How would you bet on the next James Bond?

Like so many other people, I had always disliked James Bond films. I suppose the 007 movies have become a cultural reference point for British people: we know a bit about the actors, the villains, the traditional genre and the theme tunes. I didn’t like the Connery Bond; even if we allow that it is of its time, it established a farcical playboy pattern where the bad girlies were nearly always killed off and superfluous. They were sprayed with gold paint to suffocate in their own skin, eaten by piranhas, drowned, stabbed, shot or – my own personal unfavorite – forced to fight another woman barefoot for her man.Of course, the good girls stayed pliable and acquiescent, or at least became so by the end of the film for the last sexist punch line.

I loathed their awful names too. Kissy Suzuki, Plenty O’Toole. Mary Goodnight, Wai Lin, Chew Mee and Pussy Galore. Oh, and don’t forget the unimpressively reductive name, Bibi Dahl. Even if we accept the dated ethnocentricity and misogyny, the characters still lacked depth and imagination. But then Roger Moore was aptly called Roger Moore, so I suppose that set some kind of standard.

I rarely watched early Bond movies unless I was round someone else’s house at Christmas. Then Daniel Craig came along and improved the genre by being a little more multi-faceted. His Bond had some kind of chip on his shoulder from being an orphan. He fell in love with Vesper, who was an unusual and strong woman. He tried to rescue her and he grieved when she died. He had a credible rapport with Dame Judi Dench’s ‘M’ and, as he became older, his body occasionally failed him and he became more vulnerable, while still falling back on his usual experience and courage.

This version of Bond was more watchable as the villains became more complex and interesting. I liked the updated Le Chiffre with his tears of blood but my favourite was Raoul Silva, a character with the type of unpredictability and guile seen in formidable villains such as Hannibal Lecter. Silva was played superbly by Javier Bardem and he, Craig and Dench made the film ‘Skyfall’ memorable and disturbing through their screen presence and skilled performance.

So now Daniel Craig, having reformed the genre and made it modern and more palatable, may be leaving the role, and the top contenders are lining up to become Bond. Here is a superb opportunity for the franchise to change character and move forward again. The next Bond could be black, gay, even female – to give the franchise a contemporary twist and to build on the subtle revolution in style that Daniel Craig has brought to the role.

Idris Elba (6/1) is gritty and has style, humour and panache, and could make a really fresh and interesting Bond. Kate Beckinsale (1000/1) would make the role realistic, resonant and completely individual. Aidan Turner (8/1) could make the leap from Poldark to predictably handsome secret agent and Eddie Redmayne (66/1) would certainly add emotional depth and complexity to the role. Jason Statham (50/1) would bring Cockney bravado and endless swagger – and imagine the fight scenes!

Even Beyoncé is 1000/1.

But this is an opportunity to think even further outside the box, isn’t it?

I would love to see David Haye (N/A!) do Bond, all charm and dreadlocks and boxing gloves. Or maybe someone else would bring a bit of individuality and a new challenge to the role, someone who isn’t doing a lot at the moment. Think Jose Mourinho (1000/1 – seriously), Jeremy Clarkson, Ed Miliband (both N/A). Scratch Clarkson – he is better villain material, perhaps with wired teeth and a little cat on his knee. Richard Hammond, maybe? (Also N/A)

An exciting debut would be Jeremy Corbyn (1007/1 – again, I am not making this up) as Bond, facing the terrors of bowler hatted villain Boris Johnson while Teresa May shoots from the hip in the driving seat of  a foreign convertible? Or perhaps the judges of The Voice could line up as villains, and Boy George throwing mini missiles as their chairs swivel round and our intrepid Bond would be Olly Murs or Adele, singing and dodging the way to safety?

The safest choice for the next Bond would be Tom Hardy (favourite at 2/1) or Benedict Cumberbatch (50/1), both actors being highly rated for their versatility and immense talent. Cumberbatch’s interpretation of Hamlet blew me away. Hardy is prolific too, and he has yet to offer a performance which has been less than stunning. He has made otherwise mediocre and mundane films shine and good ones glorious.

But this is an opportunity like no other,to find someone groundbreaking as  the next choice of Bond. If Daniel Craig decides not to be the next 007, here is a heaven-sent opportunity to shake it up and make it rock and roll.If only Lemmie were still with us, he’d get my vote.

Now that would be some movie!

‘The Program’ – blood bags, syringes and sleuth.

