“Sea of Poppies” by Amitov Ghosh – cast out on the Black Water

The first book in the “Ibis” trilogy, named after the sailing ship which is the setting for some of the action, “Sea of Poppies” focuses on the C19 opium trade operated by the ruthless East India Company. It begins in rural India, where Deeti struggles to make a living from the poppy harvest which has replaced the crops which at least guaranteed a level of self-suffciency. She is resigned to marriage with a man who has become addicted to opium to ease the pain of his wounds, gained in fighting for the British colonialists. The fact he is employed in an opium factory does not help.
At the other end of the social scale is Neel, the unimaginably privileged native landowner, so complacent in his sense of entitlement that he has allowed himself to be trapped into debt by the hard-nosed employee of the East India Company, Mr Burnham. Aided by his eccentric Indian agent Baboo, Burnham is prepared to do whatever is necessary to gain full control of Neel’s lands.

Flitting between an at times confusing horde of characters, some larger than life and stereotyped, reminiscent of a Dickensian novel, the storylines gradually merge to bring the main players together on the Ibis, a converted former slave ship, which is scheduled to transport a group of criminals and unlucky migrants rejected by their families to provide cheap labour for the East India Company.

One of the most likeable and straightforward characters is Zackary Reid, the American carpenter-turned-sailor who, being the son of a slave girl and the master who freed them both, has a natural sympathy for some of the disadvantaged Indians he encounters. Another is Paulette, the spirited and frankly quite devious daughter of a deceased European botanist.

There is a good deal of humour, often somewhat heavy-handed, along with considerable violence and degradation. Despite the frequently implausible, exaggerated to the point of ludicrous events, with people on the brink of death miraculously saved, the novel provides vivid descriptions and creates a strong awareness of the nature and implications of the opium trade, and the attitudes and values of the various parties concerned. For instance, with the risk of an imminent war between Britain and China, Burnham, despite claiming to be a devout Christian, has no understanding of why Chinese rulers might wish to end an exploitative trade which is wreaking havoc on their population, and is over-confident that the conflict will be short-lived.

His Indian roots may make it easier for the author to identify with and portray a period perhaps understandably neglected by western writers. He has certainly undertaken an impressive amount of research on every aspect of the story, including opium manufacture and the operation of sailing ships. A downside of all this is that the presumably authentic language used by, for instance the Lascar and British sailors or even Burnham’s wife is so peppered with native language, jargon or slang as to be virtually incomprehensible at times. I found this very distracting, and would have liked a glossary, together with a map and list of characters for quick reference.

I do not mind the abrupt ending of the story, clearly akin to a cliff-hanger to encourage us to read on, although the novel could be regarded as free-standing, leaving one to imagine “what happens next”. However, for the time being, I do not feel sufficiently engaged to read the rest of the trilogy, I think mainly because I find some of the drama needlessly overdone.

Bait: not just fish but one another

BAIT [Dual Format] [Blu-ray]This is the tale of a fateful chain of events in a coastal Cornish community where there are tensions between locals no longer able to make a decent living from the traditional activity of fishing, and wealthy outsiders who can afford to buy picturesque cottages as second homes, but contribute nothing to the local community on their summer visits apart from their spoilt, bored kids patronising the local pub. The focus is on Martin who persists in trying to work as a fisherman, despite his lack of a boat – his laborious stretching of nets along the beach and planting of a single lobster pot yield meagre results . He has fallen out with his pragmatic brother, who has decided to use his boat to provide trips for tourists, and is full of brooding resentment against the couple to whom he has been forced to sell the family home. It is not just a question of fish bait, but of people baiting each other.

 

Hailed as a masterpiece by the critics for its unusual techniques, this is filmed in black-and-white with the sound added afterwards, using a handheld camera to produce often grainy shots in a square frame which tends to create the impression of not being able to see quite enough of an image which has been cropped. Although for the most part slow-paced, so that it feels longer than its duration of 88 minutes, I was not bored because of the need for intense concentration, in order not to miss some vital detail or simply to understand the heavily accented Cornish locals. The directors likes to use the device of almost subliminal shots to foreshadow what is to come, or to emphasise a dramatic past event. Scenes occurring simultaneously in different places are sometimes interwoven. In a Pinterish style, we may be bombarded with conversations occurring in parallel. More filming may be devoted to prising fish from a net than to the aftermath of a major event, such as the shocking climax of the drama.

