Mid-town culture lunch

The Bridewell Theatre nestles down behind Fleet Street and St Bride’s Church, in a narrow lane called (unsurprisingly) Bride Lane. The theatre specialises in short 45 minutes dramas that start at 1:00pm. Visitors are encouraged to bring their lunch, to sit for 45 minutes munching while being entertained: a break from their computer screens, blackberries, iPhones – a quiet refreshment of stomach and mind – the imagination workout.

poppyToday (and all last week) The London Ballet Company were performing Poppy, A Symbol of Hope and Remembrance.  A balletic interpretation for Remembrance and Armistice Day. While perhaps the choice of music was sentimental and somewhat unsophisticated, it was nevertheless, a moving and beautiful piece. [There are reasons for this, performance copyright being only one].

It is hardly surprising to learn that we followed the fortunes and misfortunes of a single artillery soldier in the First World War, back home on leave with his family and then back to the trenches where he meets his end. His loving wife, meanwhile, joins the VADs, leaving a young daughter with her grandmother.

It was intensely moving. It is hardly a spoiler alert to say that both parents die, one in an incredible ensemble piece, where the dancers were clearly dressed as “poppies”, in scarlet floaty dresses with a thick black waistband, but with German helmets on. Here they enact the death of the soldier, eventually carrying him off stage.poppy-6-star-3

At this point you see his wife, wakeful and worried and you see her decision to “do” something; anything. She appears then in a veteran’s ward with another ensemble of suitably clad nurses, there is a touching simplicity to the arm movements of this troupe, it is clear that they are healers, but also nervously religious. [rehearsal picture only]. After an air-raid, the wife is also killed.poppy-rehearsal-nurses

The final ensemble, shows the daughter, dancing a solo, visiting a graveyard, now dressed in her mother’s coat over a scarlet dress. She dreams of her parents meeting in heaven, they appear happy and together. The ensuing pas de deux replicates many of the early dances that we have already seen. Then more dancers appear carrying poppies, and symbolic helmets from WW I through WW II and on towards today.

The finale shows them laying these at the feet of the couple, who now stand slightly apart, and facing away from the audience, while Joan Baez sings Where have all the Flowers gone?

The dance and the choreography were accomplished and imaginative. The sound system was not of the finest, but over all this did not matter terribly. A moving and appropriate way to offer remembrance and respect to the dead.

snowIn case you are annoyed that this is a post-performance piece, may I add that the same company are performing Snow Queen – The Loss of Love (based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy story) on 2nd and 3rd of December in the Canada Water Culture Space.

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Books, books, books again

Actually, although I was fully immersed in the big screen experience I was also reading lots of books between films.

hm-returnOn the publication of his memoir, The Return, by Hisham Matar, I returned to his previous books on my shelves, two novels – In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance. I am not entirely sure whether it is appropriate to describe writing like this as lyrical, but I am going to chance it.

Hisham Matar has been an exile from his own country, Libya, since he was a small boy. Born in New York during a period when his father was in favour, he lived for a short while in Libya and then fled with all his close family to Egypt, leaving cousins and uncles behind at the mercy of the Qaddafi regime.

When he was still a young boy, his father was abducted from Egypt with the connivance of the authorities and taken to Libya and incarcerated in the dreaded, notorious prison Abu Salim. In this dreadful place were also his brothers and some of his nephews. The only way that they knew that he was there was that night after night he recited from memory reams of beautiful poems.

In fact, many people that Hisham Matar later interviewed in his endless search for what had happened to his father mentioned this nightly, comforting and exquisite recital.

At some point, though there is no proof of date or time or where, Jaballa Matar vanished.

The Return is about the search for information, and also about the moment when Qaddafi fell and the family: Hisham, his mother and his brother Ziad, returned to Libya; about the release of the remaining members of his family from Abu Salim and about the search for answers.

