Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Strange Meeting by Susan Hill


 In 1914, John Hilliard, reticent and aged from his inaugural experiences of the war thus far, is haunted by nightmares whilst on sick leave. Hilliard is disillusioned with those at home for their naive ignorance and detachment from the grim reality of war. Upon returning to France Hilliard meets David Barton, an exuberant new recruit not yet sullied in battle or from the atrocities of war.

Hilliard, previously so reserved and detached, cannot grasp why he is so instinctively drawn to Barton, whose openness and magnanimity is as foreign to him as the backdrop of the French battlefields. The bond between the two men soon deepens into an ambiguous love - one which Hilliard cannot articulate even to himself - and one which is perpetually in threat of being destroyed through separation in death, with the prospect of being killed in battle ever present.


What resonated with me most throughout my reading of Strange Meeting was the stillness to the narrative, imbuing the novel with a sense of poignancy - the futility of war when looked at against the backdrop of senseless death. Susan Hill doesn't engage the reader in elaborate battle scenes, nor does she concern her story with the minutiae of war. Instead the narrative is focused on its trivialities (in comparison to bloodshed and political manoeuvrings) - which are therefore mundane, such as that felt by Hilliard in the 'rest periods' of soldiers on leave. 

Deaths in Strange Meeting are by nature accidental and trivial. No one passes in a blaze of glory, no harrowing scenes of bloodshed and no closure. This serves to permeate the narrative with a numbness and begs the question - what is the point? Hill brilliantly turns traditional historical fiction towards the psychological impact of war - the isolation felt by Hilliard when he is back 'home' (not to mention the irony that home has become the battlefield with his fellow men), or the brilliance of Barton's gregariousness cruelly stolen by war and replaced with an almost tragic numbness.

Of course the crux of Strange Meeting is the relationship between Hilliard and Barton. An ambiguous love or at least a deeply strong mutual attachment, develops out of an unconscious need from each man. Hilliard, already aware of and succumbed to the atrocities and futility of war is in dire need of hope - a reason to continue, an emblem to prove that their endeavours are worth it. Barton is this emblem, shiny and new without the taint of battle. On the other hand Barton is naive and artless in the ways of war. Hilliard, for all his experience and wisdom provides the grounding and guidance Barton will need.

Strange Meeting never makes the relationship explicit - to either Hilliard and Barton or the reader. Whether it will be physically realised lingers silently at points, though Hill is careful not to steer the reader towards this presumption. Instead the relationship is innocent and undergoes a role reversal, with both Hilliard and Barton becoming what the other was to him. Barton, upon losing his brilliance through experience, becomes world weary and dejected to the dismay of the now rejuvenated Hilliard. 

Strange Meeting is a poignant tale of deep rooted friendship in WW1, with a rich narrative focused on the triviality of loss.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Once (2007) - Film Review

once film poster, once film review, glen hansard, once film
Starring: Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová


An affable Dublin street busker/hoover repairman (Glenn Hansard) catches the attention of a young Czech migrant. Drawn in by the raffish charm of his music, the girl (Markéta Irglová) encourages him to take his talent seriously. Still lovesick over his ex-girlfriend and she conflicted over her absentee husband, the pair embark on a mutual labour of love, recording the street buskers songs with a view to success.


Once is a charming, low budget film (approx. €130,000) told with heart. With a down to earth, fly on the wall style, it reads like a documentary of two people who help recognise the potential in one another. A simple story, the charm lies in its two protagonists - unnamed but so understated and likeable. There is obviously a tender connection between the pair but Once refrains from following the clichéd route of inevitable romance. Instead the film leaves us with the enduring message that some people are right for us at certain times in our lives, to help us move on - a helping hand along the way to where we're going.

Once has an almost impoverished feel to it, set to the rain dashed cobbled high streets of Dublin, the bare, rudimentary flat of Irglová's character and filled with humorous pathos characters such as a down on his luck(!) mugger, Once has an unmistakably rakish charm. With original pieces sung by the two leads, the soundtrack brilliantly follows their time together, charting their creative collaboration.
(Songs including "When Your Mind's Made Up" and "Falling Slowly" are reminiscent of the now defunct collaboration of Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan).