I watched ‘The Program’, the biopic of Lance Armstrong’s exploits, which deals with his fight against cancer and his decision to take performance enhancing drugs in order to become a Tour de France winner.

The film relates the story of Armstrong, from his early days of being a competitive young rider, through his battle with cancer, to his tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey on live TV. The story is shown from the perspective of journalist David Walsh, on whose book ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ the film is based. Walsh suspected Armstrong’s success was due to his use of banned substances, and ‘The Program’ is largely about his hunt for evidence. We all know the story: at first, cycling has its hero in Armstrong, the champion of seven consecutive Tours de France and the legend of the Livestrong Foundation campaign, supporting people with cancer. Walsh’s accusations ended in a court battle from which Armstrong emerged victorious and ranks closed, until individuals found themselves in a position where they had to tell the truth and Armstrong’s status fell from champion to cheat.

The film deals quite openly with the doping in cycling and we understand the younger inexperienced Armstrong’s  competitive desire as he reaches an epiphany, having lost a hard race, and he realises he must make a career decision based on pure scientific data: he will not win based on his merits alone, and he is faced with the choice of  remaining a noble competitor or having science on his side in the shape of EPO and testosterone or HGH, and becoming a winner.

Armstrong embarks on a programme of drugs and a powerful propulsion to seven titles and world-wide admiration.

If you are looking for a film which tells the viewer how to feel about Armstrong, showing his background and character in depth, then this film will not be satisfying. We see hardly anything of his courtship, his wife, his family. His relationship with Sheryl Crow is not mentioned. When we see him at home, he is alone, with only his framed yellow jerseys for company. This highlights the solitude of his performance as a cyclist, his blinkered dedication and how he was teetering on the brink of detection, avoiding it craftily for so long.

Ben Foster plays it exactly how it is: Armstrong is a doper on a bike, infected with a desire to win. There isn’t much else to him at this stage in his life: hunger for victory consumes him and, if he cheated the world, he cheated with conviction. We see him inside his team caravan, needles in his arm, needles ready and primed in trainers before the race, used needles hidden inside drinks cans and then disposed of in bins: the plot and the strategies were well planned and slickly executed. We see delaying tactics so that he could pass off blood samples to avoid detection and we see him practising for press conferences in the mirror, smiling, modulating his voice: ‘I have never used performance enhancing drugs.’

We see Armstrong’s bravery and his humanity as he sinks into a wheelchair after cancer treatment and there is a tender moment when, much later, he visits Jack, a cancer sufferer, and offers him his time: we know Armstrong understands the boy’s situation exactly.

Armstrong is nothing more than a talented athlete consumed with hunger to be the best. It is clear from this film why substances were used widely by cyclists: it was the only way to win; victory is a cyclist’s raison d’être, and the film portrays this perfectly.The film is, if anything, about cyclists’ mentality: their dedication, their desire and their blind single-mindedness, without which they would not ever be a valid competitor.

Ben Foster dabbled with such substances himself in order to prepare for the role, and his performance is honest and informed. He does not hold back – Armstrong is created with sweat and lies, dilated pupils and controversy – but there is a humanity to the character. As Foster says ‘That’s what Lance did – he went to war with his body. That shifts your consciousness.’

This isn’t a romantic film or a moving film: it is, at times, more of a documentary and it hits hard. Much of the footage is genuine and there is a priceless and moving  moment where we hear Phil Liggett commentating on the Tour de France television programme, praising Armstrong with superlatives and refuting the existence of doping in the sport.

This is a film for people who know and love cycling. They will admire Foster’s performance and Armstrong’s situation will strike a chord, however they feel about banned substances.

It is a film for people who know nothing about cycling, but who are intrigued by the doping scandal, how it unfolded and how Armstrong rose to the heights of hero then descended to the depths of villainy, and what desire, instincts and convictions compelled him, what chances and risks he took, and what sacrifices he made. Those who are interested in a journalist’s battle to tell the truth against the background of media adulation will find the film captivating in its realism.

For those who want a rounded story, well told, with a nicely finished ending, this may not be the film for you, but ‘The Program’ carries with it some good performances and some interesting thoughts about competition and the desire to be the best, the cost and the pain, and the inevitable Paradise Lost.

