The Handmaiden: Director’s Cut

14/04/17

The term ‘masterpiece’ is often used but I’ve rarely seen a film more deserving of that word that Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. It’s a sumptuous, sensual and occasionally audacious slice of melodrama, a loose adaptation of Sarah Water’s novel, Fingersmith. That book, of course, is set in Victorian London, but here the story is transposed to Korea in the 1930s, when the country was under Japanese occupation. To say that the adaptation works well, would be an understatement. It’s an inspired idea that plays like a dream.

Sookee (Tae-re Kim) is hired to be the handmaiden to reclusive Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) and the two women quickly form a powerful bond, one that develops into a full-blown relationship. To say any more about the plot would do the film a disservice; suffice to say, that some way into proceedings, we flash back to scenes we only glimpsed in the film’s opening moments and are given more information – Sookee’s employment, it turns out, is not as innocent as it might at first appear. From this point, Park Chan-wook seems to delight in constantly pulling the rug out from under us. No sooner have we begun to accept a new tranche of information, then we are obliged to rethink it as earlier scenes are revisited with the addition of a few small points we missed out on first time around. It’s a brilliant technique and, despite this being the extended Director’s Cut, nearly three hours in duration, the film never loses momentum, but holds you spellbound for its entire run.

Those of a prudish persuasion should be warned that The Handmaiden is an unashamedly erotic movie – there are explicit sexual scenes here that fully test the boundaries of that 18 certificate, but it’s important to say that this aspect of the film never feels prurient – indeed, the relationship between Sookee and Hideko is perhaps the most joyful and ‘pure’ aspect of the story. Contrast it with the conduct of the male protagonists: the cunning and deceitful Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Hah) – who weaves a merciless tangled web in order to enrich himself – and the frankly repellent Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo) – a man who has devoted his life to the pursuit of printed pornography and who has made his niece, Hideko, do unspeakable things from childhood; the true love the women share is something to be celebrated.

And this sensual quality goes further than just the sex scenes. It’s in pretty much every frame of the lush cinematography, the gorgeous period costumes, the musical score. Korean movies are currently making waves across the film industry, but The Handmaiden has everything it needs to create a real tsunami. And a masterpiece? Oh, yes, most assuredly. If this comes to a big screen anywhere near you, don’t miss it.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Beauty and the Beast

13/04/17

We’re a little late to the party on this one, finally sitting down to watch Disney’s live action remake of Beauty and the Beast almost a full month after its UK release. Still, even without our patronage, it’s been a rip-roaring success, and so we’re able to pick from a plethora of performance times at our local Cineworld, despite the passage of time.

And it’s easy to see why this film has been so well-received. It’s lovely. Emma Watson is a perfect Belle for the modern age, conferring a sense of agency and autonomy without undermining the source material. And the CGI animations are just so very Disney – cheeky and cute and oozing personality. Sure, there’s an enchanted castle full of emotional manipulation here, but would we have it any other way?

I can’t compare this new version to the much-loved cartoon, because – gasp! – I’ve never seen the earlier incarnation of the tale. Philip tells me that it’s pretty much a frame-by-frame copy, with only subtle changes applied to reflect twenty-first century ideologies. For example, the much-vaunted ‘openly gay character’ turns out to be Le Fou, whose homosexuality is a lot less ‘open’ than I’d imagined from the on-line fervour it elicited (admiration for Gaston, and a flirtatious glance during the finale dance). I guess it’s a step in the right direction, but it seems unnecessarily restrained. This is 2017. LGBTQ characters don’t need to be so hidden and covert, do they? Still, even baby steps move us forward – and this is a film with a good heart.

Dan Stevens imbues the Beast with a deep humanity; Luke Evans relishes in denying Gaston has a heart at all. Both male leads are played with real aplomb, nimbly treading the fine line between stock-character and depth. I’m particularly fond of Kevin Kline’s bumbling Maurice; he’s just so incredibly appealing despite his neediness – no wonder Belle feels so responsible for him.

The music is great – memorable and catchy and beautifully performed (is there anything Watson can’t do?). And the choreography of the crowd scenes is truly breathtaking. This is Disney doing what Disney does, with such confidence and assurance that success was always inevitable.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Colquhoun’s Restaurant

11/04/17

Lodge on Loch Lomond, Luss

We’re near Loch Lomond for holiday purposes and, despite the fact that we’ve read ominous advance predictions of near biblical rainfall for our entire visit, the weather has been mostly very pleasant. We’ve spent the days yomping to the top of hills, sailing the loch, wandering along remote forest trails and visiting historic sites, all of which tend to promote a healthy appetite. After a couple of days of happily self-catering, our thoughts inevitably turn to the prandial and we decide that dinner out is in order – and wouldn’t it be a shame to visit this part of the country and not sample the culinary wares? That’s our excuse, anyway.

