Month: December 2020

No 11: Five Course Festive Dinner


Brunswick Street, Edinburgh

Like many people, I have a birthday and I try to confine myself to just one a year. It does, however, seem to keep coming around with annoying regularity. In the normal run of things, I like to indulge in a slap-up meal to mark the occasion, but 2020 – as we all know – has been anything but normal and, in level 4 lockdown, a trip to a restaurant is frankly out of the question. Nor do I (or my wife, for that matter) fancy constructing said slap-up from scratch.

What to do?

A timely alert on Facebook tips me off to the fact that No 11, a brasserie where we’ve dined before, is offering a five course festive menu to be consumed at home – what’s more, at time of ordering, it’s available at a hefty 50% discount on the usual price. We flex the debit card before somebody changes their mind. On the big day, snowstorms notwithstanding, we set off for Brunswick Street, where we collect a couple of hefty containers, which we promptly ferry homewards. Upon unpacking the contents, we are delighted to note that some considerable thought has gone into this dining experience. They’ve even included a candle in a glass holder (bless!). The various courses come with a selection of matched wines, which – to me – is always a welcome bonus. As per the restaurant’s recommendation, we begin with a glass of prosecco, which is the best way to start most things (with the exception of driving or operating heavy machinery).

The starter is a ham hock and black pudding terrine, served with homemade piccalilli and a slice of fresh wholemeal bread. The terrine is satisfyingly chunky, arranged in thick, chewy layers and that zesty piccalilli gives it a peppery punch that makes it extra special.

Now we enjoy a glass of sauvignon blanc, before digging in to the second course, which is smoked trout. There are big chunks of fish accompanied by an avocado and rocket salad and a brown shrimp dressing. The wine has sharp tones of lime and peach which cut perfectly through the smoky flesh of the trout.

Next up, a wee bowl of carrot and ginger soup – well, why not? Soup can sometimes be meh, but not in this case, because the flavours are perfectly judged and there’s a thick, creamy texture that makes for a calming contrast to what went before. While we eat, the main course is browning nicely in the oven and giving off an appetising aroma.

When it’s ready, we pour a couple of glasses of a rich, red merlot and tuck into a delightful turkey Wellington, which is of such ample proportions, we decide to share just one of the servings, keeping the other for a cold snack the following day. The Wellington is beautifully done, the meat wrapped in bacon and encased in a thyme crepe, before being sealed into a crispy puff pastry lattice. There are layers of cranberry sauce in there too, plus a traditional sage and onion stuffing. It’s served with excellent roast potatoes, parsnips, sprouts, an al dente carrot and some wicked pigs in blankets, plus lashings of rich red wine gravy.

It’s suitably festive and effortlessly spectacular.

For the moment, we’re too full to continue, but luckily it’s time for a Zoom meet-up with my lovely daughter and her partner, during which I open my presents before we indulge in some rather brilliant online games, which are new to me and which, with the liberal addition of more alcohol, makes for a pretty decent birthday.

Once finished with the entertainment, we’re finally ready for dessert and it’s Christmas pudding cheesecake, which is very good, though I have to confess that the accompanying Drambuie cream is, for me, the one small misstep on the menu – it has a disconcertingly bitter flavour. I guess the simple truth is, I’m just not a fan of Drambuie. At any rate, it’s a minor niggle in what has been a very satisfying dine-at-home experience; indeed, it’s up there with the best that we’ve sampled so far during this infernal pandemic.

My fervent wish now is that this time next year, I’ll be able to dine in a restaurant, like in the old days before the world got sick. I’ll raise a glass to that and take the opportunity to wish all our readers a better 2021.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Death to 2020



I had thought that the hideous happenings of 2020 could never make me laugh.

I was wrong.

Charlie Brooker’s cunningly constructed mockumentary takes a long hard look at the events of this momentous year, and gleefully eviscerates them in his familiar no-holds-barred fashion. (You could argue that he’s been a little too hasty in releasing it with a few days still to go, but hey, it can’t get any worse. Can it?)

Death to 2020 takes me from wincing and cringing to laughing-out-loud time and time again. It’s the comedy equivalent of riding a roller coaster. For once, this is far less of a one-man project than we’ve come to expect from Brooker. There are no fewer than twenty writers attached to this project, and it would seem their best efforts have been cherry-picked. This is essentially a month-by-month retelling of everything that went down in the year 2020, but all viewed from a slightly skewed perspective. It works, big time.