High rate for the H8ful Eight

I need to review my habit of going to the cinema and buying tickets in Row A. I choose to sit at the front, partly because I am a bit myopic and partly because if I don’t sit there, someone with a big head will come and sit directly in front of me. However, Row A and the pre-film warning about bloody violence should be enough to persuade me to move back to Row D.

But it never does. I still spend the gory moments peeking between my fingers. And ‘The Hateful Eight’ doesn’t disappoint with its gory moments.

A Tarantino film is always a big deal to go and see, because his other films have been so ground-breakingly creative and quirky. Expectations are always high. ‘The Hateful Eight’ takes place inside a stagecoach during a snowstorm in Wyoming, and then most of the film is set inside Millie’s Haberdashery, which is a stagecoach lodge. It is some time after the American Civil War, maybe in the 1880s or 1890s.

The premise is that a bounty hunter, John Ruth, is bringing in a murderer, Daisy Domergue, to be hanged in the next town. The drama comes from the fusion and interaction of the characters in the lodge and the constant undercurrent of tension that Daisy will be aided by one of the other characters to make an escape.

The film is divided into six chapters and the action revolves around the enigmatic character of Samuel L. Jackson as Major Marquis Warren and the rapport, stuffed with farcical dishonesty and machinations, between a strong cast which includes Tim Roth, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mark Madsen and Bruce Dern. Walter Goggins as Sherrif Chris does a plausible impression of Jim Carrey throughout the whole film and it is good to see Channing Tatum featuring in a slightly more demanding role as bad boy, Jody.

The action is bloody beyond all expectations and, as you know, I will never offer spoilers, but there are scenes where other directors may have offered a murder with a pint of blood and Tarantino will give you a truck load, complete with recognizable bits of brain. It is definitely the hyperbole of violence which makes those moments horrifically and hysterically funny.

Tarantino has always been the master of using music as a quirky semiotic in his film and there is a great moment where Bob the Mexican plays Silent Night on the piano during a scene of mischief. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack is cheekily used to make moments impactful, too.

For me, two things make this film great. Firstly, Tarantino’s ability to mix shock and the unexpected with credible twists and turns. I spent little time wondering what would happen next or trying to predict outcomes, as I was so involved in the moment of the storyline.

Secondly, the action is so fast-paced and when the story does slow down, the skilful acting makes each moment a morsel of brilliance. For example, Samuel L Jackson has a monologue about killing a white man: I won’t spoil the excitement and tell you who it is or when, but just take a moment to listen to the arrogance, the hubris, the lethargy and the resentment in his voice. Superb!

It is part of Jackson’s repertoire of  moody moments throughout the film which make his character effortlessly brilliant. The same is true for the other actors. Roth is a genius: you dislike and distrust him before you know what he is. Madsen and Jason Leigh are multifaceted and interesting and Demian Bichir as Mexican Bob is hilarious.

Add to the superb acting Tarantino’s gift for keeping an audience in suspense then throwing the unpredicted into the mix, and you have a great film. There are moments of sheer brilliance: the rough rapport between Russell and Jason Leigh, filled with almost unnoticeable seconds of tenderness; the symbolism of Major Warren’s letter from Lincoln, the snowstorm outside and the crackling heat inside the lodge. The flashback to ‘what happened before’ is as exhilarating as it is elucidating and moments such as the coffee, the  ‘huevos’ and the final ending will stay with you for a long time.

You will know Tarantino’s style  by his previous films. This one does not disappoint. It surprises, it shocks, it provokes thought: it is at times a bit uncomfortable and at times it makes you laugh perhaps when you shouldn’t but, above all, it goes way beyond the visual spectacle of white snow and red blood and it offers some stunning performances from some well cast and superbly directed actors. It has venom and intelligence, wit and mischief. It is a drama which takes place in a single room, but this isn’t Chekhov’s ‘Cherry Orchard’!

Go and see it. Get row A!

‘The Homesman’, a ‘homely’ woman and why I was bored with it all

Picture the scene: I invite round some friends, we order a nice take- away and watch a movie. Expectations run high as we choose the 2014 film ‘The Homesman’, starring and directed by Tommy Lee Jones, and also starring Hilary Swank and Meryl Streep. There’s a good cast, a promising film, and critics are calling it the best film since Eastwood’s ‘The Unforgiven’, so we think it will be good. The wine is open, the slipper socks are on and the food is delivered bang on time: crispy papadums, a tasty sagwalla and some nice basmati rice. We all snuggle down and press the on button, and the title comes up: ‘The Homesman’.