With its down to earth authenticity, Once is a return to the simplicity of storytelling, quietly celebrating the joys of music, gritty determination & friendship.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Breathe In (2013) - Film Review

breathe in, film review, felicity jones, guy pearceStarring: Felicity Jones and Guy Pearce

Synopsis: When the poised and reserved English exchange student Sophie (Felicity Jones) moves in with her American hosts, the Reynolds family, for a term abroad, she finds herself warily drawn to  rakish patriarch Keith. A music teacher and occasional cellist for the Manhattan Symphony Orchestra, Keith silently pines for his former days of creative and musical glory.
The pair maintain a mutual distance from one another that's both reticent and cautious - until Sophie reveals herself as a musical virtuoso - a brilliant pianist who calls to Keith in a way his present life can't.
Breathe In has a languid fragility to it, atmospheric for the use of natural mood lighting and devoid of over-dramatisation. Much like Drake Doremus's previous Sundance offering Like Crazy (also starring Jones), the film is intimate, with authentic performances from the cast who rely on improvisation than any solid script. Whereas the conversations are not always so free flowing, even stilted at times, it lends a dramatic 'realness' to the story that's refreshing in comparison to more eloquent cinematic dialogue.

felicity jones, breathe in film, film reviewFelicity Jones' character is very reminiscent of that which she played in Like Crazy (I didn't actually know both films were from the same director till after watching Breathe In, having seen Like Crazy the previous year!), with Sophie carrying an air of aloofness that's both endearing to the character of Keith and the audience. I wouldn't say there's much to differentiate Jones' performances in both films but it's clear that Doremus is monopolising on her talents for understated drama.

One of the opening scenes plays with foreshadowing, depicting the close knit Reynolds in their quaint, rustic home playing a game of Jenga, hinting at the collapse of the family - strong at first but with weak foundations. Perhaps an obvious motif, but one that certainly sets up the story in one clear image. In fact with the film centered around music, it's only fitting that the story seems to follow the trajectory of a typical classical piece. Starting languidly, once the pull between Sophie and Keith begins to grow stronger and it's apparent there is a spark between them, the drama heightens and builds to its climatic crescendo.

For the characters, everything is pushed underneath. Keith lives out pockets of former glory as his time subbing for the symphony orchestra in between what his wife Megan (Amy Ryan) regards as his 'real' vocation - teaching. Derivatively referring to his passion as a 'hobby', a sense of inertia is at play within the family. Content with stability, it's ironic that Megan is the one to bring Sophie into their home - the quiet storm that soon creates tension between all family members.

guy pearce, breathe in film, film review
The burgeoning relationship between Keith and Sophie is less passionately charged than the usual films of this ilk. The tension is there but less palpable and heightened than it could lend itself to be. Likewise, the character of Sophie is watered down - an enigma, but a pale version - she's almost hapless in a very unfortunate way. Lending herself unintentionally to teenage gossip, we see a vulnerable side to her. Comparing this with scenes where she is more in control - i.e. playing the piano defiantly or else reveling in the hold she has on Keith - it's difficult to say what Breathe In intends for her to be. Obviously an outsider, preferring to read Jane Austen at pool parties than mingle with her peers, Sophie is the quintessential 'complicated' female protagonist - a pale, more muted version of the manic pixie dream girl.

With the added bonus of Dustin O'Halloran's ethereal and atmospheric score infusing Breathe In with a moody and fragile ambiance, this is an understated and raw offering from Doremus.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Goodbye First Love (2011) - Film Review

goodbye first love, un amour de jeunesse, film review, lola cretonStarring: Lola Creton and Sebastian Urzendowsky

Synopsis: Set in early 00s Paris, Goodbye First Love (Un amour de jeunesse) chronicles the 8 year long on and off again relationship of Camille and Sullivan, spanning their late teenage years to the onset of young adulthood. The film is a tender and intimate look at the dynamics between the couple, with Camille both petulant and needy in her lovesick state and deeply resentful of Sullivan when he announces plans to travel abroad. Heartbroken for what she perceives as abandonment, Goodbye First Love follows Camille and Sullivan as they discover who they are, together and apart.


