Film No 13 (2015) : Vera Drake

vera drake 1Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is what you would call ‘salt of the Earth’. She will do anything to help anyone; as well as caring for her husband, children and mother, she also pops in to help a poorly neighbour and takes lonely war veteran Reg (Eddie Marsan) under her wing. She has a job too, as a charwoman for a wealthy family. But, unbeknownst to her nearest and dearest, Vera plays another role; she carries out illegal abortions. Not that is how Vera describes what she does, she sees her actions as another way of helping people and doesn’t even take any money for her services. When a young girl almost dies following a visit from Vera, the patient’s mother reveals Vera’s identity to the Police. Following her arrest and subsequent trial, Vera is sentenced to an 18-month prison sentence. The film is set in 1950 and was written and directed by Mike Leigh.

Imelda Staunton is totally convincing in her portrayal of Vera; no surprise that she won the BAFTA for the Best Actress in 2005. The film’s director, Mike Leigh, was awarded the BAFTA’s David Lean Award for Direction and was nominated for the ‘Best Achievement in Directing’ Oscar. In writing this review I discovered that during the making of ‘Vera Drake’, only Staunton was privy to the facts of Vera’s benevolent visits. Thus, when the reason for her arrest was made known to her family, the news was a revelation to the actors as well. The result is genuine and credible on-screen shock.

This film unnerved me, because it raises a complex issue. When I finished watching, I sighed with relief because, after all, the film was set 65 years ago and now abortion is legal in England and has been since 1967. The risks of the backstreet abortion, however pure the motivation of the perpetrators, are surely now behind us. Pregnancy out of wedlock does not carry the same social stigma as it has in the past, and an unplanned pregnancy is just as often referred to as ‘a surprise’ rather than a ‘mistake’. Moral, ethical and religious debates around abortion continue to rage but, for those women for whom going through with the pregnancy is not an option, terminations can be carried out in appropriately safe environments.

Then it hit me. I was being a complete bloody idiot. Of course, abortion is going to be made as clinically safe as possible for women like me; articulate, educated, English-speaking and highly unlikely to be stigmatised or ostracised by a pregnancy in any circumstance, I could walk in to any GP or clinic and access care. But there must surely be 100s, if not 1000’s of women and girls in Britain who simply cannot do that; for social, religious or other reasons. And that is just in my own country. I asked my friend, Google, for some information and she confirmed that according to WHO estimates, 200 women a day die from unsafe abortions. That is a staggeringly awful 73,000 deaths per year.

I am not qualified to discuss abortion rights in any more than the most general of terms, as there are dedicated and knowledgeable organisations such as Abortion Rights UK to do that. All I can say is that ‘Vera Drake’ compelled me to think hard about an issue which I have not considered for many years but which clearly deserves our attention.

Book No 15 (2015) : The Sea Sisters

I knSea sisters 2ow a little bit about sisters, because I am one, and I’ve got one. A lovely one, actually. Both Piscean, my sister and I share a natural affinity for water (especially the sea) and, as the opposing fish of our birth-sign exemplify, we are quite different; she is optimistic, creative and easy-going whereas I am more pessimistic, academic and anxious. Like Katie and Mia in Lucy Clarke’s novel, there are just the two of us.

The Sea Sisters‘ opens with Katie being given the news that her younger sister, Mia, has been found dead in Bali, apparently having taken her own life by jumping from a cliff. Katie leaves her fiancé behind in London as she heads off to the other side of the world to try and discover the truth about her sister’s death, re-tracing Mia’s steps using her hand-written travel journal as a guide. The narrative alternates between that of Mia in the past and Katie in the present until the closing chapters, when Katie visits the site of Mia’s demise and the events of the dark night in Uluwatu are revealed.

Sibling relationships are often the longest of our lives and I was looking forward to this novel as an exploration of that important bond. Maybe the book would mirror my own experiences in some way. No such luck: rather than being buoyed along on a literary crest of a wave, I bobbed about in a becalmed backwater waiting for the tide to come in and rescue me. I have even looked around on the Internet as I wondered whether this book was intended as Young Adult fiction, because it is so simplistic. Apart from the text being poorly written, the characters are wooden and lacking in internal development. It was extremely hard to empathise with either sister, as both behave in ways which are vindictive and vengeful towards their sibling. It was hard to sustain the belief that they were so close and had enjoyed an idyllic shared childhood in Cornwall when, as adults they consistently betrayed one another, were secretive, argued and behaved generally despicably.

Squabbling with your sister is for children; this author definitely missed the boat when it came to celebrating sisterhood.

