Oh, my sisters!

Although this novel came with excellent reviews, I was not at all sure whether I would be fully engaged with the narrative or the characters. How wrong I was!

Marie de France is a real historical character who left behind her a very small written record. What is known about her is that she was an abbess in the 12th Century, she probably came from France but spent her adult life in England, her poems which are the main source of our understanding of her life, were known at the Court of King Henry II.

Lauren Groff has snatched from the little known and expanded it into a life. An historical novel of the best sort.

In Matrix, Marie is the bastard child of a Plantagenet, possibly Henry himself. Her mother and her numerous aunts took part in the Army of Women which accompanied Louis VII and Eleanor, Queen of France on the abysmally unsuccessful 7th Crusade. The women got as far as Outremer, and then turned back. Marie lost two aunts on that expedition, others died later as did her mother. For two years, she concealed this event and continued to manage their estates. Eventually though, this deception was uncovered, and as an illegitimate girl, she was thrown out by more powerful, male, members of her mother’s family. In the novel, she throws herself on the mercy of her other relative, the Queen Empress Mathilda, by then retired to the Abbey Royal at Fontevraud. Mathilda, seeing no advantage to be got from this ungainly child, forwards her to the English Court.

The novel opens as Marie plods slowly, on horseback, towards the abbey that is to be her home, banished by Eleanor from Henry II’s court and instituted without consultation as Abbess Elect, together with a dowry to sweeten the pill. The abbey in question is on its uppers, damp and ill-maintained, many of the nuns are dying from a coughing sickness and the current Abbess and Prioress are elderly, the promise of substantial funds is welcome even if the child, Marie was still in her teens, is not.

Lauren Groff then weaves a labyrinthine story about Marie, as Abbess, slowly turning around the fortunes of her domain, extending and managing it with the reluctant help, then admiration, of her menagerie of women, some professed and some lay women. As she prospers, so does her influence and ambition, until finally she succeeds is creating an island entirely of women, with a maze surrounding it to prevent the incoming of undesirable males. She has several visions of The Virgin Mary which she interprets as guiding her towards her goals, while she herself increases in power and wealth.

Marie is described as exceptionally tall, gauche and ungainly, but eventually she uses this to her advantage. The sequestered life of her community is not without its sexual encounters, but these moments of lustful pleasure are seen less as sin, more as medicinal relief. In her understanding, Marie begins to see the relationship between Eve, the first woman and Mary, the Mother of God, as the matrix upon which all women should be guided, not as the original sinners but as the vessels that brought the Godhead into the world, and it is this revolutionary message she gives to her nuns.

Whether or not there is any proper evidence for this interpretation of religious belief and practice in the 12th Century, this novel makes the case profoundly for the Sisterhood, the exoneration of our sinful nature as women. Marie’s relationship with all the people in the book including Queen Eleanor, who is her star and first love, is tender, fierce and complex. This is an achievement of the first order; an interesting and electrifying piece of writing, full of passion, ambition and delights.

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Oh Death! Where is thy victory?

Breathe is another mesmeric novel from Joyce Carol Oates, whose female characters leap from the page, fully realised, fully human and authentic.

Set in Santa Tierra, New Mexico where the air is already thin because of its altitude, Gerard suffers from breathlessness, then abdominal pain. Dr N_ misdiagnoses, then amplifies the error, so the catastrophe when it comes is swift.

The opening chapters are painful to read, as Michaela struggles to understand the situation. Having moved to Santa Tierra only recently from Cambridge, Mass., she has undertaken a writing seminar in Albuquerque and Gerard is going to work at The Institute of Advanced Research, instead of which she is shuttling between their unfamiliar house and the Santa Tierra Cancer Centre.

Reluctantly, and increasingly frantic, Michaela is facing the possibility that she will soon be a widow; she mentally and physically begs her husband to keep breathing and miraculously, for much longer than might be expected, he does. But eventually, there is silence and the absolute “not-thereness” of death.

Michaela, in a more or less hallucinatory state, keeps seeing Gerard. In the car park, in a crowd anywhere but in the urn where his “cremations” reside.

