Review – The Girl With All The Gifts, Everyman Cinema Barnet, 2nd October 2016

girl-with-all-the-gifts-film-posterTime: the future, but maybe not that far ahead. Place: England; London, Birmingham and places in between. Life: Distinctly not as we know it. A fungal infection beyond the scope of Daktacort has zombified the populace, turning the average man on the street into a Hungry. Indeed, that average man on the street remains exactly where he was at the time he was infected – on the street; and one of the most chilling images of this brilliant film is the sight of them all, swaying gently in the breeze in an abandoned shopping centre like the most bizarre crop choice a deranged urban farmer could ever have envisaged. They are the decayed product of a decayed environment, where a dilapidated M&S Simply Food outlet becomes a backdrop for death and disease rather than for promoting its aspirational groceries. Hungries just stand and sway, inanimate; they do nothing, unless something fleshy comes within their orbit, in which case their senses start to activate and their taste buds start to salivate; and then they go hell for leather for whatever it is that has aroused their desire. Teeth jammering for food like human machetes, it’s not long till that living creature is but a husk.

caldwellOnly one thing can save the dribs and drabs of humanity that have survived the infection, and who inhabit a military camp/prison school/research laboratory somewhere in the Home Counties, and that’s the possibility of a vaccine, being perfected by Dr Caldwell. And what organic tissue might be the source of this vaccine? The brains of the Hungry children, who have no idea they are not just regular kids; they just wait for the enjoyable 9 till 5 lessons of the lovely Miss Justineau, and accept their regimented and isolated 5 till 9 as part of ordinary life. And there’s one particularly intelligent, polite and loving kid – Melanie. She lives to please Miss Justineau – just as you would if she was your teacher. Melanie’s compliant and obedient with the soldiers; she respects and assists Dr Caldwell wherever she can; but she also recognises the moment when the balance of power swings in her favour.

Author running off at the back, pursued by bloggerOK, I think this is the moment when I step out of review mode and into personal persona. I first met the writer of both the screenplay and the original book, Mike Carey, in December 1977 when we were both hapless teenagers attempting to convince Oxford University during their rigorous interview process, that we were worth a punt, if you’ll pardon the expression. Come October 1978, on arrival for the first term to read for a BA in English Language and Literature, we both discovered that we’d pulled sufficient wool over their eyes to get an offer. Within days of meeting again we became the bestest of best friends, and that’s been a friendship that has endured at full blast to this very day. There’s also a side issue that for the last two days of shooting the film, I was an extra; a blink and you’ll miss me extra, but an extra nonetheless. I may be seen fleeing or munching on dead soldiers in one of the outside scenes at the Beacon camp; and I’m definitely in the trailer! Two long days of endlessly running at USAF Upper Heyford in the summer of 2015; it was sheer agony at the time but now I look back on it with a certain nostalgia. So you may think, gentle reader, that this review cannot possibly be impartial. In response to that I say: if I’d hated the film I would have been in a very tricky situation. But fortunately, both Mrs Chrisparkle and I thought it was just totes amazeballs, and I will be as honest as I always am!

melanie-and-hungriesBack into review mode: so this is a zombie film in excelsis. It’s not a genre with which I am particularly au fait; but I know for a fact that these zombies have a class and a style way above those normally found in zombiedom. In his Felix Castor novels, Mike’s own self-confessed favourite character is his zombie with the most unthreatening name ever – Nicky, the red-wine loving, jazz record collecting, but nevertheless putrifying inhabitant of a disused cinema in Walthamstow. One could never accuse Mike of creating a run-of-the-mill zombie. In The Girl with all the Gifts he has devised a complete landscape of these terrifying creations and director Colm McCarthy has done an incredible job in bringing his vision to life, if that’s not an oxymoron. Whether they’re delicately poised in a shopping precinct, with our heroes carefully treading lightly around so as not to disturb them; or whether they’re gnashing viciously at the perimeter fence, rest assured the Hungries won’t leave your mind for a goodly while. And given Mike’s lightness of touch, the film contains just the right number of unexpectedly funny lines, reflecting the irony and sheer ridiculousness of the situation. For example, it takes a full five seconds for Melanie’s response to Justineau’s suggestion that she might like a cat, to sink in.