 

I was left wondering whether the director had tried too hard “to be different”, and whether I would have preferred it to have been shot in shake-free colour to show the beauty of Cornwall, with a faster pace and a little more clarity over certain key events. However, on reflection the film “grew on me”: there is no harm in an unusual take on an interesting situation, nor in making an audience work a bit and deduce what is going on.

Marianne and Leonard: Songs of Love

Marianne & Leonard: Words of LoveIn the 1960s, Leonard Cohen joined the colony of aspiring writers on the exquisite Greek island of Hydra, with the lures of casual sex, cheap alcohol and easy access to drugs. He soon began to receive practical and emotional support from Marianne Ihlen, the beautiful young Norwegian who was for several years his lover and “muse”. Apart from not seeming in awe of him, she was a good listener with a gift for drawing out the talent in others. Abandoned by her husband and the mother of an appealing child, “Little Alex”, Marianne was open to ideas of “free love”, but as Leonard developed his megastar status as a singer/songwriter, she could not cope with hectic lifestyle involving long visits to the States, and having to share him with the hoards of fans who also wanted a piece of him.

Beneath the shield of charisma and charm, Leonard actually behaved appallingly at times, drifting off on assignations with women as the fancy took him, putting her under pressure to have abortions since he did not want to have children, or at least those who were not Jewish, when it came to the crunch. There is some remarkable film footage of his lifestyle: the scene where he invites the audience onto the stage in a kind of mass group love in, until the space is filled with a heaving pile of people, or when, clearly very high on drugs, he shaves himself with a flourish since he has convinced himself that this alone will enable him to revive a flagging performance.

I have read critical reviews to the effect that the film is too much about Leonard rather than Marianne, of whose early life we are told nothing. In fact a good deal is also omitted over, for instance, Leonard’s second major relationship with Suzanne, who it seems appeared, Cohen’s child on her hip, on Marianne’s doorstep in Hydra, demanding that she quit the property. This was the final trigger needed to send her back to a conventional life in Norway. Yet what had clearly been a deep and genuine relationship endured to the extent that, on her death bed years later, she received a prompt and moving note from Leonard. I remain uncertain to what extent inclusion of the film of this event is intrusive.

What makes this documentary particularly powerful is the plentiful footage of life on Hydra in the 60s, as recorded by the talented DA Pennebaker and stored unviewed in his attic for decades. For those who remember the 60s, and the hippy flower power at odds with what was still a very conservative Britain, it is very evocative. The magnetic appeal and unspoilt beauty of the Greek islands were enjoyed at the price of an eternal sense of nostalgia, making life anywhere else seem faded and dull for ever after.

There is a thorny debate to had as to whether the creativity gained from the use of mood-altering narcotics is worth the cost of their destructive effects. Must those with great talents like Leonard Cohen be inevitably self-absorbed, driven and selfish in order to attain their full potential? What are the costs for the children of those who practise a life without boundaries? One of the most poignant aspects of the documentary was to learn that Marianne’s son, Little Alex, so full of innocent joy and curiosity in the film footage, has, despite her evident love for him, spent most of his adult life in a Norwegian mental institution.

The Sisters Brothers – Fool’s gold

The Sisters Brothers

Based on the Man Booker shortlisted novel of the same name, this is a western with a difference, in fact more of a tragicomedy set in the US frontier lands during the 1850s Gold Rush. The central characters are a pair of inaptly named brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, widely feared in their role of successful hired assassins for the sinister Oregon-based “Commodore”. Events take a different turn from usual when the pair are sent not just to dispose of a chemist called Hermann Warm, but somehow to extract from him a formula for obtaining gold.

