would have preferred this novel written more in Banville’s is own dry, pithy style which kept sprouting through the verbiage to hint at what might have been. There are some strong dialogues, as in the scene where Isabel confronts her reptilian husband, with detailed descriptions which almost read like stage directions. The portrayal of Isabel’s mental confusion, her veering between weakness and decision, her desire for revenge but shrinking from descending to the level of Gilbert Osmond and his mistress are often well expressed. There is some humour, as in the portrayal of Isabel’s maid Staines, or the daunting lunch served by the vegetarian suffragist Miss Janeway: “boiled broccoli, boiled beans and boiled spinach” eaten “in silence save for irrepressible herbivoral crunchings”. On the other hand, too many characters, like the unscrupulous Madame Merle seem like caricatures or appear two-dimensional.

I wanted to know what would happen, uncertain whether the outcome would be tragic, or not amount to much at all, but found it hard to cope with more than a few chapters at a time. In fact, the ending was as abrupt as James’s and even less conclusive, to the extent of seeming “a bit of a cop out” on Banville’s part.

“The Post” – Truth at what price?


This is my review of  “The Post”  .  
It can be no coincidence that Steven Spielberg’s engrossing film, “The Post” has been produced in the first year of Trump’s presidency, with the heightened concern over the freedom of the press to expose government suppression of the truth in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts”.

In 1971, The Washington Post had its first female publisher in the form of Katharine Graham, who had assumed this role in the family firm after her husband’s suicide. Brilliantly played by Meryl Streep, who has gained her 21st Oscar nomination for this part, despite being a glamorous society hostess, Graham often suffers from a crippling lack of confidence, and it is clear that the suave advisors on her Board assume the right to manoeuvre her into making the decisions they favour. This film reminds us continually that, however oppressed some “Me Too” women may feel now, sexual inequality was ingrained into society fifty years ago to an extent most young people may find hard to credit.

Graham has taken the initiative to employ the abrasive Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) as chief editor. His irritation knows no bounds when the arch-rival paper, “The New York Times”, lands the scoop of publishing the leaked “Pentagon Papers” which reveal how, over three decades, four successive presidents, including the charismatic Kennedy, have lied to the public over the fact that resources are being poured into fighting a war which cannot be won in Vietnam, at the cost of thousands of young American lives. When Nixon’s regime gets an injunction served on “The Times” to halt production, the baton passes to “The Post”, if they want to risk taking it. If they can track down the source of the leak and obtain the leaked documents, should they publish the details instead? Since Bradlee compromised his position in the past when socialising with the Kennedy family, how can he condemn Graham if she tries to shield McNamara, the author of the incriminating papers which he never intended for public consumption? About to float her business as a public company in order to gain vital investment support, will the vacillating and dominated Graham find the courage to take a stand as a matter of principle?

What could be a dry film is in fact quite gripping since, with a good script, some excellent acting (apart from the odd mumbler), and attention to period detail, it raises some important issues. To what extent should newspapers protect their sources? Do unethical means of obtaining information justify the ends? Should one jeopardise people’s jobs and the future of a newspaper for the sake of a principle? When might revealing the truth be against the national interest?

It is fascinating to see the recreation of a computer-free world in which papers have to be produced with hand-set type by vast, cranking machinery. Stolen papers have to be reproduced page by page on a snail’s pace copier. But is it credible that after painstakingly cutting the “top secret” note off each sheet, no one thought to number the pages? Or that even the most quick-witted journalists could make sense so quickly of 4000 odd pages which had become mixed up?

I liked the touch of a silhouetted Nixon at a White House window as he petulantly issues orders that no one from “The Post” is ever to be admitted to the building again, together with the foreshadowing of the Watergate break-in which was soon to bring him down.

Existentialism all that matters – making the best of being “left alone without excuse”.

This is my review of  Existentialism All That Matters by David Cerborne

Despite my desire to understand more about philosophy as an important but neglected aspect of our education,  my interest usually runs aground on the sheer opacity of many books on this subject combined with the sense that  their authors often seem to be stating the obvious as they dance on the point of pin.