Brooker has also enlisted considerable star-power for this special. Samuel L Jackson is Dash Bracket, focusing his ironic comments on the rise and fall of a certain Mr Trump. Hugh Grant (never funnier) is Tennyson Foss, a historian who can’t seem to differentiate between genuine history and random events from Game of Thrones. Lisa Kudrow is brilliant as Trump spokesperson Jeanetta Grace Susan, unashamedly denying the president’s heinous actions even as they unfold on video, right in front of her eyes. And Tracey Ullman is rather too convincing as Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Charlie Brooker event without the presence of Diane Morgan, and she’s here too, as Gemma Nerrick, a woman so odious that lockdown has actually worked in her favour, a viewer so overdosed on daytime TV she’s constantly muddling real events and the soaps she’s addicted to.

Of course, some will argue that we shouldn’t be laughing at the horror-show in which we’re all so inextricably mired, but I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. Chances are, you will to.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Midnight Sky



What a strange, mournful film The Midnight Sky is! It’s hardly the feel-good picture to end 2020 on a note of hope and yet, for all that, George Clooney’s futuristic saga exerts a slow-burning grip, as it gradually unfolds a story that takes place in two major locations, millions of miles apart.

It’s the year 2045 and the Earth is comprehensively doomed. There’s been some kind of global catastrophe – the intimation is there’s been a sudden rise in radiation levels – which means that the planet’s inhabitants are counting down their final days. Scientists based in a research station in the Arctic circle, one of the last places to be affected, are making a last desperate bid to escape, but Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) figures there’s no point in going with them. He has a serious illness and has to depend on nightly dialysis in order to eke out his final days – see, I told you it was gloomy!

Lofthouse decides to spend what time he has trying to contact the space craft AEther, which is returning from a mission to K-23, one of Jupiter’s moons, where they’ve been investigating its potential as an alternative place to live. Lofthouse feels particularly bad about the crew’s situation, since he’s the man who discovered K-23 and is indirectly responsible for sending them out there in the first place. But they are still out of range of his communication signals and he’s rapidly slipping away.

Then Lofthouse discovers that he’s not alone. A little girl is hiding out on the base. Iris (an adorable debut by Caolinn Springall) doesn’t seem to have the power of speech, but she gives Lofthouse another reason to stay alive as long as he can.

Meanwhile, on the AEther, Captain Adewole (David Oyelowo) and his pregnant partner, Sully (Felicity Jones), are heading home through a previously uncharted section of space, an area where sudden meteor storms are a regular occurrence. And of course, there’s the added irony of the situation. They and the other members of their crew have no idea that they are all returning to a dying planet…

If my synopsis makes this feel like a somewhat disparate story, let me assure you that the cuts back and forth are nicely judged and expertly handled – Clooney directed this and he’s done so with considerable skill. A series of short sequences featuring Ethan Peck as a younger Lofthouse seem at first to add very little to the story, but they do make perfect sense when we get to its poignant conclusion. Before that, there’s plenty to keep me on the edge of my seat – on earth, there’s a heart-stopping encounter with melting ice and, in the midst of a blizzard, an attack by wolves. Up in the eye-popping splendour of the solar system we witness the most terrifying cinematic space walk since Gravity. And then, in the film’s final stretch, there’s a last act reveal that I really don’t see coming and which has me reaching for a hanky.

The Midnight Sky won’t be to everyone’s taste. I’ve already seen some dark mutterings about it on social media, complaints that it isn’t the straightforward action/adventure that people were expecting. Well, fair enough, it certainly isn’t that but, to my mind, it’s much more. It’s a dire warning about what humankind is doing to the world it currently inhabits, a plea for us to start investigating alternative worlds. It’s also a meditation on our inbuilt compulsion to survive at all odds.

And, miserable creature that I am, I find it genuinely uplifting.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Dick Whittington


National Theatre Live

It’s Christmas Day, but it doesn’t really feel like it. We’ve done our best, but our family is scattered across three of the United Kingdom’s four nations, and various Covid-restrictions and shielding-needs make visiting impossible. So, for the first time in my life, I’m not sharing the festivities with my mum or dad or brother today, and we’re not seeing Philip’s daughter either. Not in person anyway. But we’re all determined to make the best of it, so we assemble our fancy breakfasts and log in to Zoom for a present exchange. And we know we’re lucky: none of us is alone, and we all have access to technology. It’ll do. It’ll have to.