Joyce Carol Oates presents the reader with a profound conundrum, we cannot always know which of Michaela’s strange experiences are dreams, which are actual and which are unreal out-of-body realities.

The sense of this starkly beautiful landscape is always present. The clear, thin air, the views towards the mountains and the river of stones, which Gerard has marked up in his Lonely Planet guide book. None of which he will ever visit now. Reluctant to leave, Michaela continues to attend her seminars, without telling her students what the situation is. So, the whole time, she has this out-of-time life, where her husband is not ill or dead.

I describe this as mesmeric for good reason, the writing is peerless in presenting the reader with Michaela’s state of mind, but in doing so, we too are struggling to breathe, I found myself holding my breath. It is such an immersive a narrative.

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London Film Festival 2021 – Nitram

Out with a bang not a whimper! This was my last film of the Festival.

Nitram presented a fictionalised account of the worst mass killing in modern times, and by a single person, to take place in Australia. Justin Kurzel spared the audience the actual killings, it was horrendous. The tension, built up to the day of the event itself, was skillfully and authentically achieved by a terrific piece of acting by Caleb Landry Jones as Martin. This is a troubled young man, living in a country with no gun law, and little supervision of the mentally ill. As a consequence, Martin was able to behave as erratically as he liked, with his mother (the utterly brilliant Judy Davis) supervising when she was able, but Martin moved in with Helen, (Essie Davis) an equally unstable person and then the mother’s care and control weakened. One error led to another.

Justin Kurzel addressed the audience by video, the lockdown in Australia preventing him from travelling to London. He suggested in the interview that the mistakes that were made in Martin’s case, could easily be repeated today. So, in a way, I think, this was his warning to the future.

At one point, after Helen’s death (for which, this film, suggests he was responsible) we see Martin watching a TV report of the mass killing in Dunblane, Scotland. Did that tip him over the edge? Dunblane was in March 1996, his massacre was the same year, in April.

The facts are horribly stark: Martin deliberately shot and killed two people who had purchased a freeholding that his father (Anthony LaPaglia) had been set on buying, the extreme disappointment in losing the sale led to his suicide; the young man then went on to an leisure centre on Port Arthur and randomly opened fire on the people there, in all killing thirty-five outright and injuring over twenty more. For this, he was sentenced to thirty-five life sentences.

Within twelve days the gun laws were changed and tightened, but according to the legend at the end of the film, there are more guns in Australia now than there were in 1996 and there is no State or Territory that complies fully with the National Federation Law.

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London Film Festival 2021 – Benediction

This is the sad, and mostly true, story of the life of Siegfried Sassoon from about 1914 until he was extremely old. Obviously, there was a lot of poetry and a lot of gay sex, that was his life. Privileged, patronised (in its true sense), protected in love, hurt, despairing.

Although he had shown great courage while fighting in World War I, Sassoon (Jack Lowden/Peter Capaldi) took issue with the way the war was being prosecuted; his view was that it had turned from a War of Defence, to a War of Territorial Acquisition much to the detriment, and increased death count of the soldiers who first signed up in defence of the realm.

His famous polemic, which would have earned him a court-martial, and probably execution for cowardice, notwithstanding his military record, was squashed by his friend, Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale) and his mother (Geraldine James). As a consequence his military tribunal merely sent him to Craiglockhart for treatment. There he meets Dr Rivers, (Ben Daniels) a fellow traveller in the love that dares not say its name and, more importantly, Wilfred Owen (MatthewTennyson).

All this is common knowledge and made up a short section of the film, which is just over two and a half hours long. There are passages of newsreel showing the trenches, the marches, the dead and the dying – Terence Davies said, and he is right, these things cannot be replicated, only the actual will do. One has only to think of several other recent World War I films, to profoundly agree with this opinion; nothing can replicate the absolute, stark horror of the actuality.

In one typically brilliant piece of theatre, Davies interposes a cowboy lament (it might have been Rawhide, but I am not sure) and a cattle drive with films of the men going over the top. It was both imaginative, chilling and masterful.