melanie-justineau-caldwell-gallagherAs a perfect counterpoint to the Hungries, you have the pure, human emotion of the relationships between Melanie and all the adults in her sphere (which is ironic, seeing as Melanie isn’t really human.) Revel in that beautiful simplicity of her thoughts and her motives; her child-like sentence structures; and the innocence with which she repeats the barrack-room terminology of the soldiers. Her presence and her trust soften the hard exteriors of the people around her, such as when you see her sharing stories in friendly chat with Private Gallagher, where before he was merely her military custodian. Somewhere in the emotional spectrum between Melanie and the Hungries is Dr Caldwell, with her emotionless and clinical need to pursue her vaccine research with no care for whom she hurts; but also with that degree of altruism that motivates her – the chance that the world may survive is down to her. Caldwell becomes a character that turns out to be far more complex than one originally imagined on reading the book.

park-royalWhich takes us nicely on to the performances, and let’s start with Glenn Close as Caldwell, because she really did make you think twice about whether or not she is just a scalpel-happy savage or the potential saviour of the world. Just like with all the film’s stars, director Colm McCarthy has coaxed a superb performance out of Glenn Close. Her Caldwell is tough, no-nonsense, wily, but surprisingly vulnerable; prepared to endanger herself in the cause of science, willing to side-step the rules if it means she can get closer to her personal goals. She treads a beautiful balance between modern hero and medieval torturer and it makes thrillingly uncomfortable viewing.

caldwell-justineau-parks-gallagherPaddy Considine puts all his natural authority to great effect as the hard-nosed Sergeant Parks, running the camp with ruthless efficiency, eliminating a wounded comrade with just one shot. His gradual softening towards Melanie is beautifully depicted, as he starts to trust her – or as she starts to manipulate him, your choice. His final scene with its quiet, emotional dignity turned the otherwise cool, calm and collected Mrs C into a blubbering wreck. Fisayo Akinade is a very believable Private Gallagher, all bluster when directly under the influence of his military bosses but revealing a decent level of humanity when Parks hears Melanie refer to him as Kieran – his briefly embarrassed look is a moment to treasure. Annamaria Marinca has a brief but very impactful role as Dr Selkirk, Caldwell’s even-less-friendly assistant. That’s one helluva scary scene.

melanie-and-justineauAs Miss Justineau, there’s a wonderful performance from Gemma Arterton, who’s quickly become one of the country’s most talented actors. From the start she’s brimming with emotion, making that really important contrast with the rigorous discipline of the camp. Justineau is much fonder of Melanie than she should ever have allowed herself to become; Miss Arterton soon makes it clear that Melanie is her character’s Achilles heel, and it’s Miss Justineau’s sentimentality (or innate decency?) that sets the ball rolling for the sequence of uncontrollable events that lead to the final conclusion of the story. It’s a superb, very moving performance, and if she doesn’t get nominated for a best actress at the BAFTAs I’ll eat my Ophiocordyceps unilateralis.

melanie-againWhich leads us to the stunning debut performance by Sennia Nanua as Melanie, the Girl herself. The very last person to be auditioned for the role, the creative team have made a great discovery with this young lady. A totally secure, supremely confident performance, full of emotion, a stunning ability to portray both vulnerability and power, and, when it comes to it, a deadly comic delivery!

melanieIt’s a thoroughly fantastic film, and I’m not just saying that because it’s written by my mate. The combination of unsettlingly recognisable locations in a post-apocalyptic era, tense and suspenseful story-telling through both script and direction, and a cast that excel themselves in every role, makes this one of the most intelligently exciting films for an age. I couldn’t recommend it more!

If you’d like to read more about Mike Carey the writer, may I respectfully direct you to an interview we did earlier this year about his current book, Fellside; and to another interview a while back as the author of The Dead Sea Deception – under the pseudonym of Adam Blake.

