Emma.

14/02/20

Some people bemoan their prevalence, but I don’t object to remakes of classics, so long as they’re done well. Little Women was one of my favourite films of 2019, with Greta Gerwig demonstrating exactly how worthwhile such revisitings can be. I like the vim and vigour that seems to be on-trend, the opening up of old favourites to a brand new audience.

Admittedly, I’m puzzled – and a little irked – by the addition of a full stop to Emma.. It seems affected, a bit try-hard. I’m hardly mollified by the explanations I find on-line either: there’s a ‘period’ because it’s a period drama (doh!) or – worse – this is the final, definitive version of the tale. (No, that would be the book.)

Still, I’m keen to see Emma., particularly as the poster, trailer and cast list hint at something sprightly and fun. I love Jane Austen’s novel, and have enjoyed a range of adaptations (Clueless, obviously, is the best). Eleanor Catton is also a writer I admire. But, sadly, neither her script nor Autumn de Wilde’s direction offer us anything more than a pretty confection.

Speaking of which, there is a lot of pretty confectionary in this film, with towering four or five-layer cakes present on almost every table (disappointingly, we never see them cut; I’d like to know what they look like inside). The dresses are gorgeous too, and the furnishings. In fact, it’s all rather ravishing, but there’s almost no substance – an empty edifice, just like the cakes.

It never feels real. Every emotion seems transient, every slight soon forgotten. Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) is, as we know, handsome, clever and rich. She’s unbound by the need to marry, as she is financially secure, and anyway, her father (Bill Nighy) needs her at home. To stave off the boredom of wandering around a big posh house and wearing nice frocks, she decides to indulge in a spot of match-making. But it takes Emma some time to realise that other people aren’t as privileged as her, and that her meddling can cause them actual hardship. For a modern audience, this is a problematic narrative, with its underlying assertion that we should all know our place. But this is never addressed, not even obliquely; in fact, if I didn’t know the source material, I don’t think I’d be able to ascertain the social hierarchy at all. The costumes don’t make it clear, nor do the characters’ interactions. Just sometimes we are told that a character is poor, or that their prospects aren’t too good.

The characters aren’t defined enough, either, especially the men. The differences between Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn), Mr Elton (Josh O’Connor) and Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) are barely perceptible; in the novel, the three are worlds apart. In fact, although Flynn performs well in the role, I don’t think the script even makes clear who Knightley is; I’ll wager many a newcomer to the story assumes he’s Emma’s brother at first.

Mia Goth is the standout, imbuing the unfortunate Harriet Smith with real charm and naïvety. Her nervous reverence for Emma is perfectly drawn. Miranda Hart also puts in a decent turn as Miss Bates, offering us the film’s only real moment of authentic emotion and poignancy.

All in all, this feels like an opportunity missed, a waste of talent and potential.

2.9 stars

Susan Singfield

Ondine

13/02/20

George IV Bridge, Edinburgh

It’s almost Valentine’s day and Ondine has been on our ‘go to’ list for quite a while. (And by the way, we haven’t got the date wrong, it’s just that we never go out to eat on February the 14th, when every restaurant is packed to the rafters and standards inevitably suffer.)

We’ve read good things about Ondine, though – mostly from Jay Rayner, who says that he always eats here whenever he’s in Edinburgh. So we decide to act on his advice and here we sit in the calm, spacious dining area, sipping glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and all ready for a gastronomic blitzkreig. We’re brought a couple of slices of good wholemeal bread to keep us going and there are cod balls as an amuse bouche, although they are a little too redolent of the deep fat fryer for my liking.

The starters are reassuring though: a light and citrusy baked brown crab, with cheddar crumb, served on miniature crumpets, which manages to taste a whole lot better than it looks (like a pair of demented eyeballs). There’s also a delicious treacle-cured salmon, with horseradish sauce, though the chunk of treacle bread that accompanies it isn’t quite as fresh as I want it to be.

For the main course, there’s a generously sized chunk of roasted halibut with creamed potato; the fish is perfectly cooked, soft, flakey and pleasingly charred. There’s also a half lobster with fine herbs and butter sauce. The latter is accompanied by a small helping of triple cooked chips and there’s also a side dish of creamed spinach, the latter served disagreeably cold.

