I’ve never been one of those people who have been remotely tempted to ‘tackle’ any of the great classics – those 19th century works of literature that come in inch-thick doorstopper editions capable of causing subsidence to the average bedside table. It’s true that many people do see this activity as some sort of lifetime milestone that has to be undertaken at some point, the sedentary equivalent of running a marathon or climbing Everest; they grit their teeth, put their head down and plan their campaign as if going off to battle.
I am not one of those people. Frankly if a book doesn’t appeal to me intrinsically as something that I actually want to read and would enjoy doing so then nothing and no one is going to persuade me otherwise, and I shall be moving quickly on. After all there are a lot of excellent modern books out there that do appeal to me that I also have yet to get around to, so I’m simply not going to squander my short time on this planet on something that people tell me that I should read just so that I can boast about the alleged achievement. I’m perfectly happy to leave that to others who really do enjoy doing such things.
The idea of a 1,225-page tome about the lives and loves of the old Russian aristocracy with unpronounceable names in 1805 simply holds no such inherent appeal. Accordingly the task of reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is so far down my to-do list that I would need two or three lifetimes for it to make it to the top of the pile. While watching a TV adaptation of the novel is a distinctly less challenging prospect – the latest BBC adaptation only requires one’s attention for a relatively scant six hours in total – I’m afraid that my ambivalence toward the novel quickly spilled over to a firm resistance toward embarking upon the small screen version as well. Only the slightest nagging sense of intellectual obligation – that I really should at least give something a chance before completely dismissing it – made me think that I had to sample a few minutes of the first episode to see how far I could actually get before gratefully throwing in the towel and moving on. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains plot spoilers for episode 1.
Having seen Spectre only a few days earlier, I confess there was a bumpy initial transition to watching the first part of BBC2’s new thriller series London Spy. That’s because both feature Ben Whishaw, and while he delivers a commendably different and indeed exemplary performance in each, he nonetheless possesses something of a unique presence and appearance and consequently it was hard not to get distracted by thoughts of Q at times. It wasn’t helped by the fact that one of the first shots of Whishaw in London Spy has him framed against the looming bulk of the MI6 building in the out-of-focus background.
This and most of the other espionage aspects of London Spy were very low key for much of the initial 50 minutes of the hour-long first episode. If it wasn’t for the title, you’d assume that you were watching a rather sweet if slow-paced urban contemporary gay love story set in the capital. Whishaw’s character Danny is a late 20-something who up to now has been indulging in a life of partying, clubs, drugs, casual sex and brief but intense love affairs, while spending his days as a drone working solo in an Amazon-esque automated dispatch warehouse. However, early one morning Danny has something of an existential crisis about the state of his life while standing on Vauxhall Bridge, his misery so profound that it’s even apparent to a passing jogger who stops to ask him if he’s alright. (Hey, it could happen – even in London!) Read the rest of this entry »
People often read reviews of things to work out whether it’s something they themselves will like, and in that sense Cloud Atlas is review-proof. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about this film, you still won’t have any idea whether you yourself will like it until you actually see it with your own eyes. You might love it and think it the best film of all time, or may hate it and consider it the worst film ever made. Neither reaction would surprise me; the only response that would is one of indifference.
Adapted from the famously unfilmable novel by David Mitchell (the writer, not the actor/comedian/TV personality), Cloud Atlas tries to stick to the core text of the book but also takes great liberties with its unique structure of six ‘nesting’ stories. In the book you get the first half of each story in turn before dropping down into the next one, and then the latter part of the novel comes back up through the conclusions of each story in reverse order to show how they fit together and interlink into one thematic whole.
Sure enough, all six stories from the book are still present in the film: there’s the 1849 South Pacific sea voyage of young lawyer Adam Ewing on slave trade business for his father-in-law; a 1930s Britain section following young musician Robert Frobisher who goes to work for an elderly famous composer; a 1973 tale of journalist Luisa Rey’s investigation into the safety of a San Francisco nuclear power plant; a modern broad comedy featuring the misadventures of publisher Timothy Cavendish in London 2012; a near-future tale featuring the plight of clones in corporate-dominated Neo Seoul in 2144; and a post-catastrophe world where civilisation has collapsed and small tribes fight for survival with other feral human survivors, a stark warning about where our own current ‘dog-eat-dog’ selfish approach to life might ultimately take us as a society and as a species. Read the rest of this entry »
What’s with the TV networks at the moment? Just as the summer’s on the horizon and the evenings are lighter, suddenly they’re digging out a load of drama goodies from their storeroom and flooding the schedules with new, original productions left, right and centre – after the drought of winter packed with unending reality shows and unedifying talent competitions.
So last night, we had the BBC’s Exile head to head with ITV’s big new crime detective hope Vera from the “Vera Stanhope” series of novels of Ann Cleeves. Interestingly, both had very Northern tones to them: Vera is set in Tyneside while Exile is based in Lancashire.
Exile is about Tom, a seemingly successful journalist in London, whose life and career suddenly implode for unspecified reasons (although sleeping with the boss’s wife probably didn’t help matters) forcing him to return home to his father and sister’s house in small-town Lancashire. His father is suffering from fairly advanced Alzheimer’s, immediately making you suspect this is going to be one of those worthy, emotionally-wrought issue dramas and as a result the type of show that I would normally pass.
What makes the difference here is the pedigree of the show: as Tom, John Simm is one of Britain’s best actors of his generation, while Jim Broadbent is similarly one of the greatest actors of his time, too. They’re backed by a lovely performance from Olivia Colman as Tom’s sister, and the whole story is the idea of Paul Abbott, best known now for Shameless but who also created one of my all time thriller/conspiracy mini-series, State of Play – which stared John Simm as a journalist, coincidentally.
Simm’s character here is far less heroic – in fact he’s as screwed up and self destructive as any one man could be, giving Simm a lot to work with here and he doesn’t let us down. Broadbent gets less to do by virtue of his character’s condition but then inevitably proceeds to steal any scene he’s in. It’s almost enough to pull you in, even if it were just a family drama about the effects of that horrible degenerative disease, or a story about returning to one’s childhood home and discovering all too well that “you can’t go home again” and that the past is another, very different country – moments almost everyone has been through at some point in their lives and for whom this drama will hence ring very true indeed.
But the extra dimension here is that Tom’s father was a journalist too, and seems to have been hiding a secret from the 80s that is now lost in the collapsing ruins of his failing memory. What is that secret, and what damage has it done to father and son over the intervening decades? It’s an intriguing enough premise to make the whole production spring off the screen in an unexpected way, and suggests that this might be one of the drama series of the year.
Part 2 is tonight and part 3 Tuesday at 9pm. Part 1 is still on iPlayer, of course.
As for Vera – I didn’t watch it last night as it really simply didn’t appeal to me. I might try it on catch-up video on-demand, but I’m not sure if I have the patience left for another police procedural right now – maybe that’s what makes Exile feel so refreshingly different at the moment. Most of all, though, from the brief sequences I saw, I just didn’t fundamentally believe in the central character: much though I like Brenda Blethyn as an actress, she just seems very odd for the role of a Detective Chief Inspector (not least the fact that at the outset of the series, she’s already five years older than mandatory police retirement age). Then again I’m sure Colombo was no more realistic or believable as an LAPD lieutenant, and that didn’t seem to hold him back too much over the years.