We’ve also got a panto lined up, because what’s Christmas without one? Philip and I have attended the always-fabulous King’s Theatre’s offerings in Edinburgh since we moved here, but pantos have loomed large for me ever since I was a little girl. Not only did we go to see them, I was often in them as well, as a member of the Rhyl Children’s Little Theatre company. “Look out! Here comes the Baron!” See, I still remember my first ever line, spoken from the depths of the chorus.

The National Theatre’s 2020 offering, originally commissioned by the Lyric Hammersmith, is available for free on YouTube until midnight on 27th December (although they are asking for donations, which seems fair enough). We’re all primed and ready in our respective homes: 7.30pm for curtain up, and a group chat arranged for the interval.

It takes me about twenty minutes to warm to the show, if I’m honest, probably because panto is usually such an immersive experience, one where inhibitions are discarded, and our love of the silly and outrageous can be indulged. Shouting and waving at the iMac from the sofa just doesn’t quite cut it.

But, once I’ve settled in and accepted this for what it is, I really start to enjoy it. Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings is the eponymous Dick; he’s come from Leeds to London because he’s heard it’s brilliant there. But outgoing Mayor Pigeon (Laura Checkley) is presiding over a crumbling city, and her likely successor, Queen Rat (Amy Booth-Steel) wants to drag it even further down. But the real spirit of London, the time-bending Bow Belles (Melanie La Barrie) thinks Dick might be exactly what the city needs. She watches as the irrepressibly optimistic young man befriends the high-top-obsessed Tom Cat (Cleve September), and then finds lodgings with café-owner/Dame Sarah (Dickie Beau) and her daughter, Alice (Georgina Onuorah), before telling him her plan: Dick should stand against Queen Rat to become London’s mayor!

There’s ingenuity a-plenty here, as you’d expect from a team like this. The script (by Jude Christian and Cariad Lloyd) sizzles along, maintaining a delightful balance between the traditional and the topical, the shambolic and the spectacular. This is theatre-in-the-round, which is unusual for a pantomime, but works well, the clock-face of the stage underscoring the idea of time that’s so integral to the piece. It’s theatre-in-the-pandemic too, and director Ned Bennett embraces rather than conceals limitations this imposes, with some delightful comic touches that somehow make it all okay. The stand-out for me is the socially-distanced pantomime horse, which has a two-metre gap between its shoulders and its bum.

Hodgson-Mullings is really winsome, a convincing beacon of hope in dark times. And Booth-Steel is the perfect villain, clearly relishing the role. We find ourselves mimicking her strange accent during our interval catch-up. Dickie Beau’s Dame (fabulously costumed by Georgia Lowe) is a treat too, all sparkling goodwill and vivacious wit.

The National Theatre is hoping to open up for socially-distanced in-person shows again as soon as is safely possible, and I really hope they can. The sudden ‘new-variant-extra-measures’ lockdown, although of course necessary, must have left them reeling: so much time, money and talent has been invested here, and to know this joyous performance has been punctured in this way is heartbreaking even from this distance. As soon as things change, do try to see this. It really deserves an audience.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield




It’s Christmas Eve and, in our ongoing mission to catch up with some of those festive favourites we’ve previously missed, we decide to investigate a recent recommendation.

We watch Krampus. Have yourself a creepy little Christmas? Why not?

Krampus sets out its stall in the pre-credit sequence as Christmas shoppers engage in a no-holds barred pitched battle, punching and kicking all who stand between themselves and their intended purchases. The message is clear. People have lost the true meaning of the festive season and have become greedy and selfish. It may be because we’re currently suffering through the worst Yule in living memory or it might speak volumes about my own Scrooge-like tendencies but, for some reason, I find this opening extremely encouraging. This looks like my kind of Christmas film!

We now move to the home of Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Colette), who, with evident dread, are preparing for the arrival of their extended family for the Christmas holidays. Their visitors comprise shotgun-toting brother-in-law Howard (David Koechner), his long-suffering wife, Linda (Alison Tolman), and the couple’s three monosyllabic children. They’ve also brought along the bluntly-spoken Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), so this promises to be the Christmas from hell for all kinds of reasons.

But it’s Tom and Sarah’s young son, Max (Emjay Antony), who inadvertently kicks off the bad stuff when he tears up his letter to Santa and casts it to the four winds, whereupon the sky grows dark, a freezing snow storm descends and the household finds itself visited by a weird, supernatural presence.