We then move swiftly on to the more louche aspects of Sassoon’s life as he swanned for one glamourous interior to another, endlessly drinking champagne, flirting and enjoying the high life. We briefly glimpse: Lady Ottoline Morrel, Edith Sitwell, Lady Sybil Colefax and their ingenue crowd of beautiful young men (mostly gay): Ivor Novello,(Jeremy Irvine) Glen Byam Shaw,(Tom Blyth) Stephen Tennant, (Calum Lynch/Anton Lessor) Rex Whistler, Alexander Fenton nearly all of them ending at one time or another in Siegfried Sassoon’s bed and heart.

Sassoon’s marriage to Hester Getty (Kate Phillips/Gemma Jones) must have been difficult; there is a scene with the older versions of Sassoon, his wife and Stephen Tennant, who comes to apologise for his callous treatment of their affair which encapsulates entirely the bitter end of their golden youth.

Terence Davies deals with all of this in a loving, tender, understanding way and the film is a great success on that account. He admitted in the Q&A afterwards that this was the gilded youth side of the situation; others less well connected, less well off and decidedly lower down the social scale, were not so lucky, their cage was neither gilded nor swilling with champagne.

The interiors and the settings, as well as the costumes were sumptuous and filled with a Siena-golden light. The ladies, especially, were dressed beautifully (as they were) and we only occasionally glimpsed these gorgeous creations, which must be very frustrating for the costume designer, (Annie Symons) because, believe me, they were like birds of paradise, sometime literally.

Everything about this film speaks professionalism, dedication and fine tuning. It is another Terence Davies masterpiece.

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London Film Festival 2021 – Munich – Edge of War

Oh, thank you Netflix! What a film! If this seems absurdly disloyal to cinema, so be it. Munich – Edge of War, directed by Christian Schwochow had all the advantages of the Netflix resources, which meant a dual cast of the top flight English actors and German Germans, not English actors with cod-German accents. What’s not to like?

The book by Robert Harris [posted September 2017 It’s good to be flexible] was a masterpiece in drama and suspense, and throughout although my head said otherwise, my heart believed that the schemes would be successful. Obviously, they weren’t.

Joseph Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) opposite Adolf Hitler (oddly not listed in the cast, nor is Mussolini) and Hugh Legat (George Mackay) opposite his counterpart Paul von Hartman (Jannis Neiwohner) and in other parts, Alex Jennings, Nicholas Farrell and on the German team: August Diehl, Sandra Huller, Liv Lisa Fries.

A great film; great story and a very sad ending. A must see.

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London Film Festival 2021 – Babi Yar – Context

From a dramatisation to the real thing. Timing is everything. This documentary, directed by Sergei Loznitsa and commissioned by The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Museum and Archive, is made up of contemporary film footage. It starts around September 1941, when the German Army is approaching Kiev, via Lvov/Lemberg.

Anyone familiar with the writings of Philippe Sands will know that Lvov suffered terribly under the control of Hans Frank. This documentary shows him being greeted in Lvov and then his triumphant arrival in Kiev.

The Ukrainians are in a difficult position. Eighty years ago, almost to the month, they did not want to belong to the USSR or to Poland, so the arrival of a liberating army was greeted with enthusiasm, but this was short-lived as the Germans regarded them as Slavs, so although some men joined the Germany army they often ended up serving in the killing squads used to destroy the Jewish population, many others were forced to work in munition factories and other useful labour.

By 1943, after the victory at Stalingrad, the Russians fought their way back across the country reclaiming the territory, and in September arrived back in control of Kiev.

Between these two events, the Germans had rounded up all the Jews from the city and the surrounding area, lined them up in rows 40 to 50 long, men, women and children, and shot them on the edge of a natural ravine, the Babyn Yar. Soldiers kept shooting from morning to night for three days, armed with a machine gun and semiautomatic rifles. At the trial in Kiev in 1943, one participant, a Ukrainian, admitted to personally killing at least 120 people in three days. The bodies were then covered up. Even more shockingly, was the revelation by a Ukrainian peasant, that as the Russian army got closer, 300 of them were forced to dig up the bodies and burn them, a double Jewish death so to speak, then they in turn were shot, 12 of them escaped.

