A review of the new Danish film “Flee”

March 2nd, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Animated films for adults can deal with difficult issues in a powerful way. This was true of the French “Persepolis” (2007), which looked at life in Iran, and the Israeli “Waltz With Bashir” (2008), which depicted war in Lebanon.

Now (2021) we have a Danish animated feature which, like the other films mentioned, tells a true story, this time the experience of a refugee from Afghanistan who, travelling via Russia and Estonia, eventually reaches freedom in Denmark. As well as the trauma of this journey, he has to come to terms with his sexuality. 

This remarkable tale comes to us as a result of the childhood friendship of the Danish Jonas Poher Rasmussen, who directed and co-wrote the film, and the Afghan Amin Nawabi (not his real name), the co-writer of his own story.

The style of animation is very different from Disney or anime; it is pencil-sketch outlines with minimal colour and for this disturbing subject it works very effectively bringing home via one person’s narrative something of the terror of the refugee experience more widely. 

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A review of the 1957 classic film “12 Angry Men”

March 2nd, 2022 by Roger Darlington

If this American film on the jury system were made today, all of the dozen jury members would not be male and white, but the work remains a classic because it is so well written and acted and because its messages remain so resonant: the majority is not always right, discussion can change minds, and – more specifically – in a criminal trial, where there is a reasonable doubt, the defendant must be acquitted. 

Reginald Rose originally wrote this as a television play but Henry Fonda was so impressed that he put his own money into producing the film and took the lead role.

Except for very brief scenes at the beginning and end, all the action – shot in black and white with Fonda’s character the only jurist in a white suit – takes place in the confines of a hot, sweaty and claustrophobic jury room and the story is told in more-or-less real time. In his first such role, it was directed by Sidney Lumet whose earlier work in television gave him experience of shooting in black and white and in restricted spaces. 

Each member of the ensemble cast is given an opportunity to make his mark and, in a taut hour and a half, we see how everyone brings his background, his life experience, and his prejudices (especially of class and race) to the formation of opinions and the making of decisions. 

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What now for Ukraine and the world?

February 27th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

I’ve hesitated to blog about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I was embarrassed by the role of Londongrad – my home city – as a laundromat for dirty money from Russian oligarchs and plutocrats. The situation in Ukraine seemed too horrific and heartbreaking for comment. I wondered what I could write when so much has already been said.

I last felt this way in August 1968 when, as a young man of 22, I followed the media coverage of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. I had to wait until 1989 for that wrong to be righted. By then, I was married to a half-Czech and had already visited Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia.

This time things must be different.

I think that many observers expected the Russian invasion to be so quick and brutal that Kviv would be occupied and the Ukrainian government would be overthrown in a matter of a few days. That could still happen but, thanks to the bravery of the Ukrainian military and citizenry and the belated provision of armaments from NATO nations, it is beginning to look as if there may be other options.

There might be a ceasefire and negotiations. There might be a Russian acceptance of limited territorial gains. There might be a sustained insurgency against any Russian-imposed governance and occupation. There might even be a coup against Putin.

But I can’t help feeling and hoping that, whatever the outcome, geo-politics have changed forever. It would be wonderful to think that the world community has accepted that invasion of one nation by another is so totally unacceptable in the 21st century that it will not be allowed to happen with impunity. There will always be insurgencies and revolutions – but war as we have understood it throughout history should become literally history.

How could this possibly be the case?

First, we now have the satellite and electronic technologies to ensure that invasion by one nation of another – at least at scale – can never be a surprise. In 1941, Stalin could deny the human intelligence that he had of Hitler’s intention to launch Operation Barbarossa, but satellite photographs on an hourly basis and transcripts of political and military communications cannot be ignored.

The intelligence community – especially in the USA – correctly warned of each stage of the Russian military build-up and of the intention of the Russians to invade once the Winter Olympics in China were over. The same forewarning should be true of any future planning for international aggression.

Second, the world community is slowly coming to a realisation that – if it really wants to do so and it is prepared to pay the price – sanctions can have a real impact on an aggressor nation. Targeted and sustained economic sanctions against government entities, corporations and individuals, denial of access to financial and transactional systems, exclusion of all trading relationships, plus total boycotts of sporting, cultural, academic and scientific events and programmes, raise the bar of consequences that any potential aggressor will have to face.

Third, we have to be realistic and accept that war cannot be outlawed simply by good intentions, forewarnings and sanctions. In the end, any potential aggressor has to know that force can be met with force. We may have thought that the end of the Cold War meant that we had a massive peace dividend and that peace-loving nations could now cut back substantially on their military expenditures and preparedness.

The Cold War remained (relatively) cold because of the power of deterrence. It is an ugly truth that we still need deterrence and that it has a cost that we must be prepared to pay.

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A review of the triple Academy Award nominated film “The Lost Daughter”

February 26th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

This psychological drama is based on a novel by a woman (the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante); it is both written and directed by a woman (the debut role for actor Maggie Gyllenhaal); and the three leading roles are taken by women (Olivia Coleman, Jessie Buckley and Dakota Johnson). It deals with an incredibly sensitive subject: the notion that parenting does not come naturally to everyone, even a woman. And there is a suggestion that how we parent is shaped by how we ourselves were parented. 

The central character is Leda, a middle-aged literature professor on a working holiday on a Greek island, who is played by Coleman in the present and by Buckley in flash-backs, both of whom give wonderful performances of a woman in anguish. I think this would be classified as an art house film and key features of this style of moviemaking are slowness and opacity. So the pace is languid, which seems to suit the sea-side setting, and, while it is clear that Leda is damaged, we never learn why this is the case. 