Charlie is the duo’s “lead man”, claiming to be the brains of the outfit and perhaps quicker on the draw, but he seems half crazy at times, addicted to the liquor which perhaps serves to blot out past acts of violence, one in particular. Eli is a milder and more reflective character, motivated mainly by the need to protect his brother, although repeatedly courting mortal risk seems an odd way of doing it. Like the book, the film creates a sense of unease when one begins to connect with a pair of ruthless killers because of their amusing escapades in the midst of the carnage, affection and support for each other beneath all the bickering, and the fact that their opponents are often if anything more rotten than they are. We learn that the brothers suffered as children at the hands of a viciously brutal father, but is that a sufficient excuse?

The brothers are roughnecks, astonished by the sight of a flushing toilet, while Charlie mocks Eli for his decision to start using tooth powder, but they are surprisingly articulate at times, and literate in their ability to read the flowery letters and journal of Morris, the detective employed by the Commodore to tail Warm. Clearly better educated and on the face of it more decent and honourable men, Morris and Warm provide an interesting contrast to the brothers, yet they too can be forced by circumstance into violent acts. Perhaps the film could have made more of the psychological interplay between these four men.

Well directed with good actors and some beautiful mountain scenery, the well-paced plot is let down by an implausible climax. So far, it has been more popular with critics than the public, perhaps because it “falls between two stools”, being neither simply a high octane action thriller, nor a thought-provoking “art film”.

“The White Crow” – based on true story of ballet icon Rudolph Nureyev’s defection from Soviet Russia

The White Crow [DVD] [2019]

Since it is surprisingly almost six decades since Rudolph Nureyev’s highly publicised defection from the Kirov Ballet on a trip to Paris, this biopic may have the added appeal of novelty for many viewers.

Based on a biography, I know not how accurately, this focuses on the dancer’s early life up to the age of twenty-three. Beginning with his dramatic birth on a crowded train, his sisters looking on, the story switches continually between his childhood, life as a frustrated dancer in Moscow from the late fifties, and transport to the heady excitement of Paris on a five week trip for the troupe in 1961. This “flitting” technique creates a somewhat disjointed effect at times.

The poverty of his early life is filmed in a black and white world of it would seem perpetual snow, with his kindly peasant mother (with remarkably good teeth) struggling to hold the family together until the sudden appearance of a stranger, his soldier father returned from a long unexplained absence. Nureyev tells the sophisticated young Parisienne with whom he has struck up a friendship how his mother’s chance win of a lottery ticket to the ballet introduced him to a magical world he was determined to make his own. We do not learn until the final scenes how this meant separation at an early age from his family to begin his training, several years late, which put him under pressure to catch up. We are left to conclude how these experiences led to his fierce independence, thirst for knowledge, determination to succeed to the point of utter selfishness, confidence to the point of arrogance and outbursts of ill-tempered rudeness, even against friends, if he felt himself slighted, or simply wanted to demonstrate the power his talent gave him. Alongside this litany of unappealing traits, the young dancer turned actor who plays him manages also to convey Nureyev’s charm, which combined with his sheer ability caused sorely tried friends to forgive him and help him when it came to defecting.

Despite his at times obnoxious behaviour, it is hard not to sympathise with Nureyev when he is reduced to a mental wreck at the prospect of being sent back early to Moscow to dance for Krushchev, a euphemism for the punishment provoked by his refusal to obey the instruction against fraternising with foreigners. Instead, he has led his principal minder a merry dance, going out to bars, even strip clubs, with his decadent western friends, only returning around 5 a.m. The film is powerful in conveying his sense of oppression, the insidious menace of the continual monitoring of his activities. His exuberant pleasure over discovering western culture in its broadest sense, one of his first observations being the word “liberté” carved on a column, contrasts with the grey narrowness of the communist régime which we know with the wisdom of hindsight is doomed to fail. Ironically, a French dancer remarks that, although they may lack technical accuracy, Soviet dancers like Nureyev perform with a kind of raw energy which the “liberated” performers of the west lack.

