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Thursday, 25 August 2011

Film - The Skin I Live In - directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Star rating – 8/10

Almodóvar takes a step into a much more twisted and uncomfortable place than we are used to being led by him, with his new film ‘The Skin I Live In’. Antonio Banderas is impressive as a wealthy and celebrated plastic surgeon, but he has a very dark secret lurking in his designer mansion.

He is secretly operating on a young woman called Vera, and using a substance derived from pig skin to create a new, tougher skin for her. He is said to have lost his wife following a tragic car accident some years before, but the identity of this mystery woman is so obscure, that it even seems a possibility that he has hidden his wife away to experiment on, and let the world believe that she died. But in the context of this complex and macabre plot, that would be far, far too easy.

Themes of violence and sexuality are explored as Almodóvar weaves this fantastic web of a story. It has the usual beauty of form and sensuous colour that he always creates on celluloid. But the plot is a bit too farfetched to carry credulity to the degree needed here. Elena Anaya is beautiful as the victim and prisoner Vera, although quite how she would manage to find her inner peace through yoga when the true horror of the experience she has undergone is revealed is a bit of a mystery.

There are lots of twists, and the plot flits backwards and forwards in time to fill in the necessary gaps. But it is all a little too contrived, and a lot too uncomfortable to be truly brilliant this time for Almodóvar.

Books - The Invisible Woman – the story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens - by Claire Tomalin

Star rating – 9/10

Before celebrated biographer Claire Tomalin publishes her eagerly awaited book on Charles Dickens this autumn, I thought I would check out her earlier book from 1990, which looks at a particular part of his life, and more specifically, a particular relationship within it. For the biggest celebrity of his age and many afterwards had a dark secret that he painstakingly kept secret for many years, that was his mistress, Nelly Ternan.

Tomalin is an excellent biographer, and in this work is very sympathetic to the plight of Nelly, who was a young woman of eighteen when, as a budding actress, she met the forty five year old writer. Her description of life in the theatre, and explanation of just what a disreputable line of employment that was for women in those days is fascinating and revealing. And as a pleasant aside, I was pleased to learn that Dickens and Nelly met when they appeared in a play together at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall (R.I.P.).

It must have been reminiscent of the famous question of Mrs. Merton to Debbie McGee about what attracted her to the millionaire Paul Daniels for Nelly. She was young, and with her mother and sisters, had to tour the country in any production that could get to appear in, and money was very tight. And then along came Dickens - debonair, dashing, famous, wealthy, and unhappy in his marriage. Nelly’s beauty, innocence and youth attracted him immediately, and he took little time in pursuing her. None of this is particularly remarkable, but what is remarkable is the lengths to which he and Nelly both went to make sure that their 13 year relationship was kept secret.

Tomalin is excellent at piecing together the bits of the story like a detective. She does use conjecture at certain points in the story to fill in the gaps, through lack of firm evidence, but makes it clear when she is doing so, and urges the reader to judge for themselves. Dickens does not come out of the book in a great light, but then neither is he painted as an absolute villain.

This great book reveals so much about the economic position of women in this country at that time, and also about the evolution in the theatre to the very respectable institution we all know and love today. But it is at heart the story of a relationship which the participants felt had to be concealed, and in which Dickens very much had the upper hand. It is easy to see why it has attracted the attention of Hollywood and is currently being turned into a film. And it has certainly whetted my appetite for Tomalin’s forthcoming fuller Dickens investigation, and indeed for seeing her at the Manchester Literature Festival next month.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Film - One Day - directed by Lone Scherfig

Star rating – 7/10

It’s really always going to be a hiding to nothing to try to dramatise such a popular book as David Nicholls’ ‘One Day’. The book was great, a very simple yet original idea about taking one specific day (or date to be more precise, namely St Swithin’s Day – 15th July) and telling the story of a relationship through the interactions that take place over the years on this day only.

It worked so well in print, as the graduation fumble of Emma and Dexter developed into a true and lasting friendship and then realisation that they were really soul mates all along. This is despite Dexter being a total prat and both of them finding other people to be partners with, when really all they wanted was each other. It sounds a bit naff, but in the book Nicholls makes it work beautifully and skilfully.

Casting American Hollywood ‘A’ lister Anne Hathaway as plain Yorkshire lass Emma was always going to be a difficult call. And her accent is not flawless, it has to be said; and of course she is impossibly beautiful. But she does win you over as Emma, who is true and sensible and principled, in her round glasses and Doc Marten boots. Jim Sturgess is perfect as Dexter, who is a good person, but just has to work through mountains of cocaine and countless women before he realises that he needs another good person like Emma to make him whole. And they do have great chemistry on screen, which makes the story work.

But the ageing process, which is so easy to do in a book, is a little more tricky on screen, and here it feels very phoney. The film also looses something of the basic theme of the ‘one day’ principle. It is a decent job of a great book. Some things are maybe just better left on the page then being transferred to celluloid. But having said all that, it is still a very enjoyable film. And, minor point though it may be, I was so disappointed that the classic Billy Bragg song ‘St Swithin’s Day' was not used - what a missed opportunity!