It’s down to Tom’s German Omi (Krista Stadler) to explain what’s happening. In a charmingly animated sequence, we see her as a small child, unwittingly unleashing the anti-Santa that is Krampus: a vengeful being sent to punish all those who have stopped caring about the season of goodwill. Get on this guy’s naughty list and you’re really going to regret it…

The film is essentially a dark comedy and, while there’s little here to genuinely terrorise viewers (except perhaps the very young), it has an engaging, inventive quality that keeps everything bubbling along nicely. Much mileage is made from low budget practical effects, with Christmas toys coming to life and going on the attack. In tone, the film it reminds me of more than any other is Gremlins. I particularly like the fact that the various characters portrayed here are never allowed to become too caricatured, so often a failing in films like this. Yes, Howard and Aunt Dorothy do seem awful, but they’re believably so, and that’s important. As the family comes together to fight for their survival, we begin to see them in an entirely different light.

Those who are getting a little tired of warm and fuzzy Christmas weepies might like to give this a go. It provides a refreshingly cynical alternative. 

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom



The chances are you’ve never heard of Ma Rainey before: I know I hadn’t.

A quick glance at Wikipedia confirms that she was one of the earliest African-American blues singers, an entrepreneur who started her career on the Southern Vaudeville circuit in the early nineteen hundreds and who, through the twenties, became known as ‘Mother of the Blues.’ As the decade rolled on, she made a series of recordings, which introduced Blues music to a new – predominantly white – market.

It’s summer 1927 and Ma (Viola Davis) has ventured North to Chicago to lay down some tracks for the Paramount record label at the urging of her white manager, Irving (Jeremy Shamos). Her musicians duly arrive to back her up, among them a young and ambitious horn player, Levee (Chadwick Boseman). Unlike the other members of the band, he senses that the wind of change is in the air and that America is developing a new taste for jazz stylings. He’s eager to be a part of it. His fellow musicians, Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts), urge him to toe the line. Ma is a tough cookie and he’d do well to do as she tells him, but he’s got his own reasons for wanting to spread his wings…

Director George C. Wolfe offers a lean, powerful adaptation of August Wilson’s original play, which is essentially a lament for the way in which prosperous white record producers continually took vibrant black music and bent it to their own whims, earning vast sums of money into the bargain – little of which went to the original artistes. In the titular role, Davis offers a brooding, snarling study of a embittered woman who knows only to well how her music is being stolen from her and who steadfastly refuses to lick the boots of the men who are taking it – even haranguing them when they neglect to offer her chilled Coca Cola in the sweltering confines of the studio.

But of course, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom also turns out to be Chadwick Boseman’s final performance and, at times, he comes close to stealing the show. It’s hard to believe that this passionate and talented young actor has already been taken from us. His performance here makes for a memorable farewell but it’s tragic to consider what else he might have achieved had he been given the chance. Levee is a compelling character, the product of horrifying events in his childhood, which have only served to fuel his overpowering desire to make good as a musician – but it is an ambition that will, ultimately, consume and destroy him.

There are some splendid musical interludes, but not so many that they overpower the drama – and, as the temperature rises and tempers begin to fray, there’s plenty of that to relish. The final musical sequence brilliantly pins down the kind of cultural appropriation that forms the central tenet of this film. Netflix has been raising its game in recent months and this is another success for them.

Watch it, and not just to say goodbye to Mr Boseman.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Lyceum Christmas Tales


Lyceum Online

God, how we’ve missed The Lyceum! We’ve seen so many wonderful productions here over the years and it really doesn’t help that we live just around the corner, and so see it standing forlorn and empty on an almost daily basis. The production team for Christmas Tales had hoped to be able to admit socially distanced audiences to these live performances, had even gone to the lengths of adapting the stage to accommodate them, but it was not to be. So, in the end, Christmas Tales is a streaming-only affair.

Designed as a kind of family-friendly advent calendar, eight short plays are available to watch for free on the Lyceum’s website – and this pay-for-view special features four longer tales, streamed live direct from the theatre’s stage. The pieces vary in tone and are linked by some truly spellbinding folk tunes. We are treated to The Christmas Ghost by Louise Ironside, the story of a young boy (Ryan Hunter) discovering an unexpected presence in his house. Jackie Kay’s Christmas with Angela Davis is the evocative memoir of a young Glaswegian girl (Helen Katamba) falling under the spell of the imprisoned activist after seeing her face on that famous poster.

There’s an interval at the midway point (though of course, we miss the chattering crowd in the bar) and then we’re back for the second half.

The Returning of the Light by Lynda Radley is the stirring saga of a young girl (Kirsty Findlay)’s quest to bring the sunlight back to her winter-ravaged village. Finally, my favourite of the quartet, A Cold Snap by Shona Reppe is the story of Carole (Irene Allan), a contemporary suburban Scrooge, who finds herself forced to ‘celebrate’ the festive season by a mischievous Norwegian sprite.

