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Sunday, 29 November 2009

Books – The Girl Who Played with Fire – Stieg Larsson

Star rating – 9/10

Ok so I admit it – there has been no external cultural exploits this week as I have been too busy with my nose stuck into the second of the incredibly exciting Millennium Trilogy – posthumously published by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. This volume is not quite so self contained as the first, but is no less gripping for that. The exciting and intriguing character of Lisbeth Salander again mesmerises – strong; bloody minded; fearless; sexy; an IT genius; secretive; and now an expert solver of impossible algebraic formulae to boot, Salander is a person you just need to know more about.

The other central character in the story is again her former lover and sometime friend (or at least he tries to be and she constantly resists) journalist Mikael Blomkvist. To start to reveal anything by way of a plot synopsis would be to spoil the fun. Suffice it to say that this is a thrilling instalment, with a cliff hanger ending. So that means another week in my life trying to fit in work, in between having my head stuck firmly in the third and final volume. Thoroughly recommended – but be warned – once you start you really can’t stop.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Books – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

Star rating – 9/10

I am totally embarrassed to admit that I have only just got around to reading the first instalment of Stieg Larsson’s best selling Swedish crime trilogy. In my defence I did buy this as a present for a friend when it was first published in 2005, having read the rave reviews, but just never got around to sampling it myself.

And although I don’t usually put reviews on the blog of books that are not newly published or discovered, I couldn’t resist a few lines just to say that this was brilliant. It had me totally gripped with the fast paced and enthralling adventure. The two lead characters, are very interesting and attractive people. You want and need to know lots more about the journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and the strange, vulnerable but brilliant Lisbeth Salander, who you wouldn’t want to get anywhere near your own PC.

I don’t usually read series of books back to back but I feel there is no other way with this one. Off to the bookshop then right away...

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Exhibitions – Fantasies, Follies & Disasters – the prints of Francisco Goya – Manchester Art Gallery

Star rating 7/10

The vast collection of prints among the 26,000 piece collection at Manchester Art Gallery are only allowed to be exhibited for a few months every 5 years as they are so fragile and need to be preserved. So this is a rare chance to see this very interesting collection of prints by Goya. Goya is well known as an important Spanish artist, and as principal painter to King Charles IV. But as well as his famous portraits of the great and the good of the age, there was a hidden private side to this man.

The prints in the collection fall into three distinct groupings, and show how disaffected and introspective Goya was behind his public image. The pieces reflect his concern about social and political issues in the Spain of his day, including poverty, and corruption. And some of them are indeed very disturbing. So disturbing were they that many were only fully revealed publicly after his death in 1828.

The first set of prints are entitled ‘The Caprices, or Fantasies’, and Goya uses them to reveal what he considered to be the ignorance and hypocrisy of Spanish society. The frequent robbery of prostitutes by the police is shown in ‘How they pluck her’, where the pathetic half-bird, half-woman figure is the victim. He challenged the authority of schoolteachers in ‘Might not the pupil know more?’, where the teachers are portrayed as asses.

‘The Disasters of War’ is the second set of prints, which reflect the aftermath of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1807, and the imposition of his brother Joseph, who ruled for 5 years to 1813. Goya is also railing here against the church and repression by the state. He gave these prints to the Spanish Royal Academy in 1824, but they were considered far too controversial to be displayed, and indeed remained unpublished for another 40 years. They depict scenes of systematic torture and murder, including the clear involvement of women in these activities; and the plight of starving beggars. The corruption of the justice system is shown is ‘The consequences’, where the wretched victim is attacked by a blood sucking, human-faced vampire.

The final set of prints which completes this collection, ‘The Follies’ is by far the most fantastic and dreamlike of the three. Images of death, carnival figures, and monsters are all quite disturbing. One of the less disturbing prints, ‘A way of flying’, shows winged creatures in flight.

