David at the movies: A small life – a big impact

Living

This little gem of a movie is scripted (adapting a Japanese story) by Kashuo Ishiguro who gave us The Remains of the Day thirty years ago. Living is set in the 1950s. Mr. Williams (in those days men called each other “Mister” on the commuter train and in the office) manages a section of the planning offices at London’s County Hall where shuffling papers seems to be the order of the day. A widower living with his buttoned-up son and bitchy daughter-in-law, Mr. Williams is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and decides to try and “live a bit” in the time he has left. A strip-club in Brighton turns out not to be his cup of tea, and he goes back to London and finds a small project to invest his time and energy in. He also befriends a girl working in a Lyons Corner House (Aimee Lou Wood) – an awkward platonic relationship that has echoes of Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in The Remains of the Day.

Bill Nighy is perfectly cast as Williams, a man of his time painfully incapable of expressing his emotions. The script and the direction (Oliver Hermanus) beautifully capture the austerity and self-restraint of postwar Britain. This is a splendid evocation of a desperately ordinary man whose small life has an important impact on other people’s lives, including ours, the viewers. Less is more – much more.

Grim drama about friendship and isolation

The Banshees of Inisherin

My multiplex bills this on its website as a comedy drama. Dramatic, yes, albeit at a slow pace. But comic? Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play Padraig and Colm, two men in a tiny village on a bleak island off the coast of Ireland. They’ve been friends all their lives until Colm announces that Padraig bores him to death and he doesn’t want him to speak to him ever again; if he does, Colm, an accomplished fiddle player, will start to cut off his own fingers. Since I’ve questioned the humor of this movie, you can guess what happens next.

The acting is impeccable. Farrell, particularly, has never been better. Kerry Condon as Padraig’s sister, who longs to escape the island, has the beauty and poignancy of a Thomas Hardy heroine. Delicately written and beautifully filmed, this is a small grim drama about friendship and isolation. But you will not come out of the cinema smiling. Comedy? I think not.

 

What I’m reading: the new Poirot, the new Sherlock

 

Anthony Horowitz: A LINE TO KILL

 

This is the third of Anthony Horowitz’s Hawthorne series, in which he appears himself as scribe and assistant to ex-cop turned investigator Daniel Hawthorne, rather like Dr Watson to Sherlock Holmes or Colonel Hastings to Hercule Poirot. A literary festival on the tranquil island of Alderney (actually murder-free since its brutal occupation by the Nazis in WW2) turns into a crime-fest when the event’s millionaire host is stabbed to death, a man with many enemies. There are plenty of suspects, including the visiting authors, more than one of whom is not who they pretend to be. There is – right on cue – a second murder.

Mr Horowitz has scripted episodes of Poirot and Midsomer Murders (as well as several series of Foyle’s War, which he created), so he is a past master at serving up false leads and red herrings. He has an unpretentious prose style and a keen sense of pacing. I doubt if many readers will second-guess the big reveal. I prefer my crime stories to be more lurid and even a bit gothic, but for fans of the “country house murder mystery” A Line to Kill is an exemplar of everything a whodunit should be.

Horowitz has also written three contributions to the James Bond legend, all splendidly close in theme and style to Ian Fleming’s original stories. I very much hope he holds on to the franchise.

David at the movies: Have we seen this before?

TICKET TO PARADISE

 

A pair of feuding divorcees reunite to block their daughter marrying a guy they consider unsuitable.  In Ticket to Paradise we have George Clooney and Julia Roberts recycling characters they’ve played before with a romcom  plotline that’s been used many times: Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable – all the way back to the silent movie era.. The setting is Fiji, which makes for beautiful backdrops, and their daughter is marrying a cute Fijian seaweed-farmer, which gives the movie an eco-friendly vibe.

And it works – sort of. Despite the second-hand story (and performances) the movie has enough pace and the cast enough charm to keep you entertained for 104 minutes. It’s not a spoiler to say you can see the ending from a mile off – in fact you can predict the ending before the movie starts! Familiarity doesn’t have to breed contempt, although it will probably do so for more hard-bitten viewers.

Putting Up With Parkinsons; Me Too

 I’ve been doing some online research on Parkinson’s Disease, which like Jeremy Paxman I was diagnosed with last year. Paxman shared his story on ITV last night. The title ‘Living With –‘ was replaced by ‘Putting Up With Parkinson’s’, reflecting how Paxman feels about it. Me too, to borrow a slogan.

There are about 40 symptoms of PD and each patient gets their own ‘pick-n-mix’ selection. Paxman doesn’t seem to have the tremor which I have (left hand only so far and somewhat reduced since I was put on levodopa, the medication of choice) and which most of the other people in the documentary had to varying degrees. Jeremy has a ‘frozen face’ which so far I do not. I have difficulty vocalizing, which means I cannot do book-reading events any more; this seems not to be a problem for Jeremy and isn’t the reason for his retirement from University Challenge. Paxo feels tired all the time, as do I, and he can no longer operate a keyboard – I’ve gone from being a two-finger typist to a single finger, with many a bloop!

Vivid dreams and hallucinations are very common. A neurologist said that over 50% of sufferers develop psychosis. I have vivid dreams, often featuring dead friends and family members (Bruce Willis can play me in the movie!) but so far no hallucinations.

My most recent author photo, at The Conrad Press dinner event in London last month

My online research threw up some grim statistics. The progression is usually slow with a gradual decline in mobility and agility (Jeremy, like me, already finds doing up shirt buttons difficult), but PD sufferers have an 80% chance of developing dementia after ten years. We are most likely to die from a fall or from pneumonia (presumably pneumonia brought on following a fall?). Paul Sinha, “Sinnerman” on ITV’s The Chase, who is in Year Three of PD, said he was diagnosed after a fall, as was Paxman. I was diagnosed because of my tremor, two years after my GP assured me that the tremor was “almost certainly not Parkinson’s”, so I don’t know if I’m in Year Two or Year Four. I’ve had four falls at home, the last of which saw me lacerate my scalp when I hit a door jamb – easy to see how such a fall could save me the fare for that one-way trip to Zurich.

Last week I lunched with a Brighton friend and his wife. He’s in Year Twelve of Parkinson’s and has been spared a date with dementia but he looked as if he’d been beaten up, following two falls onto his face in recent weeks. Parkinson’s, like Alzheimer’s, is not a pretty road to go down – I guess there aren’t any pretty roads in this area of terminal decline. £100 million in medical research has not yet found a cure, but more effective slowing-down treatments may be in the pipeline.

Me at 19. I’d just finished my first novel. Unpublished. Unpublishable!

Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again –” My biggest regret is that I’ve been writing novels for sixty years and I’m still waiting to achieve serious sales as a self-published author or, best of all, get accepted by a mainstream publisher. I’ve always identified with Prince Charles, who had to wait more than sixty years to be King (on the plus side, I’ve been a ‘queen’ for more than sixty years!). I’ve got another novel waiting to go to print (the sequel to Soap-Stud & Blue-Movie Girl) and two more part written, including a follow-on to Lillian and the Italians and a book which does more justice to my mother as a main character (Lillian has elements of my mother’s life but not her spiritual journey). Hopefully, writing and peddling books will keep Alzheimer’s at bay.

Most people seem to live with PD for up to ten or twelve years. Keeping active is key, mentally and physically. As with dementia, the later years look more like a curse than a blessing. Watch this space. My guru of choice has long been Doris Day: Que sera, sera.

David at the movies: Marilyn revisited and reinterpreted

BLONDE

(Netflix)

 

This biopic of Marilyn Monroe is based on a fictionalized biography by Joyce Carol Oates, so we don’t know how much of it is reality and how much fantasy. Like The Crown, the script flies close to what we think we know as the facts. Early scenes depict Norma Jeane’s wretched childhood with an unstable mother who nearly burned them both to death and was then committed to a mental institution. All through her life this Marilyn is obsessed with the absent father whose identity her mother never revealed.

One brutal session on the “casting couch” presumably represents the many such ordeals Marilyn endured. Her first lover here is Charlie Chaplin Jr whose baby she reluctantly aborts in order to secure the lead in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. There’s at least one more abortion and a miscarriage. She her husbands “Daddy”. Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) is a nice guy but he turns into a wife-beater. Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody) is another nice guy; we’re not shown the break-up of this marriage. The one scene with JFK suggests that the President was not a nice guy in the bedroom. The conspiracy theories about her death are not played out here.

It’s a long, slow movie – almost three hours. Ana de Armas is a sensationally good look-alike and does the breathy voice perfectly. She is nude for much of the movie, which may be intended ironically but it gives Blonde a cruel hard edge. De Armas is dubbed in the re-staged songs – could they not have used the original soundtracks? Some clever CGI inserts the new Marilyn in clips from the actual movies, including the famous subway vent scene from The Seven Year Itch and some high spots from Some Like it Hot.

The screenplay brings out Marilyn’s serious side: she has read Chekhov and takes acting seriously despite all her neuroses and on-set tantrums. But except for the recreation of her famous comedy films, this is a consistently bleak movie, concentrating on Norma Jeane/Marilyn’s endless exploitation; she gets very few happy moments. For me, My Week with Marilyn gave a more rounded portrait of both the actress and the woman, highlighting her great comic talent as well as her instability. And Some Like It Hot is still my all-time favourite movie!

What I’m reading: Catholic girl and Protestant boy

Katie Hutton: ANNIE OF AINSWORTH’S MILL

 

1897. Following her mother’s death Annie Maguire and her father escape the poverty and unemployment of County Down and relocate to Cumberland, where there is work – hard, dangerous work – in cotton mills and iron-ore mines. When her father moves away again to live (in sin) with an abandoned married woman, Annie makes a temporary home in a series of lodging houses, treated as an outcast because of her father’s situation. She falls in love with Robert McClure, who has also fled from County Down. But Robert is a Protestant and Annie a Catholic. The hatred between the two branches of Christianity is as strong in 1900s Cumbria as it was in the time of the Tudors – and still is today in the more sectarian areas of Northern Ireland. The ancient enmity creates a wall against which the love of these two young people is hard pressed to prevail.

Harsh deaths – consumption, childbirth, hideous accidents – are a daily risk, as is the threat of the poorhouse. There are rare moments of tenderness or humour. Robert compares the Roman ritual of confession and penance to “an account book at the Co-operative”, a simile that will stay forever with Annie (and with me). There is one priest with a reconciliatory mindset; at the other extreme there is Philomena, one of Annie’s landladies with a merciless soul.

Katie Hutton, Irish born, now living in Tuscany

 

Katie Hutton is a gifted writer. A lot of the novels I read I devour in great chunks; Annie of Ainsworth’s Mill is a book you want to read slowly, savouring the lovely lilt of every page, every paragraph. You hear the rise and fall of Irish accents in every line of dialogue. The evocation of harsh lives in the harshest of times stands comparison with writers like Arnold Bennett and Mrs Gaskell. This is a novel at the very pinnacle of the Historical Romance genre.

David at the movies: Agatha Christie sent me to sleep

SEE HOW THEY RUN

 

Early in the first 1950s season of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap (destined, as we know, to become a theatrical Methuselah), an American producer moves in with a plan to make it into a motion picture. His early murder is an obstacle to the project – though it doesn’t stop him narrating this “film of the film that wasn’t”. Hilarious plot twist? Not for me.

Sad to say, I suffered a sense-of-humour outage during this movie. The rest of the (sparse) audience laughed out loud; I almost never did. It’s beautifully shot: interiors and exteriors have the lushness that we’ve come to expect from Poirot adaptations. Costumes were divine. Performances were spot-on for the period, although Saoirse Ronan’s monotonous policewoman grated with me. The screenplay was not kind to Ronan, whereas Adrian Brody was gifted the (Sunset Boulevard-inspired?) role of the murdered narrator and played it with juicy relish. Shirley Henderson’s cameo as Agatha Christie was a joy, and I welcomed the (Bridgerton-influenced?) casting of her husband.

There’s a lot to like about this movie, but the pace is leaden and so, for me, is most of the humour. I dozed off a couple of times. I’m as big a fan of Agatha Christie movies as anybody else, but not this one. Sorry.

David at the Movies: Anthem for doomed youth

BENEDICTION

(Netflix)

 

Brownie points to Netflix for sponsoring this movie, which must have only limited appeal even to older gay viewers. Jack Lowden stars as World War One poet Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden), whose emotional and sexual life director Terence Davies explores in this gloomy biopic. After publishing a letter condemning the military chiefs for the appalling death toll the conflict has brought, Sassoon is lucky not to be shot as a traitor; they send him to a mental institution where he meets and falls in love with fellow poet Wilfred Owen who’s suffering from shell-shock (as PTSD was called in those dark days). Owen is sent back to die in Picardy in the last week of the war. The screenplay skates past Sassoon’s brief return to active service.

After the war Siegfried has a brief affair with Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), shown here as the uber-bitch in London’s far-from-discreet gay set. Siegfried has a longer but equally unhappy affair with upper-crust socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch), the model for Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Unhappy with homosexual life and converting to Catholicism, Sassoon marries. Flash-forward to his later life shows Sassoon (now played by Peter Capaldi) at odds with his wife and their son.

Throughout the movie Davies inserts horrific glimpses of battle casualties which never cease to haunt Sassoon. His poems are voice-overed from time to time, although two poems of Owen’s make it clear that Sassoon was somewhat Second Division in comparison.

This is a beautifully shot movie, and all the cast perfectly evoke the look and feel of the 1920s and 30s, but the scriptwriter’s prevailing tone is depressing. Male lovers and a wife all fail to bring happiness to Siegfried Sassoon. A life unfulfilled; a glum but riveting movie.

 

What I’m reading: Israel’s spymaster turns art forger

Daniel Silva: PORTRAIT OF AN UNKNOWN WOMAN

 

Now retired from masterminding Israeli secret intelligence (surely he’ll be back?), Gabriel Allon has resumed the life of an artist in his wife’s native Venice, but he agrees to take time out to help trap a beautiful Spanish dealer in forged Renaissance masterpieces. The trap involves Gabriel dashing off a Titian here, a Van Dyck there, as “bait” for the art smugglers. The trail takes him to London, New York, Rome and Sardinia, familiar locations to Daniel Silva’s loyal readers. Tel Aviv, unusually, gets barely a mention. In a postscript the author makes it disturbingly clear that fraud and forgery are perpetrated on a massive scale in today’s art world with its status-seeking billionaire buyers.

Death is dealt in smaller doses than in Silva’s regular forays into Middle Eastern and/or Russian terrorism. Also missing are the labyrinthine machinations of Vatican politics, which is another of the furrows Silva has frequently and impressively ploughed. The pace of this one is as crisp as always, the writing supremely elegant, but at times it feels almost like a pastiche of his usual thrillers. Ever so slightly daft, Portrait of an Unknown Woman is still hugely enjoyable. That said, I hope Silva sends Gabriel back to the Vatican and/or Moscow/Jerusalem/Damascus in his next annual adventure.