The Wicker Man: a satire on religious bigotry and fanaticism, in whichever religion these are found

Robin Hardy “The Wicker Man” (1973)

In spite of a small budget and the set-backs it suffered during filming and the post-production process, this short movie quickly achieved cult status and has become a much-loved British classic in satirising religious fanaticism and control. Police sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a devout Christian, comes to the Scottish West Highland island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. He is astonished to find vegetation and fruits not native to the island growing in apparent abundance. He is even more horrified to discover that the islanders practise nature-based rituals and customs with clear sexual undertones that offend his Christian religious sensibilities. In his investigation of the girl’s disappearance, Howie comes to learn more about the island’s religious rituals and in particular its May Day ceremony, which the islanders are about to celebrate very soon. He also learns something of the island’s history from Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) who tells him that the adoption of pagan religious elements and rituals was a brainwave of his Victorian-era ancestor to motivate the local people to work at growing food in the island’s volcanic soils under temperate year-round weather influenced by the Gulf Stream.

Howie soon becomes convinced that the girl is not dead and that the islanders have hidden her and plan to sacrifice her during May Day celebrations. He infiltrates the May Day parade dressed as a foolish clown figure and gives himself away to the islanders when he spies the girl on a hillside apparently dressed up as a sacrificial lamb and tries to save her. Too late he realises that the girl was part of an entrapment scheme, the result of which seals his own fate …

As a religious bigot, unable to appreciate the folkways of what turns out to be a very different culture in spite of the islanders wearing Western dress and leading a way of life not very different from other rural Scottish villages of their time, Howie should have been a very unlikable man who deserves what’s coming to him. Woodward’s excellent performance as the police officer grappling with his beliefs, his conscience and his uncertainty, however manages to elicit some audience sympathy for his fate. Increasingly confused by the islanders’ antics, the tricks they play on him (including sabotaging his seaplane) and their indifference to his orders and pleas, Howie resorts to spouting religious dogma in such a way that one wonders if his own faith is wavering and his courage is failing him. In this, for all his faults Howie becomes as much a victim of his own faith as he will be of other people’s beliefs. No less inflexible is Lord Summerisle, whose own fanaticism soon becomes apparent beneath the urbane exterior. Lee delivers a performance that ranges from friendly warmth and sophistication to cold, grim religious zeal in leading a group of people who initially seem New Age hippie-ish in their ideas and beliefs but turn out to be rigidly superstitious and lacking in genuine spirituality and compassion.

The supporting cast ranges from good to mediocre; Britt Ekland as the innkeeper’s comely daughter should never have been advised to give up her day job, whatever it was in the early 1970s. The cinematography captures perfectly the strange atmosphere surrounding the lush vegetation on farmland, the wild green plains and the mighty waves lashing the rocky coastlines. The pacing can be a bit slow for a police action thriller and perhaps some of the folk songs featured in the film could have been pruned back or even left out once viewers accept the pagan character of Summerisle. The film’s horror, at once astounding and horrifying, is revealed close to its end; but plenty of dread and unsettling strangeness was cultivated throughout the film, leading up to its unforgettable climax.

Significantly Howie warns Lord Summerisle that if the island’s crops fail again as they did the previous year – because they really are not suited to the island’s physical environment – then the Lord himself may be subjected to the same fate as Howie. Here is a lesson in having humility and accepting that your own religious system has its limitations and cannot be applied to all possible situations.

There are many ambiguities in the film due to its tight budget and corresponding tight production schedule. The pacing can be a bit slow, at least until the film’s climax. Apart from these details, the film does well in slowly revealing the full Gothic horror behind what would have been a normal police procedural drama.

Equus: a psychodrama of outstanding performances and troubling philosophical questions about individuality and creativity

Sidney Lumet, “Equus” (1977)

He never won an individual Academy Award for Best Movie or Best Director but surely Sidney Lumet is one of the greatest film directors – in particular of films focusing on anti-hero characters battling with obsessions or guilt, or finding themselves at odds with social expectations and the pressure to conform, with the result that they end up cut off from their true aspirations and become hollow robots – ever to grace this undeserving planet. Unafraid to tackle issues of social justice, and using a classic realistic style of telling his story, Lumet attracted fine actors and drew strong, complex performances from them. His film adaptation of Peter Schaffer’s play “Equus”, for which Schaffer himself modified his play, is an excellent example of Lumet’s oeuvre: an excellent cast featuring Richard Burton, Peter Firth and Joan Plowright among others; themes of religious obsession and of a man wrestling with his conscience over remolding young mentally disturbed and troubled people into robots like himself acceptable to society; and a straightforward realist approach that forces audiences to confront the issues raised by the original play about psychoanalysis and its uses.