Colquhoun’s is housed in a hotel, The Lodge on Loch Lomond and, as the name would suggest, dining there does offer customers a special perk, namely a grandstand view of the loch itself, in all its shape-shifting glory. As we sit there perusing our menus, the loch runs effortlessly through a varied selection of weather conditions, from brilliant sunlight, to all misty and mysterious; if we were rating this place purely on its setting it would easily achieve top marks.

The starters are somewhat short of top marks, though. Susan has the Queenie scallops, which look delightful, prettily served on sea shells. They are delicately flavoured and nicely cooked – but the chef has seen fit to cover them with a crunchy savoury topping which is unpleasantly oily; this mars the experience somewhat. Likewise, my starter of rabbit and leek terrine, though tasty enough, comes with two thick slabs of dry oatmeal bread and a handful of undressed rocket. It’s not awful, you understand, but neither is it top notch fare.

Happily, the main courses prove to be a big step up from this. Susan opts for the pork shoulder, which is cooked Chinese-style, floating in a thick bacon broth, richly aromatic with soy and ginger. It’s accompanied by noodles, squid, kimchi and crispy pig ears. It’s all nicely done, though those pig-ears (more chewy than crispy) certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. The squid however is perfect, quite the nicest we’ve had anywhere. My buttermilk-fried Galloway pheasant is also beautifully prepared, succulent and tender and served with roasted pheasant boudin, plums, figs, parsnips and a hazelnut dukka.  These two dishes are much more complex and satisfying than their predecessors and we start to think that maybe we chose a keeper after all.

And then along come the puddings and once again, if this review was based purely on them… Susan’s apple comprises a delicious vanilla apple mousse, accompanied by a tiny toffee apple, a sweet sugary doughnut and a scoop of apple sorbet. (The tiny apples are Kenyan, a friendly waitress tells us, as is the pastry chef and this is, apparently, his signature sweet). I go for chocolate and that single word fails to do justice to what actually sits on my plate – a gooey dark chocolate pave, with peanut butter, banana ice cream and cocao nib tuille. These are seriously good confections, which quickly banish memories of those inferior starters. Plates are very nearly licked clean.

If you’re around Loch Lomond at any point, and in the market for a spot of fine dining, this is worth further investigation- especially those magnificent desserts.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

A Number

08/04/17

Caryl Churchill’s play is a meditation on the nature of identity, presented here in partnership with Edinburgh’s International Science Festival. Concise, punchy and extraordinarily thought-provoking, it’s set somewhere in the near future and consists of a series of conversations between two characters… or more accurately, between four characters because the play is about cloning and its implications.

The staging is sparse and unsettling. A claustrophobic boxlike space is inset onto the bigger stage of The Lyceum Theatre. The floor inclines sharply upwards and there is little in the way of props: a couple of wooden chairs, three doorways, a bare light bulb. As we join the story, Bernard 1 (Brian Ferguson) is midway through a conversation with his ‘father’, Salter (Peter Forbes). Bernard has just discovered that he is not Salter’s original birth son but a clone created from the genes of an original child, who, Salter tells him, died in a car crash. More unsettlingly, Bernard is not a singular clone but one of ‘a number’ (probably more than twenty) that were created at the same time, without Salter’s knowledge or permission. Bernard is just coming to the realisation that there’s a score of identical copies of him somewhere out there and the thought of it is driving him mad…

Churchill’s dialogue is, as ever, beautifully crafted, lots of overlapping thoughts and fragmented sentences, ideas hinted at but never overstated. Scenes are interrupted by sudden flares of light, which surprise the audience every time they occur. The two actors portray their characters brilliantly and if there’s a disappointment here, it’s only that the play is over too quickly – I was left wishing that there could be another hour of this to relish and that I could have met a few more of those clones. But as the saying goes, that’s all she wrote.

Those who love Churchill’s writing should take the opportunity to catch this rarely seen work. It will stay with you long after the cast have taken their bows.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Raw

07/04/17

Raw is a feminist cannibal movie – not an overpopulated genre, but one which, on the basis of this little gem, can certainly bear fruit.

OK, so the metaphors are not exactly subtle. The sadistic initiation rituals imposed on teenage ‘rookies’ at a prestigious veterinary college are compared – quite explicitly – to the rites of passage girls endure as they enter womanhood. Star student Justine (Garance Marrillier) soon finds that her academic excellence is of very little importance here: “I like the average students,” says her professor, “People like you make them feel bad.” Fitting in, becoming ‘average’ does not come naturally to Justine: she has a strong sense of her own identity and beliefs. But, adrift in a strange and hostile environment, she attempts to conform to these new norms, aided and abetted by her sister, Alexia (Ella Rumph), who is a year older and fully assimilated into the social mores of the veterinary college/womanhood. Alex mocks Justine’s hairy underarms, gives her an (unsuccessful) bikini wax, kits her out in a short dress and high heels. The sight of Justine tottering uncertainly in her sister’s shoes, literally hobbled by her need for acceptance, is a sad moment indeed.