Goodbye First Love is much more Camille's story than Sullivan's. Once Sullivan leaves for his travels, much of the film is committed to the paths Camille follows in her attempt to forget and grow without him. Taking on a hotch potch of jobs without any real meaning or connection, we follow Camille as she trains to become an air hostess, her time as a tacky club rep and finally her settling to a career in architecture. Seemingly the lost soul of the story for wandering aimlessly from one vocation to the next, it is Camille who is very much her own driving force.

Whilst Sullivan is in South America in his self proclaimed state of self-discovery, Camille does the same in the very milieu Sullivan found so cloying. Here is the bittersweet realisation that ironically, for all his aloofness and detachment, it is Sullivan who doesn't know what he wants. However it seems Camille is always looking for Sullivan. Whereas she asserts her independence and identity away from their relationship, his impending returns are marked by an almost physical regression. Whilst sporting a suitably Parisian, gamine cropped hair style during their time apart, Camille's hair grows back to its rakishly longer style, hinting at the juvenility of first love. Alone she is stronger and less reliant on the affection of another. The cropped hair signifies the shedding of her former self - the one interminably tied to Sullivan.

goodbye first love, un amour de jeunesse, film review, lola creton  Lola Creton wears melancholy with an exacting, Parisian-esque manner. Needy and attached, the rest of the world including her mother and father in their loveless marriage and even the aloof Sullivan, are benign in comparison. With this the film captures the all too familiar teenage angst of young love, but without vanity and with just enough self indulgence to let us empathise with the characters. Whereas we can appreciate Sullivan's need for exploration and his aloofness at Camille's capricious nature and impetuous moods, we also sympathise with her resentment at his detachment.

Set to the backdrop of bohemian Paris, with its artsy apartments or else idllyic countryside locations, with a gorgeous soundtrack including the languorous 'The River' by Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling, Goodbye First Love has a delicate feel to it, hard to grasp and articulate - perhaps a bit like the tenuous bond between Camille and Sullivan.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

What Richard Did (2012) - Film Review

Starring: Jack Reynor, Sam Keeley and Lars Mikkelsen


Loosely based on true events, What Richard Did is the story of a Dublin teenager on the cusp of manhood. Richard Karlsen (Jack Reynor) has it all - the adoring family, the awe and respect of his peers as captain of the rugby team and the prospects of a carefree summer before university. When newcomer to the scene Lara catches Richard's eye, his friendship with fellow teammate Conor (Sam Keeley) becomes tenuous when it's apparent Richard isn't the only one to notice Lara. Struggling to accept the friendship between Conor and Lara, Richard's jealously grows, albeit in an initially passive-aggressive manner.What unfolds is a story of unprecedented violence and guilt that is haunting for both Richard and the audience.


What Richard Did is essentially a "fall of a hero" tale. Richard is the archetypal hero figure - the golden boy of his milieu. He's the stereotypical apple of his parent's eyes (especially his fathers, which only sets him up for a greater fall when events unfold), looked up to with awe and respect by the younger members of the rugby clique and fawned over by girls. Richard however is not one who carries this admiration with arrogance. He is well mannered and polite to his elders, protective over the younger members of his social circle and displays many instances of good intentions.

When the character of Lara is introduced, we begin to see cracks in Richard's initially stellar character. When it becomes apparent that Conor is still very much in the picture for being Lara's friend, an underlying current of jealousy is evident in Richard's demeanour. Where overt hostility could be employed from the offset, the played down insincerity with which Richard treats Conor is all the more unsettling. The tension is palpable, especially for the passive-aggressiveness from Richard's side compared to the continually good-natured Conor.