Firstly, we are treated to Swank, whose character is self-sufficient and independent and a dreamer. She is Mary Bee Cuddy, 31 years old, single and single-handedly working her smallholding in 19th century Nebraska. She ploughs, she pumps water, she cooks, all this in a dress, with a smile on her face as wide as the Nebraskan landscape. She invites some grubby local farming guy to dinner, proposes marriage after singing sweetly to him and he has the audacity to turn her down. We discover he thinks she is ‘plain as an old tin pail… and bossy.’

I write this gender imbalance off as 19th century patriarchal culture and I continue to try to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the movie.

Mary Bee then volunteers to cross difficult terrain in order to fetch three ‘mad women’ back home, to be cared for in the church, because the dishonourable menfolk of the town refuse to make the journey; she is brave and determined and has leadership and team spirit. Before she begins her quest, she saves the life of a weak, aimless army deserter who is a cheat and a coward, who calls himself ‘George Briggs’, and she cajoles him into accompanying her, as recompense for her charity.

The ‘mad women’ have lost their wits through abuse and bereavement and their men are quite happy to let them go, like they would send an old mare to the knackers or chuck out a broken chair, so the wives are packed up, chained and barred in an old wagon.

Swank is great in this film. Her character is plausible and poignant: she has guts and panache, but it ends badly when she proposes to the unprepossessing and unpleasant Briggs. He turns her down but, when she appears at his sleeping bag, naked, he is kind enough to give her a quick seeing to, and of course this reinforces her lonely plight, and there is a shocking outcome the next morning.

We are led to believe that such was the dilemma of women in the 1850s, a choice between bad marriage or the lonely and demoralising social lowliness of spinsterhood. So good old Briggs brings the loony ladies to a sweet home where the church can look after them, after he has meted out a few punishments to some bad men and become a bit of a rogue hero on the way, binge shooting and setting fire to a hotelier who will not give them food.

He buys shoes for a barefoot sixteen year old, telling her sentimentally that Mary Bee was the best of women, and then he abruptly suggests that the kid marries him. No wonder she turns up her nose. It was enough to put me off my roti.

Everyone wants to look good, of course, but that ‘good’ should not be decided by someone else: certainly not the contemporary George Briggses of this world.

If the film intended to show me that a woman’s lot was not a happy one – there they all are, strong, lovely, and alone in an unforgiving landscape while the only male, a whisky-soaked deserter, was there to judge them plain or mad, turn down their advances, chain them up and call all the shots – then it did it’s job well. I would go further. Swank’s Mary Bee was neither plain nor useless, although Lee Jones’ Briggs was both of these things his rejection cost her dearly. The film gave me no logical reason why she should be so suddenly desperate, other than the prevalent history and culture, and it is odd that she proposes to the one-dimensional Briggs out of the blue, moments after castigating him for his bad character.

The ‘mad women’ were parodies, stereotypes, hissing and wailing at one moment, then staring into space, and then being meek, doing as they were told. They were neither credible people nor objects of pathos. They were tangential to the story, other than being ‘mad’ and, once deposited at the church where kindly Meryl Streep, a vicar’s wife, said they’d be looked after, they were forgotten for the rest of the film. Their care, cure and rehabilitation didn’t matter at all. Despite being the impetus for the story, there is no emotional investment, by the audience, in them or in their future.

I got nothing from this film. It was disjointed in its story line and I thought it was a little unclear about it’s purpose. It was indulgent and too long, and if it intended just to be bleak and show us how tough it was to be a woman 150 years ago, then Tommy Lee Jones’ character didn’t serve to make that point credibly. Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee begins the film strongly: then all of a sudden she is so desperate, even a bum won’t have her, so she immediately loses all hope.

I didn’t feel that the positive role model who failed so miserably made much sense – the wonderful Hilary Swank, giving up so readily when she had so much to offer – and for so little in Tommy Lee Jones! Maybe that was the whole point, but then the film went on to turn the hapless Briggs into some sort of quasi-messianic dispenser of justice who gambled and drank and danced on a boat while his memo to Mary Bee floated off into indivisibility, becoming, just as she was, unnoticed. Was that the point, as he ambles on to the end, drunk and raucous?

