Tuesday, 19 January 2021

What I'm streaming: Pawn takes king



They’re saying you don’t need to be a chess aficionado to enjoy this, but the games are totally central to every episode. Non-chess fans must surely wonder what the hoopla is all about.

9-year-old Beth Harmon is sent to a near-Dickensian orphanage in Kentucky after her mother’s death in a car accident. An immigrant janitor (Bill Camp) introduces her to chess and unleashes a prodigious talent. Fostered in her teens in the mid-1960s, she is soon meeting – and beating – champion players at state, national and international matches.

All the men in the story are chess nerds. Beth sleeps with a couple of them and lives with one for a while, but chess is her only real passion. The death of her foster-mother affects her less than losing a match.

Queen’s Gambit boasts superb sets (mostly hotel rooms and tournament venues) and fine performances, notably from Anya Taylor-Joy as the enigmatic Beth. Production values are very, very high: I particularly liked the stalactite chess moves Beth visualizes on bedroom ceilings. But the emphasis on the games completely swamps the story. The deaths of both her mothers lack emotional heft, as do her brief romances. This might have been better as a two-hour movie. Style triumphs over substance, but it’s a substantial triumph. And if a few thousand youngsters swap video games for chess, the series can be deemed a double success.

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

What I'm reading: If you go down to the Swamp today ...


This is a sequel to The Last Child, revisiting young Johnny Merrimon ten years after he confronted the terrifying abduction of his sister. Now in his twenties, Johnny lives a hermit existence in The Hush, several square miles of forest and swamp he has inherited in North Carolina. A billionaire neighbor bids to buy The Hush to extend his hunting reserve. Johnny doesn’t want to sell. He has dreams and visions centering on the 1850s when his ancestor and namesake fell foul of a female shaman with malevolent healing powers. 

A descendant of the shaman responds to a summons to return to the county and cross paths with Johnny Merrimon. And there’s Something lurking in the swamp (the author calls it “Something”), a dark presence that for more than a century has been savagely culling unwelcome intruders.

Like Stephen King, John Hurt elevates the Gothic thriller into the realm of literary fiction. The Hush brings some echoes of The Shining, where it's the location itself that threatens the mental and physical health of trespassers. The story builds to a shattering climax as Merrimons past and present reach a "confluence" on a hill in the center of the swamp. A couple of loose ends suggest that this may be the middle segment of a projected trilogy.

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

What I'm streaming: Pride without Prejudice


Goodness me, this is the most startling recreation of Regency England since Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy found zombies on their lawns a few years ago. Bodices are more spectacularly ripped than we usually see in Jane Austen adaptations, although the fundamental challenge of finding a rich titled husband for your cosseted (and corseted) daughters is still at the heart of the story. This is a Georgian Downtown Abbey, quite a bit raunchier and a lot more downmarket.

What sets Bridgerton apart is its “colour-blind” casting. Simon, Lord Hastings, our dashing hero (and boy, is he dashing!) is played by a black actor (RegĂ©-Jean Page), as are many of Queen Charlotte’s queen’s courtiers and even the Queen herself (Golda Rosheuval). It takes a bit of getting used to – I kept thinking (very unPC, unBLM) that we were in Louisiana and (oh, happy thought) the slaves had taken over the plantation. But the casting is the key ingredient that gives Bridgerton its big dollop of freshness. Phoebe Dynevor’s Daphne Bridgerton, whose on-off relationship with Lord Hastings is at the core of the drama, gives a feisty modernist performance, but she rather pales (if I may use that word) in comparison with some of the other debutantes.

The court of Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuval)

The Simon-Daphne romance gets too much screen-time, as does Miss Thompson’s unmarried pregnancy and the mystery identity of gossip-monger Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews who, alas, does not appear onscreen).
Bridgerton plays out as a period soap, which is what Jane Austen’s intricate social comedies tend to be reduced to for viewing audiences. Mad King George is barely glimpsed, and the Prince Regent not at all. The one gay couple at court seem to have fallen foul of censorship or more likely the cutting-room shears; let’s hope this is redressed in Series Two.