Even though it necessitated sub-titles, I liked the authenticity provided by the extensive use of Russian in the dialogues, with even actor/director Ralph Fiennes mastering the language for his role of the self-effacing yet gifted ballet instructor. Also, not all Soviet life is bleak, as indicated by the scene in which Nureyev takes part in a social gathering in a well-furnished room where friends laugh, drink, discuss and sing traditional songs behind the plain door of a Russian apartment.

Lacking the spark to make it a great film, this is very watchable and thought-provoking.

“Everybody knows”: Can anybody tell?

Everybody Knows (DVD) [2019]

Laura returns from Argentina with her lively, in fact somewhat out-of-hand, teenage daughter Irene and cute little son to attend her sister’s wedding in their picturesquely run-down home town set among Spanish vineyards. The gifted Iranian film director Asghar Farhadi captures the atmosphere of a big, traditional Spanish wedding. Guests sit in mute respect with a few wry grins when the priest takes an unexpected peal of the church bells as a cue to request more money for repairs, on the lines of gifts of money received from Laura’s supposedly wealthy husband Alejandro, who has stayed behind in Argentina, apparently for his work. Later, as the bride steps out in a stylish flamenco, they all dance and carouse into the small hours, until the discovery of Irene’s abduction from her bed during a clearly planned power cut.

Despite speculation that Irene may have engineered her own disappearance, a more sinister explanation seems likely as her bed is strewn with warning cuttings about an unsolved kidnapping in the past which led to the death of a local girl, because her family ignored instructions and went to the police. Distraught with grief and fear, it is not surprising that Laura also refuses to report her daughter’s disappearance.

Tension remains high in this psychological drama, as Laura’s friend and former lover Paco, a successful local vineyard owner, plays a major part in both searching for the girl and obtaining the ransom money, if only to string the kidnappers along when Alejandro appears, trusting only to God to save his daughter since he is in fact bankrupt. As the plot develops, long-held resentments and possible motives for both kidnap and ransom are gradually revealed in this inward-looking community with its tight gossip grapevine in which “everyone knows” each other’s past secrets, or thinks that this is the case.

What some have described as a rather weak ending struck me as very effective. The viewer is left free to decide what happens next. The most interesting question left unanswered is whether information which belatedly becomes available about the crime will be widely shared and acted upon, or suppressed like other secrets, for ulterior motives.

The film is visually striking and well-acted, particularly by Javier Bardem in the role of Paco, and Barbara Lennie as his wife Bea. Apart from one or two flaws in the plot which, as ever, one does not notice at the time, this is an entertaining yarn which can be appreciated at a deeper level.

“Burning” – Korean film based on story by Murakami

Burning [Blu-ray] [2019]

Based on a short story by Murakami and set in South Korea under the skilful direction of Lee Chang-dong, this slow-paced psychological drama, atmospheric and at times surreal, builds up to an unpredictable dramatic climax. Even without this, it repays watching for its insights into life in South Korea, with the bizarre contrast between the high rise development and brash consumerism of a western-style city and the enduring, unmaterialistic, traditional life in the countryside, given a bizarre twist by proximity to the border with North Korea, its watchtowers blaring out propaganda are within earshot.

Jong-su is a young graduate with a dead-end job, whose expressionless, somewhat pudgy features belie his internal drive to be a writer, like his western idols including William Faulkner. On an errand in the city, he is accosted by an acquaintance from his schooldays on the family smallholding, the flirtatious Hae-mi who seems possibly a little unbalanced. They begin a sexual relationship, but when Hae-mi returns from a brief holiday with a suave, rich young man called Ben in tow, Jong-su does not react much, yet perhaps still waters run deeper than one imagines.

Meanwhile, his father’s imprisonment for a violent incident triggered by ongoing anger management problems, again an indication that Jong-su himself may not be as calm as he seems, obliges him to return to the village to look after his father’s property. On an unexpected visit, Ben talks of his obsession with setting fire to greenhouses, of which there are quite a few in the area. Then Hae-mi disappears and the once passive Jong-su becomes intent on finding her, together with keeping an eye on the local greenhouses.

An intriguing and memorable film about obsession and jealousy.