Film Review: On Chesil Beach (2017)

On Chesil Beach proves a most painful watch indeed

“Minor seventh might be better”

Dominic Cooke’s theatrical résumé includes such triumphs as Follies and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom so a measure of anticipation about his feature film debut was surely not unexpected. But I should have remembered he was also responsible for the challenges of The Low Road and In The Republic of Happiness and for me, it was to this end of the scale that On Chesil Beach tips.

An adaptation of Ian McEwan’s 2007 novella by the man himself, we’re in the world of classic 1960s English sexual repression. New graduates Edward and Florence come together in a theoretically perfect courtship but when they come together disastrously in marriage, their sexual inexperience on their Dorset honeymoon proves utterly and completely life-changing. Continue reading “Film Review: On Chesil Beach (2017)”

TV Review: King Lear, BBC Two

A contemporary adaptation of King Lear does little to prove its worth on BBC Two

“Some villain hath done me wrong”

A belated visit to this Bank Holiday TV offering and one I should probably have left alone. I’m not the biggest fan of King Lear, nor of Anthony Hopkins if I’m honest. But the notion of a contemporary adaptation and a deluxe level of supporting casting was enough of a draw for me to give it a try.

A co-production between the BBC and Amazon, this Lear has been adapted and directed by Richard Eyre. Trimmed down to a scant couple of hours and located in a contemporary England, it clearly has its eye on new audiences as much as your Shakespearean buff, and I’d be intrigued to know how the former reacted. Continue reading “TV Review: King Lear, BBC Two”

TV Review: Apple Tree Yard

“Before I met you I was a civilised woman”

Based on the novel of the same name by Louise Doughty, psychodrama Apple Tree Yard has proved itself most watercooler-worthy with its twisting plot, classy cast and yes, controversial moments making it a hit thriller for the BBC. The story revolves around Yvonne Carmichael – celebrated scientist, mother of two, wife to Gary – who, when a chance encounter at work leads to an unexpected quickie with a literal tall dark and handsome stranger, finds her entire world tipped upside down by the consequences that follow.

Written by Amanda Coe and directed by Jessica Hobbs, the first episode plays out as a rather marvellous exploration of a 40-something woman rediscovering her sexuality and having the kind of illicit affair that makes you write naff diary entries (as Yvonne does…). But by the end of the first hour, the drama takes the first of several hard turns as [spoiler alert] she is brutally raped by a colleague. The use of rape as a dramatic device is one which should always be interrogated but here, coming from the text as it does and its devastating impact detailed as painstakingly as it was in episode 2, it felt appropriately handled and never gratuitous. Continue reading “TV Review: Apple Tree Yard”

DVD Review: Testament of Youth (2014)

“The whole situation’s been really quite dreadful”

Based on Vera Brittain’s First World War memoir, Testament of Youth hit cinemas in late 2014, perfect timing to capitalise on the rising star of Alicia Vikander whose moment would culminate in winning an Academy Award for The Danish Girl. Her work here in this film is equally spectacular though, directed by James Kent and written by Juliette Towhidi, an elegiac beauty washes through the whole production as Vera’s determination first to study at Oxford and then to help with the war effort plays out.

We first meet Vera in the good company of three good-looking men and as the film progresses, it’s refreshing to see that her journey isn’t defined by them, merely informed. Kit Harington’s poet Roland, Colin Morgan’s shyly besotted Victor, Taron Egerton’s faithful brother (who shares his sister’s eye for a good-looking chap and when it’s Jonny Bailey, who wouldn’t!). And as war plucks each of them from their country idyll, her relationship with each has to bend and reshape. Continue reading “DVD Review: Testament of Youth (2014)”

Film Review: The Theory of Everything

“One simple, elegant equation to explain everything”

Alongside The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything offers a double whammy of Oscar-baiting, British-biopicing filmic goodness – Benedict Cumberwhatsit’s Alan Turing and Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking seem dead certs for Academy Award nominations alongside their respective films – and for my money, it is the latter has the edge on the Cumbersnatch-starring film as something slightly less Hollywoodised and thus more interesting. That’s not to say that James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything is all rough edges – it is based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir of her marriage after all and both she and Hawking have ‘blessed’ the film – but it is a complex love story that doesn’t shy away from too much challenge.

The focus of the film is in fact the relationship and marriage between physicist Stephen and Jane Wilde, his contemporary at Cambridge University where she studied literature, and the severe pressure that it came under after his diagnosis with motor neurone disease and then his increasing fame as his discoveries broke exciting fresh ground. Redmayne’s physical performance as Hawking is undoubtedly astounding as his condition worsens but there’s something deeper there too that comes across later on, in the merest flicker of the lips and glints in the eye that come before the synthesised voicebox kicks in, an enigmatic level of emotion that we never get to truly discover and that is entirely beguiling.

Continue reading “Film Review: The Theory of Everything”

DVD Review: Belle

“How can I be too high in rank to dine with the servants but too low to dine with my own family?”