Child psychiatrist / psychoanalyst Martin Dysart (Burton) has reached a crisis of burnout, disillusionment and uncertainty after a long career treating adolescent and young adult patients with mental health issues and disturbances. A new patient, Alan Strang (Firth), is referred to him, Strang having entered the mental health facility where Dysart works after committing a bizarre crime. Initially Alan resists Dysart’s probing questioning but after the two agree on a bartering system where Dysart must respond to a question from Alan when Alan answers his question, Alan begins to open up about his family background: his mother Dora (Plowright), a fanatical fundamentalist Christian believer, and his father (Colin Blakely), a determined atheist, have improbably combined to impose a highly restrictive and repressive family life, complete with a rigid religious tradition heavy on ritual, upon their only son. Imagination, fun and laughter, and genuine love, freely and unconditionally given, are absent from the boy’s life and in their place are religious obsession bordering on the fanatical and a fear of sexuality combined with hypocrisy and furtive voyeurism on the father’s part.

A childhood incident directs Alan’s focus of worship of the divine and channels the creative and sexual urges he is forced by his parents to suppress into idealising horses. A young woman Jill (Jenny Agutter) helps him get a job as a stable-hand caring for six horses but the constant physical contact with the animals brings out Alan’s obsessions which he acts upon. Jill is attracted to Alan and attempts to have sexual intercourse with him but Alan’s failure brings intense anguish which results in extreme violence to his beloved animals.

Alan’s opening up unexpectedly forces Dysart to admit to his own sterile personal life and confront the paradox in his own life, in which to deal with young people’s mental health issues and return them to normal (dysfunctional) society he must destroy their natural creative urge and zest for living. After hearing Alan’s admission of his crime, Dysart once again faces what he most dreads doing: to “heal” Alan and return him to his dysfunctional family, he must rob the boy of that which gives him his individuality, creative being and reason for living and turn the boy into an emotionally hollow robot … just like himself.

Both Burton and Firth give impassioned and intense performances as the doctor who envies Alan for his vitality and the troubled boy himself, beset by obsessions he barely understands. Through these two actors and their dialogue, the issues of how an individual must suppress his/her creative being, to the point of suffocating it altogether, in order to fit into and function within a rigid, repressive society. Plowright and Blakely acquit themselves well as the parents who confuse their son and set him on the path of idealising and worshipping the Dionysian (chaotic) elements within and without him. Agutter has very little to do but makes her character real enough.

While Lumet is a straight-out realist director, and a number of scenes in the film may be over-dramatised and horrific for most audiences, his direction allows the narrative to flow fairly easily and Burton’s monologues, in which he envies Alan as the personification of that which is dead within him and agonises over the treatment that he must give to Alan that will kill the boy inwardly and turn him into an “adult”, sit easily with the action in the film. The dream-like scenes in which Alan rides naked on his favourite horse can be confrontational and intense but they are done fairly tastefully; less so the scenes in which Alan mutilates the horses in his care, which (to me) show far too much and don’t seem very realistic.

The film raises important questions about human freedom and individuality, and how the individual yearning for freedom, creative being and fulfilling one’s potential can be accommodated in a society that prizes conformity and fears the passion and intensity required to achieve full freedom and creativity. Religious obsession, and how it combines with sexual suppression and directs it into channels that fling both religiosity and sexuality into people’s faces in the most confronting ways – Plowright as the fanatical mother fails to make the connection between the way she has brought up her son and his obsession with horses – is dealt with less successfully and Alan’s self-flagellation may come across to audiences as rather bizarre and theatrical, rather than as something to be pitied. While perhaps Lumet’s realist approach does not suit “Equus” very well – it originated as a stylised play after all – it does a great job delineating its psychological themes and portraying one of the most important philosophical questions about how far individuality and freedom can thrive in society.

Money laundering, political corruption, stolen billions and a secret mafia in “The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire”

Michael Oswald, “The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire” (2017)

A very important and necessary documentary, in light of ongoing financial crises in many countries, supposedly necessitating austerity programs and privatisations of state-owned companies and corporations that have the effect of impoverishing the vast majority of people in those countries while leading to capital flight and the enrichment of elites, both local and foreign, “The Spider’s Web …” takes as its premise the notion that the British empire never really died; instead the empire transformed itself from a physical entity with a network of colonies covering the planet into an empire in the abstract: a financial empire whose network is flows of money and whose colonies are tax havens cum secrecy jurisdictions. At the heart of this second empire, as it was of the first, is the City of London, a political institution founded by the Romans and thus much older than the English people themselves, and which controls the British Parliament through having a seat there and the City Remembrancer who is the channel of communication between the City of London and the British government.