When the film's title lives up to its name, Richard's means of coping with the fall out is much more telling of his character. Essentially it seems Richard's biggest character flaw is his ego and the need to be seen in a positive light. His behaviour breaks down in a subtle but meaningful way thereafter and it is this development (or reversal of) that is endearing to watch play out.

What Richard Did examines the idea of a person's true nature given the right circumstances. When guilty, Richard is more cold and calculated, his main drive being for self-preservation. Yet despite this, he still expresses remorse. At the heart of his character, Richard does seem a 'good' person - so should he be condemned for this one anomalous yet reprehensible act? Here the lines of morality are blurred and this is where What Richard Did sparks an interesting debate.

Richard could be easily portrayed as unlikeable and arrogant for his status and privilege. The question that does bear considering is whether Richard's upbringing has inevitably given him a sense of entitlement that stretches into his personal relationships. There is an element of hubris to the character, evident in the way Richard cannot fathom why Conor doesn't concede to his failing to win Lara by stepping aside and breaking off contact. Without this, how can Richard display himself as the 'better man'?  What Richard Did however, doesn't depict any stereotypical, debauched behaviour to hint that Richard's actions are typical or a product of his upbringing. The mistakes and actions dealt with in What Richard Did are universal and transcend environmental and social influences.

The cinematography is understated, relying on natural light to create a sense of stillness throughout the film. This helps develop the idea of  'the calm before the storm', hinting towards something more terrible impending. With the absence of artificial lighting, there's an intimate element to the film, with much of the story set in the languid hours of the day. Moody and poignant, the story becomes more true to life for its reliance on authenticity.

My one gripe with What Richard Did is the lack of character development for Conor. The film gave little to no elaboration to his background and much is left to speculation. Conor is depicted as more obviously vulnerable than Richard, slighter in build and more gentle in his mannerisms. The film only hints at personal issues, yet all we are left with is the impression that Conor is as much the 'good guy' as Richard apparently is. Although Conor is a likeable character treated with sympathy, it's difficult to say whether there would be much satisfaction from seeing Richard brought to justice (i.e. prison).

What Richard Did is an exploration of morality and guilt. An observation into the subsequent fallout of one boy's terrible act, when there is little redemption or justice.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Shame (2011) - Film Review

Starring: Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.

Synopsis: Brandon is desperately addicted to sex and porn. A successful New York businessmen, he projects a facade of suave composure to his friends and colleagues.The unceremonious arrival of estranged and dysfunctional sister Sissy threatens the picture of stability and success Brandon has constructed for himself. 


We are introduced to Brandon against the backdrop of a grimy New York subway. Assiduously dressed in fitted coat and cravat-styled scarf, he's incongruous to the dirt smeared windows; a contrast to the sloven homeless man slumped in the opposite seat. His shame - inevitably reviled by society - is worn openly. Here we have just one example of the enduring irony employed in Shame. Brandon's shame is private and tortuous. Shots of Brandon staring lingeringly up at exhibitionist couples through windows emphasises Brandon's isolation. He alone seems to be incapable of wearing their deviations openly.

The audience is granted an intimate look into Brandon's perversions. Whilst this is uncomfortable for the subject matter at hand, the irony is again evident when played against scenes with a co-worker who Brandon develops 'real' feelings for. Connecting on an emotional level creates a mental and physical block, making Brandon a figure of pity and hopelessness. Shutting the world out on any meaningful level, the audience are the only ones privy to Brandon's personal life.

It's unsettling to see how ordered and meticulous he is in his daily life. Ritualistic to a tee, the arrival of emotionally erratic Sissy (Carey Mulligan) threatens Brandon's grip on what he can control. Although never elaborated on, instead relegated to an invisible storyline for the audience to ruminate on, Brandon and Sissy are incapable of engaging in functional relationships. At the heart of this seems to be an inappropriate 'anti-bond', leaning towards incestuous undertones. The siblings are brutally exposed to one another, both physically and emotionally.