It’s at this point that if the film’s moral is one which shows women’s meagre lifestyle and their few options, I hope women of our time have changed considerably, and are no longer faced with the lack of choices which caused Mary Bee to do what she did. I am surrounded by airbrushed Facebook images of females who put up gorgeous pictures of themselves so that friends and various sycophants will tell them how lovely they look. Some people still dress little girls as pink princesses and urge them to simper and stamp their feet: the aspiration is that they will ‘break hearts’ when they grow up but we should maybe urge them to break rules and to become independent, strong and to follow their own desires.

I know women who deny themselves and castigate themselves so they will not go unnoticed, or that they will appear more attractive to others. What they look like is of most importance to them, and it comes before health, happiness or self-respect. How good they look is entirely based on someone else’s opinion. Like poor Mary Bee Cuddy.

The most beautiful women I know radiate inner confidence: they don’t care less about what others think of their appearance. Of course they look good and want to look good, on their own terms, in their own skin. One woman I know is fifty, attractive because of her wit, her iconoclasm, her intellect and her refusal to take on board others’ expectations. Another one I know is in her twenties, fiercely clever, fiercely independent, following her own future – no one would dare to write on her face book page ‘Oh you look gorgeous, babe.’ She knows she looks good, but she is focused on much bigger issues like having fun and being successful on her own terms. Everyone wants to look good, of course, but that ‘good’ should not be decided by someone else: certainly not the contemporary George Briggses of this world.

I didn’t like ‘The Homesman’ as a film: it was lengthy, prevaricating and, at times, pointless, but if it tells us anything, it is that Mary Bee should have ignored the old drunken bum, not rescued him and gone on instead to live her own life, singing and ploughing and cooking, and looking great pushing the plough and horse in her dress, and she should have paid no attention to those who called her plain and bossy. She was strong, lovely and admirable.

Mr Nice Guy might have turned up one day – they usually do, there are many of them out there – and the ones she propositioned weren’t worth the paper from my takeaway meal. And, of course,  if Mr Right didn’t turn up, she could have invited the three ‘mad women’ round for peach pie and had a bloody good time on her own terms.

The Revenant: Man v Nature, Man v Man?

I decided to test the hype for myself: I went to see ‘The Revenant’ at the cinema last night, sitting on the front row, right in front of the Big Screen. I wasn’t put off by the preamble warning about blood and gore and detailed injuries: I knew this was a film about some guys enduring the hardships of nature and that there would be a few battles and some token bloodshed. All the hype is right, though. It is a bleak film.

Directed last year by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the film is in cinemas now and it’s likely to win Oscars. The acting, sound track, cinematography, make up and costume and direction are all exceptional.

You will never be on the receiving end of spoilers from my film reviews: I absolutely respect that you want to go to see a film, suspend your disbelief and enjoy it without some inconsiderate writer butting in to tell you what happens in the best bits and what you should think. So, I will lay down a few hors d’oeuvres- in more ways than one, and hope that you’ll want to go and see it for yourself. (Remember this pun for when you watch it!)

‘It begins with a bloody battle which makes Macbeth look like a church tea party.’

I am the right person to review this film: as a female, a vegan, an animal lover, a pacifist, a believer in human rights, I should not have enjoyed this film at all. There are so many reasons why I should have found it too shocking or gratuitous. But it is an honest film, and if you can accept all the blood and guts and focus on the screen, watching the tale unfold, accepting the depiction for the story it is, the film is outstanding.

It begins with a bloody battle which makes Macbeth look like a church tea party. This is a violent film and the setting is harsh and brutal, like the men’s lives. The story line is predictable: it is a picaresque. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), sets out to achieve something important to him, a task of love and duty, and he has skills as a tracker, so we know where his journey will take him. His arch-enemy, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), is wicked, ruthless, cunning and must pay the price for his deeds. Catharsis and confrontation are inevitable from the opening scenes.

There will be criticisms: it is, in many ways,  DiCaprio’s ‘Passion’- he suffers, martyr-like, for his pure love and  then he rises ‘from the dead’ to complete his mission. We even see him in a church with Christ crucified as a backdrop. But we accept that the film is a platform for a remarkable actor who has always been prodigious. You may have seen him in ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’ as a teenager in the intense role of Arnie Grape.