The documentary whisks viewers through a brief description of the City of London and how it controlled the British empire in the past and strove to recreate the empire through the financial industry. Particular attention is paid to the creation of secrecy jurisdictions in various offshore places like the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean Sea, the Channel Islands and other parts of the world. Other financial tools, strategies and institutions, such as trusts and the establishment of the London Eurodollar market, initially founded as quite innocent phenomena in themselves, eventually ended up being abused in the interest of evading tax and money-laundering. (Strangely the documentary does not mention the use of profit shifting among subsidiaries of a company in different taxation jurisdictions as a tax evasion ruse.) Oswald and the people he interviews – these include John Christensen, a former Deloittes’ accountant and current head of the Tax Justice Network, author Nicholas Shaxson who wrote “Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who stole the World”, economist Michael Hudson and European Parliament member Eva Joly – demonstrate how this second British empire exercises its malignant influences: by enabling corrupt politicians and others to hide vast amounts of money representing stolen wealth in accounts with overseas banks, while the people they govern flounder in debt and poverty; and by shifting wealth away from the economy of making and distributing goods (and services directly associated with that economy) to the economy of money flows, divorced from the real economy. Thus as the financial economy in a country becomes important, the other economy where goods are manufactured and sold to end users ends up being drained of its wealth by the financial economy parasite.

The documentary diverts into other secondary issues such as the power and influence of the major global accounting firms (Deloittes, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, KPMG) in enabling the British Empire Mk II to run smoothly, the phenomenon of Private Finance Initiative whereby private firms are contracted by government to carry out state projects, and the peculiar insular culture of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, which enforces conformity and secrecy on people working in banks in that tax haven and punishes whistle-blowers like Jersey councillor Stuart Syvret severely through constant lawsuits.

Made on the proverbial shoe-string budget (of 4,000 pounds sterling), the documentary by necessity has a minimal bare-bones style of presentation with voice-over narration and interviews doing all the work of providing facts and figures. For this reason, the documentary could work well as a radio or online sound broadcast. On the other hand, some animation that helps to illustrate the nature of such items as the PFI or trusts might have been helpful. Historical archive footage is used to good effect and is paralleled by the quaint and slightly risible parades and traditions that take place in the City of London. The documentary does tend to meander, at least until close to the end, and structuring it according to the topics discussed might have helped to keep it tighter and more coherent.

Even so, with its technical flaws, this film is concise, elegantly made and never boring; indeed, the story it has to tell is more riveting than any spy thriller Ian Fleming hammered out on his trusty typewriter while living in the Caribbean. It really deserves to be more widely seen and known: its argument that the British empire never actually went away but recreated itself through the global financial industry, ending up with a more extensive reach across the planet and greater riches than the physical empire ever did, is quietly and matter-of-factly persuasive.

Evil under the Sun: a minor crime caper classic portraying a self-contained, self-absorbed world of the rich at play

Guy Hamilton, “Evil under the Sun” (1981)

Even when he’s holidaying in an apparently perfect little Mediterranean paradise where the sky is always celestial blue and the sea is turquoise serene, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) is followed by murder most brutal and intriguing. In this 1981 adaptation of the 1940 Agatha Christie novel, the setting moves from Devon in England to the exotic Adriatic locale of Tyrania where the former mistress of the King of Tyrania, Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith), runs a hotel that accepts English guests on a picturesque little island. Here, Poirot has been invited by millionaire Horace Blatt (Colin Blakely) to stay for a while after the detective examined a diamond returned to Blakely by his former girlfriend, actress / singer Arlena Marshall (Diana Rigg) and declared it a fake; Blakely knows that Arlena is coming to the island with her husband Kenneth (Denis Quilley) and his daughter Linda (Emily Hone) and he wants Poirot close by when he confronts Arlena with the fake. Also arriving on the island is a young couple, Patrick Redfern (Nicolas Clay) and his meek, downtrodden wife Christine (Jane Birkin): they have come at the personal invitation of Arlena. Other guests present who also know Arlena are the Gardeners (James Mason and Sylvia Miles) who were nearly financially ruined when Arlena walked out of a play they were producing; and Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowall) who is writing a tell-all biography of the actress. Once everyone has arrived, Arlena proceeds to annoy them all by flirting outrageously with Patrick, abusing her stepdaughter, arguing with Horace over the diamond and threatening Rex if he continues to write the biography. The rivalry between Arlena and Daphne, dormant since their days together as dancers and actresses in a chorus line, revs up with both women trading spiteful looks and venomous barbs even as they entertain guests in an impromptu performance of the Cole Porter song “You’re the Top”.