Sissy is damaged. Whether due to dysfunctional relationships of her own (scenes of Sissy pleading on the phone to an ex-lover are sad and pathos-like), she clings desperately to Brandon for scraps of affection. She is above all, vulnerable and despite her own distasteful behaviour, Shame depicts her as almost innocent and childlike. Shrouded in thin white material or in a glitzy ballgown singing a bluesy version of New York New York (in the films most gorgeous scene), Sissy seems to be the only character to appreciate hers and her brother's issues of misplaced intimacy. "We're not bad people. We just come from a bad place."

Shame is raw and brutal in exposing Brandon for his addiction. Whereas much of the film is muted in its colour pallete, emphasising the isolated world Brandon inhabits, colours are suddenly abundant and vibrant when Brandon succumbs or indulges in his addiction. The soundtrack is melancholic but hopeful and with the film's ambiguous open ending lending to audience speculation, that is all Brandon is left with. The possibility of rehabilitation.

Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan (both past collaborators with Fassbender - see Hunger and Fish Tank respectively) have created a brave, nonjudgmental portrait of a man isolated for an addiction many would look upon as perverse. Unflinching and unapologetic, Fassbender is on form in his portrayal of Brandon. The nuances of his personality - charismatic, suavely flirtatious, tortured for his impulsions - are perfectly executed, without a hint of melodrama and as composed as his character crafts himself to be.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Kelly + Victor - Film Review

kelly + victor, kelly and victor, film review, julian morris
Starring: Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Julian Morris.


After a chance meeting in a nightclub in their hometown Liverpool, strangers Kelly and Victor are instantly drawn together in a drug fueled haze. A one night stand sparks an intense dynamic between the two - one that shocks Victor yet inexplicably keeps him hooked. With their relationship darkly masochistic, Victor - discontent with the illegal exploits of friends around him - ironically becomes attached to the destructive bond he shares with Kelly. Likewise Kelly, who is largely isolated from the world, develops a brutal intimacy with Victor - yet it is one which is still hidden from anyone outside of the couple.

kerry+ victor, kerry and victor film, julian morris

A lot is left to be desired with regards to the character of Kelly. Perhaps intended as an enigma, she's depicted as possessing a timid, ethereal quality that attracts the grounded Victor. Drawing him in with vague allusions to their match based on horoscopes, there's little insight into where her violent, masochistic inclinations come from. Matching this against a scene where she expresses reluctance to act as an accomplice to a fantasy game with a prostitute friend, the film seems driven to portray Kelly as a conflicted individual, with only the faintest allusions to her past.

Victor on the other hand is depicted as the weaker link. A grounded family man at heart, he is relatively more at home with societal convention, portrayed in more straightforward scenes of familial duty with his young nephew. There's a degree of inner turmoil as he tries to reconcile this life with the darker, closeted one he shares with Kelly. The implications aren't lost on the two, with Victor in particular conflicted by how grossly conspicuous and taboo their relationship is to conventional society. This ultimately reaches its inevitable breaking point with destructive results.

I would have liked a deeper psychological slant to the film but perhaps leaving it to the audience's imagination made it all the more unsettling. The relationship is closed off to the rest of the world, set to the cloistered backdrops of Kelly's claustrophobic flat or the quiet confines of an art gallery. With sparse dialogue and little character background, Julian Morris and Antonia Campbell-Hughes complement each other well. Morris's earthy characterisation against Campbell-Hughes' tenuous one dramatically highlights the self destructive element of their relationship.

Cinematography-wise, Kelly + Victor celebrates the quiet beauty of Liverpool. There's an emphasis on the simplicity and tranquility of nature where Victor feels most at peace, which only heightens the extremities of Kelly. Her scenes are eerily quiet, with the barest of details in the background, or else in extreme settings of hazy nightclubs and scenes of brutality and violence. With the addition of the brooding Bill Ryder-Jones score providing the ominous overtones, the theme of danger and taboo is apparent throughout much of the film.

A unique look at the dynamics of a deeply dysfunctional relationship. Kelly+ Victor is an intimate, yet uncomfortable portrait of two individuals drawn together in an intense addiction for masochistic gratification.