Most of the film was in black and white, with descriptive sections saying what was coming next. The deliberate destruction of the villages, using flame throwers to fire the thatch is well documented, and resulted in huge deprivation for the civilian population; the mass transfer of prisoners of war, forced to march for miles without food or shelter, it looked like a river of people, the film took close up views and long distance, a grey sea of men; they even photographed the Jews before they shot them. Why would they do that? All part of the meticulous record keeping for which the Germans were so famous.

When the tide turned, it was hard to see any difference, the prisoners were simply another sea of grey men. Depressing beyond imagining. The Ukrainians cheering the arrival of the Red Army and the Polish Soviet Concord, what else could they do?

Thousands of them turned out to watch eight Germans being hanged, a stage set like no other, a rickety gallows with eight nooses; the prisoners were driven below the ropes, with hands bound but no face covering, and then the trucks drove away. Basic, brutal and necessary, they at least has a trial.

For further reading:

Vasily Grossman & Polly Zavadivker (2011) Ukraine Without Jews, Jewish Quarterly, 58:1, 12-18, DOI: 10.1080/0449010X.2011.10707095
Philippe Sands East West Street
Daniel Goldhagen Hitler’s Willing Executioners

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London Film Festival 2021 – Natural Light

Another absolutely mind-bending debut film from Dénes Nagy. There was a Q&A at the beginning from which it was possible to understand both the genesis of the drama and especially the casting process. Nagy was drawn to the story of the 100,000 Hungarians who were conscripted into the Russian army in World War II specifically to hunt down partisans behind the active battle front. This is not a well known piece of World War II history.

The casting was also unique. There are no actors at all. The cast is made up of half Hungarian and half Russian peasants (Nagy’s term): farmers, butchers, rural folk and after searching for two years he persuaded 25 of each to come to make the film; taking them to Latvia near the Russian border to film, in poor weather conditions, army uniforms of inadequate weather-proofing, carrying guns and army packs.

Many of them had never left Hungary, none of them had ever flown in a plane and like their compatriots almost 80 years before, there was no way back. On arrival at the film site, mostly in a deserted Latvian village, of which there are a lot near the border with Russia, they were met with the Russian contingent, and again as with their earlier compatriots, there was no common language and a great deal of suspicion.

It is hard to believe that these were not born actors. Semetka, the principal character has that thousand mile stare of a man who has seen death and brutality up close. But not only is that true, but they went back to Hungary and took up where they had left off, none of them, not even the principal, Ferenc Szabó, have seen the film although he was invited to the premiers, he never showed up.

Spoiler Alert: Do not read further if you think you might have any chance of watching this film. It will be distributed by Curzon Film

Without deviating much from the narrative, the film follows a single battalion struggling against the elements, the winter and the dreadful terrain. Once they reach the village, they round up the inhabitants, taking their beds and food, of which there is precious little.

In one early scene, we see Semetka (Ferenc Szabó) and a companion eating soup while the family look on, with glaring hatred and fury in their eyes, or in the elderly, resigned recognition of their powerlessness. After three days rest the battalion prepares to move on, but they are ambushed, the commander is killed and Semetka takes them back to the village. Assuming that they were deliberately misled and betrayed they punish the villagers by locking them in the barn, but eight of them escape.

Semetka is relieved of responsibility for the village and sent to scout among the marsh area. Here we are given another example of Semetka’s humanity, since he sees one of the escaped villagers but says nothing and moves on. Meanwhile, the new commander, Koleszár (Lázló Bajkó) takes over and massacres the villagers.

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Reading between screens – Elizabeth Buchan

Another novel about women! Another post??

Lottie, newly married and working as an archivist in papers pertaining to foreigners, in the entirely fictional Archivio Espatriati. Initially, there is a problem with her taking up the post, the preceding Chief Archivist will not leave. But in the meantime, she is given some papers to work on belonging to a Nina Lawrence.

Nina was working as a landscape gardener in Rome in the late 1960s and 70s. It was a time of dramatic change, violence, intrigue and murder. Prime Minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped and eventually killed, possibly by The Red Brigade.