It’s no surprise to viewers then that a couple of days after the Marshalls’ arrival at the resort that Arlena turns up very dead on the beach yet all the guests and the hotel staff have water-tight alibis. Daphne appeals to Poirot to solve the murder quickly with the minimum of fuss and inconvenience before news gets out beyond the island. Poirot accepts the challenge and goes about interviewing everyone, noting down the details of what they say, piecing the clues together and coming up with an astonishing explanation that not only solves the mystery of who murdered Arlena but also resolves an earlier unsolved mystery of the murder of a woman killed in Yorkshire.

The film is noted for its light-hearted tone, its ensemble cast who represent some of the finest British actors of their time (and who also appear to have enjoyed working together and over-acting their parts) and the attention given to recreating the pre-Second World War holiday world of rich and privileged British tourists in their costumes, their pastimes and the popular music of the era. Its highlight is the scene in which Maggie Smith and Diana Rigg hoof it up with their rendition of “You’re the Top”, all the while shooting each other evil looks and Smith flinging her scarf “accidentally” all over Rigg in a smooth action that must have been done in one perfect take. Alas, that such encounters between the two actresses are few and far between, and once Rigg is out of the film at its halfway point, some of the early electricity fades away.

The intriguing part about “Evil …” is its obsession with maintaining order and an image of the English as an imperturbable, stiff upper-lipped folk: the reality is that emotion, greed, selfishness and desire for vengeance leading to tragedy are never far below the cool and calm surface sheen. Poirot plays his part in shoring up that false image though one has the impression he sees through that mask; it is only his own personal desire for orderliness and holding back the forces of chaos and irrationality that pushes him to uphold that image again and again and again. Thanks to him, wrongs are set right and for a brief time order reigns again – but Poirot well knows that reign will be temporary and he will have to battle evil again. The change in setting from England to a secluded and self-contained holiday resort on a fictional Mediterranean island (the film was made in Majorca, in Spain), cut off from the rest of the world, highlights the contrast between the glamorous surface appearance of rich people at play and the subterranean tensions within them.

For this reason as well as the others mentioned above – in particular, the recreation of a world now lost, and which the British are attempting to restore,  in their culture and through their propaganda, and failing badly – “Evil under the Sun” is to be regarded as a minor crime caper classic.

Salisbury! A Day in Skripal City: a snapshot of a city in shock and uncertainty

Graham Phillips, “Salisbury! A Day in Skripal City” (July 2018)

In late July, British journalist / film-maker Graham Phillips spent time in Salisbury in southern England to speak to local people on their opinions of the ongoing police investigation into the purported poisoning of the Russian-born British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia Skripal by Novichok nerve agent at a park in the middle of the city. As of this time of writing (early August 2018), the whereabouts of the Skripals remain unknown after their release from Salisbury District Hospital in May. Since then a couple, Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess, have also been poisoned, apparently by Novichok which Rowley found in a well-packaged perfume bottle left at a park in Amesbury, a small city not far from both Salisbury and the Porton Down military defence laboratory, a place notorious for various experiments involving the use of VX nerve gas during the 1950s. Sturgess died in hospital and her body was cremated just recently. Despite constant assertions by the British government and news media that Novichok was the toxin involved in both poisoning events and that Russia has to be responsible for sending or allowing this toxin to be used in Salisbury and Amesbury, the British authorities have not offered any evidence or established a clear chain of custody linking the poisonings to either the Russian government or Russian crime gangs.

In this video and also in this one on his Salisbury trip, Phillips travels by train from London to the city (noting the sizable train fare of 35 pounds) and walks through the streets to the local branch of Zizzi’s Restaurant, a restaurant franchise network with outlets throughout the UK and in some cities overseas. Zizzi’s in Salisbury is one of a number of places Sergei and Julia Skripal visited in the city in the crucial hours of Sunday 4 March 2018 before they were found unconscious and convulsing on a park bench in the shopping mall. The two are known to have ordered seafood risotto meals at Zizzi’s and to have fussed noisily when the dishes were late in coming out to their table.

Phillips sees that Zizzi’s is still closed with hoardings placed in front and guarded by two security guards. He hovers close by and starts talking to pedestrians. Most people refuse to talk about what they know (or don’t know) about the Skripals and only two gentlemen aged 50+ years offer what they know of the couple and the poisoning. Interestingly both doubt the official British government and news media versions of what happened, perhaps because in the weeks following the incident, the story of how the Skripals were poisoned and how the Novichok reached Britain kept changing from one day to the next. Fanciful tales about the Novichok being inserted through the air-conditioning system of the Skripal family car to a friend of Julia’s bringing a packet of buckwheat cereal contaminated with the stuff from Moscow on a late plane, to Julia herself carrying a perfume bottle of Novichok given her by her prospective mother-in-law flew, and finally to the toxin being applied in a gel-like form to the doorknob of the Skripal family home by a secret hit squad from Russia flew about. In the meantime, a police detective also fell victim to Novichok, was hospitalised, treated and released (to an unknown location); the Skripal house was sealed off (later to be bought by the UK government); and the Skripal family pets either starved to death or were so malnourished from starvation that when eventually found were put to sleep. The animals were later incinerated (along with the Zizzi’s Restaurant table that the Skripals dined upon and the famous park bench) at Porton Down without any autopsying done. Indeed, with the recent cremation of Sturgess, the British government seems anxious to get rid of what should be considered forensic evidence for a possible inquest or trial on what happened to the Skripals, Sturgess and her partner.

Looking for more obliging interviewees, Phillips wanders around Salisbury and comes across the park where the Skripals collapsed. Originally cordoned off by police after the Skripals had been taken to hospital, the park is now surrounded by huge advertising hoardings urging Salisbury residents and tourists to keep calm and keep visiting and shopping. A woman feeding pigeons informs him that the park bench has been removed but Phillips does not follow up asking her or anyone else what happened to it. Phillips walks back to the shopping centre and passes The Mill pub where the Skripals had drinks after lunch on the fateful day.

In all, with the amount of time Phillips has spent pounding the pavement trying to find people willing to offer their views on the poisoning incident or on the UK news media coverage of the same, he gets very few responses, and those mostly from people of an age who might figure they’ve now got nothing to lose by talking. The level of knowledge the respondents have about the incident is vague, given that they live in the city or its surrounds, and the general attitude seems to be one of indifference and apathy.

With the camera bouncing up and down constantly and whizzing about, viewers can feel a bit queasy; this video has not been edited for length. As we follow Phillips about, gaining a close view of his surroundings, we see a city trying desperately to regain a sense of normalcy and not coping very well with its newfound notoriety: several shops have shut down, awaiting new owners and businesses with an air of desolation; there are not many tourists in the city for the time of year (July 2018); people keep their heads down, their faces shuttered; and in some parts of the city, a certain melancholy is present. While the urban landscape is neat and clean, and the park is well kept, a sense of unease seems to be present.

He might not have found the answers he was looking for but in this video Phillips has captured a snapshot of a city teetering on the verge of psychological depression. Unless the British authorities offer definitive evidence and answers as to what poisoned the Skripals, who poisoned them and the motive behind the poisoning, and above all admit to where the Skripals have been removed, Salisbury will continue to suffer in silence.

A devious history of chemical and biological weapons on “Secret Science: Chemical and Biological Weapons” that stops short of serious criticism

Tim Usborne, “Secret Science: Chemical and Biological Weapons” (2016)

In 2016, the year of its centenary, Britain’s major defence science and technology park, popularly known as Porton Down, received a visit from BBC TV science and medical commentator Dr Michael Mosley and film crew. Mosley and Company prowl around a small part of the facilities – which look just how viewers might imagine they would look, if they’d been told that the area contained a mixture of office buildings dating as far back as 1916 and open-space test sites – and are suitably awed by the labs with all their equipment and machines, the secret chambers, the furnaces where old and outlawed substances are destroyed, and the labyrinths of corridors connecting the various rooms. Much of the documentary is structured around the history of Porton Down, the reasons for its establishment during World War I, the substances its scientists researched or developed (including mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve gas) and the controversial experiments performed on animals and humans alike. The story of Ronald Maddison, a young RAF serviceman who died in 1953 during a sarin liquid experiment (for which he had volunteered after being told the experiment was a test for flu vaccine), followed by 50 years of British government secrecy until a second inquest into his death in 2004 brought it into the public domain, is mentioned as an example of such notorious experimentation and the efforts expended by the government to quash public knowledge of it.

As might be expected of the BBC, the documentary treats Porton Down as a beneficent institution whose staff can be regarded as heroes and heroines working for the defence of the British nation against sinister chemical and biological warfare weapons that enemies around the world might unleash. The program acknowledges that animals were experimented upon, and many of these creatures died painful deaths, but their suffering and deaths are to be seen as necessary in the context of major conflicts such as the two World Wars and the Cold War, and subsequent new wars in which various parties including terrorist groups do not care about the Geneva Convention on the prohibition of the use of chemical and biological warfare weapons. So nothing is said about the notorious 2-year experiment over 2012 – 2014 in which over 220 guinea pigs died after exposure to chemical warfare weapons. The program descends into outright propaganda and lies when it asserts that in 1988, the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein gassed Kurdish villagers in Halabja with sarin gas (and not a mixture of mustard gas and various unidentified nerve gas agents as should have seen stated); and that in 2013, the Syrian government (called “regime”, as if the Syrian public had never accepted it) under President Bashar al Assad also unleashed sarin gas in east Ghouta, a suburban / exurban area to the east of Damascus.