Series Two? A decade from now we’ll be in Series Ten. This is pure tosh, lavishly costumed and backgrounded, and it will run and run.

Lady Danbury and Lord Hastings (Adjoa Andoh and Rege-Jean Page) 

Monday, 23 November 2020

What I'm streaming: a bit more edge in the royal soap opera

 THE CROWN - Series Four (Netflix)

Not quite bingeing: I’ve taken a week to get through the ten new episodes, covering Diana Spencer’s elevation from playschool assistant to the People’s Princess – the marriage which Prince Charles, in this adaptation, rightly calls a “misalliance”. The interview when Charles said “Whatever ‘in love’ means” is recreated to remind us that Lady Di never was embarking on a Happy-Ever-After fairy tale. We don’t yet get to the “three people in this marriage” interview, but Mrs Parker-Bowles looms large throughout the series, even lunching Diana after the Engagement (factual, we’re told) but never fading out of Charles’s life, which may or may not be the truth. Did he really talk to her almost every day?

Emma Corrin and Josh O'Connor
as Charles and Diana
Emma Corrin looks exactly right in the replica frocks and recreates the Diana we think we knew, fragile and needy, sometimes a bit pushy, always conscious of being an unwelcome but necessary brood-mare. The bulimia puking scenes are overdone. Josh O’Connor’s Charles appears to be developing a hunchback but he gets the voice off rather well. Emerald Fennell’s Camilla has more the look of Sarah Ferguson; intriguing (if it’s true) that she urged Charles to marry Diana but didn’t realize that she needed to let him go, whether he wanted to be let go or not.

Stephen Boxer and Gillian Andersen
as Denis and Margaret Thatcher
These are also the Thatcher Years, of which some of us do not have the fondest memories. Gillian Anderson’s Maggie gets almost as much screen time as Elizabeth our Queen; her portrayal is in the same vein as Spitting Image’s used to be; she occasionally appears to be auditioning for Cruella de Vil, but like Meryl Streep she gets that Nanny-Knows-Best voice off to a T (to a Mrs T!)

Olivia Colman settles very comfortably into Her Majesty’s sensible shoes; the escalating tension during the weekly audiences with the Prime Minister is something you long to believe in. Accurate or not, the scene when Michael Fagan invades her bedroom is pitch-perfect from both parties. Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip is presented as almost a still small voice of calm, not quite the image tittle-tattle gave us over decades past.

Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret and Erin Doherty as Princess Anne are both splendid – imperious, bitter and bitchy. Marion Bailey’s Queen Mother is a bit like Nan in The Royle Family; there’s an edgy moment when she tries to justify her mentally challenged relations (“imbeciles,” they were called) being incarcerated for decades in an Edwardian-era lunatic asylum.

Christmas at Sandringham - not-so-happy families

The ethics – the morality – of this production remains open to question. It must be hard for William and Harry – and everybody else – to know that their friends are watching it and, like us, wondering how much of it is true. Interviews with cast members have stressed that this is a fictional dramatization, but most viewers will accept it as history, despite the liberties taken by Peter Morgan’s screenplay.

This is gossip and speculation lavishly amplified to soap opera. Yes, it’s terrifically well done and makes very watchable viewing, but it does the Royal Family a huge disservice. There’s a key scene in which the Australian Prime minister Bob Hawke bemoans the fact that Diana and Charles’s tour of Oz has set back the republican cause, but now, in 2020, how many people – here in the UK – feel as committed to the Monarchy as they did when Lady Di walked into St Paul’s in that curiously rumpled wedding dress?

