Nothing Like a Dame

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We took our seats at Cinema City for Nothing Like a Dame, a film that captures four great thespian dames – Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins – in conversation. We had great expectations and we weren’t disappointed. All the director had to do was point the camera, say ‘action’, sit back and watch them rock. And rock they did with gossipy warmth, wit and insight, humour, naughtiness and modesty – without a hint of the pompous luvviness you might expect from these titans of the stage. It really hit me when I released that Joan Plowright, who could out-act anyone with just a look, is now blind. I had no idea. Despite this, the film was a voyeuristic joy, and it was a privilege to see it.

And so, in the best pansies tradition, here’s the trailer…

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

For the uninitiated, the Channel Islands are an archipelago in the English Channel, spitting distance from the French coast of Normandy. They include, among smaller fry, Jersey and Guernsey. Traditionally, the islands are thought of as the last vestiges of the Duchy of Normandy still in English hands – think William the Conqueror, 1066 and all that. These days, Jersey and Guernsey are wealthy tax havens taking full advantage of their legal status as Crown dependencies beyond the jurisdiction of the British tax authorities. It’s where the canny and the criminal stash their cash and where global companies avoid their dues.

Back in 1940, the economy was very different. Many islanders were dirt poor, scraping a meagre living from the land and the sea. When France fell to the Germans in June of that year, the fate of the islands was sealed. Geography made them indefensible and the Germans occupied them unopposed. The British Government evacuated who they could in a hurry and urged the rest to cooperate.

Germans marching through Guernsey – image from Getty

As was mostly the case throughout the occupied West, life under the Third Reich was not as deadly as in the occupied East – unless of course you happened to be Jewish/ gay/ socialist/ liberal/ Roma (delete according to badge), but it was still very harsh. And then there was the slave labour imported to construct the colossal fortifications built as part of the Atlantic Wall. Few of those poor souls survived. Conditions gradually worsened for everyone, ending in near starvation for both occupied and occupiers during the winter of 1944–45.

This is the backdrop to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a film based on a bestselling novel of the same name. I’m guessing the first half of the title refers to the German desire to maintain ordinary activities during extraordinary times and the second part is an ironic response to the subsistence rations suffered by the locals. The plot goes something like this…

Just after the war, an up-and-coming writer based in battle-torn London begins exchanging letters with members of the society. Feeling compelled to visit, she starts digging about for a story and a picture emerges of life during the occupation. She soon discovers that, while book reading was involved, the society was also a cunning ruse to avoid the night-time curfew and to consume illicit pork and home-brewed gin. Sounds like my kind of society. As she digs deeper, dark secrets begin to surface – needs must as they say – and there was a fine line between cooperation and collaboration. After all, not all Germans were Nazis.

The film also provides some love interest. Will the pretty young novelist shack up with her handsome Yank in his New York apartment with views across Central Park or get down and dirty with the hunky pig farmer with his rough hands, puppy-dog eyes and no electricity? I know who I’d choose.

The film won’t win any awards, but it’s a solid period piece with an interesting theme and not a bad way to spend a raining Sunday afternoon. And it won’t do Guernsey tourism any harm either, even though it was mostly shot in Cornwall and Devon.

 

Middle England or Middle America?

Middle England or Middle America?

Middle England or middle America? Imelda Staunton or Frances McDormand? Who could choose? Not us, so we did both.

First up, Imelda was finding her feet in Finding Your Feet, ably supported by a sterling cast of foot-tapping veterans. The trailer doesn’t really do justice to this winter warmer of knobs and snobs, free love and last chances. Charming, witty, a little bit sad and very, very British, I’m so glad I didn’t let the underpowered promo put me off.

And what can anyone say about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri?  I’ll leave it to Ann Hornaday at the Washington Post who wrote…

The film is as dark as they come, a pitch-black, often laceratingly funny look at human nature at its most nasty, brutish and dim-witted.

Amen to that. Frances McDormand bristles with benign menace and the film is pitilessly brilliant, blurring the lines between right and wrong. Oh, and there’s an awful lot of swearing in it too. Here’s the trailer. Best change channels now if you’re offended by the C word.

Tales from Hollywood

Two Hollywood stories caught my eye recently as I flicked through my newspaper and sipped my coffee in a local café. The first was the revelation that comedy actor Richard Prior and brooding macho heartthrob Marlon Brando had been lovers. Generally, I don’t go in for celebrity tittle tattle. I really don’t care who does who as long as it’s consensual and they don’t frighten the horses, but it was the statement from Richard Prior’s widow that, given enough cocaine, her husband would…

…f**k a radiator and send it flowers in the morning…

that had me spitting out my americano. What a woman. I’m not sure I would have been quite so magnanimous.