A lifelong vegetarian, Justine baulks at the thought of eating what she is told is a raw rabbit kidney but all the rookies have to do it and Alex tells her it’s a deal-breaker. Justine forces herself to swallow the meat, but such self-betrayal is not without consequence. Her inner frustrations manifest themselves in true ‘madwoman in the attic’ form; she can’t contain her anger and starts to devour those who’ve made her change: her sister, her classmates, and even herself.

This is a smart, engaging movie with lots of blood and gore, as well as a mesmerising soundtrack and some stellar performances, particularly from Marrillier. While its message may be conveyed a little heavy-handedly, it’s astonishingly assured for a debut; writer/director Julia Ducournau is definitely one to watch.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

The Lost City of Z

06/04/17

Colonel Percy Fawcett was the quintessential ‘Boy’s Own’ hero. When he went missing deep in the Amazon jungle in 1924, along with his elder son Jack, he became a cause celebre. Many rescue attempts were mounted, resulting in the deaths of over a hundred men and there has been untold speculation ever since about what might have happened to them. James Gray’s film is an attempt to give us a fuller picture of Fawcett and his extraordinary life. It’s an unapologetically old fashioned movie, one that takes its own sweet time to tell its complex story.

When we first meet Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) in 1912, he’s an ambitious army officer, stationed in Northern Ireland. His attempts to further his career are constantly dogged by the bad reputation left by his dissolute father, but he is ably supported by his incredibly pragmatic wife, Nina (Sienna Miller). When Fawcett is approached by the Royal Geographical Society to helm an expedition into uncharted Bolivia, he sees an opportunity to advance his fortunes and readily accepts, even though it means he will have to leave Nina and his first child, Jack for what could be years. On route to Bolivia, Fawcett meets the man who will be his assistant, the taciturn Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and together they set off into the heart of the jungle. It is just the start of a whole series of explorations into the Mato Grosso and as time goes on, Fawcett becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea of a lost ancient civilisation, the titular Z – but all attempts to find it seem doomed to failure and his speculations about it are greeted with general ridicule by everyone back in England, who cannot bring themselves to believe that such ‘primitive savages’ could ever have been so sophisticated.

The film lovingly recreates the era of intrepid exploration and Hunnam is an appealing Fawcett, but the slow, at times almost hallucinogenic nature of the proceedings certainly won’t be to everybody’s taste. Furthermore, though the film sticks closely to the facts for the most part, it cannot help but slip into the realms of speculation in the final furlong. The truth is we do not know (and almost certainly never will know) what actually happened to Fawcett and his son – indeed it is this very nebulous quality that has contributed to the legend.

Nevertheless, though far from perfect, this is an intriguing and sometimes enthralling production that deserves your attention.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Fiddler on the Roof

05/04/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Fiddler on the Roof premiered on Broadway in 1964, a whole seven years before I was born. And yet, even though it has existed longer than I have, and despite my theatre habit, I was almost entirely ignorant of this musical before tonight. I mean, I knew the title, and I was familiar with a couple of the songs, of course, but I knew nothing of the story or the characters. So I came to this modern classic almost entirely unprepared.

Most people probably already know what I didn’t: that the play is about a Jewish community, living precariously in the Russian Pale of Settlement in 1905. Their village, Anatekva, is a temporary safe haven, where, for the most part, people rub along quite well. Teyve (played with assurance and charisma by Alex Kantor) has just one big worry: how to find suitable husbands for his five dowry-less daughters. But times are a-changing, and he soon discovers that he needn’t trouble himself; his daughters are more than capable of finding lovers for themselves, whatever he may think of them. And, by and large, Teyve gloomily accepts his diminishing role as a patriarch, although Chava (Katie McLean) pushes things just a bit too far when she falls for Fyedka (Keith McLeod), a Russian youth. The Russians are the enemy.

Edinburgh Music Theatre’s production is very good indeed, the kind of polished amateur performance that gladdens the heart. Direction and music (by Ian Hammond Brown and Paul Gudgin, respectively) are proficient and adept, and the crowd work (choreographed by Sarah Wilkie) is beautifully done. The performances are uniformly strong; this feels like real ensemble work, but Libby Crabtree’s Golde is particularly good: an engaging interpretation of a fascinating role.

Standout moments include the nightmare scene, where Teyve constructs an elaborate lie to convince Golde to allow Tzeitel (Sally Pugh) to marry impoverished tailor, Motel (Fraser Shand). The choreography here is lively and inventive, and an absolute joy to watch.

And then there’s that devastating ending. I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to reveal what happens when the play is so well-known. But, for me, it is a complete surprise, and a jolting one at that. I sit watching the villagers gather up their belongings as they are evicted from their homes, and I can’t stop the tears from falling. I’ve just spent ninety minutes getting to know these people; I’ve laughed with them, shared their gossip and their fears. And now they’re being exiled, sent to seek another home. The slow circular trudge around the stage feels like a never-ending sorrow. And how apposite a story for our times: this is what it means to be a refugee. Not a cockroach, a scrounger, a potential terrorist. Just this. People. In all their many guises. Sent away from all they know and love, and needing welcome somewhere new.

An excellent production of a truly moving play.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield