“The Wife” – Behind every great man…..


This is my review of  “The Wife”    starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Price

When Joe Castleman receives the early morning call to confirm his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, his supportive wife Joan seems as delighted as he is. It is soon apparent that he is something of a monster: vain, selfish, inconsiderate and unable to resist the flattering admiration of attractive younger women. Yet, such is her admiration for his talent, Joan seems prepared to tolerate all his shortcomings and devote herself to meeting his needs, even when her loyalties are strained by Joe’s conspicuous of interest in their son David’s efforts as a writer. Could it be that Joe would feel threatened if his son’s talents in the same field were recognised?

When Joe’s aptly named would-be biographer Nathaniel Bone comes searching for cracks in the great man’s perfect marriage, even daring to suggest that perhaps it is not so idyllic, given that Joan long ago sacrificed her own writing ambitions, despite being considered very promising, she sends him packing, adamant that she is fulfilled in her role. Nathaniel is astute in his sense that Joan’s self-effacing dedication is over-intense, and he is doggedly persistent in getting at the truth to feed his own ruthless ambition as a writer.

In a series of flashbacks, which sometimes seem too fragmented, we see the early stages of Joan and Joe’s relationship, as the film gradually works up to the climax in which the truth is revealed. In this well-acted film, which provides a presumably accurate portrayal of the rather grandiose annual ceremony in a wintry Stockholm, I was caught up in the plot and it was not until afterwards that I began to question its plausibility. Overall, this is a poignant study of marital relationships formed a generation ago, of self-delusion and the price of ambition.

Cold War by Pawel Pawlikowski

This is my review of  Cold War by Pawel Pawlikowski

In an impoverished rural Poland in the aftermath of World War Two which left the country under Communist control, talented pianist  and composer Wiktor tours the countryside with producer Irena to collect authentic folk music sung by ragged, toothless men playing crude string instruments.  This is to be arranged for performance  by troops of beautiful  blonde girls in pristine traditional dress as part of a patriotic drive to raise morale and a sense of common identity. When a Party boss insists on inclusion of songs in praise of Stalin, Wiktor has to bite his tongue. “I was dubious about this music-stuff, but there’s something in it”,  their philistine wheeler-dealer manager Kaczmarek concedes at one point, as the troupe’s popularity grows, and invitations to perform extend to trips abroad.

Wiktor is soon drawn to Zula, a pretty blonde teenager, confident, versatile singer and dancer,  whom it is hard to believe is “on probation” for knifing her father. According to her, this was to put an end to his sexual abuse. The couple’s passionate physical relationship is clouded  by Zula’s casual admission that she is informing on Wiktor at the behest of Kaczmarek, who has a hold on her because of her past.  When the troupe visits Berlin, and the professionally  unfulfilled and frustrated Wiktor makes a plan to defect to the West, will Zula follow him?

There follows a protracted drama in which the two main characters seem unable to live without each other, yet fail  to co-exist in harmony together.  I struggled to grasp exactly why this is the case, or what we are supposed to make of their relationship. They are not necessarily incompatible just because Wiktor comes from an educated, “bourgeois” background, whereas  the more working class Zula succeeds artistically through “gut feeling”, and may feel lost away from the familiar restrictions of Poland in the  freedom of Parisian café culture where the soulful Juliet Greco-style songs which she is well able to perform solo may seem more unsettling than the safe, controlled, traditional  group folk-singing to which she is more accustomed.

Zula appears capricious and unstable, perhaps understandably because of her troubled past. Although he is perhaps too self-absorbed to appreciate her needs, Wiktor’s  patience and forgiveness seem tried beyond belief, until he too seems to suffer a mental breakdown, maybe a kind of “mid-life crisis” by which point I did not care too much what happened to the pair as the film reaches an ambiguous conclusion.

Pavel Pawlikowski dedicated this work to his parents, who apparently had a stormy relationship, but it is unclear to what extent they serve as models for this drama. The choice of black-and-white film adds to its striking visual impact providing a vivid evocation of life in 1940s Poland and 1950s Paris: the recurring face of a Madonna painted on the wall of a ruined church, the nose smashed in some bombardment; the uninhibited vitality of a drunken Zula, jiving to “Rock around the Clock” in a Parisian jazz café, a world away from the precision of her Polish group folk dances.

I understand why this film has attracted such plaudits, but for me there was an emotional vacuum at its core, in the “cold war” between the lovers.

 

Apostasy: blood ties

This is my review of the film Apostasy.

Written and directed by Daniel Kokotajlo, a former Jehovah’s witness brought up in what can only be described as a cult following his mother’s conversion, this film has a chilling authenticity, although I am unable to judge the extent to which it may present a distorted picture. Single mother Ivanna devotes her life to keeping her daughters Luisa and Alex “on the straight and narrow” and spreading the word to the wider community. I think there is a hint at one point that her husband has gone away after falling short as a Witness.

Earnest and thoughtful, if somewhat immature for her eighteen years, Alex feels guilt and shame that her acute anaemia required her to have a blood transfusion at birth. Believing that blood contains the human soul and therefore cannot be contaminated by that of another person, she tries to muster the courage, having technically reached adulthood, to reject a transfusion in the future should it be become a matter of life and death. By contrast, the more out-going and questioning Luisa has a boyfriend from outside the Jehovah Witness community, with tragic consequences.

“Apostasy” is likely to resonate strongly with lapsed Jehovah’s Witnesses, but even an atheist can become engaged and outraged by the heavy-handed paternalism of the Elders, with the reframing of ideas and twisting of arguments to justify their beliefs and explain away predictions which fail to come to pass, like the end of the world in a particular year. Most shocking is the crude system of social control : the “disfellowship” and “shunning” of those who refuse to conform, the bullying and lack of compassion for those judged in need of meetings to guide them back into the fold.

A gripping experience, this film leaves one feeling a little depressed, but more understanding of those who have found it impossible to “walk away” from the social pressure to continue to belong to a group, and their inability to break away from what looks to the external observer like conditioning, even brainwashing,. One may feel anger at Ivanna’s stubborn intransigence as she encourages Alex to turn the pages of a mawkish book featuring children who have died for their faith by refusing treatment. At the same time, there are occasional twinges of pity for Ivanna when she reveals the pain of having to suppress the innate maternal instinct to preserve one child’s life at any cost, or to forgive the boundary-breaking and mistakes of adolescence.

Some may criticise the film for painting such a joyless picture of a life centred on the unlovely Kingdom Hall next to what looks like a stark ring road. I was surprised by the incongruous visits to a nail bar which supplied a rare bit of colour, and how did Luisa afford to run her car?

It is interesting, although annoying for Daniel Kokotajlo, that this film came out about the same time as Ian McEwan’s “The Children Act” on a similar theme, although the two complement each other in their different approaches, and I think that “Apostasy” is more focused, realistic and ultimately moving.

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”.

“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.

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.

Three Billboards East of Ebbing, Missouri – A brew of comedy and violence too dark to see the depth

This is my review of: Three Billboards East of Ebbing, Missouri.

Furious over the lack of progress in tracking down her daughter’s brutal murderer, Mildred Hayes spends money she can ill afford to install three huge billboards on the outskirts of the well-named, typical Southern states small town of Ebbing, Missouri. The stark wording reads: “Raped while Dying”;  “And still no arrest”; “How come Chief Willoughby?”  The conservative, gobsmacked townsfolk are understandably appalled and disapproving; not least because Willoughby seems to be a decent man , although lamentably ineffectual in failing to fire his incompetent, racist side-kick Dixon, who is shown at one point torturing black suspects.  Some critics have deplored writer-director Martin McDonagh’s failure to treat race relations more sensitively, but that is not the main point of this film, focused as it is on Mildred’s desire to avenge her daughter’s death. When Mildred’s provocative action arouses an obsessive hostility in Dixon the stage is set for a one-woman feud with the police.

Mildred is a deeply flawed character, almost as bad as Dixon. Aggressive and foul-mouthed, she overacts when her wishes are obstructed. Perhaps she is driven by a sense of guilt over having parted with her daughter on bad terms, but she shows remarkably little concern for her long-suffering and surprisingly pleasant (in view of what he has had to put up with) son – it is the minor characters who are likeable in this film.  Just as Dixon may have been “driven to the bad” by a ghastly, smothering mother for whom he cares, Mildred may have been damaged in ways which are not made clear, apart from the inference that her ex-husband has left her for a teenage bimbo. It is perhaps “out of character” that such a tough, independent-minded woman should have tolerated a partner’s violence, and appear resentful over his departure. In a typical juxtaposition of violence and humour, we see  him one moment with his hands round Mildred’s  neck, the left  colluding with her in a sheepish, eye-rolling glance over his girl-friends inanity.

This film has won many awards and plaudits, audiences may be excited by the violent drama and be entertained by the “no holds barred” interplay of comedy and sociopathic brutality.  Compared to “run-of-the-mill” thrillers and action films, the film has an original take on the theme of victimhood, does not flinch at breaking taboos, and gives a talented and well-cast female actor the chance for a lead part. However, Frances Mc Dormand has the ability to rise to greater challenges than offered here. The film lacks the subtlety and depth to succeed at a deeper level.

In a recent interview, writer-director Martin McDonagh has deflected some critics with the explanation that, “the film isn’t about good or bad, left or right. It’s just about trying to find the spark of humanity in people – all people”. But this is not enough to make a film outstanding or even good. For that, it must enable one to see the world – people or situations – in a different way, which does not happen in this case. The arch-baddie is too exaggerated in his stupidity, bigotry and gratuitous violence to be credible, his dramatic change of heart is implausible. Some characters may indeed  display sparks of humanity, but that does not stop them from planning vicious acts of revenge likely to prove counterproductive, self-destructive or even unjust in being directed against the wrong targets.

Although writer-director Martin McDonagh may simply have run out of steam at the end, at least the ambiguous ending seems well-judged. Defenders of the film may argue that in taking an amoral stance, McDonagh leaves it to us to reflect on the issues involved.