Review – Gemma Bovery, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 21st September 2015

Gemma BoveryIt had been several months since we’d seen a film – for me it’s a very easy habit to get out of – so in an attempt to kickstart some moviegoing, I booked to see Gemma Bovery. We’d seen its star Gemma Arterton in Made in Dagenham last Christmas and she was ace – and our paths have crossed(-ish) more recently, more about which I cannot possibly say at this stage. (Although I will later.) So I was keen to see her on the movie screen as I understand that is where she has gained her reputation as a fine actress – although I’ve not actually seen her in a film before. Not only that but neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I have read, nor seen any kind of adaptation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovery, so we came to this film with no particular expectations or preconceptions. If you haven’t seen the film, and don’t want to know what happens, may I suggest you stop reading and please feel free to return once you’ve seen it.

Gemma Arterton as Gemma BoveryIn case you didn’t know, Gemma Bovery (the film) is based on Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel of the same name, about an English couple who move to France and live an existence that parallels Flaubert’s originals. The rather fetching Gemma attracts the jealous attention of neighbour baker, the Flaubert-obsessed Joubert, who gets more and more furious as he spies on her to discover she is having an affair with young local landowner Hervé de Bressigny. Then, when he dumps her, her libido now re-awakened, she also has it off with her ex-boyfriend Patrick, who, coincidentally, just happens to be staying with nearby friends. This spot of how’s your father is also witnessed by the feverish Joubert, whilst husband Charlie, who had at first been oblivious to her wayward behaviour, has stomped back to London in a huff. Gemma wants Charlie back, but, as she is rejecting Patrick for a second time, she chokes on some freshly baked bread that Joubert has given her; and while Patrick is trying to save her, Charlie arrives, beats him up and Gemma croaks.

Fabrice Luchini as M JoubertIf you feel that resumé of the story didn’t take the plot details sufficiently seriously, then I apologise. But, really, I found it unutterably silly. When I realised that Gemma was going to die choking on that bit of bread, my thoughts turned to Benny Hill’s 1972 epic recording, Ernie: “A stale pork pie caught him in the eye and Ernie bit the dust.” Death by Gastronomie. My guess is that the ending was meant to be ironic and moving; I found it lamentable, and not in a good way.

The Boveries arriveBut I’m starting at the end. Let’s go back to the beginning, and the film as a whole. It’s not a bad film; certainly not a good one, but it’s not that woeful either. It’s well acted, well cast, it’s filmed with a nice feeling for French/English liaisons and it has a few moments of brilliance that are very funny and charming. However, it does commit the cardinal sin of being, overall, dull and boring. There isn’t enough of a narrative drive about it; Pascal Bonitzer and Anne Fontaine’s screenplay never soars. As Mrs C pointed out, if the extraordinary thing about Flaubert’s Mme Bovery is that nothing much happens, then this film is solidly representative of its inspirational muse. It has no change of pace, no urgency, no energy. It’s all very attractive and superficial but you don’t feel as though you get deep down into any of the characters – except perhaps for M. Joubert, and that’s probably down to Fabrice Luchini’s extraordinarily expressive face. As Ronan Keating might have put it, M. Luchini says it best when he says nothing at all.

Niels Schneider and Gemma ArtertonThe film is a joint French/British venture and, as a result, the conversations are in both French and English, with appropriate subtitling for the bits we don’t understand. Whether it’s intentional or not, I feel that is one of the strengths of the film; you hear the characters struggling to speak in a language which is not their own, or engaging fluently when in their own tongue. It emphasises the “fish-out-of-water” aspect of the characters, like Gemma and Charlie in a foreign country, or Joubert on the edges of a forbidden relationship. Of course, it also gives rise to some gentle comedy, which comes as a welcome relief.