There are some almost unwatchable scenes in ‘The Revenant’, some involving animals, and some involving combat, slaughter and  violence. There are only two women in the film: a dead wife and a rape victim, so some might say this is something of an andro-centric film. However, I think it has a universal significance for it’s visual and allegorical link to the savagery of nature. The characters are important but never developed: we know as much about them at the end as we do in the first few minutes. They are there as part of nature, to pit their wits against its forces. But none of that matters. They represent aspects of humanity and human behaviour and the will to survive hardship and loss.

The acting of Hardy and DiCaprio is everything you would expect: two sublime performers, both in the scenes they are together and apart, they are two instinctive dramatic geniuses of our age. Performance is an integral part of what makes this film work aesthetically.

And then there is the setting.

The scenery is stunning: snowstorms, rushing rivers, tall pines, huge skies and all the forces that nature can throw at mankind. The animals suffer and are killed  for their skins, for food and they are there for man’s taking, use and abuse: there is prejudice and suspicion amongst men, but the film is about survival, and DiCaprio’s Glass does exactly that. He survives against all possible odds.

It is hard to believe that some scenes, such as the one with the bear, are created by CGI: they are so realistic. ‘The Revenant’ is best seen on a large screen – get seats in rows A or B! The power, impact and colours of nature are truly overwhelming, and there is an irony there too, as the film was made against a time bomb of global warming, as DiCaprio has been saying in interviews about the film.

Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score is perfect and never obtrusive: much of the soundtrack, however, is silence, breathing, animal noises, the environment: all constant semiotics for the struggle between one  man and the elements or one man against another.

It is a brutal film, a shocking one, but we are safe in the hands of the actors: our journey is one where we readily believe the task Glass sets himself and, when the ending comes, it is exquisitely performed, the twists and turns highlighting hero meets villain against an unyielding backdrop. There is the reappearance of the ghost of ‘Braveheart’ in the last moments but the law of nature has triumphed and we forgive a moment of gratuitous sentimentality and revel in the power of the performance.

‘The Revenant’ is not a film for those who do not buy into the significance of the wilful traverse through an unkind environment, or Glass’ reasons for wanting revenge. It is not for those viewers who are easily shocked by the detailed gore or the harshness of man’s treatment of other men, women and animals. However, it is spectacular in its brutality and it’s a great film for those who enjoy breathtaking cinematography and consummate performances. I wonder if there are better male actors at the moment than Hardy and DiCaprio: I doubt it, as they are completely absorbing, credible and inspirational.

I hope the film wins many awards: it deserves to be remembered as a ground-breaking film on many levels: acting, directing, cinematography, sound, CGI. Nothing is held back: the excessive killing and bloodshed, the violence, the cruelty of nature and of mankind, and the battle of two forces, one against the other.The characters and the storyline, while not impressive for their depth, are detailed, perfectly delivered  and always moving.

I think it is, and will become, a great film of our time.

Snow Cake – Alan Rickman’s best film?

As the plaudits and praise rightly pile up about the late and impressive actor, Alan Rickman, people will ponder his best films. Of course, the blockbusting and memorable films such as ‘Die Hard’, ‘Harry Potter’, ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ and ‘Truly, Madly, Deeply’ will be high on most people’s ratings. But I have seen little praise for ‘Snow Cake’ and I think it is one of his most astonishing films. If you haven’t seen it, watch it: you won’t be disappointed. It was directed by Marc Evans and was released in 2007.

It features Rickman as Alex Hughes. He is lonely, emotionally stunted and he has been in prison. Travelling through Canada, he picks up a teenage hitch hiker, Vivienne, and the story begins. No spoilers from me, but I cannot listen to Free’s ‘All Right Now’  without remembering the impact of the scene which propels Alex to visit Vivienne’s mother, Linda, played by Sigourney Weaver. Linda is autistic and we, through Alex, begin to see beyond her inability to express emotions and her obsessive -compulsive domestic habits. As we watch their relationship develop, humour, humanity and warmth bring about a bond between the characters which is both touching and compelling .

Carrie-Anne Moss excels as Maggie, a neighbour with whom Alex becomes romantically involved. The three characters merge and move apart, leaving you the space to form conclusions about human relationships.

It is a  film which is profoundly well-performed by three supreme actors. The premise may be unlikely, but the commitment to plot and character makes it not only plausible, but makes it impossible not to connect with Alex Hughes on an emotional level. Rickman’s Alex develops from a quirky outsider to someone we warm to, we respect and, eventually, he is heroic.