Overall the prints leave a feeling that you have had a private glimpse into the dark side of Goya’s mind – a place which is brutal and extremely unsettling. These prints are weird and wonderful, and show his talents as an artist, but I certainly would not want to be inside his head.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Film – The White Ribbon – directed by Michael Haneke

Star rating – 5/10

This disturbing and controversial film is set in a rural German village on the eve of the outbreak of the First World War, although we are not told of the exact period until much later on in the film, and it proves to be very significant. This is the first Michael Haneke film that I have seen, and I have to say that even though he builds the tale well, shot in eerie black and white and slowly building up the patchwork of characters and their lives, it was for me a very unsatisfactory piece. As the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year – that is clearly very much a matter of taste. But more of that later.

The film takes us along the lives of the villagers, from the Baron who dominates proceedings like a feudal lord, to the schoolteacher, the local farm labourers, and the pastor. The story really starts to reveal itself with the doctor, and the nasty accident he meets with by colliding with a trip wire seemingly put there expressly to harm him, whilst riding home on his horse. More nasty accidents, and some not quite so accidental incidents, follow. Haneke does not lead the audience to the culprits very directly, indeed he doesn’t seem to lead them to them at all. He prefers to let the characters act as a living parable for their times.

Most of the characters in the drama, with a few honourable exceptions such as the school teacher who acts as the narrator, are truly horrible. The doctor, who has been having an affair with the local midwife since the death of his wife, must give what is the most cruel and brutal speech I have ever heard to finish a relationship. He tells her in a flat, unemotional way that she disgusts him, that she is flabby, has bad breath, that he tries to pretend he is making love to other women when he is with her but that he just can’t do it any more, and that their liaison is over.

But it is the menacing nature of many of the children that is the real shocking element here. Their guilt in the horrendous acts of violence is never spelt out exactly, but it is heavily hinted at in different ways by Haneke. They are obviously being painted as the generation that will grow up to be the followers of Hitler. One notable exception is the little boy who tries to console his father, the pastor, by giving him his little caged bird.

The problem for me with the film is that it is a bundle of loose ends. The crimes are never cleared up. People disappear with no explanation, or in confusing ways. The audience is left having to try to work it all out for themselves. That approach may work for some, and my two companion film goers thought that was just fine, brilliant even. But I like things my films with a little more clarity. And I like to know the point of the film. I certainly didn’t get the point of this one. I thought it was overlong at 145 minutes and I was left wondering exactly what the purpose of watching it had been.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Theatre - Mixed Up North – Wilton’s Music Hall, London E1

Star rating – 7/10

This thought provoking and energising play is being staged in London at Wilton’s Music Hall after a spell at the Bolton Octagon, under the umbrella of the National Theatre, by Out of Joint and the Octagon Theatre. Being a contrary sort of Mancunian who would rather walk through the fires of hell than go to Bolton, I saw it in London. And before we get to the play itself, mention must be made of the splendid venue, whose existence is a very well kept secret.

Wilton’s Music Hall is a part derelict, part renovated gem of a nineteenth century music hall on the borders of the East End, which is now a flourishing arts centre, albeit still badly in need of more funds to complete the restoration. It was a delight to discover it – and I encourage you to do likewise (

Mixed Up North, the creation of director Max Stafford- Clark and writer Robin Soans, is based on the quotes and lives of real people in the former Lancashire mill town of Burnley. (Former because there are no mills left.) And if you hadn’t been to Burnley before seeing this play, it is very doubtful if it will inspire you to venture there afterwards. It is centered on the work of a youth street theatre group run by an inspired and dedicated woman called Trish. After the 2001 ‘disturbances’ – no-one is allowed to call them riots anymore in case it gives the town a bad name – much effort is now going into bridging the gulf between the Asian and white communities via enticing their youth into drama.