David Cerbone’s  encouragingly slim volume struck me as being different in its synthesis of  “what really matters in existentialism”, the fruit of  years spent teaching students, developing his own ideas as he tries to approach mind-bending ideas from a viewpoint they can grasp. Although I am sure purists will judge him to have oversimplified matters, he  selects and explains with skill  the key ideas of the main philosophers associated with existentialism.  Before homing in on Jean-Paul Sartre, who reluctantly accepted the “existentialist” label the better to control its meaning, also on  his companion Simon de Beauvoir, with a quick look at Albert Camus,  the author devotes a chapter each to  three important influences on Sartre: Kierkegaard, Nietzche and Heidegger,  who foreshadowed  ideas fundamental to existentialism.

In a nutshell, this book suggests in effect that the key players in existentialism have been atheists,  who believe that since there are no absolute notions of meaning, purpose,  or value in life, we are, as Sartre observed  “condemned to be free”, but this need not be a negative source of mental confusion and despair. As self-aware beings, we have the freedom to interpret our situation, make choices on an open set of opportunities and so take responsibility for the future direction of our lives, taking account of what has happened in our past and also subject of course to the constraints of the society to which we happen to belong. We can feel liberated, rather than terrified, by the fact that there is no “higher being”, no  preordained meaning to our existence and no afterlife.  If we extend our sense of responsibility to include others, the results are likely to be mutually beneficial and we will feel more positive about life, and live it “better”, although that can only be defined in subjective terms.

The one aspect of this book that disappoints me is David Cerbone’s  ‘book-ending’ of his interesting analysis between references to the Hasidic (Jewish) Parable of Rabbi Zusya: “Why were you not Zusya?” i.e. yourself, as fully developed a conscious individual as you could be.  I appreciate that religions may be considered akin to existentialism in that all are the result of human efforts to make sense of the fact of being alive.  I understand that existentialists like De Beauvoir have clearly drawn, perhaps unconsciously, on Christian values to inform their ideas. Yet I would have preferred an approach that did not seem to link existentialism to any specific religious, in this case Jewish, belief . The specific suggestion in the Postscript that we may one day have to answer for our actions – or inaction, that is, “the judgement which awaits us will always ask about our failures and shortcomings in the project of becoming who we are”,  makes me uneasy because it seems to introduce an element of religious thinking in what is otherwise  presented as  an analysis of a god-free existence.

Those drawn to existentialism will probably relate more to the ideas of  our physical existence as human beings “always being on the way to becoming who we are” and to the truth of the irony that “it is far easier to say what failure looks like than give an adequate account of success”.

In short, I feel that the author has given us a good basic introduction to existentialist thought. He has defined some of the jargon for us, providing a useful glossary and reading list at the end. However, when he goes beyond analysis of the theories to present his own thoughts on  what is meant by a “specific individual human being” I feel that he becomes too subjective and woolly.



Darkest Hour – a dogged Churchill despite his “black dog”.

This is my review of the film  Darkest Hour

In this film which has attracted attention for Gary Oldman’s remarkable transformation into what many regard as an uncanny replica of Churchill, the focus is on a fraught period in May 1940 when European states were falling like ninepins as German troops scythed through them, Italy was collaborating with the Third Reich, France about to capitulate and the entire British land army trapped at Calais and Dunkerque.  In what seems a hopeless situation, and anxious not to repeat the carnage of young men in World War 1, a wily Lord Halifax manoeuvres to force Churchill to agree to peace negotiations with Hitler, with Mussolini acting as intermediary. We know that ultimately, Churchill will not give in, so the interest lies in seeing how, with the entire War Cabinet and the King against him, scant help from an America sworn to neutrality, and such a dire military position in mainland Europe, he can possibly survive as Prime Minister, if he persists In taking what looks like an increasingly forlorn stand.