Film No 12 (2015) : The Hunger Games – Mockingjay Part 1

mocking 1The end of the second Hunger Games movie (Catching Fire) was full of suspense; Katniss Everdeen, having survived the Games, uses a flash of lightning and a well-timed arrow to destroy the Games arena. She is taken to District 13, leaving behind fellow Tributes Peeta and Annie. So far, so exciting. What is going to happen to them all?

In Mockingjay Part 1, Katniss and her family are being sheltered in District 13. There, President Coin persuades the young markswoman to become the face of an uprising to unseat the Capitol and its leader, President Snow. Katniss agrees, on condition that Peeta and Annie are rescued as soon as possible. Peeta is used in propaganda films and it is obvious that he is being mistreated in some way. Nevertheless, he manages to forewarn District 13 that it is about to be attacked by the Capitol, allowing 13’s inhabitants to seek shelter. Following the attack, Peeta and Annie are liberated from the clutches of President Snow. Katniss’ joy at being reunited with Peeta is shortlived once it becomes apparent that he has been poisoned into believing that he must kill her. The film ends with Peeta seen thrashing around in a fury, having been restrained in a hospital room.

Sorry to be so unreservedly negative, but this film is boring (I tried to think of a more apposite adjective, but was too bored to bother) and drawn-out, with unconvincing acting; Liam Hemsworth as Gale is about as inspiring as an ironing board and Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss) is only marginally better. There are endless scenes of Coin addressing massed crowds of supporters, resulting in saluting and chanting.

The films are based upon the YA novels by Suzanne Collins and have a devoted fan base. This film was the 5th highest grossing movie of 2014, earning $752,100,229 worldwide. The books are a trilogy but in increasingly typical fashion (The Hobbit, Harry Potter), one book has been spilt into more than one film. Call me cynical, but my instinct tells me that this is purely a ruse to wring as much cash out of moviegoers as possible. Because there is simply not enough material in this film to make it exciting. Mockingjay Part 2 is released in November 2015 but I won’t be rushing to see it; my appetite for the Hunger Games disappeared with this bland fare.

Book No 14 (2015) : The Narrow Road to The Deep North

narrow road 2To say that ‘The Narrow Road to The Deep North‘ is a book about the Burma Railway is like saying that The Titanic was a boat: it doesn’t do justice to either its magnitude or its lasting impression.

Dorrigo Evans is an Australian surgeon; his life is turned upside down when he embarks upon a passionate affair with Amy, the wife of his uncle. Despite her ‘perfect imperfections’, Dorry knows he has met the love of his life. WW2 erupts and Evans, a serving Army doctor, is captured by the Japanese and finds himself trying to save the lives of his comrades as they build a railway line under the orders of the Japanese Emperor. Thoughts of Amy sustain Evans but when he returns to Australia it is not to her, but to Ella. The war over, Dorrigo is feted as a hero but he cannot reconcile the horror of his experiences with a peacetime life in a loveless marriage. Interwoven alongside Evans’ story, are those of his Japanese captors, fellow prisoners and his lover. The beautifully-crafted plot is far more intricate than my brief summary allows and I felt some degree of closure when the final part of the novel’s three sections addresses the fates of some of the major characters once the war has ended.

Reading the middle section of the novel, which recounts life in the POW camp, was like watching a horror movie through my fingers. I literally just wanted it to stop: the heat, disease, violence, hunger, mud and shit. But for me these were words on a page. Knowing that the events are a fictionalised account, based upon the real experiences of Allied troops, heightened my revulsion. Some men had to live it, all I had to do was make it to the end of the chapter.

This novel moved me to tears several times; Flanagan describes emotion in a way which seems to capture the very essence of what it is to be human. This has been by far the hardest review I have tried to write on this blog; every version I’ve drafted has been deleted because it failed to convey just how this book affected me. Like a louse on a POW, Flanagan’s book niggled away at me, making me return to it time and time again to rasp at its layers of meaning, even though the process was painful. Now it’s over, I’m sure this book has left a scar on my mind, which will twitch like an old wound when I come across accounts of the Death Railway.

Book No 13 (2015) : The Cuckoo’s Calling

Robert-Galbraith-The-Cuckoos-CallingIf you are the kind of person who can  memorise the whole of the London Underground map, including the overland intersections, major bus stations and airport connections and then navigate across the capital without ever needing to consult an A-Z, I think you will love ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling.’ If, on the other hand, you are like me and need to check your pocket guide just to remind yourself that there are two stops between Waterloo and Leicester Square, my guess is, you will hate it. My point being, there is only so much information you can hold in your head without it feeling as if you are cramming for an exam; reading Robert Galbraith’s (aka JK Rowling) first detective novel was like plotting an interminable mind map.

