A review of the new film “Belfast”

January 31st, 2022 by Roger Darlington

My first visit to Belfast was the week after the troops were put on the streets in August 1969. Subsequently my work in the House of Commons and the Northern Ireland Office took me there some 30 times and I met all the leading local politicians from Ian Paisley to John Hume.

As a result, I’ve tended to stay away from films about the Troubles, but writer and director Kenneth Branagh’s black & white homage to the city of his childhood is more a coming-of-age story rather than an examination of the conflict itself, so it bears comparison with “Hope And Glory” and “Empire Of The Sun”.

The casting of the Protestant family is wonderful. Jude Hill as the nine year old Billy – the personification of Branagh himself in this semi-autobiographical tale – is an absolute delight. His parents are played by Jamie Dornan (himself from Belfast) and Caitriona Balfe (best known as a model), while his grandparents are portrayed by veteran actors Ciarán Hinds (another Belfaster) and Judi Dench.

In spite of the discrimination and violence on display, the story is told with compassion and humour and the evocation of period and setting is well-done. However, the messaging is not exactly subtle: for instance, the minister’s sermon comes over as a parody and the visual and aural references to the film “High Noon” are overdone. 

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A review of the film “Personal Shopper”

January 30th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

I much admired “Clouds Of Sils Maria” which was both written and directed by the French Olivier Assayas with the American Kristen Stewart in an important support role. In “Personal Shopper”, again Assayas is both writer and director and this time Stewart is the leading actress.

The story is set largely in Paris although, in the main, the dialogue is in English. In this supernatural psychological thriller, Stewart takes the eponymous role as both aide to a supermodel and a psychic seeking to make contact with her recently deceased twin brother.

The film divided the 2016 Cannes Film Festival: on its initial screening, it was booed but, at its official premiere, it received a long standing ovation and won the Best Director prize. Generally I don’t like movies featuring the supernatural, but here Stewart – who is rarely off the screen – gives an impressive ethereal performance.

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A review of the important book “Seven Ways To Change The World” by Gordon Brown

January 29th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

In these troubled times when so many are depressed and even in despair about our world, it is a rare pleasure to read a book that addresses head-on most of the major problems that we face, that describes the challenges so eloquently and offers solutions that are so practical, and that is imbued with such optimism and hope.

The author spent 13 years as Chancellor of the Exchequer and then Prime Minister in the United Kingdom and is now something of an elder statesman and the timing of his work could not be better coming in the middle of the most severe global pandemic for a century. 

What are the seven problems that Brown addresses in a series of individual chapters?

  1. How can we combat global pandemics like Covid-19 and transform global health through a more equably-funded World Health Organisation?
  2. How can we revive the global economy in a way that achieves greater growth, addresses poverty, and avoids recessions? 
  3. How can we resolve the climate emergency and achieve a zero-carbon future through measures like carbon pricing?
  4. How can we unlock the potential of the world’s billions through a revolution in education at each stage of childhood and adulthood?
  5. How can we achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals of 2015 by reducing both absolute poverty and relative inequality?
  6. How can we abolish tax havens so that corporations and the rich pay fair taxes that enable governments to fund much-needed public services? 
  7. How can we prevent nuclear proliferation and reduce the existential risk of nuclear war?

For all the merits of Gordon Brown’s tome of almost 500 pages, he needed a good editor or, if he had one, he needed to have listened to that editor. Too often, he is repetitive and meandering and every chapter could have been shorter and should have ended with a summary of his actual proposals.

The last two chapters – on the conflict between the USA and China and on the the need to turn nationalism to patriotism – are worthy but could have been saved for a different book.

However, the central message of the work – global problems need global solutions – may seem self-evident but his arguments are compelling and his proposals are both radical and realistic. 

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A review of the 1944 classic “Double Indemnity”

January 25th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Based on James Cain’s novel of the same name, this classic film noir was written by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder and directed by Wilder. The term ‘double indemnity’ refers to a clause in certain life insurance policies that doubles the payout when the death is accidental.

This invitation to murder is seized upon by a femme fatale played by Barbara Stanwyck, who was nominated for an Academy Award, and an insurance salesman portrayed by Fred MacMurray, who took on a rare serious role, while Edward G Robinson was the claims adjuster at the salesman’s company.

A memorable leitmotif in the action is the lighting of cigarettes and cigars. This is a wonderfully plotted movie with shifting interactions between the three main players and the production received no less than seven Academy Award nominations (but won none). 

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Have you ever heard of Mardin in Turkey?

January 24th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

I hadn’t until last night when I had dinner in a Turkish restaurant called “Sumak” (the name of a spice) in the Crouch End district of north London.

The walls of the restaurant are adorned with four large pictures of different cities: Paris, Rome, London, and one I did not recognise.

I was told that it is Mardin, a city in the south-east of Turkey close to the border with Syria. It has a majority Kurdish population and special architectural features.

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A review of the 2016 film “The Take”

January 22nd, 2022 by Roger Darlington

This heist movie looks a bit like a French film: it is set in Paris with some great shooting of the city, many of the subsidiary characters are French actors playing French characters, and there is even a fair bit of French spoken – all of which won it French funding.

Or it might be taken for an American film because the two leading roles are American: a maverick member of the CIA with the skills of a Jason Bourne and an accomplished pickpocket who finds himself an unlikely partner of the action hero. 