Weaver’s performance is detailed and intelligent: it brings dignity to a role which could have been predictably sentimental, contrived or a parody stereotype of someone with autism. Instead, scenes such as Linda and Alex on the trampoline are poignant and powerful, and there are the impactful moments where we realise that she has more ability to be perceptive than we initially give her credit for: the Scrabble game where Linda invents words is one such example.

Rickman’s performance is a triumph: slowly, through his languorous, stunted initial rapport with the other characters, we realise the depth of his loneliness: we find out his back story and we celebrate his later achievements.

The visual backdrop underpins the characters’ dilemmas: the small town Canadian setting is snow-laden and stunning. Rickman and Moss have an exposition scene by a lake where water drips from melting ice: the cold is physical and emotional and there is a kind of healing in the acceptance of the hard landscape which turns into a thing of beauty.

‘Snow Cake’ is, in some ways, a gentle film: in other ways, it is disturbing and allegorical. It typifies what Rickman does so well: he develops a character gradually; he is aloof, a little awkward, and then the ice melts and we realise he is funny, likeable and, above all things, he is a good man, despite past mistakes. His performance, alongside Weaver’s in-depth and complex portrayal of Linda and Moss’ strong, philosophical foil, Maggie, add up to a thought-provoking and satisfying film, set amid scenery which will take your breath away.

Of course, we will celebrate Alan Rickman through Snape and Gruber and the Sheriff of Nottingham. He was a tremendous actor. But spare a couple of hours to watch ‘Snow Cake’. It’s a great celebration of the man’s talents and a powerful film which you won’t forget in a hurry.

Cumberbatch and Hardy: the action to the word, the word to the action, with special observance

Stuart: A Life Backwards: a review

We’ve all had the discussion: is the film better than the book? Is the book more meaningful than the film?  In the case of Alexander Masters’s book, ‘Stuart: A Life Backwards,’ the answer is, absolutely, that both are equally impressive.

Alexander Masters’s book is an account of his unlikely but poignant friendship with Stuart Clive Shorter. Alexander is an academic, a campaigning librarian who lives in Cambridge and Stuart is a drug and drink addict, a criminal  with a past crammed with violence. The contrast between their backgrounds, their lives and their attitudes makes for a friendship which is, at times, difficult but it is also rewarding and thought-provoking.

The film, directed by David Attwood in 2007, is a triumph of matched and complementary performances from two of the outstanding actors of our generation. Alexander, with his middle-class lifestyle and comfortable home, his ambition and his desire, is a great foil for homeless Stuart who has muscular dystrophy and is a loner, a philosopher and a genius in his own right.

The story shows us two very different lives and then, slowly, brings them together in a friendship which is bittersweet and which demands both characters to accept the other’s shortcomings in order to form a bond which goes beyond class and background.

There are scenes which entertain: Stuart invites Alexander to his temporary home and makes a chicken curry, putting the meal together in a way which would have chefs quaking in their aprons. Alexander takes Stuart to stay with his friends in the country. Initially, this looks like another recipe for disaster as Stuart describes their tea as ‘lapsang shoe pong.’

It is a story which digs deeply into the reasons for prejudice: the initial suspicion and hostility between Alexander and Stuart develop into a close and symbiotic relationship based on integrity and intelligence equally matched despite, and because of,  their difference.

There are some horrific scenes: Stuart has a tendency towards violence which is not easy to watch, violence which is quickly turned on others as well as himself. The flashback to Stuart as a child where he first throws a punch is edifying.

It would be easy to say Tom Hardy steals the show: his shuffling gait, his vocal creaks, his wounded facial expressions make for a fully brilliant performance but Benedict Cumberbatch, reflective and responsive, is his opposite and it is the chemistry between the two characters which creates  alchemy.

Master’s title is Stuart’s idea: he decides that a chronological life story of his own traumatic thirty years would be better told backwards. It is Stuart’s creative genius which allows Masters’s narrative to work best, both in the book and the film as, told backwards, the denouement and climax are most powerful and dramatic .

Stuart asks ‘How did I get to be like this? What murdered the little boy I was?’ Masters’s book and Attwood’s film provide staggering answers. ‘Stuart: A Life Backwards’ is thought-provoking, poignant and pertinent to our time. 

Read the book. Watch the film. Enjoy the actors: revel in two outstanding performances by two consummate players who can create multi-faceted characters which are simultaneously thrilling and heart-breaking. Unmissable.