Jason Flemyng as Charlie BoverySome of the minor plots and characters end up being the most rewarding to watch; Joubert’s bossy wife and doltish son have some of the best lines and create a very real sense of what Joubert’s home life is really like. The ghastly Rankin couple, with their mock-enthusiasm and refined condescension, expressed with their hideously posh accents, also suggest there might be a more dynamic story lurking beneath their otherwise perfect exteriors. And there’s the problem – in comparison, Gemma, Charlie, Hervé and Patrick are all pretty dull people.

Jason Flemyng as Charlie BoveryIt’s true, Gemma Arterton does put in a charming performance as her namesake. There’s a lot of pouting and posing, and leisurely wearing of summer dresses; so many of her scenes could just segue into a Flake advert. I’m not sure there’s that much evidence of Gemma Bovery’s motivation at any one point – just a general sense of a confined and reserved woman turning, in time, into a mischievous one. Jason Flemyng, Niels Schneider and Mel Raido as the three men in her life are virtually interchangeable. One’s good with his hands, one’s got a face like a Hummel figurine, and then there’s the other one. Fabrice Luchini is excellent as Joubert, lurching from antagonised lust to wounded puppy, seeking revenge or running away; it’s a very good portrayal of someone on the edge of a different life but not quite knowing whether to (or indeed how to) move forward. Isabelle Candelier gives a great supporting performance as his domineering and unsympathetic wife and Kacey Mottet Klein is eminently believable as their game-playing oafish teenager.

Sadly all the positives in this film don’t outweigh the negatives, and you leave the cinema mildly entertained, but glad it’s all over.

P. S. Maybe it was a premonition of what was to come, but we both agreed we’d never seen such a dire selection of trailers for future motion picture thrills. It may be some time before we head off to the cinema again….

Review – Made in Dagenham, Adelphi Theatre, 27th December 2014

Made in DagenhamHaving endured a not altogether rewarding experience in the afternoon at the matinee of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, I looked forward to our evening visit to see Made in Dagenham with some trepidation. I’d heard from one friend who had seen a preview that it was ace and that we would love it; I met someone else at a party who thought it was unmitigated rubbish and extended sympathy to us that we had paid for full price tickets in advance. Surely we couldn’t be unlucky twice on the same day?

Gemma ArtertonNot a bit of it. Made in Dagenham is a funny, emotional, feel-good show that takes an important aspect of social history and brings it to life with an engaging cast that keeps up high energy levels throughout the whole evening. It has been adapted from the original 2010 film, with music and lyrics by David Arnold and Richard Thomas, and the book by the ubiquitous Richard Bean. Knowing Mr Bean’s penchant for involving the public in his shows we wondered if there would be any audience participation in this one – thankfully, not.

Adrian Der GregorianIn 1968 the female sewing machinists working at the Ford plant in Dagenham went on strike for equal pay, to bring them in line with their male colleagues. The inequality had been underlined by the decision to class the women as unskilled workers, whilst the men were skilled. Today the concept of equal pay is a given (even if in practice, it still doesn’t quite exist) but in the 1960s, many people considered it was more important, if not desirable, for men to be paid more than women. This included the government, as well as an overwhelming number of the men at Dagenham. The story is based on the fictional character of Rita O’Grady, one of the workers there who had no ambition to be anything other than a mother, wife and sewing machinist, but who gets propelled into the world of union negotiations, finds she has something of a flair for it, and ends up conducting high level discussions with the powers that be, even though she’s largely out of her depth and comfort zone. The success of the campaign, and its effect on her home and family life, are what the show’s all about.

Isla BlairDagenham in 1968 was a very different world from today; a black and white world where everyone was either West Ham or Millwall and the rule of traditional roles applied in families and at work. Although the strikers altruistically lose pay in order to achieve the goals for the greater good – namely a striving for equality – these ladies are no angels. The character of Beryl, for example, makes what today would be very inappropriate sexually intimidating comments to her co-workers of both sexes. Rita’s husband Eddie is a traditional guy who expects Rita a) to be a good wife, b) to be a good mother and c) to do all the shopping and housework. As Rita’s star rises, he falls behind into a position in which he feels very uncomfortable. He knows she’s doing good things, and he knows he ought to support her as much as possible – but it doesn’t come naturally, and when it comes to the crunch, he can’t take it. He’s inadequate, he’s a failure; and his inability to cope with this change of power emphasis is totally realistic.