While peering around some of the laboratories – Mosley and the film crew were not allowed to roam freely for security reasons – and seeing elaborate testing, including the testing of sarin on spider-web gossamer wound around an implement, can be fun and exciting, we are reminded of Porton Down’s role as a front-line crusading against dastardly secret new weapons technologies exploiting the strengths of chemical and biological agents. For obvious reasons, the possibility that Porton Down might willingly and knowingly supply such dangerous agents to terrorist organisations to wage war on governments that the US and the UK desire to overthrow is lost on Mosley and the BBC.

A more informative documentary on the history of Porton Down and its current role and value to UK military defence and UK science generally, and which does not skirt around the laboratory complex’s willingness to use animal and non-consenting human subjects (including communities secretly sprayed with chemical aerosols) or Porton Down’s links to regime change, war and terrorism, would be welcome.

 

The Bookshop: one-dimensional characters and a pedestrian plot in a kitsch provincial English setting

Isabel Coixet, “The Bookshop” (2017)

Directed by a Catalan-Spanish director, this film exudes provincial English kitsch in its setting, its stereotyped and sometimes frosty characters, and its plot which often jumps ahead of itself and features some unexpected twists and turns. The film appears to be quite faithful to the source novel by Penelope Fitzgerald.

Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) fulfills a long-held dream to open her own bookshop in the seaside village of Hardborough in Suffolk. The bookshop is located in a historic building known as The Old House (after which the bookshop is named) which had previously been idle for several years due to apparent problems with damp and a supposed ghost infestation. After overcoming various obstacles – one of which is local wealthy socialite Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) who desires to open an arts centre in The Old House – Green finally starts her business. Employing 13-year-old schoolgirl Christine (Honor Kneafsey) in the weekday afternoons and Saturdays, Green makes quite a splash among the villagers, especially as she stocks eyebrow raisers like Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and the recently released “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov. Reclusive Edward Brundish (Bill Nighy), living at the top of a hill, becomes Green’s best customer and friend who starts inviting her for afternoon tea on a regular basis.

After some months, a rival bookshop opens in a former fish-and-chips shop and school inspectors pull Christine away Green’s employ for being under-age. From this point on, Green’s business starts to suffer, especially after Green takes on local louche layabout Milo North (James Lance) as assistant. The film hints that North may be colluding with Mrs Gamart to evict Green and seize The Old House building. Meanwhile Mrs Gamart’s nephew, a politician, sponsors a bill that enables local councils to buy historical buildings that have not been inhabited for more than five years. The bill passes and the council that governs Hardborough buys out Green and she is forced to leave the village.

While the acting is very good if restrained, few characters have much to do and the plot is very pedestrian. Characters are one-dimensional and viewers are hard put to decide why Green should have chosen a place like Hardborough to set up her shop as there is little distinctive about the postcard-pretty village or its inhabitants. An opportunity for Coixet to show how parochial or hostile the villagers might have been towards Green initially, then perhaps slowly to defend her against Mrs Gamart’s machinations as they realise that Green’s bookshop is the only business that makes their village stand out from all the other seaside villages in Suffolk, that could have given the film and its characters more spine, is missed. A later twist in which Green discovers that the later admiration from the villagers for her courage and stubborn resistance and then support, then collapses when Mrs Gamart persuades some, maybe most, of the villagers to betray her, could have been the film’s climax after which (spoiler alert) Green finally admits defeat and leaves Hardborough.

After nearly a year of running her bookshop, Green appears not to understand Hardborough and its people no more than she first did when she came to the place, and while viewers get plenty of clues throughout the film that, for all her kindness, honesty and braveness, Green is ignorant of events occurring around her, still audiences will wonder how such a capable woman couldn’t have seen what was going on and tried to sound out people for news of Mrs Gamart’s machinations.

Ultimately what the film suggests is that courage, early success and the support of a few well-meaning people of integrity like Brundish are not enough against the combination of money, higher social standing, political connections and the indifference of a community, many of whose members may be jealous of Green. That a village might need a bookshop unfortunately is not the same as wanting a bookshop if its inhabitants are suspicious of reading and what it may represent: new ideas, change, a threat to their settled and predictable lives, the possibility that their world may be invaded and eventually absorbed into a bigger, more impersonal universe.

