“Land of Mine” – more than a mere tale of thud and blunder.

This is my review of “Land of Mine”.

In the aftermath of World War 2, the Danes thought it just punishment for prisoners of war to be deployed defusing the thousands of mines buried in the coastal sand dunes by Germans to ward off any Allied invasion.

Initially, the embittered army Sergeant Rasmussen charged with supervising the POWs takes a sadistic pleasure in subjecting them to his capricious brutality. There is poignancy in the fact that the POWs are teenagers, virtually children drafted in at the end of the war to boost German numbers. These are clearly scapegoats: barely understanding what they have been fighting for, they can in no way be held responsible for the sins of the Third Reich.

Based on a true story, which suggests that it could have made a gripping documentary, the film is distinctive in creating an at times unbearable sense of tension, despite and in fact probably increased by the slow pace and agonising detail as we watch, time after time, the painstaking process of loosening and removing a large screw in the middle of the flat cylinder of the crude yet lethal object that is a mine. It is hard to imagine that this could explode at any moment with a shocking suddenness, and easy to see how, performing the same monotonous activity for hours on end, a young boy could lose concentration for a moment, his hand might shake, he might fail to hear a warning, with fatal consequences. Some people will find this film unwatchable, and I felt voyeuristic at times watching it and wondering who was about to be blown to smithereens.

It seemed to me that personal dramas (a twin who can no longer bear to live after his brother has been blown up, the crisis when a little girl who lives oddly close to the minefield strays onto it with her doll) had been inserted to “pad the film out” and create a framework for the tension that is at the heart of this, but these may have been based on research.

My only criticism of a visually striking and well-acted drama, is that I found it hard to distinguish the boys from each other at the outset, and understand some of the relationships between them which would have helped me to engage with them more fully.

Although we should not need to watch such films to sense the horror of war, “Land of Mine” made me aware of a piece of Danish history I had not appreciated, and of a moral dilemma in the aftermath of war which I had not considered. Perhaps more effort should have been made to identify leading Nazi prisoners to make reparations by defusing these mines.

“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.

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.

On Chesil Beach – The road not taken

This is a review of “On Chesil Beach” by Ian McEwan

I watched this film without having read the book on which it is based, although the fact it was adapted for the screen by the author suggests that the film is true to what he aimed to convey in the novella.
It starts and ends on the stony Dorset spit of Chesil Beach, where Tom and Florence choose to spend their honeymoon in 1962. On the evening after the wedding, the tensions between them are obvious, in marked contrast to the intense friendship, easy exchange of ideas and affection they display in the many flashbacks which show the course of their relationship from their first meeting when Tom gatecrashes a CND meeting, desperate to share with someone the fact he has just graduated with a First. The differences between them are also obvious from the outset. Tom is impulsive, scruffy, has trouble controlling his feelings, yet is clearly thoughtful and compassionate. His childhood has been blighted by the terrible accident suffered by his artist mother, which has left her unable to care for herself, let alone her children, and prone to erratic, uninhibited behaviour. Florence comes from a privileged middle-class background. Whereas Tom’s father is head of a rural primary school, hers runs a successful engineering business, while her dominating and insensitive, snobbish mother is a colleague of Iris Murdoch. Yet there are hints of possible concealed abuse. Always beautifully dressed and fastidious, despite her apparently sheltered life, Florence shows a steely determination in her ambition for the string quintet to which she belongs to perform at the Wigmore Hall to widespread acclaim.
Although these differences might be expected to prove the cause of a painful realisation of their incompatibility, in fact the problem lies elsewhere. The year was 1962, before the explosion of the “Swinging Sixties” and ready availability of the pill, when a bright, highly educated girl with no brothers could remain painfully ignorant of sex, while her male partner, although not so uptight, might well prove completely unable to handle the situation. This is a very poignant scenario for demonstrating how a failure to act at a critical moment, or an ill-judged reaction may change the course of one’s life for ever, and even close friends or relatives may feel unable to intervene.
Since the original novella was criticised by some as being too short to justify consideration for the Booker Prize, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ian McEwan felt compelled to add two scenes at the end. I agree with those who felt that these seem a clumsy and superfluous over-explanation of what might have motivated the two main characters, perhaps in an attempt to compensate for problem of conveying on screen the thoughts and impressions more subtly revealed in the written word. Although the film has been very well received, I found some of the scenes too abrupt and disconnected, many of the dialogues quite stilted, and was unconvinced by the sudden dramatic change in the relationship between Tom and Florence when it came to their wedding night.
The film has some beautiful photography, the two main characters are well-acted, there are moments of humour amid the anguish, like the ghastly hotel dinner served to the newly weds in their room by suggestively obsequious waiters, but watching “On Chesil Beach” fully engaged me. On reflection, my sense of disappointment at the end lifted somewhat, and I began to see interesting angles to the film, like the visual metaphor of the long spit on which one half of the couple could walk away to follow a different path in life, while the other stood rooted fatefully to the spot.

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.