The author sets out a deceptively simple story; a famous model falls to her death from the balcony of her flat. The official verdict is suicide, but her brother is unconvinced and hires private detective, Cormoran Strike, to prove the death was murder. You will notice that I have described that scenario in just two lines, but I promise you it is an accurate summary. So how come it takes 549 pages for the crime to be solved? From start to finish, the narrative is a seemingly endless stream of vaguely related ‘facts’ surrounding the suspicious death; pages and pages and pages of them. Phone calls, taxi rides, scenes in shops, flats and nightclubs, drug-taking, adopted children, secret affairs, inheritances and so on. I found it absolutely impossible to remember more than the most basic of details, rendering the reading of the book virtually pointless. By the time I got to page 522, when Strike sums up his evidence and delivers his version of the events surrounding the demise of Lula Landry, I was ready to hurl myself from a tall building.

Cormoran himself is an interesting character, but the rest of the book’s cast is sketchily drawn and two-dimensional. Lula and her boyfriend, Evan Duffield, are pale imitations of Kate Moss and the wayward Pete Doherty, whilst the dying mother, camp fashion designer and money-grabbing lawyer are sadly stereotypical.

This book is the perfect vehicle for show-casing what JK Rowling does best i.e. write really intricate, complicated plots and use 23 words when 4 would probably do. And this time, all without the charm of Albus Dumbledore or the wit of Ron Weasley. If you must tackle ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling‘, I suggest you read up to about page 40 to get the gist. Then skip to page 540 for the conclusion – save yourself 500 pages and instead swot up on the Tube map or the Periodic Table. It will probably be an infinitely more enjoyable use of your time.

Book No 12 (2015) : The Light Behind the Window

light windowLucinda Riley spins a cracking good yarn. Her books are never going to change the world, but for a few days of engrossing reading, I find them unbeatable. I read and reviewed ‘The Midnight Rose last year and I enjoyed ‘The Light Behind the Window‘ just as much.

When her mother dies, Emillie inherits a large fortune, including a house in Paris and a country château. Unmarried and with no other immediate family, she feels overwhelmed by the decisions and choices she has to make regarding the estate. When Sebastian, an English arts dealer, sweeps her off her feet, she is reassured by his competence. The couple discover that they have a common link, as Seb’s grandmother (Connie) spent much of World War 2 in France and was acquainted with Emillie’s father, Edouard de Martinières. Once married to Sebastian, Emillie divides her time between France and her husband’s family home, a large but shabby house in Yorkshire. As the renovations to the château begin, Emillie unearths secrets which reveal she may not be as alone in the world as she believes.

The novel is told in alternate timeframes, Connie’s and Emillie’s. Their characters are not deeply developed as the story is moved along largely through the plot, which has a great many twists and turns. Although the WW2 elements of the book clearly have some basis in fact, there are a number of unlikely coincidences; but I didn’t care. This is like Enid Blyton for grown-ups and, every once in a while, a fairy tale is just the escape from reality I need.

Film No 11 (2015) : Insurgent

insurgentCommon sense should tell us that society is not going to function properly if we divide people according to their predominant characteristic, be that peacefulness (Amity), intelligence (Erudite), honesty (Candor), selflessness (Abnegation) or bravery (Dauntless). Surely the wheels of civilisation are only going to turn smoothly if each and every one of us combines a little of each of these humane qualities? But in Veronica Roth’s post-apocalyptic Chicago, being Divergent, not fitting neatly in to a faction, makes one a danger.

Insurgent‘ continues the story of Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), an Abnegation-born Divergent. She and her boyfriend Four (Theo James), as well as her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) are hiding out in the living quarters of Amity, having escaped from an attempt to obliterate Abnegation. A search of Tris’ mother’s home reveals a small, pentagonal prism which is relayed to the central headquarters of Jeanine, the leader of Erudite. Jeanine knows that this mysterious canister contains a  message from the Founders. She is equally certain that its secrets will only be revealed when a Divergent manages to complete the mind simulations of all five factions. The order goes out to hunt down every Divergent; Tris’ life is in danger.

This was a great start to the Easter holidays; we splashed out on a family cinema trip (well, at £30 a time, it feels like a luxury!) and immersed ourselves in the movie. In places the film is emotionally hard-hitting; both my daughter and I cried at a scene between Tris and her departed mother and a love scene between Tris and Four is depicted movingly. There is not much light relief, other than when Tris cuts off her long hair with her mother’s antiquated shears and manages to reveal a strand-perfect, highlighted and elegantly coiffed pixie cut. But hey, it is Hollywood! This is fast-paced and engaging entertainment and I can’t wait for the final part of the story, ‘Allegiant‘.