But, in fact, it’s a British work: the director and co-writer James Watkins and the two lead actors Idris Elba and Richard Madden are all British. The plotting is pretty ridiculous but the action sequences are well-done and it’s all watchable enough. 

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Joe Biden has now served a year as US President, so how’s it going?

January 20th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

I’m massively interested in American politics and regularly attend relevant courses and lectures – currently online – provided by London’s City Literary Institute and delivered by the college principal Mark Malcolmson. Today marks the first anniversary of Joe Biden’s tenure as U S President and this evening’s lecture reviewed the events of the last year and the prospects for this year.

Let’s start with Biden’s achievements.

Above all, he has restored stability and dignity to the White House. In the face of the pandemic, he achieved a rapid roll-out of vaccines and a substantial revival of the economy with the passage of a huge stimulus bill. Also vital to the economic health of the nation, he has won Congressional support for a massive infrastructure bill. Employment levels are high.

Internationally, Biden has recognised the climate emergency and taken the US back into the Paris climate treaty. He has ended US troop deployment in Afghanistan, reopened talks with Iran on the nuclear deal, and stood firm in defence of Ukraine and Taiwan.

But there have been many disappointments.

The manner in which the US left Afghanistan was disastrous and marked a major fall in his popularity ratings which are now very low. While his approach to the pandemic has been so much more active than that of Trump. testing for covid has been inadequate and infections have hit a record high. While the economy is doing well, inflation has soared and people are worried about the cost of living.

His legislative agenda in Congress is now stalled with his Build Back Better Bill and Voting Rights Bill both blocked. The fundamental problem for Biden is that Democrats have a very small majority in the House and are tied in the Senate with two Democratic Senators refusing to support some of his legislative proposals and to restrict use of the filibuster.

Things are not looking good for Biden and the Democrats for the mid-term elections in November when Republicans could take back control of both chambers.

Thea again Donald Trump has his own problems. The House inquiry into the insurrection of 6 January 2021 could yet lead to him being barred from future office, while the New York Attorney General is closing in on the financial irregularities at the Trump Organisation.

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A review of the new art house film “The Souvenir Part II”

January 18th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Writer and director Joanna Hogg always intended her story to be in two parts and originally wanted to film both segments back-to-back. However, there were funding issues, so the first film was released in late 2019 but we had to wait until early 2022 for the second. 

While the first part was an account of the toxic relationship between film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne in her first acting role) and her boyfriend Anthony, a drug addict who eventually dies from an overdose, the second is an examination of how Julie processes her grief, which in large part is through the making of a graduation film about the relationship.

This film-within-a-film structure means that viewers are sometimes unsure whether they are watching Joanna’s film or Julie’s film, but essentially both are just different ways of looking at the same thing and both are deeply personal and substantially autobiographical.

Comparing Part II with Part I, this latter film is lighter in tone (indeed there is a good deal of quiet humour) and easier to follow (it is one film nested in another although Julie’s film is surreal in taking us into a dream-like rabbit hole). In a captivating treatment, Honor Swinton Byrne is beguiling in the central role, although her character clearly confuses and irritates fellow members of the film crew because – like Joanna Hogg herself – she does not work through a detailed script but a general treatment which invites and indeed requires improvisation.

So this naturalistic art house work will not be to everyone’s taste, but the critics adore Hogg’s work and it has grown on me over the last three years.

Note: I saw Part II at the British Film Institute in a preview screening a few weeks before general release. At the conclusion, the audience gave it a rapturous applause. There was then an interview with 61 year old Hogg whose answers were somewhat meandering and unclear. At one point, she confessed: “Really, I don’t know what I’m doing”. So we need to make allowances – after all, this is art.

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That time when I almost went to work at 10 Downing Street …

January 17th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

All this talk of activity in 10 Downing Street reminds me that, following the appointment of Jim Callaghan as Labour Prime Minister in 1976, I was offered a position in his Political Office at No 10.

Since it was a political post, it could not be paid by public funds and sufficient funding from trade unions was not forthcoming. So I remained a Special Adviser (or SpAd) to Merlyn Rees who soon moved from being Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to Home Secretary.

During my four years service with the Wilson/Callaghan Government, I never saw a single case of excessive drinking in Whitehall.

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A review of the new coming-of-age movie “Licorice Pizza”

January 16th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Paul Thomas Anderson has both written and directed a film set in California’s San Fernando Valley in the early 1970s and everything about the work – the clothes, the decor, the music, the television, the politics, even the style of the graphics – is redolent of the period.

At its heart – and the movie does have real heart – is an unlikely relationship between a 15 year old kid actor and entrepreneur called Gary and a 25 year old photographer’s assistant called Alana, but there are a variety of side stories that sometimes seem a little forced into the main narrative. 

The casting is eclectic. On the one hand, the two leads are in their first feature film: Cooper Hoffman, the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman who was a frequent collaborator with Anderson, and Alana Haim, a singer who has had a number of music videos shot by Anderson. On the other hand, there are some heavy hitters with Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper giving strong performances in cameo roles. To add to the thespian mix, Alana’s parents and sisters are all portrayed by Haim’s real life family. It’s that kind of personal movie.

Indeed the film is full of characters and events and even castings inspired by Anderson’s early life and most viewers will have no idea of most of these allusions. Even the title will be a mystery (it is slang for a vinyl record). Therefore, although the lead characters are charming and the story often funny, one can’t help feeling that the work is uneven and somewhat self-indulgent. 

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