The second story was the news that British-born actor John Mahoney had died at the age of 77. John Mahoney found fame later in life as the crabby blue-collar dad in ‘Frazier’ who delighted in pricking the pretensions of his snobby sons. He was often handed the best lines and one of the best was…

Boy, things have really changed since my day. Back then, if a girl got into trouble, her family would send her away to relatives in another state and if anyone asked, just lied and said she went to Europe. Then when she came back, they’d raise the baby as a little sister. Not like today, we had morals and values back then.

I remember those values. And I see them coming round again.

The Darkest Hour

The Darkest Hour

There’s been a flurry of historical war films lately and more to come, I’m sure. It’s not surprising, given the various centenaries involving the Great War of 1914-18 and the knock-on remembrance of other major conflicts. As a general rule, I don’t do war movies. I’d much rather watch Maggie Smith in bustle and bodice than endure the blood, sweat and tears of the trenches. One exception was the cinematic tour de force, Dunkirk  – a masterpiece. Then came The Darkest Hour, a fictionalised account of the first few weeks of Winston Churchill’s premiership during the Second World War; France is finished, the Brits are trapped, the Americans are hedging their bets and Churchill must decide whether to parley with Hitler. The days don’t get any darker than that. We were drawn in by reports of Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston and his Churchillian prosthetic transformation.

I’ve liked Gary Oldman ever since he played Joe Orton, the controversial and irrepressibly gay sixties playwright, in the deliciously naughty but tragic biopic Prick Up Your Ears.  In The Darkest Hour, neither Gary nor the prosthetics disappoint – both are superb. And what of the film in general? It’s a witty script that doesn’t whitewash Churchill’s considerable flaws, ruthless streak or periods of mental paralysis. But it’s the performance that makes it. Expect a few gongs for Oldman and the clever people in the rubber department.

We also recently saw the latest Star Wars blockbuster – The Last Jedi. The critics loved it, the fans less so. I’m with the fans.

Sex, Lies and Murder

Sex, Lies and Murder

We’ve seen a few films recently, most notably God’s Own Country, a windswept tale of romance and raunch between a monosyllabic, emotionally-repressed Yorkshire hill farmer (Josh O’Connor – the literary one from the Durrells) and an enlightened and worldly-wise labourer from Romania (a superbly self-possessed Alec Secăreanu). It’s a kinda coming out tale for the Brexit generation and a tad ironic given the reception gay people usually receive in Romania. Liam thought it was all a bit too Wuthering Heights. I enjoyed the desolation but only because it was finally relieved by a bit of boy-gets-boy at the end. The critics praised the film but damned the redemption. Critics seem to love grim tales that leave you reaching for the gin and pills.

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The Party.jpgWe also saw The Party, a dark satirical farce filmed entirely in black and white about a soiree of smug, fizz-swigging Islington intellectuals whose lives (and leftie credentials) visibly unravel before your eyes. They wriggle while the vol-au-vents burn. I really wanted to like this film but didn’t. There were some great lines…

“You’re a first-class lesbian and a second-rate thinker,”

…and a great twist at the end but it all got a bit too slapstick – and not half as clever as it thinks it is. I nearly reached for the gin and pills.

And then came the main event. Murder on the Orient Express is arguably Agatha Christie’s most ingenious plot. I’ve seen the 1974 star-studded version many times so I know whodunit but did I care? Kenneth Branagh’s re-make (both as director and as Poirot – the Belgian sleuth, sporting gravity-defying face furniture) may be slightly less stellar, cast-wise, but it more than made up for it with spectacle and opulent period detail, dishing up characters less cardboard cut-out than the usual Christie servings. The famously snowed-in train provided an afternoon of pure escapism that really dried out a rainy day. It sparkled – from the dramatic Istanbul skyline to Branagh’s anguished Poirot. Later, we raised a gin or two to the new Hercule. No pills required.

 

 

Dunkirk

Dunkirk

Generally, I don’t like war films. They tend to be way too violent or jingoistic (or both) for me. I don’t do gore or mindless nationalism. But then we read a five star review of ‘Dunkirk’ which told us to go see it on the biggest screen possible. So we did as we were told and took our seats at the local multiplex. From the opening sequence to the closing credits, we were on the edge of our seats, teeth clenched and knuckles whitened. Utterly mesmerising and amplified by a devastating Hans Zimmer score threaded with Elgar, the film has ‘epic’ stamped all over it. The story of Dunkirk is the stuff of national legend – hundreds of thousands of allied troops trapped on the beach and rescued by a flotilla of hundreds of small civilian boats. But this film isn’t about plucky Brits snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. It isn’t about the gung-ho glorification of war or the sins of the enemy – not a single German is seen. It’s about survival by the skin of the teeth. It’s about a miracle. And it’s brilliant.