So why describe this writing as lyrical? The descriptions of the sea, the light, the sky in Libya are sublime, it is poetic and also the language of the exile. Lyrical, too, are the passages about meetings with family, many of whom had not seen Hisham since he was a small boy, shared meals and companionship in different houses.  Again it is the scents, the light and the sense of realignment which seem to me to be covered by this term.

Clearly, the same cannot be said for the terrible description of the hardship and privation that was the experience of the prisoners in Qaddafi’s network of hidden prisons and torture chambers; but an equal level of descriptive power lies there however horrific. Overriding all the books is a plangent tone of loss, of uncertainty, of fear.


In the first novel, In the Country of Men, a nine year old boy lives in a family situation of secrets. His mother’s secret (since alcohol is forbidden) is that she is a drunk; his own interpretation is that she is ill, but to the practised ear it is clear what this illness is; his father, an importer of European goods, also has a secret. He is not always abroad when he says he is, which untruth Suleiman discovers one day while waiting for his mother by a plinth, he sees his father cross the square and enter a narrow house; but later on the same day, his father telephones home, and on being asked where he is, he says that he is abroad.

Suleiman also witnesses his neighbour being hurriedly bundled into a car, whereupon his friendship with the boy next door cools suddenly. Such is the nature of childhood loyalty – go with the flow; and this need to be helpful, liked and favoured leads Suleiman into a morass of duplicity and eventually betrayal.

This book came out in 2006 and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It is a deeply affecting and devastating novel, a story of love and betrayal, innocence and intrigue and it came out before it was widely known how very close the author was to the horrors unfolding in his home country.

By the time Hisham Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, was published in 2011 more information about his own life had appeared in the national press.

Nuri loses his mother at a very young age; the effect of this loss is spread-eagled over the whole novel. Nuri meets a young woman, Mona on the Alexandrian coast while on holiday and experiences his first feelings of love, imagine the emotional impact then when his father also falls in love with Mona and marries her.hm-anatomy

His emotional turmoil turns in on himself though, because although he profoundly wishes for his father to get out of the way, when he does vanish one night in Switzerland he and his stepmother grow closer, and in their attempts to discover the truth they uncover a wealth of detail which makes them both wonder whether it is ever possible to know anyone, even someone as close as a father and husband.

This is a marvellously constructed novel, travelling through a trajectory of youth to manhood; of animosity to affection and at the same time having a slow reveal that is as surprising as it is affecting. It is hard to stop reading this book.

In all these books the sense of impending doom, the overwhelming sense of mystery and loss, of unfathomable mystery seem from the point of view of the young is presented in beautiful, spare, lucid prose. I am not sure at all in what order they should be read, but if all of them are on the TBR pile, I would start with The Return.

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60th London Film Festival – 12

The last day, no more dashing to the bus to get to the cinema, no more scrappy meals grabbed between films, more sleep and less stimulation – until October next year.

This has been a great festival, most of the screenings have been well attended, certainly the ones I have been at all through the week. Fewer people at the golden oldies, but that is understandable, I suppose.

Three films today, or four if you count the extra silent movie at the beginning of the day.


The short film was a comedy turn envisaging a world where the dominant sex was female, and the “blushing groom” was the one to be given away…it had all the expected gags and was very amusing. The main film though, A Woman of the World, joins several other films that I have seen this year with a feminist agenda – even in 1925.

Like animé, silent films are not for everybody. Compared to a modern film, the quality even when re-mastered is moderate, and the acting is overtly over-the-top. It is very much a case of “the eyes have it”. Expressions have to be exaggerated, and therefore look to us rather ludicrous. But setting that aside, there is often a great story as with this one, and Pola Negri is delightful as the countess…

On to more serious stuff then. My second film was the new film from Ashgar Farhadi.16-10-2-the-salesmanRight at the start of the film, everyone is having to evacuate their building because it is collapsing. It is chaotic and alarming, and one sees that diggers are excavating a huge hole right beside the building and cracks are appearing in walls and windows.