Monday, 22 August 2011

Film - The Guard - directed by John Michael McDonagh

Star rating – 7/10

Probably not the Connemara Tourist Board’s perfect film, but ‘The Guard’ is a wittily dry, black comedy about a cop who is, despite all appearances and his best attempts, quite good at his job really. Brendan Gleeson stars as likeable Sergeant Gerry Boyle, and while this film is not as good as ‘In Bruges’, it is gentle and funny with a bit of action when really needed.

Don Cheadle is a good foil to the overweight, and not over bothered Boyle. He plays an FBI hotshot who comes to Ireland in search of the perpetrators of a high value narcotics smuggling operation. Boyle’s slobbish casual racism and pretence at foolishness belie a razor sharp mind, when he can be bothered to engage it.

There are amusing discussions about favourite philosophers amongst the baddies; and debates about the merits of Russian classic novels between Boyle and his terminally ill mother. But it is really Gleeson who makes and shines in the film, which is nicely done, and very funny, but may not please those looking for more action and less irony.

Holiday Culture - Northumberland Delights

Star rating – 10/10

I’ve just got back from a fabulous walking holiday in Northumberland – and what a revelation! Hidden gems; dreaming cathedral spires; peaceful solitude in scenic beauty spots; and some fabulous castles. Not all strictly culture – but well worth a blog entry I thought. And it was sunny the whole time, whilst the south east got rain and floods...

I started on route with a quick stop over in Durham, mainly to see the Cathedral, where my Dad was a choir boy. It is a really pleasant small place, with a nice market square, and quaint cobbled streets leading up to the cathedral itself. And the cathedral architecture is spectacular – proudly boasting the world’s first structural pointed arch; the beautiful shrine of Saint Cuthbert, more of him later; and at the top of 325 steps, a tower with stunning views of all the surrounding area. It was a great start to the trip. Then onwards north, past the bold, brilliant and fabulous Angel of the North by Antony Gormley on the outskirts of Newcastle, which proudly dominates the approach.

Hadrian’s Wall is simply stunning. I walked a 10 mile stretch around Housesteads Roman Fort, and was rewarded with breathtaking views; and a real escape from it all to imagining the life of a Roman soldier there. I will skirt over the couple of unplanned detours I took from my path to confront some potentially angry bulls in fields, and my hasty retreats.

I paid the now obligatory visit to Alnwick Castle and Gardens, hoping to avoid small children with Harry Potter fixations as much as possible, and was very underwhelmed. I thought it was over rated, and smacked of a big money making venture by the current 12th Duke of Northumberland. Inside the castle, which they are keen to stress is a ‘real live family home’, you can see photos of his children, Jocasta and Sebastian (ok I made the names up but you get the picture) riding horses and stroking Labradors. And a video of the Duke played stressing how much all his 300 employees loved working on his estate, although he didn’t actually know them all... The exception to the disappointment was the small Poison Garden, which was very interesting, mainly thanks to the talents and very dry wit of my guide Bridget, who did dwell on the dark side of the toxic plants she showed us rather superbly.

Bamburgh Castle, just a little way up the coast from Alnwick, is what I call a proper castle. The view of it as you approach along the coast ride, dominating the skyline and coast for miles around, is stunning. Like Alnwick it is privately owned, but not brash and commercial, it speaks for itself and is an absolute delight. Bamburgh itself is a charming little place, with nice little pubs and tea rooms, a beautiful beach, and the grave of Northumbrian heroine Grace Darling in the local churchyard. If you don’t know her story, then as a young woman she rowed out with her father several times to save the lives of sailors in a stricken ship in seas so treacherous that even the life boat wouldn’t venture out. She then died about a year later of TB aged just 26 – a tragic end but a great story.

Lindisfarne, or Holy Island as it is now officially known, is another absolute gem of Northumbria. It is beautiful, isolated and peaceful, at least it is if you get there as I did just as the causeway opened and before the hoards of day trippers descended. I walked around its perimeter for 4 or 5 miles in total peace, and decadently sat looking out into the expanse of the North Sea for an hour or so in the sunshine and silence. The ruined Priory which Saint Cuthbert helped to make famous, and the small castle, converted in 1902 by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, are both worth a look.

Exploring further north still, and Berwick upon Tweed was another great find, with a fascinating history. It has changed hands between the English and Scots quite a few times over the years, and its rambling ramparts are testament to its military history. There is also a fascinating connection with L.S. Lowry that I was delighted to discover. He was especially fond of the town, and at one point was even considering relocating there, being especially ‘drawn to decay’. His wonderful drawings of many of the buildings there are dotted around for visitors to see.

Warkworth was the last castle of my trip, and another beautiful little place. The castle sits above a pretty river, with an idyllic pathway. It is another ruin but a really fabulous example of Northumberland’s heritage. The nearby beach was empty and beautiful, and I was sad to tear myself away from the North Sea view for the last time.

What a coast line – a great holiday with few crowds, fabulous walking, and lots of sunshine. What more could you want?