Celia Imrie is fabulous as the irrepressible Trish, the born again Christian who felt called to work with the young people of Burnley, and who does seem to have developed a tremendous amount of mutual respect with the drama group members. The first half of the play is in turns very, very funny, and then hits the audience in the stomach with some very punchy messages about how the everyday reality of Burnley existence really is for the group. Some of the messages do seem a little like hand grenades though, thrown into the mix with the odd rape or childhood sexual abuse tale for good measure, but without obvious purpose. The cast is largely made up of newly qualified actors, and they are on the whole very impressive indeed. We see them rehearsing for a community production involving Bollywood dancing and lots of gags, but which is fated not to go to plan.

The second half of the play does seem a bit bolted onto the first. It doesn’t flow very smoothly, and makes very uncomfortable viewing at times, as the audience takes part in a question and answer session, allegedly supposed to be about mixed race relationships, but going onto a wider debate about grooming of girls and other such thoroughly depressing topics. The council official who encourages politically correct language and opinions from the audience is very well played by Matthew Wait, although some of his contributions are truly cringe worthy – particularly from the perspective of someone like myself involved in the regeneration game which is so pilloried in this production.

We were also treated to an after show question and answer session with some of the cast, together with Stafford- Clark and Soans. Whilst being mainly aimed at the trillions of young drama students in the audience, it did give the opportunity for yours truly to ask about what the central message of the play was. In seems it was trying to get across to the audience how complex a place Burnley is, and to give a voice to the people of the town – nothing more, nothing less. And in the end I feel that this is a bit of a cop out. Just throwing all the issues in the town from racial tensions, unemployment, lack of hope for the future, rapes, sexual abuse (need I go on?) into the mix does not necessarily achieve a great deal. They also revealed that the play was originally just the first half – with the second added on later – which goes some way to explaining the disjointed feel it has.

But nevertheless this was a hugely enjoyable, if a bit disjointed production, which is to be applauded for its great acting, its bold aim of giving voice to the people of Burnley, its exhilarating involvement of the audience in the proceedings, and its general bringing of Northern 'in your face' culture to the good folk of London town – which can never be a bad thing in my book.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Film – Bright Star – directed by Jane Campion

Star rating 9/10

It is always a little worrying when a film that has been eagerly awaited then receives rave reviews. So often the excitement seems to be misplaced or overdone. But not in this latest offering from Jane Campion. Even her previous brilliant work, ‘The Piano’ is put in the shade by this impossibly sad tale of doomed love between the young poet John Keats, and the feisty seamstress, Fanny Brawne.

The film opens in 1818 when the two first meet in the then village of Hampstead. Fanny is immediately hostile to his friend and fellow poet Charles Brown, a feeling which seems to be based on some previous experience that is not really explained by the film. A little more back story would probably have been helpful here, but that is a minor quibble really. The two lead parts are beautifully and totally believably played by Ben Wishaw and Abbie Cornish. The on screen chemistry between these two actors is incredible, as they portray the developing romance and eventual heartrending ending with their love remaining unconsummated.

Fanny is feisty, independently minded, and a very skilful dress designer – the Vivienne Westwood of her day. At first she is scornful of the art of poetry, and prefers instead a man with a ready wit. Keats rebukes her for wanting a dandy, but this initial verbal sparring soon gives way to infatuation and romance. Fanny comes to appreciate the beauty of his craft.

The two handed relationship is threatened momentarily by the jealousy of Brown, who seem to veer between resentment of Fanny for taking the attention of his friend away from himself and their poetry, to wanting Fanny for himself via a crude Valentine gesture. But the feelings of Fanny and John are too strong to brook interference. The other more practical obstacle is that Keats is penniless, in debt even, and so not the most promising catch for Fanny as potential husband material in the early nineteenth century.

There is no mystery about how the story ends. The frail Keats dies tragically young at the age of 25, after Fanny and her family desperately try to nurse him back to health. Campion treats this inevitable tragic conclusion very sensitively. Brown comes to tell the Brawne family the terrible news from Rome, where Keats had gone to escape the harsh English winter, and for the first time in the film he now seems to realise how deep Fanny’s love for Keats really is.