Korkoro: Come, let’s away to prison: We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage

‘Korkoro’ is one of my favourite films. Directed by Tony Gatlif, a French Algerian of Roma ethnicity,  it came out in 2010 and is one of those World War Two films you may not have seen, but it is a real gem. It documents the rarely-mentioned topic of porajmos, the Romani holocaust.

It is set in France and is subtitled, and it features a  performance by James Thierrée, whic h  is astonishing and memorable for its skill and poignancy. The plot is simple: a Roma family travels through France, attempting to escape the Nazis who are occupying France in 1943.

The film is a sympathetic insight into the Roma  lifestyle, with the musical backdrop you’d expect in this sort of film, composed by Tony Gatlif and Delphine Mantoulet.The film begins with thought-provoking images and  music : we see a wooden fence with barbed wire stretched between it and each wire  becomes a harp string and vibrates with a resonant note. The tune is uplifting and represents the strength and spirit of a culture which will never be extinguished, even though over 25,000 and possibly even 50,000 Romani people were victims of the holocaust.

The theme of a family is central to the storyline: they are private people who are symbiotic, loyal and sometimes too trusting but mostly they shun authority and gadjo rules, preferring to follow their own traditions without causing disruption. Their culture is sharply contrasted by the attitudes of others, some helpful, some who display vehement anti-ziganism, some who simply turn their backs. The family of 15 are on their way to harvest grapes, but a rule has been passed forbidding nomadic lifestyles, and they are vulnerable to persecution and danger.

Korkoro means freedom in Romani language. The freedom they seek at the beginning is the freedom to pursue their traditional way of life; by the end of the film, freedom takes on another meaning and it is Gatlif’s mission to present a story about the persecution of an irrepressible, proud people.

There are some memorable, touching scenes and well- drawn characters. Theodore (Marc Lavoine), who is the town mayor and the local vet, is attacked by a wild horse while trying to save another sick equine and the Roma family surround him and cure them both in a scene which is both humorous and touching. Lavoine’s character is a hero akin to Schindler as he attempts to save the Roma family, bravely handing over his estate as shelter.

The family are also helped by Resistance heroine and schoolteacher, Mademoiselle Lundi (Marie-Josee Croze) and there are fascinating scenes in the classroom. She insists on trying to educate the Roma children and the contrast of cultures is very evident in this environment, demonstrating the voluntary incarceration and rote learning which is an accepted and desirable part of mainstream education, in sharp contrast to the Roma children’s natural inquisitiveness, their freedom of spirit  and their natural understanding of the physical world we live in.

The character of Taloche (James Thierrée ) is worthy of special mention. Taloche is a free spirit,  a visionary who senses the surrounding evil and increasing danger; he is a man who has never grown up and his family respect  him and he is accepted unquestioningly with enthusiasm and love and treated with dignity.


Thierrée’s performance is a triumph of clowning and physicality, of violin-playing virtuosity and mime: it is not surprising to discover that he is Charlie Chaplin’s grandson. His rapport with other characters is bitter-sweet: he fawns over Mademoiselle Lundi and hides an orphan child whom he protects and nurtures. His performance is astonishing in his ability to create a character which is credible, laudable and loveable, and he creates tragedy and comedy in a character which might otherwise have become a stereotype.

The music is uplifting and the sound track is a strong semiotic for audience reaction. The scene at the French dance where the Roma musicians play guitars and violins for the locals’ entertainment is evocative of Eugene Hutz’s lyrics in ‘Break the Spell’: ‘You love our music but you hate our guts.’ It is shortly after this celebration of culture that the family are impounded and, when one character asks why they are being taken away, the French guard replies ‘To rid the country of vermin.’

Korkoro is a feast of visual and musical delight and it is seldom predictable: it contains none of the ubiquitous sentimentality of some films which deal with this topic. We are presented with the family and it’s characters and we follow their lifestyle and treatment from the outside with curiosity and empathy.

The French countryside is stunning and as a audience we are very quickly at one with the nomadic lifestyle. We share their independence and we stand alongside all the characters; one moment we are riding a horse to frantic violin music, the next we are hiding under a wagon with a character who is half Jenische, who loathes himself for failing to kill a Frenchman who has betrayed his family.

It is an emotional, gripping and stirring story which is accessible and fast-paced. It is a commentary on the bravery of the French people against those who  colluded with the Nazis but, above all, it is a celebration of a strong and independent culture whose integrity and survival is paramount.