As Avenue Q once counselled us, “you should be…careful when you’re talking about the sensitive subject of race “ and Amma Asante’s 2014 film Belle does exactly that, treading delicately but definitively in telling this real-life story of a mixed race woman who found herself at the heart of English society in the late 1700s. Inspired by a painting of this woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle, and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray that hung in Kenwood House, scriptwriter Misan Sagay (and Asante herself too, as reports would suggest) have fashioned a most elegant biography which has a little more bite than your usual period drama due to the inclusion of the slave trade as a significant sub-plot.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is excellent as Belle, the illegitimate daughter of an enslaved African woman and a British navy captain, who is placed into the care of his uncle Lord Mansfield as a ward. He and his wife already care for another niece and so the two become as if sisters, scarcely aware of Belle’s unique position. For though she is ostensibly a part of society, and upon her father’s death a woman of independent means, she is not permitted to contravene society’s rules – so she may not dine with her family and their guests for propriety’s sake, but she may join them after dinner. And she and Bette start to attract the interest of notable suitors, she becomes increasingly aware of the problems in the world she has been placed in. Continue reading “DVD Review: Belle”

DVD Review: The Politician’s Husband

”Sometimes you have to do bad things to get into power, in order to do good things when you get there”

18 years may have passed since Paula Milne wrote The Politician’s Wife so it was something of a surprise to hear that a companion piece called The Politician’s Husband was in the works. Shown on BBC2 last year, it followed the same 3 episode miniseries format as its forefather and directed by Simon Cellan Jones, had a splashy cast in David Tennant and Emily Watson as a high-flying political couple forced to navigate tricky ground when her career starts to outshine his. But for all the expectation that may have surrounded this, it sadly didn’t feel like a worthy follow-up, satisfyingly excellent performance from Emily Watson aside. 

It’s not immediately clear why Milne decided to write this sequel of sorts. The surnames of her characters pay homage to the West Wing (Hoynes, Gardner, Babbish…) and the Machiavellian manipulations of those in power and those who would be speak of many a political thriller gone by. But it is a very British kind of politics that is being interrogated here, the expenses scandal looms large in the public disillusionment with the establishment. And though no affiliations are made with any particular political parties, it is hard not to see echoes of an imagined Balls/Cooper household here, though it is a universal truth that the power-hungry are not restricted to any one ideology. Continue reading “DVD Review: The Politician’s Husband”

DVD Review: Gosford Park

“Now, now, we don’t want to be thought unsophisticated”

There’s a rather amusing moment on the Gosford Park DVD extras with a short documentary about how director Robert Altman but particularly writer Julian Fellowes tried to ensure the greatest level of authenticity in representing the world of service. Three people who were actually in service in the 1930s were employed as consultants on the film and their insights are genuinely fascinating and it shows. It’s just a shame that Fellowes took so little of that knowledge into creating the fanciful world of Downton Abbey with its blurred distinctions between masters and servants.

There’s no such problem in Altman’s film where the social divisions are sharply defined between upstairs and downstairs but where Gosford Park really grips is in the hierarchies and snobberies that exist throughout, the vagaries of the English class system permeating at all levels. The murder mystery that forms the biggest plot point is deliberately incidental as what is much more compelling is the intricate web of relationships that percolate through the McCordle’s country pile over a long weekend of shooting and the simply gobsmacking ensemble cast that was put together to portray them. Continue reading “DVD Review: Gosford Park”

Film Review: Anna Karenina

 

”I’d rather live life wishing I hadn’t rather than wishing I had”

Today I was lucky enough to catch an early screening of Joe Wright’s new film, Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightley in the title role, which is certain to be divisive with its unique approach. Tom Stoppard has been employed to distil Tolstoy’s weighty tome into something more manageable and his adaptation clocks in at a shade over 2 hours. Remaining largely faithful to the novel, Stoppard’s focus is on exploring different kinds of love, and so whilst the focus is mainly on Anna herself as she negotiates the tumultuous affair with a young cavalryman that sets her against her husband and the might of Russian society, he also ensures that the subplot featuring the agrarian Levin’s attempts to woo the object of his affections is kept in to provide a neat counterpoint.

Presented with a classic of literature and wanting to avoid predictability as far as period dramas are concerned, Wright’s main conceit has been to reconceptualise the whole thing in a deeply theatrical manner, literally. He treats the story as a piece of theatre, sometimes being played out in front of an audience, sometimes as backstage drama, but always with a defined fluidity and through-line. This exceedingly stylised and highly choreographed approach has a huge cinematic sweep which I adored, but it does soon calm down into something more measured and at key moments, it opens out with some breath-taking transformations.  Continue reading “Film Review: Anna Karenina”

DVD Review: Appropriate Adult

“I’m not your friend Fred”

Not strictly a DVD review as I watched this on Netflix, finally getting round to using it having signed up a while back, and part of an impromptu Monica Dolan weekend – having seen her on stage for the first time with a magnificent turn in Chalet Lines and watching a DVD of her in She Stoops To Conquer. Her role as Rose West in Appropriate Adult is actually quite small across the two hour-long (ish) episodes but given how ferociously foul-mouthed and genuinely terrifying it is, this is probably a good thing.

The focus is on Fred West and Janet Leach, the trainee social worker drafted in to be the ‘appropriate adult’ whilst he is being questioned at a Gloucestershire police station on suspicion of the murder of his daughter. Her presence was requested to ensure that there could be no suggestion that West did not understand anything being asked of him, but we see a strange relationship building up between the pair even as increasingly horrific details about the number and nature of the crimes committed by the Wests came to light. Continue reading “DVD Review: Appropriate Adult”