The English class system and the social hierarchy and attitudes it breeds in upper and lower classes alike could have had a bollocking here but Coixet chooses to ignore and avoid this particular proverbial elephant in the room. As a result the film feels small and not a little stale – in short, it feels much like the village it subtly criticises.

 

A narrow, personal focus in “The Tsar and Empress: Secret Letters” does little justice to two ill-fated personalities of Russian history

“The Tsar and Empress: Secret Letters” (2017)

A lavish two-part series revolving around the letters that Tsar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia, and his wife the Tsarina Alexandra, this documentary explores the theme of how two individuals’ love for each other is so consuming that they end up isolating themselves from everyday affairs and in so doing, condemn themselves and their children to untimely (and brutally violent) deaths and the Russian empire to instability and chaos. While this series can be highly informative about the Romanov couple and the people associated with them (notably the self-proclaimed holy man and mystic Grigory Rasputin), it is weak in placing them in the wider political context of the last decades of Imperial Russia, and in the relationship of the position of tsar and the Russian imperial family in the empire’s politics and society. Anyone wanting to know more about how the last tsar and tsarina were so unsuited for the roles they inherited and should have been prepared for, and how Russian society changed so much in the late 19th century that it left imperial political institutions behind in the dust – leaving Nicholas II and Alexandra even more superfluous – will be left wanting by this series, in some ways as much divorced from the wider political historical context of Imperial Russia as the hapless last Romanov emperor and his family were.

Narrator historian Suzannah Lipscomb, cutting an unforgettably glamorous figure with flowing wavy blonde locks and fur-collared scarlet jacket, does a capable job investigating the private lives of the tsar and tsarina from the time they meet in 1884 all the way to their awful deaths in the cellar of the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg in 1918. Lipscomb is aided by other historians who emphasise the characters of both Nicholas II and Alexandra as instrumental to their relationship, which seems at times to have been quite shallow in its constant and almost suffocating infatuation, even given the fact that at the time people writing personal letters to each other could be melodramatic in expression, and in particular their beliefs and weaknesses which made them unpopular with most sections of Russian society. Nicholas II seems to have been easily dominated by Alexandra, a strong, forceful but credulous woman; he clearly was not born to be a leader, much less a leader of one of the world’s largest empires and one undergoing vast social changes that were bound to generate unrest and desire for political, economic and social reforms among the people and in turn place great political pressures on the Imperial government and on Nicholas II himself, in particular on his choice of ministers and other advisors. In this, the tsar made disastrous choices in relying on his wife and the most senior ministers such as Plehve and Pobedonostsev who met public demands for political reform with repression and violence.

The documentary’s narrative style is restrained in contrast to the romantic melodrama of the Tsar and his wife’s letters, several of which are read out by off-screen voice actors. The characters of Nicholas II and Alexandra alone suffice to convey the autocratic and introverted character of the Russian monarchy and its remoteness from most of contemporary Russian society at the time. Surprisingly there is very little information about how the couple brought up their children, apart from the understandably close and often obsessive attention Alexandra gave to Alexei, the only son and a haemophiliac to boot. Reading Internet sources enables one to discover that Nicholas II and Alexandra were devoted parents, in many ways even model and quite progressive parents, to their five children but one shouldn’t have had to trawl Google outside the documentary to find this information, given its subject matter and range.

Where the documentary really falls down though is in not considering how the backgrounds and education of the doomed Romanov couple contributed to their characters and the flaws in them, and how all these factors might have led to their unpopularity with the Russian people and their consequent withdrawal and isolation from society to focus obsessively on their relationship and their children. Alexandra’s reliance on Rasputin says much about the couple’s lack of education, their naivety and inability to cope with the pressures and expectations imposed on them by the institution of monarchy and the competing forces of modernisation in Russian society. In some ways, Nicholas II and Alexandra are not to be faulted for having been brought up by their respective families to have a conservative view of monarchy and its role in society, and of their particular roles as Tsar and Tsarina, divinely appointed to ensure stability and to lead and guide the Russian people, gently at times but firmly – very firmly, to the extent of using punishment and violence – away from modern attitudes and demands for democracy and reform. Had the documentary laid more emphasis on the conflicting social and political demands made on the last Romanov emperor and his wife, viewers might come away with a more sympathetic opinion of them.