There’s a genuine air of magic throughout the show, with the cast utilising the full depth of the Lyceum’s extended stage to great effect. A Cold Snap in particular uses the format of film to canny effect, with ever more elaborate festive decorations seeming to appear out of nowhere.

Afterwards, we head out for our nightly walk around the empty city and, quite by chance, bump into Ryan Hunter, on his way back to his lodgings, guitar across his back. We’re able to congratulate him, which is, I suppose, the closest that any of the cast of this charming show can hope to get to the hearty round of applause they deserve.

But this is 2020 and we must be realistic. Until we can safely return to the theatre, shows like this serve as a timely reminder of how truly enchanting the theatre can be – and of how profoundly we are missing it.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsular


Apple TV

That odd, unwieldy title ensures there can be no mistake.

This is, indeed, the eagerly awaited sequel to Yeon Sang-ho’s zombie apocalypse action-flick, Train To Busan (2016), a film that completely reinvigorated a tired genre, providing the kick up the backside it was in dire need of. As in the first blood-spattered helping, it’s clear that the director doesn’t much care for ‘less is more.’ In Yeon Sang-ho’s world, zombies don’t stumble along like OAPs, they come after their prey like champion sprinters on steroids, and they come in overwhelming numbers. They writhe, convulse and gallop across the screen. They tumble off wrecked bridges, slither through shallow water and explode through glass barriers. Trust me, I’m talking peak-zombie.

Penisula is set four years after the first story. South Korea has now become a quarantine zone, a place completely overrun by the undead. They’re very short-sighted now, but are attracted to bright lights and loud noises. Surely nobody would be stupid enough to venture back there? Especially ex-army officer Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) and his brother in law, Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon), who, as we learn in the film’s pre-credit sequence, have every reason to be afraid of the undead.

But the two men are Korean exiles living in Hong Kong, where they are despised by the local population and can’t find work. So, when an HK gang lord hears of a lorry packed with millions of American dollars, abandoned somewhere in the quarantine zone, he sets about putting together a gang desperate enough to go after it. It’ll be easy. Bish, bash, bosh, and you’re millionaires! And of course, our two heroes can’t resist.

While Peninsula might not be quite as brilliant as its progenitor – it loses, I suppose, the surprise factor that the first film had in spades – it’s nonetheless superior stuff. The devastated cityscapes of what used to be Incheon are astonishingly rendered (and really make me wish I could view this on a cinema screen), while Yeon Song-ho’s encounter with Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun), a woman he failed to help in the past, gives us a reason to care about what happens to both of them.

The film’s trump card though is provided by Min-jung’s daughters, Jooni (Lee Re) and Yu-jin (Lee Ye-won), who have developed a way with cars (both real and the radio-controlled variety) that would put Max Rockatansky to shame. There’s also a lovely turn by Koo Kyo-hwan as Captain Seo, the former head of a military unit, now turned into a deranged despot, fond of organising bizarre games where he pits luckless captives against the infected. As before, the theme is clear. Humankind is capable of behaving in ways that make their zombie counterparts look almost reasonable by comparison.

There’s plenty here to relish: there are fight scenes, fright scenes and car chases aplenty. There are crashes, smashes and (literal) fireworks. In a nail-biting extended conclusion, the director mercilessly piles on the suspense – at several points he actually has me yelling at the screen – and there’s a satisfying reveal towards the end which I really don’t see coming.

Okay, so this hardly qualifies as a heartwarming film for the festive season, I get that… but if you’re in the market for a good zombie apocalypse picture, this one will be hard to beat.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney



Apple TV

It’s Christmas… or, as Noddy Holder would put it, ‘It’s Christmaaaaaaas!’

It is a fact universally acknowledged that lots of people have favourite Yuletide movies, ones they return to again and again in search of that warm, fuzzy feeling… and it’s also true to say, that there are many such films that I just haven’t got around to watching yet. But I’m gradually ticking the boxes.

Last year, for instance, I finally caught up with The Muppet Christmas Carol and was very glad that I did, because it turned out to be an utter delight from start to finish. True, I got to see it in an actual cinema, but we’ll let that one go, before I start sobbing uncontrollably.

For years now, friends – people whose judgement I generally trust – have repeatedly urged me to watch Elf, assuring me that it belongs in the same category as TMCC and, for the same number of years, I’ve been stolidly ignoring their advice. Maybe it’s the Scrooge in me. But in 2020, locked down and listless as I am, I no longer have a credible excuse not to catch up with it.

