Book review: Time To Act – Simon Annand

Simon Annand’s Time To Act is a beautiful book of photos capturing actors in the minutes before they go on stage

Tackling the constraints of the pandemic in its own way, Simon Annand’s fantastic new book of photos Time To Act has launched a virtual exhibition of some of the photographs which has now been extended to until Christmas. It’s an ingenious way of sharing some of the hundreds of images from the book and should surely whet the appetite for either just buying it now or putting on your list for Santa to collect soon.

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Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 4

“Donna Noble has left the library. Donna Noble has been saved”

And here we are, my favourite series of Doctor Who. So much huge wonderfulness and even its less good moments are still more than halfway decent. Key to the series’ success is Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble – gobby and one-dimensional in her introductory episode the Christmas special The Runaway Bride, her character journey throughout this season is magisterially constructed, a true awakening of self (with thankfully no romantic inclinations towards our Time Lord) and one given unbearable poignancy due to its frustratingly tragic end.

It’s also one of the best constructed series in terms of its over-arching season arc, its warnings and clues layered meaningfully into several stories and building into a momentous and properly climactic finale, which lands just about the right level of grandiosity. There’s also the first companion-lite episode (the superbly creepy Midnight) to go with the Doctor-lite one (the achingly beautiful dystopian Turn Left); a typically brilliant Moffat double-header in  Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead with gorgeous work from Alex Kingston as the soon-to-be-hugely-significant River Song; and if the return of Rose undoes some of the emotional impact of the Series 2 finale, Billie Piper’s work is spikily powerful. These are episodes I can, and have, watched over and over again.

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DVD Review: Salting the Battlefield

“It’s not a question of how it is, it’s a question of how it appears”

Salting the Battlefield is the third and concluding part of the Johnny Worricker trilogy, following on from Page Eight and Turks and Caicos, and sees David Hare wrap up the dramas that he both wrote and directed. Worricker is an ex-MI5 analyst who is on the run from the British authorities after exposing a couple of massive secrets that threaten PM Alec Beasley, a marvelously slimy Ralph Fiennes. From the Caribbean he’s ended up in Germany with former lover and current conspirator Margot but the net is drawing ever closer for an endgame to settle all scores. 

It’s grand to see original players from Page Eight returning. Saskia Reeves’ ambitious Deputy Prime Minister still precarious as ever in her position but finding opportunity in the chaos of her personal and professional life; Judy Davis’ plain-speaking MI5 head still bemoaning the old boys’ club of an institution she appears to have firmly by the balls; and Felicity Jones as Worricker’s under-used daughter. And as stakes are raised in order for scores are settled, there’s a fantastic amount of Machiavellian manipulation by all parties, chillingly conversational confrontation the order of the day here. Continue reading “DVD Review: Salting the Battlefield”

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.

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DVD Review: Northanger Abbey (2007)

“What could be a more innocent or harmless pastime than reading”

Another of Austen’s novels that I haven’t quite gotten round to reading, Northanger Abbey was thus a brand new beast to me and so something of a queer little thing. Its mixture of naïve girlishness and gothic fantasy is winsomely portrayed by Felicity Jones as the ingenuish Catherine Morland and the ever-so-handsome JJ Field as Henry Tilney, but I found it very hard to get into the story or really care for it.

It’s always nice to see Sylvestra Le Touzel, here a friend of the family who introduces the book-obsessed Catherine into Bath society with her husband, the equally kindly Desmond Barrit, and Carey Mulligan is surprisingly fresh as the spirited Isabella. But the use of Geraldine James’ voice as a narrator in the form of Jane Austen herself sits a little oddly and altogether, this was one of my least favourite films in this whole exercise.

DVD Review: Hysteria

“It’s a bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time”

I’ve had this film on my Lovefilm list for ages – I love Maggie Gyllenhaal so I knew I’d get round to it one day but I have to say it has never really grabbed me as a must-see. When a play about the invention of the vibrator was announced, it seemed as good a time as any to compare and contrast the two. A 2011 film directed by Tanya Wexler, Hysteria quickly loses points by teasing us with Anna Chancellor in its opening scene, only to never feature her again. That aside, it is actually quite the enjoyable watch as a good-natured and good-intentioned take on Victorian innovation.

Here, the vibrator is invented by Dr Mortimer Granville, a young forward-thinking doctor reduced to assisting a Dr Dalrymple in the treatment of female ‘hysteria’, basically inducing paroxysms in ladies’ private parts with his nimble fingers. His reputation for…hitting the spot, shall we say, soon means he is much in demand in society but as his arm grows overtired, his mind seeks for alternative ways of scratching the itch. Against this, is Granville’s interactions with Dalrymple’s daughters – the quietly permissive Emily and the one-woman suffragette movement Charlotte.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Hysteria”

DVD: Cape Wrath / Meadowlands

“The consequences of doing the right thing…”

Cape Wrath, or Meadowlands as it was retitled for the US market, was a 2007 TV drama which aired on Channel 4, following the fortunes of a family who have to enter a witness protection programme in an idyllic new neighbourhood but increasingly find that they may just have jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Lucy Cohu stars as the matriarch of the family, Evelyn Brogan, who with her twin children have been uprooted due to some unspecified incident that involved her husband, David Morrissey’s Danny and over the eight episodes of the show, it proves a good showcase for her talents.