No punches have been pulled over the portrayal of Churchill as, frankly, a physical mess – a large cigar perpetually in one hand and tumbler of whisky in the other, or close by, with a bottle in view for a top up.  He has clearly made major mistakes in the past, is at the best of times irascible, capricious, inconsiderate, over-emotional yet inexplicably adored by his long-suffering wife  played by Kristen Scott-Thomas –  who has perhaps worn better through being less self-indulgent.

“How does he manage to drink so much during the day,” enquires a disapproving King George V1 – “Practice” comes the quick-fire reply. Yet as depression due to lack of sleep born of anxiety  combines with his perpetual state of being not quite – or not at all sober –  to take their toll, he appears increasingly shambling and pathetic.

I will have to read another biography or two to establish whether this is a just portrait of “the great man”, but the film almost manages to redress the balance with the  flashes of self-deprecating humour, charm, and gift for delivering a thundering speech to mobilise his audience when required, enabling us to glimpse what his appeal must have been. Nowadays, a less deferential public than the one we see during his improbable trip on the Underground might be much more critical, except that our weakness for mavericks and celebrities can still  sway us to rally to a challenging course of action on emotional grounds.

It is in many ways a typical wartime period drama, with London crowds in 1940s style but unduly well-fitting and brand new clothing with sleek hairstyles. Even the London dustmen look too clean and tidy. Most of the interiors, a House of Commons chamber very different from Westminster, rooms in Buckingham Palace and Churchill’s residence seem very dark – perhaps to indicate the black-out.  Yet there is some excellent camerawork, sweeping down from the  London rooftops into grand inner courtyards of government buildings.

Our continual harking back to past glories and acts of bravado sometimes seems like a kind of ostrich-like escapism from our current problems – a kind of self-delusion, of which Churchill himself  was of course accused when he refused to negotiate with Hitler. With the wisdom of hindsight we can see that Churchill was right, although his moral justification only won through with the military  support of the Soviet Union and America.  The film glosses over the rejection of Churchill once the war was over. No longer needed to boost morale  and stubbornly battle on, his approach seemed not only outworn, but a barrier to the new drive for social change which the war had released.

This is a well-made film without being great which has inspired me to start  reading the biography of Churchill by Roy Jenkins which has lain on a shelf for years.

Ne Lâche pas ma Main – Don’t let go

This is my review of Ne Lâche pas ma Main by Michel Bussi.

On holiday in the French tropical paradise of Réunion, Liane Bellion disappears from her hotel room, leaving only evidence of a struggle. As the damning evidence against him mounts, her husband Martial decides to go on the run with the couple’s pampered but bright six-year-old daughter Sopha. This being a novel by Michel Bussi, Martial is unlikely to have murdered his wife, but is unable to prove his innocence, plus he could well have committed some other crime, or be about to do so.

In the same vein as Bussi’s excellent “Nymphéas noirs”, this novel has a remarkably convoluted plot in which the reader can be sure of nothing, except that the author is capable of switching from corny mawkishness to moments of brutal violence or tragic fate from which no character may be spared. Once again, he develops a strong sense of place, in this case a volcanic island with some striking landscapes of deep craters, lava fields encroaching on fields of sugar cane and palm-fringed beaches, scenic tourist spots, which he describes in detail along with the local vegetation and birdlife – all of which can be checked on google images. Even the route Martial takes can be located on “street view”, and the Hotel Alamanda at Saint-Gilles-les-Bains exists in reality.

Bussi also fleshes the story out with details of the social background: the Créoles, descendants of slaves and still exploited as cheap labour in the hotels, the Zarabes, muslims of Indian origin like the driven police officer, Captain Aja Purvi, and the Zoreilles, the “top dogs” from the French mainland.

This is a page-turner until the accumulation of implausible plot twists becomes too much to swallow and by then it is too late to give up. There is also the odd dud scene, such as the clunky debate on the effects of rum on the local population conducted by the hypocritical drinking mates of unlikely police lieutenant Christos. Even more toe-curling are the sex scenes with his voluptuous lover Imelda.