The settings are sumptuous, with bluebell meadows and leafy woods providing the perfect backdrop to the tale. The supporting cast are excellent, including a nicely played part by Edie Martin as Fanny’s little sister Toots. And the final reciting of Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ by Wishaw over the closing credits is mesmerisingly poignant. A beautifully sad, brilliantly acted and deeply touching film, which for once truly does live up to its billing.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Theatre – The Entertainer – Royal Exchange, Manchester

Star rating – 7/10

If you’re looking for a bundle of laughs type of night out, then this latest revival of John Osbourne’s 1950’s play about a washed up, second rate song and dance man, Archie Rice, is not the one to pick. David Schofield stars here in the role made famous by Laurence Olivier, and although those are very big shoes to fill, he does a fine job of it. Schofield is totally convincing as the wretched Archie, who is trying to convince both himself and the audience that his career is not over and his life is not descending into total disaster.

Very strong support to him is given in the form of Roberta Taylor as Archie’s second wife Pheobe; and David Ryall as his elderly father, Billy Rice, who is himself a former music hall performer. The fraught and alcohol fuelled family discussions between these three and Rice’s daughter Jean are excruciatingly painful to observe, as the characters engage in endless verbal sparring whilst not either saying what they mean or meaning what they say.

In some senses the play does seem dated and of its time, as in the extensive use of pejorative language to describe their Polish neighbours and other immigrant communities in general. But in other ways it could not be more poignant or relevant, such as the fate of Archie’s son Mick who is fighting in the army abroad and whom they are expecting to return home to a hero’s welcome.

Archie’s treatment of the long suffering Phoebe is also painful to watch, although she seems only too ready to forgive him any minor, or major, misdemeanours. The set itself reflects the drabness of the era, and of their lives in particular. The only colour is in Archie’s musical interludes, which Schofield performs admirably, and in Archie’s imagination.

This is a thought provoking, and polished performance, even if the conclusion leaves a somewhat depressed and deflated feeling as the audience departs, owing more to Osbourne’s subject matter, than to another fine production from the Royal Exchange.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Books – Muriel Spark – The Biography by Martin Stannard

Star rating – 7/10

The name of Muriel Spark will evoke for most people thoughts of her most best known and well loved novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a character so memorably brought to life on film by Maggie Smith. But most of her other 21 novels remain in relative obscurity today, which is odd for such a previously celebrated and talented writer.

This new biography by Martin Stannard helps to throw some light on the elusive author, and was written with her blessing and help, although would undoubtedly have suffered more from her desperate need to tightly control her privacy and public image if she had not died whilst it was being written. This is a very sympathetic telling of her story, and does in places feel a little too subjective for its own good because of this.

Her early story is fascinating. She comes from a relatively poor but stable and happy family in Edinburgh, and makes an early disastrous marriage to a man who takes her to Africa and turns out to be mentally very unstable and very unsuitable. After having her son, Robin, she manages to break away from her husband, but at the expense of leaving her son behind. When he finally does come to live in Edinburgh, he does not settle with his mother, by now a committed but penniless writer doggedly pursuing her craft, but with her parents. The reasons for this are somewhat glossed over here by Stannard. What seem like basic child abandonment and selfishness on Spark’s part are portrayed as reasonable and normal behaviour for a struggling young writer. Later in her life she tells one interviewer that her mother just seemed to take Robin from her, and to take over. She certainly didn’t put up much resistance, and her resulting relationship with her son is inevitably very strained at best throughout her life. At one point she says of him ‘He has never done anything for me except for being one big bore.’ This culminates in her disinheriting him totally in her will, due we are told to a disagreement over their Jewish heritage, which Spark is not as keen as her son to own and embrace.