Two of the evacuees are actors in an amateur theatre company that is putting on Death of a Salesman.  Rana, played by Taraneh Alidoosti and Emad played by Shahab Hosseini, are homeless and are preparing to sleep on the set, but the manager Babak offers them an empty apartment that he owns. What he fails to mention though, is the nature of the previous tenant…

Any one who has seen previous films by this accomplished director will recognise immediately the tonal quality of the colours and the messages. Very conscious of social structures, obligations and rituals, this film has struck at the very heart of family life, trust and honour being paramount in Middle Eastern society.

This is a shocking story but a brilliant exhibition of some of the best actors from Iran, Shahab won best actor at Cannes, but his partner in the film Taraneh Alidoosti was also wonderful, expressing more in a single look than a thousand words. Everything about this film was vivid and remarkable.

As you might expect, this has already got UK distribution.

Finally an offering from Brazil, the new film by Kleber Mendonça Filho.


A beautiful, active and vibrant grandmother of 65 lives in an old apartment block overlooking one of the most popular beaches in Recife. We see one apartment full of people celebrating the 70th birthday of another resident, Tia (Aunt) Lucia. Then later, in a lower floor apartment, the one belonging to our principal player, Clara played by Sonia Braga, we see some of Lucia’s furniture, so we can assume she has moved out.

It then becomes apparent that all the flats are empty except the one in which Clara lives, and the developers who have bought all the other apartments in the block are hoping to pull it down to make room for a larger block. Clearly also, they have approached Clara before but she refuses to entertain their offers.

Slowly the menaces build up: noisy parties are held in the flat above, ordure is left on the staircase; a mass gathering of a religious group suddenly arrives. The family starts to worry…

Although his previous film was shown at the London Film Festival, it was very specifically Brazilian, which is not to say it was not a good film. Aquarius though has a much more universal message, in every city all over the world there is a similar situation, tenants are being moved on, moved out and bigger, more profitable buildings are replacing older housing stock. The threats and menaces of unscrupulous developers may be different, but the effect is the same – the weak go to the wall.

Added into the impressive story there is a shockingly sudden racial incident, the exact nature of which might not have struck a less well-attuned audience.

Mendonça Filho is like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach in that he does a lot of work with people who are not necessarily actors, mixed with professionals like Sonia Braga, this can have a distinct downside. Still this is an expressive and dominating piece, and since Clara’s life is the main point of the film, this was not particularly an issue for me.

A great film, definitely worth looking out for.

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60th London Film Festival – 11

Two very contrasting films today, both in their own way documentary, just with very different methods and messages.

Daughters of the Dust is a fictionalised portrait of a group of slave descendants, now freed and making their way north to Nova Scotia; they have one last family gathering, with photographs and a re-telling of their history and then a group of them leave in a boat.

15-10-1-daughters-of-the-dustPlayed by actresses, this tells the story of three generations of Gullah women. It takes a fresh and rather different look at the experience of black women, as they remember and mythologise their arrival and departure from the sea islands off the coast of America.

Julie Dash clearly has a feminist agenda here, however this is not a polemical film. It states the case, the elderly great-grandmother explains what their lives were like, the growing, weaving and dying of the cotton, how their hands were permanently blue with the indigo dye; the hardships of feeding and survival and the ways in which they took care to remember their African background.

They serve a typical African American meal, a stew of fish and prawns with okra, plantain and sweetcorn. It is lush and colourful, although all but two of the women are dressed entirely in white.

Made in 1991, this film has been completely re-mastered with a refreshed sound track.

Following that was the animation of Raymond Briggs’ biographical book – Ethel and Ernest, which was the story of his own parents. How they met, married went through the war together, and lived. This animation is bewitching and captures all the beauty and detail of Briggs’ pictures.