And, yes, my friends were right. It’s easy to see why this film remains a perennial favourite. It’s the story of Buddy (Will Ferrell), who, as an orphaned baby, inadvertently winds up aboard Santa’s sleigh and finds himself whisked off to the North Pole. He grows up alongside Santa’s elves, under the tender care of Papa Elf (Bob Newhart), who acts as narrator for the tale. Of course, being human, Buddy soon towers above his workmates and begins to realise that he’s not like the others. (Buddy clearly isn’t the brightest – I can’t help wondering, what took him so long?)

When he finally overhears the truth about his origins, he’s understandably dismayed. Where has he come from? Where are his roots? Santa decides to send him back to New York city in search of his real father, hard-bitten book publisher, Walter (James Caan).

It’s probably pointless to list the plot in any more detail, since the film came out in 2003 and I’m way behind the wave on this one. It’s interesting to note, however, that the film is directed by Jon Favreau, long before he became the influential actor/director he is today, and that most of the effects utilised here are of the low budget, ‘forced perspective’ kind: simple, but effective. What makes Elf a winner, though, is the brilliant idea that lies at its core. Buddy is an innocent, a naive man-child who’s never been given the opportunity to grow up. His reactions to everything that happens to him in the big city are therefore priceless, genuinely disarming and often laugh-out-loud funny. Ferrell has, of course, enjoyed a varied career in the years since this film, but I doubt he’s ever been more appealing than he is here. Just the sight of him ambling around in that costume is enough to make a viewer smile.

What else do we have? Zooey Deschanel as Jovie, who works as a department store elf and whom Buddy falls for at first sight. Peter Dinklage plays hotshot kids’ author, Miles Finch… and, of course, Favreau can’t resist giving himself a cameo as Walter’s doctor. You want fuzzy feelgood? It’s here in abundance.

So, I admit it. I should have watched this sooner. Anybody who has recommendations for other Christmas movies I might not have seen, please feel free to let me know about them.

There are other boxes yet to be ticked.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney




There seems to be a trend for art-house actors reinventing themselves as kick-ass action heroes. Jessica Chastain, previously best known for floating around in chiffon in films like The Tree of Life, is the titular star of this swaggering punch-em-up, directed by Tate Taylor. Here she plays a professional hit-woman, adept at donning disguises and dispatching powerful men in the most brutal fashion, pausing only to ask them why they think somebody hates them enough to have them offed. It seems she has some Daddy issues, after the callous treatment she received from her own father as a child. Now she’s basically eradicating him over and over again. It’s complicated, but it seems to work.

Ava takes her orders from another Daddy figure, Duke (John Malkovich), her former commander in the army, who seems to be the only person in the world she actually trusts. But, when her unusual approach to killing irks another of Duke’s protégées, Simon (Colin Farrell, sporting a truly horrible haircut), she suddenly finds herself in a very tight corner as her latest mission goes ‘accidentally’ wrong. Seeking a break, she heads home to visit her estranged Mother (Geena Davies), her sister, Judy (Jess Weixler), and her old flame, Michael (Common), who has now hooked up with Judy – which is… awkward, to say the very least.

As she is pursued by former-colleagues-turned-assassins, Ava faces a desperate struggle for survival…

The film is engaging enough in a video-gameish sort of way. There are many extended punch-ups, where Chastain has ample opportunity to display all the martial arts moves she’s clearly trained so hard for. If one or two of the fights feel unnecessarily protracted, well, that’s parr for the genre, I suppose. The emphasis on Ava’s parental issues lends this a little more depth than you’d usually expect to see in a film like this and Chastain has done a pretty thorough job of making her character believable. Farrell, always an actor full of surprises, manages to give Simon as much nuance as he can with his limited screen time, speaking softly and acting violently. It’s interesting to note that he’s an unreliable father, too.

There are the usual inconstancies. How is it, after being beaten within an inch of her life, Ava can arrive somewhere ten minutes later, sporting no more than a modest bruise on her cheek? And… I’ll just put this out there… how can we possibly be expected to believe that Geena Davis is now old enough to play the invalid mum of anybody older than Stuart Little? Can this be right?

The conclusion to this bruising tale suggests that Taylor and his team may be angling for another instalment, but I can’t help feeling that this franchise may have punched-thumped-kicked itself just about as far as it can reasonably expect to go.

Still, if mayhem is your go-to, this one should do the trick.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney