This movie is almost entirely set in the house and garden of Rudolf Höss, commandant of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. A high wall separates the garden from the camp where tens of thousands of Jews are being exterminated. The storyline never takes us over that wall, although screams and cries and gunshots are often heard and dark smoke rises from the crematorium chimney. The full horror of the Holocaust is left to our imagination, although we are shown staff meetings in the dining room where the number of trains and elimination targets are discussed. Meanwhile Höss’s children play in the garden, as if unaware of the horror behind the wall. The children of other officers come to a birthday party.
They are not unaware of the horror. One of the kids is given gold teeth to add to his collection. Höss’s wife parades in a magnificent fur coat brought from the camp; she even tries on the lipstick left in a coat pocket. And she frets when the possibility of her husband’s transfer to another camp threatens to separate the family from the garden she cherishes.
Adapted from a novel by Martin Amis and beautifully filmed, this is a subtler, darker movie than The Boy in the Striped Pjamas, which it inevitably recalls; the commandant’s son was accidentally herded into the gas chamber, and we could, if we chose, see him as somehow a more “innocent” victim than the deported Jews he died with. The banality of evil is at the core of The Zone of Interest, and I think the audience is invited to see the indifference of the Höss family as symbolic of the indifference of the German nation to the genocide on their collective doorstep.
A grim movie on a grim theme. It will not be to every cinemagoer’s taste. I’m not sure it was to mine.
All of Us Strangers
This must be the most intense gay movie since Brokeback Mountain, but All of Us Strangers is a lot more mystifying than Brokeback. Adam (Andrew Scott), a lonely screenwriter in a bleak London high-rise, starts dating Harry (Paul Mescal) after meeting him in the lobby of the building. Via a kind of London Transport time tunnel, Adam takes regular trips to his old home in the suburbs, where his parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell) are living again thirty years after they died in a car crash. Mum and Dad are nearly the same age as Adam; they don’t know he is gay or that the world has moved on since the fear-filled early days of AIDS. Adam builds a stronger bond with his parents at the same time as his affair with Harry deepens.
Given that a tube train can take him to see dead people, we have to decide how much of this story is real and how much a fantasy scripted by the unhappy Adam, who was orphaned at twelve and has limited interpersonal skills. The ending adds another layer to the mystery.
The love scenes are beautifully (and tastefully) shot, but the weirdness of the story will probably baffle and even alienate a lot of viewers. I’m not sure how I rate this: great performances from the charismatic lead actors, but I didn’t feel as emotionally engaged as I was in Brokeback or God’s Own Country.
Peter Scott-Presland: A GAY CENTURY Volume Two
The second volume of Peter Scott-Presland’s short plays chronicling the lives of gay men and woman through the twentieth century takes us from the 1970s to the millennium – three decades which saw huge changes to laws and attitudes in the UK and most of the world. Section 28 is revisited, and the legislation to legitimize same-sex partnerships and marriage and gay parenting.
In an ironic twist on the grim reality of the Aids pandemic, ‘Quarantine’ imagines that Health Secretary Norman Fowler was empowered to intern anyone with (or even suspected of having) HIV in prison camps on the Isle of Man. Comedy with a dark edge.
These playlets are written to be spoken or sung. As operettas they would be in the style of Brecht rather than Puccini; there are no soaring arias and the language is everyday. The opening chapter in Volume One, with Queen Victoria visiting Oscar Wilde on his deathbed in a Paris fleapit hotel and pirating lines from his plays, remains my personal favourite, as fruity as a Christmas cake, not quite equalled by anything in Volume Two. Victoria and Oscar, with others from the series, make ghostly cameo appearances in the seventeenth and final play, ‘Two Into One’, which has Ken Livingstone among the supporters of two old queens – make that two ancient queens – on their wedding day, a pair as dated and waspish as Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen in ITV’s weirdly old-fashioned sitcom Vicious.
A Gay Century is an imaginative triumph. Bravissimo, Peter Scott-Presland!
Bonham Carter gives a fruity performance as Crossroads diva Noele Gordon. But which star of which Soap do you think inspired Tawdra Thanatos, the uber-bitch queen of Eldorado, the Florida-based soap in my novel SOAP-STUD & BLUE-MOVIE GIRL?
Read Extracts from the novel by clicking on the links. And post your “theories” about Tawdra in Comments!
Much discussed on TV in the run-up to its release, this is the true story of Nicholas Winton, a young British stockbroker who helped fund and organise the rescue of 669 Jewish children from Prague fleeing Nazi persecution ahead of the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in September 1939. Fifty years later some of those he saved paid tribute to their rescuer on a television show.
The Prague scenes – panic and looming chaos – are vividly captured despite the limitations imposed by a non-blockbuster budget. Johnny Flynn gives a believable portrait of an earnest young man fighting the bureaucratic obstacles to the transportation of hundreds of children. There are harrowing goodbyes at the train station to parents who we know will not live to see their children again.
In the 1980s scenes Anthony Hopkins plays the now knighted Winton, embarrassed by the hoopla that attends his exposure as a hero and emotionally scarred by the knowledge of what happened to the children (millions of them) who did not escape Hitler’s hideous plan to exterminate European Jewry. A scene when Sir Nicholas is reduced to tears had the same effect on most of the audience at my local multiplex.
This is another small – and timely – movie on a big theme, reminding us of the great horror that was the Holocaust in a month when the population of Gaza must be feeling that an Apocalypse has been visited on their ghetto-like homeland.
Netflix has become a notable stable for LGBT-themed movies and TV series. Nuovo Olimpo is the latest, a one-off Italian feature centred on the aborted romance between Enea (Damiano Gavino), a young film director, and Pietro (Andrea Di Luigi) an ophthalmologist new to the gay scene. They meet in the Nuovo Olimpo fleapit cinema in the 1970s, a notorious gay cruising ground that is Rome’s equivalent of London’s Biograph cinema (aka “the Bio-grope”). A passionate affair is cut short when the cinema is invaded during an anti-fascist demonstration and they lose contact.
Ten years later Enea has made a movie about their brief fling, and a re-encounter is narrowly missed. More years pass: Ennea has a doting husband and Pietro a wife who is sensitive to the gap in his life. An accident on a film set brings the two men together in the eye hospital and offers the opportunity to relight the flame between them. A “will they/won’t they” moment gives the movie a soap-opera climax.
The intensity of the early sex scenes is more than a little reminiscent of Brokeback Mountain (as in other Netflix productions full-frontal nudity takes the movie to the vertiginous edge of lite porn). The story also has faint echoes of Theorem, Pasolini’s pansexual odyssey which seemed extremely bold and weird in 1968 and might still seem pretty far out in 2023.
Nuovo Olimpo isn’t weird but it is a full-on exploration of gay and bisexual love, written and directed with a rare sensitivity by Ferzan Ozpetek and beautifully played by the two handsome leads. This is a must-see drama whose appeal, very much like Brokeback Mountain, extends far beyond the gay audience.
DANIEL SILVA: The Cellist
This is the 2021 “operation”, which I somehow missed, featuring Gabriel Allon, the art restorer and former assassin who is now the head of Israel’s secret intelligence outfit – “The Office”, as it’s known.
The target this time is Arkady Akimov, a Russian oligarch who manages the investment of the billions of dollars that flow into the coffers of the country’s corrupt and tyrannical president, whom some people call “the Czar”.
To bring down Akimov, Gabriel recruits Isabel Brenner, a young German banker who has recently whistle-blown the machinations of a bank deeply involved in money laundering and sanction-busting activities. Isabel also happens to be an accomplished cellist – hence the book’s title. Akimov has an eye for a pretty face, and Gabriel hopes to infiltrate Isabel into the management of the oligarch’s funds and bring him down, together with his boss in the Kremlin. “The Russian president is not a statesman, Isabel,” Gabriel tells her. “He is the godfather of a nuclear-armed gangster regime.”
No prizes for guessing who the gangster president is, nor his opposite number in Washington who is contesting the result of the election that has removed him from office even as the novel’s events are unfolding. In the text Daniel Silva doesn’t name either of these presidents, although the Russian is referred to sometimes as Vladimir Vladimirovich or Volodya, Putin’s patronymic and his pet name (if we can imagine Putin being anybody’s pet).
This is arguably Daniel Silva’s most important novel to date. In a lengthy Author’s Note at the end of the book he re-examines some of the “evidence” for Putin having interfered in the election that brought Trump to power; he also suggests that there were undocumented meetings between the two men during Donald’s time in the White House.
The politics and financial chicanery that make up most of The Cellist make for an occasionally stodgy read. The one high-octane scene, a chase in the French Alps, is too much like an outtake from a Bond movie. This is a book which, like many of John Le Carré’s novels, clearly draws on the author’s concern about the great issues of the times we live in. A fictitious story of corruption in the Kremlin and the White House is based on the belief that there is or has been corruption in these seats of power.
The Great Escaper
This is mainly going to be remembered as Glenda Jackson’s last movie, and what a glorious swansong it is. Her ancient, heavily lined face – far removed from the face of Elizabeth the First, the role that sealed her stardom in 1971 – conveys shades of emotion that not all actresses can hint at. She’s playing Irene Jordan, the wife of Bernard (Michael Caine) who has gone AWOL from the care home in which they live, taking himself off to Normandy to attend the 70th anniversary commemoration of the D-Day landings.
This is another of those small movies with a big heart. Nothing very dramatic happens (apart from brief flashbacks to D-Day which Bernard’s best pal did not survive). John Standing has a nice supporting role as another veteran who takes Bernard under his wing; there was a hint of camp in Standing’s performance, which made me think an LGBT ‘attitude’ moment could and should have been shoe-horned in.
Michael Caine has weathered the years better than Jackson (or he’s had some work done, which Glenda very clearly has not). His performance is not quite as subtle as hers, but this is a beguiling and totally believable reconstruction of an episode which made the papers back in 2014. A couple who have loved each other for seventy years are two people you have to take your heart.
* * * * * * * *
RIP Glenda, one of the finest actresses Britain ever produced. And Happy Retirement to Sir Michael, who has given us a great deal of pleasure in a long and splendidly wide-ranging screen career
Thomas Tryon: CROWNED HEADS
Crowned Heads, which dates from the 1970s, was one of the major inspirations for my own Hollywood novels Soap Stud & Blue-Movie Girl (published this year under my other pen-name David Godolphin) and Howl and the Pussy-Kat (still editing with a view to publishing next year). Re-reading Crowned Heads after forty-plus years, it’s still one of the great Tinseltown tales, if perhaps not as exquisite as I remembered it.
Fedora, the first of four linked novella-length stories, is the best and was memorably filmed by Billy Wilder (his last movie in 1978). Fedora is a Garboesque Hollywood legend who comes back from a period of seclusion more beautiful – and a better actress – than before. The explanation, narrated to an interviewer like one of Anne Rice’s vampire sagas, is a bit too slow.
Lorna is Lorna Doone (that name is unforgivable!) is a burnt-out star whose life falls into a haze of booze and sex on holiday in a second-rate hotel in a third-rate resort in Mexico. Lots of candidates for the inspiration here whom it would be ungentlemanly to name – she may be an “amalgam”. This too takes a long time to reach its gloomy climax.
Bobbitt is the former child-star forever trapped in the role he outgrew. Mickey Rooney and even Shirley Temple could be sources here. Repetition spoils this one.
Willie (another unfortunate name to an English ear) is Willie Marsh, an elderly movie legend, clearly inspired by Ramon Novarro, whose home, a shrine to his dead but still dominating mother, is invaded by a trio of creepy hippies. This takes Thomas Tryon back into the horror territory where he first made his mark as actor-turned-writer. The invasion scene is far too protracted and its inevitable conclusion goes way over the top.
Four distinct tales, richly original and yet echoing true events in the life of Movieland. They constitute four ‘obituaries’ from Hollywood’s Golden Era. The writing is a long way from the brisk blunt prose of Jackie Collins and becomes over-ripe in parts, but this is quintessential Tinseltown: art imitating life imitating art. A must-read for La-La Land buffs if you’ve missed it; it’s on Kindle but the print edition is only available second-hand.
You can read the first chapters of David Godolphin’s Hollywood novellas Soap-Stud & Blue-Movie Girl on my website: www.davidgeebooks.com
THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER
Fifty years after the original Exorcist, the franchise gets a reboot in this schlocky tale of two 12-year-old girls who come back possessed by demons after disappearing for three days. Exactly how and why this happens is never fully explained; the script is full of holes, one of several areas in which it falls short of the earlier version.
Linda Blair gets a credit and a brief reappearance as middle-aged Regan. Her elderly mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has a key role: she is now an exorcist herself and together with dropout-nun Ann Dowd takes a lead role in de-possessing the girls; in this movie the priest gets to play third fiddle.
Believer is a bit better (not much) than I’ve made it sound. The build-up is good, but the actual exorcism is inevitably a rehash and the CGI is less terrifying than the original’s use of stunts and make-up. The acting teeters on the edge of parody. Ann Dowd, rigid as a drumskin and “fruity” as ever, is the best thing in it.