Created and largely written by Robert Murphy, the story unwinds as a psychological thriller as the Brogans struggle to come to terms with their new way of life and find many a mystery which keeps their paranoia levels justifiably high. Morrissey’s Danny is the main investigator of the strange goings-on around him as his testy relationships with Nina Sosanya’s Samantha, the bureaucrat who runs the programme, Ralph Brown’s magnificently moustached policeman and Tom Hardy’s lascivious handyman with an eye on his daughter instantly put him on guard as he soon clocks that something suspicious is going on in their new home. Continue reading “DVD: Cape Wrath / Meadowlands”

DVD Review: Page Eight

“There’s a fine line between calculation and deceit”

A rare foray into television for David Hare as both writer and director, Page Eight was broadcast on the BBC in 2011 but as ever, I missed it at the time – most likely I was in the theatre. On it went to my lovefilm list and up it came just in time for my little spy-fest. Career intelligence analyst Johnny Worricker has his life turned upside down when his MI5 boss and best friend dies suddenly of a heart attack, having revealed the explosive contents of a file which threatens the UK/US alliance and the future of MI5 itself. His artist daughter has something important to tell him, his strikingly attractive neighbour Nancy Pierpan has suddenly appeared on the scene with a (not-so) hidden agenda and the well-oiled wheels of the slippery government are determined to oust him whilst keeping its secrets. Old-school to his core, Worricker is confronted with a series of dilemmas, political, moral, personal, as he faces up to this contemporary world and his place within it.  

Aside from the obvious thrill of a new piece of writing from David Hare, Page Eight also contained some utterly luxurious casting and an exceptional, tailor-made central role for Bill Nighy as Worricker. Ineffably cool as only Nighy can be, the art-collecting, jazz-listening, women-seducing figure at the centre of the story was a perfectly convincing presence but the real star was Hare’s writing. Though undoubtedly a contemporary spy story, it eschewed the glossy thriller territory of Spooks for a no less compelling, intelligently intertwining yet thoroughly believable sequence of events. Shocks and surprises still came, but from people and actions rather than exploding helicopters or extended chase scenes and so it had a deeply satisfying quality that demanded, and rewarded, the attention. Continue reading “DVD Review: Page Eight”

DVD Review: The Tempest (Julie Taymor)

Behold the wronged Duchess of Milan, Prospera”

Julie Taymor’s film of The Tempest sank from view rather quickly on its original release, despite having the eye-catching coup of Helen Mirren taking on the lead role – renamed here Prospera. It wasn’t the best of times for Taymor at the beginning of 2011, riding a rather torrid time over the debacle of the much-delayed Spiderman musical, and perhaps people didn’t take this work as seriously as they might have done otherwise. Her previous Shakespeare adaptation – the fierce Titus – was a film I found endlessly intriguing and so I was actually quite keen to see this and thus frustrated when I realised I would have to wait for the DVD to be released.

Was it worth the wait…well, I’m not sure it was to be honest. The casting of Mirren is inspired and the text carries the little tinkering it needs to accommodate the gender switch very well – she’s the Duchess of Milan whose husband is murdered and title usurped by brother Antonio – and there’s an interesting shift in emphasis of the parenting relationship, the testing of Ferdinand feels more rooted in ensuring he’s an ideal suitor for Felicity Jones’ willowy Miranda. And Mirren speaks the verse with an intense passion, a burning fervour of injustice never far away but underscored with a measure of warmth. Continue reading “DVD Review: The Tempest (Julie Taymor)”

Review: Schiller’s Luise Miller, Donmar Warehouse

“The stuff of seduction is also the stuff of politics: lies and promises”

Schiller’s Luise Miller is Michael Grandage’s penultimate outing as director at the Donmar Warehouse before Josie Rourke takes on the reins of Artistic Director. A bustling German 18th Century tale of romance, class struggles, tragedy and court politics, the play, Kabale und Liebe (previous translations have been called Intrigue and Love, and Love and Politics) has been given a new treatment here by Mike Poulton, who if Wikipedia is anything to go by (bearing in mind this is my first experience with the play), has reworked quite a bit of the latter part of the play, bringing to mind Dennis Kelly’s liberal approach to The Prince of Homburg at this same venue.

Noble-born Ferdinand, son of the one of the most powerful statesmen in the country, is in love with Luise Miller, the middle-class daughter of a middle-class musician and willing to sacrifice all for love. But the political scheming and power games that govern the world they live in means that their destiny is out of their hands, no matter how honourable their intentions, they are at the mercy of those more powerful who will stoop to nothing to ensure they survive. Continue reading “Review: Schiller’s Luise Miller, Donmar Warehouse”