And, oh dear, is there any other meal that’s quite as disappointing as lobster? It squats on your plate, looking like something from the late jurassic period and you’re provided with a set of metal tools that wouldn’t seem out of place on a medieval torturer’s bench. You set about the creature with much gusto, scattering fragments in every direction but it all comes down to a couple of spoonfuls of (admittedly delicious) flesh, after which you’re reduced to searching disconsolately through the debris in search of a few more scraps of anything edible.

(This isn’t a criticism of the restaurant, by the way, but of the very nature of lobster itself. So much effort for so little return. Ah well…)

For puddings we have a treacle tart served with a scoop of ice cream – actually, we can’t help noticing that it’s half a treacle tart, which niggles a little when the price is eight pounds – and there’s a light, tangy rhubarb and custard dessert, encased in soft meringue. Both of these are nice enough, but somehow fail to deliver the triumphant knockout punch that we are hoping for.

It’s been a perfectly agreeable evening, and the food is mostly good, even if some of the details could be improved upon. I can’t help wondering what Mr Rayner sees in this place that I’m missing. Unlike him, I won’t be in a great hurry to return.

3. 8 stars

Philip Caveney

Trojan Horse

12/02/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

This is the second piece of work we’ve seen by LUNG, the verbatim theatre company that works to ‘shine a light on political, social and economic issues in modern Britain using people’s actual words to tell their stories.’ Last year, Who Cares? –  a heartbreaking play about Manchester’s young carers – succeeded in raising our awareness of the plight of 700,000 youngsters nationwide; tonight, Trojan Horse lifts the lid on a controversial news story we’d all but forgotten.

In 2013, an anonymous letter was sent to Birmingham city council, implying that there was a Muslim conspiracy to ‘Islamify’ state schools in Birmingham: a deliberate and concerted effort to force out non-Muslim staff and governors and implement a hard-line agenda. Clearly, such an allegation had to be investigated. Equally clearly, the investigation needed to be fair, objective and professional, as well as robust – and certainly free from political baggage.

Sadly, this was not the case. Park View’s OFSTED ranking went from Outstanding to Inadequate overnight. Teachers’ and head teachers’ careers were destroyed. The children – from one of the most deprived areas in Britain – emerged as collateral. An ideological war was being fought, and they were caught in the crossfire.

In this compelling drama by Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead, hundreds of hours of interviews are distilled into composite characters, representing teachers, governors, pupils, council workers and inspectors. While contemporary narratives focused on the accusers’ perspectives – with tabloids shrieking about compulsory prayers and segregation – Trojan Horse gives us a chance to hear voices from the other side, from those directly implicated and affected by the claims. And it’s a shocking story.

Some concerns, it seems, were justified. Even by his own words, Tahir Alam (Qasim Mahmood) seems to have misunderstood the remit and parameters of what a governor should do, taking credit for turning schools around and creating an aspirational culture. There’s no doubt that Park View was transformed – with an A*- C GCSE pass rate that leapt from 4% to 76% – but surely any accolades belong to the leadership team and staff; surely it’s their hard work and dedication that will have made the difference?

Other issues, however, were clearly fuelled by Islamophobia. In-class gender segregation, for example, was deemed to be a problem. But, as council worker Jess (Komal Amin) points out, no one was complaining about entirely separate schools attended by boys and girls in predominantly white catchment areas. It was claimed that the curriculum was being narrowed, with music and drama sidelined in favour of more academic subjects such as English and maths. The schools disputed this but, even if it were true, this was – ironically – in line with Michael Gove’s own plans: arts subjects have been systemically demoted in the state system over the last decade. To be clear, I truly believe both segregation and a lack of arts provision are wrong. But they’re not more wrong in Muslim schools than they are anywhere else.

Such is the power of this piece that, even here, I find myself focusing on the issues raised rather than reviewing the drama. But I suppose this points to its success. Yes, it’s well acted; yes, the direction is nimble and fluid. But the point, surely, is to let us hear from those who have been silenced, and to open our eyes to the agenda that shape the news we read.

Trojan Horse is currently on its second tour of the UK, which will culminate in a potentially cataclysmic performance in Westminster. I wonder if Gove will dare to attend?

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Peter Pan Goes Wrong

11/02/20

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? That excruciatingly bad theatre performance in the local village hall where everything goes wrong – the actors can’t act, the singers can’t sing and the dancers can’t dance. The makeshift props have a habit of collapsing at key moments and the lighting and sound cues are completely out of control. This, of course, is the kind of stuff that fuels Mischief Theatre’s productions, and is at the heart of their meteoric success since 2013’s The Play That Goes Wrong.

With Peter Pan Goes Wrong, things have taken a palpable step up. Perhaps it’s simply because it’s based on an established classic, or maybe they are learning to push the boundaries of what they do, but – whatever the reason – the gags are more confidently staged, while some of the ‘accidents’ look convincing enough to make me wince. It’s an ensemble piece so it’s hard to pick out individual performances, but I do laugh muchly at Katy Daghorn’s exaggerated physicality in the role of Wendy and I love the way that both Max “Only There Because His Dad Is An Investor In The Show” Bennett (Tom Babbage), and Lucy “The Co-director’s Daughter Who Suffers From Stage Fright” Grove (Georgia Bradly) are given the opportunity to milk the audience’s sympathy.

Of course, since Peter Pan productions famously involve wire work, there’s plenty of scope for the titular hero to flail helplessly around above his co-stars heads, and the idea is exploited to the full. Also, a pirate ship number – which brilliantly utilises an out-of-control revolving stage – builds to a frenetic and highly inventive climax that has me laughing so hard I nearly fall off my seat.

Here’s the proof that getting things wrong in the theatre can sometimes pay off handsomely.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Bait

11/02/20

We think we’ve missed Bait but, as we walk past the Odeon on Lothian Road this morning, Philip notices there’s a screening at 11am. We’re not working today, and the sky is too full of sleet to make outdoor pursuits attractive. So in we go, down a spiral staircase and into a crowded cinema.

The film is about to start. We’re barely settled in our seats before the opening credits roll, and this foreboding tale begins. We find ourselves in a tiny Cornish village, where Martin (Edward Rowe) is a fisherman scratching a living without a boat. He works tirelessly, using a beach seine and a single lobster pot, selling his catch door-to-door, saving the cash payments in a tin marked ‘Boat.’ His brother, Steven (Giles King), has repurposed their late father’s vessel as a tourist tripper, but Martin wants no part in that enterprise. He’s resentful of the rich incomers, epitomised by Sandra and Tim (Mary Woodvine and Simon Shepherd), who’ve bought up all the pretty quayside properties so they can rent them out to others like themselves (‘One of them was so posh, I honestly thought he was German,’ says Wenna (Chloe Endean), a local teenage barmaid, frustrated by the hordes of outsiders, making her feel like a stranger in her own locale). The tension is palpable. Clearly something has to give.

It’s only six days since we saw The Lighthouse, and there are some obvious comparisons. Both are shot in black and white with a square-ish frame (albeit slightly different ratios). They’re both slow and brooding, too, with minimal dialogue and brutally realistic depictions of manual work. But Bait is a far superior film, at once broader in outlook and more particular.

It’s utterly compelling, the extended silences are excruciating, the characterisation painfully believable. The moneyed visitors are blinkered, ignorant of the devastation their presence has wrought on this small community, confident that their payments entitle them to what they want. But they’re not caricatures: we witness Sandra’s guilt as she glimpses what Martin is up against; we hear Tim’s justification about the business he’s bringing to the village he has grown to love. It’s just that the two ways of life are incompatible and, as ever, it’s the poor and working class who end up dispossessed.

Although the setting is contemporary, the film looks like a 1950s documentary, all scratchy  and old-fashioned, adding to the sense that what Martin wants is – irrevocably – in the past. His nephew, Neil (Isaac Woodvine), hankers after what is gone as well, although that doesn’t stop him hooking up with Sandra’s daughter, Katie (Georgia Ellory), much to her brother Hugo (Jowan Jacobs)’s dismay. The scene is set for a perfect storm…

Bait is a splendid example of low-budget independent film-making, and writer/director Mark Jenkin is clearly one to watch.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

10/02/20

The main problem with Marielle Henner’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood for UK audiences is one of recognition. TV presenter Mister Rogers was a key part of the formative years of millions of children across America. Imagine if you will, Brian Cant from Play Away and Geoffrey from Rainbow – bundled into one avuncular package – and you’ll have some idea of the kind of person we’re talking about. And who do you get to play one of the nicest guys in history? Well, Tom Hanks, obviously.

But actually this story is mostly about Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a journalist for Esquire magazine and a man with deep family issues – the kind that lead to him having a fist fight with his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper) at his sister’s wedding, for example. He’s clearly not a happy bunny. He’s also a new dad, struggling to come to terms with his baby son’s needs and leaving most of the heavy lifting to his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson).

When Lloyd is dispatched to interview and write a feature on the aforementioned Fred Rogers, he’s initially horrified. He’s more the kind of writer to pen a character assassination than a puff piece. He’s convinced that Rogers must have some dark and nasty secret. (Looking back at many of my childhood heroes, I’m with him on this one.) So imagine his surprise when it turns out that Fred Rogers is every bit as nice as his TV persona. Indeed, according to Rogers, there is no persona. What you see is what you get.

And the more Lloyd spends time with him, the more the hard-bitten journalist begins to heal…

This is a warm hug of a movie, which attempts to walk a perilous tightrope between emotion and corn (if it occasionally strays into the latter, well perhaps that’s just my cynical Brit personality kicking in). There’s actually quite a lot to like here. I particularly enjoy the use of shonky scale models whenever the proceedings venture outside – models like this were an integral ingredient of Mister Roger’s Neighbourhood – and there are nice performances from all concerned.

But, perhaps not surprisingly, it’s Hanks who takes the lion’s share of the attention here, portraying Fred Rogers as an intense, engimatic and (it must be said) faintly creepy guy, who appears to have the wisdom of the ages simmering quietly within him. Check out the moment when Fred and Lloyd enjoy ‘a minute’s silence’ in a cafe. For a very long space of time, Hanks just stares intently into the camera lens and somehow succeeds in giving me chills. Odd then, that his recent Oscar nomination was in the ‘best supporting actor’ category.

This is by no means a perfect film, and better knowledge of its subject matter would help no end, but it’s nonetheless worth catching, even if (like us, on this snowy Edinburgh afternoon) you have to walk through a blizzard to see it. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood? That’s rich!

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Parasite

07/02/20

I’ve long been a fan of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. His 2006 film, The Host remains one of my all-time favourite creature features, while both Okja and Snowpiercer, though not perfect, are the work of a director who’s always ready to break new ground and look for the unexpected in every situation. With Parasite, however, he takes a giant step into the stratosphere. This is filmmaking at its most inventive. Little wonder it’s hotly tipped to lift the Oscar for best international film and, possibly,  the biggest prize of them all.

It’s the story of two families – one poor, one rich – and their interactions with each other. The Ki family are down-on-their luck, all four of them unemployed, living a squalid existence in a stinkbug-infested basement and reduced to hacking the wifi signals of their neighbours in order to find out what’s happening in the world.

Then young Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) is unexpectedly handed a lifeline by his student friend, who asks him to take over as English tutor to the daughter of a wealthy family, the Parks, who live in a super-swish uptown house. Ki-woo is not qualified to do the work, but his sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), is a dab hand on the computer and easily runs him up some fake documentation. He charms the gullible Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong) into employing him and, when he finds out that her troubled young son has artistic aspirations, Ki-woo seizes the opportunity to bring in his sister as an ‘art tutor’ called Jessica.

From there, it isn’t long before the conniving kids have managed to instal their father as the family’s chauffeur and their mother as a replacement for the Park’s long-term housekeeper. So far, what we have is a very enjoyable story about a cunning deception, played for laughs and endlessly inventive as the home invaders, driven by the desperation of their own poverty, use ever more complicated ruses to assert their dominance over their rich employers.

But it’s at this point that the story takes a much darker turn, stepping in out of left field and slapping the viewer hard. It would be a crime to reveal anything more of the plot; suffice to say that what emerges is a brilliant study of class and privilege – an examination of the harsh, uncrossable wastelands that lie between the haves and the have-nots. The brilliance of the script is that you still feel sympathy for the confidence tricksters, no matter what depths they sink to in order to maintain their deception. Neither are the Parks depicted as monsters; they are just over-privileged, and oblivious to the fact that they’re treating their employees as disposable commodities.

As the story gallops towards its shocking climax, there’s barely time to catch your breath – and there’s a wistful, aching coda that has me leaving the cinema with a tear in my eye. Parasite is not only a landmark event for Asian cinema, it’s the work of a brilliant director at the height of his game. Those who are put off by subtitles should note that it really doesn’t matter here. See this version, before the inevitable American remake appears.

5 stars

Philip Caveney