15-10-2-ethel-ernestEthel and Ernest, the movie, keeps faithfully to the original with Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn in the voiceovers as Mr and Mrs Briggs. The sound track is completely in keeping with the time of the film, immediately pre-and post-war Britain (including the voices of Chamberlain, Churchill and the first man on the moon). To animate such a story, and because it was so personal, to animate it with extraordinary accuracy took several hundred draughtsmen, some doing background and others doing the hand-painted character drawings, over 7000 of them.

I realise that animation is not for everyone, but this is such a beautiful story, ordinary people living an ordinary life with all its hopes and mysteries. Quite superb. We were privileged to have pretty much everyone in the audience with us, including Raymond Briggs himself, and I was able to thank him publicly for years of delight that he has given us and our children – the film was as good as any animation of his books, many now regular favourites like The Snowman.

It has UK release and venue and dates can be found on the website: http://www.ethelandernestthemovie.com





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60th London Film Festival -10

A marathon today, three superb films, each in its own way brilliantly crafted and filmed. 14-10-1-their-finestTheir Finest, a film by Lone Scherfig (another female director) with a glittering cast of stars, when I say that Jeremy Irons had a near walk-on part that lasted all of seven minutes, you will get the picture. Gemma Arterton plays a female scriptwriter, paid two pounds a week, engaged by the Ministry of Information in World War II. This out-fit was run for the purposes of information dissemination: what to do in an air-raid, how to make your rations go further, walls have ears and that sort of thing; the really interesting thing about the set up was that the film was able to show some reels of actual propaganda film made, some of which was not shown at the time for reasons of low-morale or off-message scripts.

Bill Nighy plays an ageing thespian, rather full of himself and very “actorly”, a part which got a number of laughs, he was superb. The twist in the tale was that eventually the Ministry hire a full-time studio to make a feature film about the rescue from Dunkirk, the idea being that this would play out in America and bring them into the war.

It is clearly a comedy of manners, it tells a fairly accurate story about the horrors of the London Blitz as well as telling the story of the importance of the propaganda machine, information was dealt with by showing short films between the B-movie and the main film of the day, [This will mean nothing at all to anyone younger than 65!], the idea being that they would be a captive audience as they would not be leaving the cinema before the main film.

It has an under-lying message about the opportunities for women that arose while the men were at war, and also the discrepancy in pay between the sexes – what a surprise!

14-10-2-brimstoneThe second film, Brimstone, was very different. A tightly woven tale of a mute midwife living in a religiously-minded community of Dutch-folk who have emigrated to America. Another film with a very strong cast.

Part of the OFFICIAL COMPETITION section, this was a tense drama which started at the end and then reeled back to the beginning. Set into actual chapters with titles, Exodus, Genesis, Retribution etc, it covered the life of the mute midwife, played by Dakota Fanning, from where she was within a community who respected her, which turned vile when a birthing went wrong and worse still when a new pastor arrived in the village.

Guy Pearce gave a sterling performance as the menacing, maniacal, diabolic preacher-man. It was as much his story as the midwife’s. The Dutch director, Martin Koolhoven, manipulated his audience with a taut series of events that told a story about as horrific as it could possibly be; he did not shy away from any of the issues but gave us just as much information as we needed without actually spelling it out, which is not to say that there were no graphic moments. A nail-biting and frightening pall hung over the whole film.

I would say that this was a must see for anyone with strong nerves and if you like The Night of the Hunter, this is very much a film for you.

I have to say the Q&A after was a disaster! I have seldom, if ever, heard more stupid and mindless questions, one had to wonder which part of the film they did not understand? In my view he absolutely nailed it!

Finally, what must be one of the best foreign language films in the Festival. [Bearing in mind I only see about a tenth of the whole offering, nevertheless…].

14-10-3-the-innocentsAlso set in the aftermath of World War II, and based on the diaries of a young, French Red Cross doctor working in Poland, The Innocents is a film of extreme emotional integrity and impact. Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge) is called out to a convent to save the life of a young novice, her assistance is requested by another Polish nun. (Agata Busek) At first, her request is ignored as they are extremely busy in the town’s makeshift hospital, but then in a break she sees the nun kneeling in the snow praying. Transfixed by this display of determination, Mathilde follows her secretly to the convent.

What she finds there is horrific and soul-destroying, especially for the nuns, and a tremendous challenge as the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) is set against her being allowed in at all to help. Marie, the nun who came to get her is punished for disobedience.

The director, Anne Fontaine, gave us  no explicit images of what had happened, the evidence was plain. Everything in the film was chosen with care, both for the truth and for its impact and the actresses playing the Polish nuns were indeed Polish. Shot in Northern Poland in winter, filming must have been very challenging.

It reminded me in some way of Ida (also Polish, hardly surprising as the Mother Superior in that film was also played by Agata Kulesza) and a bit of Of God and Men. This is superb and I would strongly advise anyone to see it if they can.




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60th London Film Festival – 9

Rather a weird day. Two very different films both of which needed percolating before I felt I could write about them.

12-10-2-the-ornithologistFirst The Ornithologist, a Portuguese film by João Pedro Rodrigues. The bird life, and the gorge down which the ornithologist kayaks is magnificent, a lyrical look at nature and its stupendous offerings in scenery and in fact. Using binoculars while drifting towards some fairly violent rapids has predictable consequences, and the kayak and its oarsman are swept away.

Thereafter the film becomes more and more hallucinatory. This is a journey through bizarre rituals: his Chinese rescuers have drugged and then bound him like a parcel, he escapes and his strange adventure begins with a pietà-like pose on a blue sleeping bag, for all the world like a religious painting (see above), its significance only becomes apparent later in the film; he finds half of his kayak has been used for a fetishized romp of some kind, and later sees the revellers, masked and with grotesque, but colourful, costumes capering around the woods and apparently killing a wild boar.

He wakes to the sound of goat bells and finds a deaf-mute goatherd…to say more on the plot or the next sequences would be too much of a spoiler.

His encounters and his interior journey become more and more symbolic and krypto-Christian. Nothing is quite what it seems, and even if it is what it seems, like the strangely damaged terracotta “Stations of the Cross” which he finds in a tangled woodland, the meaning as part of his journey is obscure.

Paul Hamy plays the ornithologist and his bemused expression vividly underscores the adventure he is having, he seems totally at sea – as I suspect were many of the audience.

12-10-3-hermia-helenHermia and Helena was equally obscure but in a completely different way. Mainly about two girls Carmen and Camila (Augustina Muñoz and Maria Villar) and their assortment of friends.  They are both studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one for acting and one for translation and as the film progresses their lives begin to resemble, more and more, the exigencies of the two female roles in the play.

Meetings get missed, or the two people are confused about arrangements and are in a different place, strange postcards arrive for a girl who has left, then the writer Danielle turns up but finds the wrong girl. Boyfriends seems expendable or exchangeable…

All readily recognisable from actions in the play, which my companion did not know well and the relevance went straight over his head. So as far as he was concerned this was a film about nothing very much – an epic fail in other words.

What got to me though was the music. A more inappropriate musical score could hardly have been chosen! Mostly, and recognisably, Scott Joplin and then suddenly Beethoven!? A further playful disjunction was the occasional written instruction that this was two or three months previously, what was never made clear was whether that meant that the film was forever running backwards, or whether it was flipping back and forth between the past and the present. Since all the characters seem to wear pretty much the same clothes the whole time (a wardrobe malfunction or a continuity failure?) it was pretty impossible to judge. If the audience is at a loss does this matter? Yes, in my view it does.

There were clever scene changes, the girl walks into one underground system in New York and walks out into Buenos Aires, or into one provincial park and out of another. This is a clever and witty film, the scenes are interesting for themselves and the mirror imaging of the play is super-modern and subtle. The dialogue alternated between English and Spanish which was a healthy clue as to where we were, but without this distinction interior scenes would have been impossible to decipher.