A seminal incident in the film is the loss of a child (hence the title) and her doll and I cannot help recalling that the final work in Ferrante’s four-part collection of Neapolitan novels is entitled “The Story Of The Lost Child” and that the beginning and the end of the quartet’s text involves respectively the losing and returning of two dolls. 

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A review of “The Thursday Murder Club” by Richard Osman

February 25th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

I know that crime is an immensely popular literary genre but I generally avoid it. However, I made an exception for Osman’s first book because it has been such an incredible success and I wanted to be part of the zeitgeist. By the time I read the novel, it had achieved sales of over a million, been the subject of a film deal, and announced to be the first of a series of four. 

The eponymous organisation consists of four characters in their mid or late 70s (only a little older than me!): Elizabeth an ex-intelligence officer (apparently); Ron who was once a trade union leader; Joyce, a former nurse; and Ibrahim who used to be a psychiatrist. They are all residents of an upmarket retirement village called Coopers Chase and they meet each Thursday in the Jigsaw Room to review cold murder cases until one day they encounter a new murder in their locality. 

It has to be said that this is a very readable work, facilitated by the 377 pages being divided into no less than 115 short chapters. The language is plain, the characterisation is weak, and the plotting is very contrived but, unlike other crime novels, the approach is gentle and the style is humorous (is this how crime novels are supposed to be?).

I don’t want to spoil it for you (well, why not?) but, by the end, the bodies are piling up – some murders, some suicides, some historical, some recent – so fast that I found it all rather ridiculous. 

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Word of the day: irredentism

February 23rd, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Irredentism is a political and popular movement whose members claim (usually on behalf of their nation) and seek to occupy, territory which they consider “lost” (or “unredeemed”), based on history or legend.

The term comes from Italians seeking ‘lost’ parts of Italy occupied by the then Austria- Hungarian Empire.

Vladimir Putin is a modern-day irredentist.

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A review of the 2017 film “Tulip Fever”

February 20th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Set in Amsterdam during the 17th century ‘tulip mania’, this is a romantic drama involving interconnecting relationships that looks splendid but suffers from excessive plotting.

A lot of talent went into the production of this film: it is based on a novel by Deborah Moggach and the script was co-written by her and Tom Stoppard; it has an ensemble cast including Alicia Vikander, Christoph Waltz, Judi Dench and Tom Hollander; and, although it was shot entirely in Britain, the sets and costumes create an authentic sense of time and place.

However, the work was beset with problems: both production and release were much delayed; once out, it lost a lot of money; and it was tainted by being one of the last products of The Weinstein Company. 

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Does the Earth need its own flag?

February 19th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Sounds like a good idea to me. But what would it look like?

You’ll find one possible design in this short piece.

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A review of the 2019 film “Last Christmas”

February 18th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

This is a Christmas rom-com with lots of singing by the late George Michael – hence the title – with the main roles being an elf in a Santa shop who has issues (the cute and talented Emilia Clarke) and her mysterious saviour on a bike rather than a horse (affable but bland Henry Golding). Emma Thompson co-wrote, co-produced and stars (as an eccentric Croatian mother).

It has to be one of the most sentimental films that I’ve seen – but I guess that you would have to be without a heart not to enjoy it at some level. It was recommended to me by a couple of women friends, because it is set in central London locations close to where I live, and I enjoyed spotting the familiar sights, but it is not really funny enough and I found the central proposition rather corny. Sorry, guys. 

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A review of the new book “Bond Behind The Iron Curtain” by James Fleming

February 16th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

In October 1962, I was 14 when I went to see the new film “Dr No” which introduced me to James Bond aka special agent 007. For the next 60 years, I went to see each new Bond movie as it was released in a franchise which has now reached 25 outings for MI6’s top spy. Meanwhile, in my teenage years, I read all 14 of the Bond novels written by Ian Fleming.

It’s hard to believe now just how frenzied the media was for Bondmania. In the same month that the first Bond film was released, the world experienced the Cuban missile crisis which was about as hot as the Cold War became and Bondmania was very much a Western phenomenon with the films and books banned behind the Iron Curtain. And yet …

A nephew of Ian Fleming has now written a short but fascinating work which reveals that the Communist world was aware of the Bond phenomenon. Somehow, some months before the “Dr No” movie was released, a review of the film appeared in the Russian publication “Isvestiya” and Ian Fleming was so amused by this that he almost persuaded the publisher of his books to carry a translation of the review on the dust jacket of his next Bond book.

Although “Bond Behind the Iron Curtain” carries James Fleming’s name as the author, the majority of the 125 pages are not written by him but are translations of works from the mid 1960s in Russian, Czech and Polish. 

The longest and most impressive of these foreign pieces is an excellent translation of a critical but erudite article by Maya Turovskaya that was published in the distinguished literary journal “Novy Mir” in 1966 which was arguably the height of the Bondmania.

Turovskaya had seen the first four Bond movies – “Dr No”, “From Russia With Love”, “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball” – and read the books on which these films were based and she wrote an incisive article that dissected the Bond phenomenon and placed it in a wide-ranging cultural context of the crime genre. Turovskaya saw enthusiasts for Bond as seeking “all that they lack in their dull and mediocre lives” and damned such enthusiasm as “compensation for the bourgeois inferiority complex” and “a form of narcotics for the senses”

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