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.