Most of the characters seem somewhat overdrawn: ageing hippy Christos, with his grey pony-tail, smoking pot he has confiscated from Imelda’s borderline-criminal teenage son Nazir; Imelda herself, a Creole Miss Marple to out-class the detectives, but not wise enough to avoid having five children by different feckless men, nor keep clear of danger in her sleuthing; Aja Purvi, humourless in her single-minded ambition, throwing the furniture round in bursts of unprofessional frustration, exploiting her long-suffering husband’s seemingly inexhaustible good will as he somehow combines a teaching career with caring for their two daughters.

The slightly jokey tone perhaps makes one take the occasional bloody murder too lightly. The strongest aspect of the book is the creation of a sense of tension as Martial and Sopha maintain their freedom against the odds. The only subtle relationship in the book is the complex bond between the two as Martial tries to connect with the daughter whose care has always been provided by his overprotective wife, with the constant nagging suggestion that Martial may in fact be even more of a monster than the police believe.

This reads best in the original French and proves a good source of vocabulary for a foreign reader. For the reasons given above, it is not as effective as “Nymphéas noirs”.

The Wound – The cost of denying the past

This is my review of The Wound by Laurent Mauvignier, a translation of “Des Hommes.

Of all the novels on the fraught topic of the struggle for Algerian independence from France, this is unusual in its focus on the trauma of young men sent out to fight a colonial war without understanding the situation into which they were thrown and unprepared for the violence they were about to witness and perpetrate. The English title of “The Wound” for this novel, to be found in the opening quotation from Genet (“As for your wound, where is it?……”) seems more apt than the original one of “Des Hommes” (“Men”) in that it suggests the long-term mental injury they suffered, but were often unable to relieve by talking about it. Perhaps they felt instinctively that those who had not shared their experiences would never understand, or they repressed memories too shameful, painful or shocking to express, or simply lacked the words to confide in others. Yet “Men” is also a meaningful title in conveying how a group of males may tend to interact, responding to an attack with aggression, also using it as a means of avoiding the expression of emotion.

Starting with “afternoon”, this novel covers a twenty-four hour period split into four sections, but also makes extensive use of flashbacks and recollections to reveal the lives of two cousins from a rural French community: Bernard, nick-named “Feu-de-Bois”, a dishevelled alcoholic who sponges off his long-suffering sister Solange, and Rabut who narrates parts of the story. Both in their sixties, the cousins were called up to fight in Algeria in the early ‘60s, but have never spoken about this part of their lives which clearly haunts them both. For Rabut, Algeria has an unreal dreamlike quality, alien and exotic in its sunshine, scenery and Arab culture, shocking in the incidents of brutality.

The fragmented, stream of consciousness style can be very powerful, but also hard to follow, particularly if one is reading it in the original French as a foreigner. The opening pages are particularly obscure as we see Feu-de-Bois antagonising his whole family by a particularly crass action, before “going off the rails” in what seems like a racist attack. Rabut seems to have some empathy with his cousin, yet it becomes apparent that there is also a deep-seated hostility between the two men. The explanation for all this is gradually revealed in an impressionistic novel with a strong sense of place – one can see the fields in the snow versus the desert barracks – , minute descriptions of physical sensations, snatches of dialogue and intense action, or sharp flashes of insight in all the bleak obliqueness.

I found it necessary to read up some background history to understand the book better, and some aspects could have been developed more fully, like the invidious position of the Harkis, native Muslims who volunteered as auxiliaries in the French Army during the Algerian War. Yet perhaps Mauvignier is more interested in the feelings aroused by a colonial war in which one does not have a stake, rather than the details of the Algerian conflict in particular. This is likely to be a novel which divides opinion over its distinctive style, unusual structure and inconclusive plot. It repays rereading, is somehow absorbing without being a conventional page-turner, but certainly gives food for thought over the psychological impact of the Algerian War, particularly on individuals, ordinary French people caught up in it.