This selfishness as a mother aside, her early story is told well and her other human relationships reveal a fear of closeness and opening up to others that perhaps leads to her spending her whole life basically on her own, with a series of transitory relationships, most of which seem to be platonic. One very interesting part of her make up is her conversion to Catholicism in the 1950s. Her religion becomes a theme running through many of her novels, although it does not really seem to effect her life in a very practical way. Spark does not feel the need to attend Mass on a regular basis, and even then allegedly always leaves before the sermon, not wanting to be told what to think by anyone. She does not really relate to the Catholic Church as it changes and modernises after the 1962 second Vatican Council, which opened up the Church and tried to make it more accessible to its worshippers.

She lives for her writing, and is prepared to sacrifice and suffer personal hardship to make it as a writer. But it is her relationships with others that reveal so much about her. She is always falling out irrevocably with friends, lovers, agents and publishers. It certainly seems that she was a very difficult woman to get on with or get close to. She guarded her public image fiercely, and loved the dramatic and theatrical gesture whenever the opportunity presented itself. ‘I like purple patches in my life. I like drama, but not in my writing. I think it is bad manners to inflict emotional involvement on the reader…’ But she does have many close relationships, mainly via letters in the written medium she was most comfortable with, with famous poets and authors such as Auden, and Greene.

She comes across through these pages as a brilliant, intelligent, but insecure, unhappy, and vain woman. The detail of her later life are not as interesting as the early part of the biography, as Stannard just seems to relate an endless stream of trips abroad, meetings and illnesses. But essentially this is an interesting read, and should tempt readers to explore more of her works than they already know, if not persuade them of the essential goodness of Spark herself as a human being. Do good writers need to sacrifice themselves for their art? On this evidence it would certainly seem that Muriel Spark did so.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Film – An Education – directed by Lone Scherfig

Star rating – 8/10

This 1960’s coming of age tale is based on the memoirs of Lynn Barber, and contains wonderful screenplay from Nick Hornby. Barber’s experiences are roughly translated into the character of Jenny, a plucky 16 year old girl brilliantly played by Carey Mulligan, who has been hotly tipped for a successful and sparkling career largely on the back of this film.

Jenny is intelligent and enquiring. She excels at school and is being groomed for an Oxford education by her middle class parents, in their desperate wish for her to succeed. The stifling atmosphere of her home and family is very evident. They are not themselves university educated or even remotely intellectual, but are desperate for their young daughter to do better. But Jenny wants more, she often escapes by listening to Juliette Gréco records in her bedroom instead of doing her homework.

The frustrations of young women in the early 60’s are all too evident here. The main purpose of their education seems to be a back up in case they don’t meet a rich successful man to marry. Studying is a passport to being able to support themselves by teaching, or even entering the civil service, if the worst happens and they fail to bag a husband. Jenny is clearly not happy with this prospect.

In steps David (Peter Sarsgaard), the dashing older man with a sports car and a one way ticket for Jenny to enter another world of culture, concerts and excitement. It is obvious why Jenny is attracted to this prospect, but what is not so obvious is why her parents are also totally won over by the charming David, and allow their underage daughter to run about town with this much older man, neglecting her precious studies on the way. Very poor judgement on their part.

This is unarguably a star studded cast – Emma Thompson as the head teacher who Jenny very definitely does not want as a role model; Alfred Molina as her gullible father; Dominic Cooper as David’s best friend and partner in extremely dodgy dealings Danny. The best of these is played wonderfully by Rosamund Pike as Danny’s girlfriend Helen, who sparkles as a beautiful girl with no brains who is happy to have a good time and readily befriends Jenny. Pike’s sense of comedy for the role is a nice touch, and pitched exactly right.

Of course the romance does not run smoothly, and Mulligan excels at showing Jenny’s young but feisty and determined character dealing with the experience and the fallout. The period detail in the film is absolutely authentic, and adds to the fine feel of the piece. It is a very enjoyable film, based on a story which , if you did not know was largely true, would seem a tad far fetched. And Mulligan deserves all the warm praise she will undoubtedly get for bringing Jenny to life so wonderfully as a rounded character, eager for life but still with a lot to learn.