Thursday, 19 November 2020

What I'm reading: Your DNA can introduce you to your murderer


Michael Connelly reintro-duces us to Jack McEvoy, the Los Angeles journalist who previously tangled with serial killers in The Poet and The Scare-crow. A woman McEvoy dated is bizarrely murdered, her head twisted through 180 degrees (like Linda Blair’s trick in The Exorcist). There have been similar murders, all women who sent their DNA to a company that can put people in touch with lost or unknown siblings. Jack investigates the link between this seemingly innocuous service and a serial killer who calls himself “The Shrike”, a monster almost as creepy as “The Tooth Fairy” in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon (Hannibal Lecter’s debut).

Michael Connelly is rightly acclaimed as one of The Greats of modern Crime Fiction, and he’s on top form in this pacey, nerve-wracking thriller. If you’re thinking of sending a DNA sample to one of those “Find Your Lost Family” outfits, think again. It may end up in the hands of your future murderer. Fair Warning. 

Monday, 16 November 2020

What I'm reading: An autistic view of civil war


A first-person narrative of Syria’s civil war is bound to make a harrowing read – even more so when the narrator is an autistic teenager. As the battle between government forces and the rebels (ISIS is never named) intensi-fies, 14-year-old Adam, already traumatized by his mother’s death from cancer, finds the bombings and the disappearances impossible to understand. Painting, in vibrant colours, is his only refuge; “I’m painting the blood on the floor with real blood.” Grief drives Baba, his father, into dementia. Yasmine, the beloved sister who has replaced Adam’s mother as his protector, is abducted. Then, with Aleppo self-destructing, the family flee the city and take to the road to Damascus as refugees.

 Sumia Sukkar has done a brilliant job of entering the autistic mind. She gives Adam a unique perspective: “Maybe bad angels haunt our town, or maybe this is the bad angel’s town.” Inevitably one is reminded of Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond in Rain Man, Adam’s unforgett-able progenitors. Two brutal scenes are told from Yasmine’s viewpoint, and I rather wish the author had done the same with other family members.

This is a book from the “Misery Memoir” shelf, which I don’t often pick from. It’s an intensely disturbing portrait of the unending agony of Syria. Appalling to think that terrors like these still constitute the everyday life of people not only in Syria, but in Iraq, in Libya and in Yemen. Will the unlearned lessons of history ever stop being repeated?

Monday, 2 November 2020

David at the Movies: Pretty - and pretty silly - remake



Sixty years on from the Hitchcock movie of Daphne du Maurier’s haunting romance thriller, Netflix have tarted it up with a glamorous cast and lovely locations, but as with their remake of The Boys in the Band I'm wondering: why? The revision doesn’t add anything new – except colour in place of black-and-white. The story is meant to be “timeless”, but aren’t there any new stories out there waiting to be filmed (David Gee’s Lillian and the Italians, for example – coming soon to a bookstore near you!)?

I’m not sure what the time setting is: a bit more modern than the Forties. Our heroine (Lily James and still nameless, as in the novel) is romanced in Monte Carlo by handsome widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer, sporting an English accent that suggests he was voice-coached by Prince William). He takes her home to his magnificent coastal house Manderley (not sure it’s still in Cornwall – no echoes of Poldark that I could spot). Here we meet the formidable Mrs Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) who has kept Manderley – and herself – as a shrine to Rebecca, the first Mrs de Winter who drowned a year ago.

Mrs Danvers is the key character. In the 1940 version her obsession with Rebecca was threatening and creepy – it was even possible to read in a lesbian undertone. Kristin Scott Thomas is heroically starchy and becomes subtly sinister, but this year’s script makes her more patronizing than obsessive, and the battle between her and the new wife is more a power struggle rather than a study in psychosis.

The 1940 Alfred Hitchcock version
Lily James gives us a feisty Mrs de Winter, but Armie Hammer’s transition from attentive boyfriend to absentee husband is unconvincing. The melodramatic climax lifts the plot out of a rut but, far from satisfying, it is almost ludicrous. Times have changed, and maybe Rebecca is a bit too dated, and a bit silly, for today’s audience. Dated and silly doesn’t usually spoil an Agatha Christie remake (looking forward to Kenneth Branagh’s new Death on the Nile) but it doesn’t work for this Daphne du Maurier adaptation.