As Lottie looks through, and catalogues, Nina’s papers, a strangely unsatisfactory story begins to emerge and Lottie begins to delve deeper into its ending. Warned repeatedly by her husband, Tom, she persists and what she reveals also shows her things about her own marriage that had been secret.

Captivating and brilliant, Two Women in Rome is hard to put down. Rome is presented as a city of intrigue, danger, beauty and power. People sidle in and out of the narrative and they are never quite what they appear to be, and relationships equally do not seem to be quite on a level, neither for Lottie nor for Nina.

Cannot recommend this intriguing novel too highly: adventure and spooks in the heat of the sun, what more could one ask? Elizabeth Buchan may not be related to the famous John, but she certainly has his eye for an adventure that grabs the reader and keeps tight hold to the end…

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London Film Festival 2021 – As in heaven

Not for the faint hearted. Based upon a book written in 1912 called The Day of Dying, Tea Lindenburg has entered the cine world with a devastating debut.

Set in rural Denmark, we see the family of Anders, (Thure Lindhardt) his wife and numerous children. Anna (Ida Caecilie Rasmussen) is clearly pregnant again. The eldest daughter, Lise (Flora Ofelia Hofmann Lindahl) is preparing to go off to school, which her father thinks is a waste of time.

The setting is rural and primitive, but beautiful. All the children as lovely, blond and cheerful as any youngsters could be, the cousins are dark which helps with identifying the two familes. The adults are strict, but also leave the children to play while they get on with the daily grind. Then Anna’s labour starts, and goes on and on.

The trajectory of this film is mirrored by the weather and dreams. It opens with Lise’s dream of walking through a barley field, everything seems idyllic but then she blows on a thistle, and as the seeds drift away the sky threatens and she is drowning in blood. The mother has also had a dream, and its hold on her is dramatic and fatal.

There is a strong thread of religiosity, coupled with a peasant-like faith in myth and dreams. The children are sent away during the birthing process, but the two elder girls creep back and witness what is happening; there is a terrible confrontation which would be enough to scare the living daylights out of them; they rush back and pray for their mother, frantically repeating the words of The Lord’s Prayer, but Lise sticks on Thy will be done, and cannot say it…

While entirely gripping, I did wonder at the end, why one would want to make this film? Its ending was predictable and severe.

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Reading between screens – Esther Freud

Three women, three mothers. This novel opens with Kate and Freya arriving at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Cork. Kate knows that she was adopted, but her non-biological parents have been very coy about how she came to them, now some thirty years on, her father has given her sufficient information and she is here to find out her birth parent.

Aoife (Efa): the mother of three girls. Rosaleen, the eldest has gone off to work in England, two others are married with children and live nearby. Her chapters begin with the point at which she meets her husband, Cashel. For a while they manage a public house in London, but then Cashel suddenly wants to go back to Ireland to farm; so there they are. Rosaleen could not wait to get out, and left for a job at the Daily Express in Fleet Street.

Rosaleen: we quickly realise that this is a woman with a lot of secrets. Her parents think she works at the news desk of the Daily Express, but actually she works in the post-room, sorting mail. She got this job through her association with a much older man, a sculptor, Felix Lichtman. This is story of her affair.

Kate: we go through her experience as an adopted child with a younger sibling who is not adopted, this often happens her parents explain. But it is not quite enough, she wants to know who she really is. As this novel progresses we learn that Kate is married, she works for a charity that helps people with challenging mental conditions. Kate is responsible for art therapy and she is very good with her group. She and Matt have a daughter Freya, but Matt has a problem with alcohol, which he is not dealing with, so Kate goes to a group Al-Anon that helps the partners of alcoholics.

Esther Freud has a highly developed sensitivity towards these three women, and the book reveals their lives and connections, braiding them together like a plait, one voice, then another voice, then the third so that at the end of the book, if not already blinded by tears, the reader can see the bigger picture and how it all fits together.

This is a window into a society that is, hopefully, somewhat different to our own. Rigorous moral attitudes caused untold damage, untold that is, until now and gradually the secrets and lies are being revealed.

I Couldn’t Love You More has a beautiful but secret love story at its heart, but love is sometimes not enough, honesty on lots of levels would have spared many of the hurts and the damage that followed.

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