Sophie StantonIt’s a smart and entertaining production on all levels. Bunny Christie’s superb set conveys both the modesty of the O’Grady residence and the technicality of the factory, with its scenic motif of mechanical parts ready to be punched out of their moulds, rather like the little pieces of plastic we used to click out to create Airfix models back in the day. The costumes perfectly reflect the dowdy uniforms of the workplace, contrasted with the glamorous Swinging Sixties’ styles – such as in the Cortina advert scene. The songs are good quality and keep the story moving forward, and the performances are all terrific.

Mark HadfieldGemma Arterton gives a very strong performance as Rita; likeable, cheeky, irrepressible in the face of adversity from the authoritative figures of government or the employer Ford, and bloodied but unbowed in her grim determination to continue despite the effect it’s having on her family. She’s a great singer with an excellent stage presence. She is matched perfectly by a very effective performance by Adrian der Gregorian as Eddie, his brash personality slowly being beaten down as he struggles to cope with his wife’s increased status. The machinists make an excellent ensemble, although Sophie Stanton is outstanding as the no-nonsense Beryl, and there is a charmingly funny performance by Naana Agyei-Ampadu as Cass, who wants to become an air stewardess – cue for a delightful twist at curtain call time.

Scott GarnhamIsla Blair invests Connie, the self-effacing union rep who sacrifices her home life and her health for the good of her members, with a sense of iconic kindness – it’s not a very exciting role, but an important one. I enjoyed Naomi Frederick’s performance as Lisa, supporting the strike unequivocally despite being married to management, fighting her own battles to be taken seriously as a strong and able woman in her own right. There’s also great support from the rest of the cast, including David Cardy as well-meaning but toothless union rep Monty and Scott Garnham as charismatic Buddy the Cortina man.

Everybody OutLast but certainly not least, there are those famous politicians who played a part in the story. Prime Minister Harold Wilson is depicted as a Vaudevillian parody, doing silly dances and hiding behind his props of pipe and Gannex raincoat, looking after Number One and making sure his pockets are lined before any thoughts about what’s good for the country is concerned. He’s portrayed as being against the strike, not in favour of equal pay – and as such, deserves the mockery that the production heaps on him. He’s played by Mark Hadfield, a master of this self-deprecating, self-mickey-taking kind of comedy. However, possibly the best performance of the whole company comes from Sophie-Louise Dann as Barbara Castle; hearty, confident, calculating, a huge personality, and very credible – and with an amazing voice. We loved her in Forbidden Broadway and she’s superb here.

EqualityThere was only one thing that jarred for me – the characterisation of the parachuted-in big Ford boss from America. The first song of the second act – This Is America – is a hard-hitting criticism of the “Everything is bigger and better in America” syndrome, which may well be worth criticising but to me it came over as rather xenophobic; and then it gets worse when that boss starts calling a member of the UK board “faggot”, which may well have been accurate for 1968 but makes me feel very uncomfortable in 2015.

CortinaNevertheless, you come away from this show with your curiosity piqued by the story, and you want to find more about what actually happened in this strike, and about the real life characters who played a part in it. The show makes you realise the place this particular battle has in the history of equal rights in the UK, and that equal pay to women has been beneficial for both men and women in the long run. Beautifully staged and performed, with that added dimension of social realism, I recommend this very enjoyable show whole-heartedly!

e-cigarettePS. Here’s a first for us: when Act Two started, the woman in front of Mrs Chrisparkle lit up an e-cigarette, and continued to puff away at it for the first ten minutes or so. I have no idea if that was legal or not – but it’s certainly very discourteous and distracting. For one thing, the blue light it emits is as eye-catchingly disturbing as any light from a mobile phone. And then the e-smoke itself clouds the vision; and there’s also the smell, which doesn’t particularly bother me but Mrs C hates it. Oi! E-cigarette users! No!