It is definitely film to think about, but quite whether it worked on the impact level that the Director (Matias Pinero) intended remains doubtful.



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60th London Film Festival – 8

Marathon of a day today and the buses were all over the place; sat at one bus stop and no less that six buses, Route 29, came past in less than eight minutes, all but one terminating in Trafalgar Square, which was the next stop!

11-10-1-boundariesKicked off in the morning with a political/environmental satire, Boundaries, about a fictional island off the coast of Labrador. Three women, in quite different roles happen to meet during a session in which the island’s mining rights, its relationship with its larger neighbour Canada and its contract with an iron extraction company have ground to a halt. So one woman, played by  Emily VanCamp, is there as a mediator struggling with having to be away for long intense periods, leaving her young son with her ex-husband; Macha Grenon plays Danielle Richard, the Prime Minister of Besco, this independent island, she also struggles with work/life balance which she explains in the film as the tension between wanting to do good things for the country and for the future, her children’s future while finding that the job separates her from them and finally there is the idealistic young politician, part of the Canadian team, Félixe Nasser-Villeray played by Nathalie Doummar whose problems arise from the conflict between the reports and works that she has done, and supplied to the team only to have them ignored or misrepresented.

Each of these three strong women, passionate about their work but also about their lives are set against a male dominated, aggressive and bullying culture, needless to say the mediation fails and the island it set free to sort out its own goals and achievements.

This satirical look at the wheeling and dealing that is part and parcel of politics and big business today, focuses on the women but also shows the men as devious and arrogant – so it looks as though the environment is going to get trashed in the wake of big bucks with sweeteners of all sorts, not to mention a touch of blackmail – but Mrs Richards is made of sterner stuff…

The second film was precisely the opposite, from the Treasures of the Cinema listings we got a wonderfully re-mastered piece from 1957. Patrick McGoohan as a villain with a cast of young hopefuls that later hit the big screen – Sean Connery and David McCullum among others.

11-10-2-hell-driversThe premise of Hell Drivers was simple and male-dominated. A company of truckers moving gravel from one site to a building site elsewhere, are motivated by cash rewards for the most runs they can do in a day; vile shenanigans follow as the competition between the gang boss – Red (Patrick McGoohan) and Tom the new boy, played by Stanley Baker – hots up into a seriously dangerous game.

Considering the age of the film and the techniques and cameras available at the time, the breakneck runs between the depot and the site along narrow English lanes is little short of amazing. Every trick of camera work is in play here, to great effect as the view switches from inside the cab, to the view through the windscreen, the view in the wing mirror and the road ahead. A speed chase and race with heavy lorries; then it switches to the  view of the accelerator/brakes and clutch pedals and back to the speedometer. Hugely simplistic, the good guys and the bad guys and nothing much in grey or nuance, but what a film!

Finally tonight a documentary portrait of the Mozart of Chess – Magnus.  A young prodigy from Norway who from a very young age shows a natural aptitude for chess. The film follows the boy’s progress from national winner to world chess status over a period of three years, aged 19 to nearly 23 when he became the World Chess Champion in 2013, beating the current holder, Viswanathan Anand, in his home town Chennai.

11-10-3-magnusThis is the second documentary I have seen this Festival in which the whole film would have been considerably different had the outcome not been outstandingly successful (the first being The Eagle Huntress). Placed in the JOURNEY section, it is indeed a journey from triumph to triumph.

The need to know anything about chess is completely swept away by the quite sensitive and delicate filming of matches, though as it happens Magnus Carlsen plays chess at a quite prohibitive speed.

Competition chess is rather different from a friendly match down at the pub. There are timing rules, mind games and presumably money, though interestingly the sums that Magnus has won were never mentioned.

This is a great film, a beautiful and sometimes disturbing story of professional games playing. UK distribution is 25 November, just as Magnus undertakes his third defence of his title.

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