The Death of Stalin: an unfunny and insulting comedy satire lacking in imagination and original ideas

Armando Iannucci, “The Death of Stalin” (2017)

A British-made comedy satire about the death of Joseph Stalin and the struggle among his senior officials in the Politburo to seize power and become the new leader of the Soviet Union? I find that hard to believe and even harder to believe that such treatment of a significant historical figure – moreover, one who led his nation to victory over Nazi Germany at tremendous cost of millions of lives – from the British, that most Russophobic of nations, would be at all sympathetic to the Russians generally, let alone the victims of Stalin’s government over 20+ years of rule. Even so, I was curious to see what director Armando Iannucci has made of his subject, given that he has carved a reputation in creating funny political satires that emphasise the stupidity and self-serving nature of politicians. Perhaps he would dispel my preconceptions and prejudices and deliver something original and thoughtful as well as sharp and witty without resorting to stereotyping.

Unfortunately though I didn’t need to see the film for very long to realise that Iannucci has not bonded, either intellectually or emotionally, with the subject matter, and is lacking in the maturity and imagination needed to deal with the characters of Stalin himself (Adrian McLoughlin) and the most senior Politburo members: the sinister, self-serving NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria (Simon Russell Beale); the equally ambitious Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi); Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Stalin’s official replacement played as ineffectual and rather spineless; Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), very much a secondary character who follows the others and bends with the prevailing ideological wind; and the superfluous Nikolai Bulganin (Paul Chahidi) who has hardly anything to do at all in a crowded film. The result is a film that comes across as detached and divorced from the historical context surrounding Stalin’s last days and the years of political instability that followed his death, culminating in Nikita Khrushchev’s seizure of power from Malenkov and Beria’s downfall and execution. The major characters are little more than stereotypes of politicians corrupted by greed, stupidity and lust for blood. The actors do what they can with their flimsy characters but I did not get a sense of the real men they were portraying. Beale’s Beria in particular gives little indication of the vicious and predatory menace of the real Beria while Tambor’s Malenkov is a buffoon far away from the real Malenkov who, after being overthrown by Khrushchev in 1955, later mounted a failed attempt to depose Khrushchev in 1957: a buffoon certainly would not have had the confidence and the support of others to try to regain the Soviet leadership.

Most of the comedy in the film turns out to be slapstick or farce that sits ill with the particular situation that the comedy is supposed to criticise. Due to the stereotyping of the characters and of Soviet society generally as some post-World War II country that seems to have forgotten that the war ended nearly a decade before 1953, the comedy that arises is tired and not at all funny.

Needless to say the film plays hard and fast with historical accuracy and one senses this was done not to advance any significant messages or themes, other than the trite theme of the nature of absolute power and its effects on human beings and society (you know, the one that says when absolute power corrupts, it corrupts absolutely), but rather to push an ideological stereotype that damns Russians as a servile people doomed never to understand democracy but always to be in thrall to absolute dictators and to live in impoverished conditions marked by frequent casual violence and brutal killings. No wonder the film has been banned in Russia and some other post-Soviet countries: it is insulting to Russian people and Russian history.

Why is China Investing in the Balkans? – VisualPolitik’s guess is no better than yours or mine

“Why is China Investing in the Balkans?” (VisualPolitik EN, 26 March 2018)

VisualPolitik EN is a Youtube channel that posts short video clips on geopolitical and economic topics with a narrow and particular focus. These topics are delivered in a slickly knowing and smug manner by presenter Simon Whistler who at least presents well visually. The topic under his gimlet eye (made even more so by his glasses and his closeness to the camera) is exploring why China is investing in the Balkans region.

The narration starts off on the wrong foot by observing that the various small Balkan countries have one thing in common: they apparently all hate one another. Some also have other things in common: political corruption, large public debt, high levels of unemployment and growing poverty. From this starting point, and with a supercilious air, Whistler plunges into this particular deep end of Europe. Enter China whose politicians and business community seemingly believe they can solve the problems of this southeastern European region by buying ports in a bankrupt, debt-ridden Greece and upgrading their infrastructure, and in the long term incorporate these ports and Greece into China’s grand Silk Road Economic Belt which will encompass central and eastern Europe, central Asia, China itself and littoral areas around the Indian Ocean. Serbia is also keen on Chinese investment and Chinese companies (both private and state) have been busy inking contracts with the Serbians, acquiring industrial assets and opening branches and factories.

While the presentation is smooth and features clippings of videos and newspaper articles splashed across the screen, it doesn’t answer the question it asks. Sure there is reference to China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the potential benefits economic integration into the Chinese trading sphere could deliver to Greece and Serbia – but why do Greece and Serbia get preferential treatment from the Chinese, why aren’t other countries in the Balkans also clambering aboard the Beijing-led express? Why indeed have Greece and Serbia turned to Beijing and away from Brussels in the hope of saving their economies? What is the EU doing wrong in those two countries that the Greeks and Serbians hope China can correct? The  video fails to give adequate answers to these questions that viewers might be asking from watching and listening.