Category Archives: TV & Netflix

13 reasons why book differences

NETFLIX 13 Reasons Why: Book/Show Review

Recently I read the new story collection, “You Think It, I’ll say It”, by Curtis Sittenfeld, whose work often features adult women still seething at the injustices of high school.

It made me want to watch Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher’s 2007 YA novel about a teenage girl, Hannah Baker, who leaves a suicide note blaming her classmates before taking her own life. Her ‘note’ is actually a set of audio tapes, passed between thirteen recipients under threat of being exposed by a third party.

As nice kid Clay Jensen listens to the tapes, trying to figure out his place in the story, Hannah’s tale unspools in flashbacks. Played by Katherine Langford, she’s prettier and sweeter than an uptight, petty Sittenfeld heroine.

Each tape focuses on one individual, and a whole episode is devoted to that character and about what Hannah says they did wrong, and about everything that was going wrong in their own lives, which, we discover, was a lot…

Because we move from mean girls and school cliques to sexual harassment, multiple rapes, victim blaming, abusive parents, fatal car crashes, gun incidents, drug addiction, self-harm and more. It seems like a lot of problems for a dozen or so under-18s, even if the cast do look more like 25.

Netflix even nightmared up a second season/sequel to Asher’s book where Clay – now straight-up cray – develops a saviour complex and runs an amateur rehab clinic under his parents’ noses, while Hannah’s absentee parents sue the school whose teachers lazily ignored a brutal culture of bullying and rape.

Supposedly a ‘realistic’ portrayal of teen life, they’re all feverishly conforming to that TV contrivance of ‘protecting’ their parents from reality, and being a ‘good kid’. Oh Netflix! We’re a few weeks into the UK summer vacation, and all I’ve heard are teenagers complaining about boredom and being unable to find any clean underwear!

That’s the immature demographic Netflix are targeting – and winning, by being edgy and smugly socially important. I get that certain aspects – such as the bullying and social pressures – hit home for many young female viewers, but the show is so implausible, bleak and slow-moving that I don’t get the appeal.

Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher (2007)

After ditching the show before the end of Season 2, I was curious about the novel, so I checked the YA section in my local bookshop. “We’re not allowed to shelve that in YA!” cried 51syyO7qB5L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgthe sales assistant, nearly fainting, although he agreed it’s marketed at young people.

It was sold out, anyway.

Asher’s book is both gentler and sadder than the series. Instead of cramming in every social issue, it’s tightly focused on the mind of one suicidal girl, and Clay’s rising horror as he listens to the tapes over a single night.

At times their voices merge confusingly into one, and the premise still feels a touch far-fetched; I think if you have a dozen kids involved, somebody would have confided to a parent.

The school isn’t radioactive, but bullying goes on everywhere, and ongoing exposure can be a factor in suicidal behaviour. The book nails how hurtful gossip and rumours can be, and how one or two malevolent individuals, or pack leaders, can dominate a school or group.

Hannah clearly felt victimized, but as he listens Clay contradicts her – not because she’s a liar, but because of her mental state. He listens, powerless, as tape Hannah goes down a reckless, self-destructive path. (“You knew it was the worst choice possible….You wanted your world to collapse around you. You wanted everything to get as dark as possible.”)

He remembers Hannah withdrawing and avoiding eye contact, but he avoided talking to her partly because of what other kids would say if they knew he liked her. He had no idea who she really was; he just believed what other people said. Then all the chances were gone.

It’s a bittersweet coming-of-age, and I think the message is less about trying to ‘save’ others, as it is to reach out, and be friendly and undaunted by toxic peer groups. Maybe schools and colleges could be easier for the Hannah Bakers of the world.

The number for the Samaritans in the UK is 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Further international suicide helplines can be found at http://www.befrienders.org.

NETFLIX: Annihilation – future cult classic or subpar sci-fi?

A meteorite streaks past the camera. It carries some kind of alien mineral, and it ain’t Vibranium. It smashes into a lighthouse: the invasion of planet Earth has begun.

Ground Zero is covered by an iridescent dome – like a soap bubble, or a gigantic blister. They call it ‘the Shimmer’. Inside, communications fail, and those who enter don’t return. The government are keeping it top secret, but not for long; the phenomenon is expanding, and will eventually swallow up whole cities and states…

‘Annihilation’ started life as the first volume in Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘weird fiction’ Southern Reach trilogy, where a nameless four-woman crew venture into the unknown Area X. (A fifth turns back.) One, a perpetual student and passionate observer of tide pools known only as “the biologist”, served as narrator.

In Alex Garland’s adaptation, the biologist – now Lena – is played by a characteristically poised, brittle Natalie Portman as an ex-military John Hopkins professor. Flashbacks reveal her cheating on her angelic-looking husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) with Daniel (Interstellar’s David Gyasi).

We see Lena Portmansplaining cellular senescence, AKA aging, to Kane. They playfully argue over whether God can make mistakes, and discuss the unusual ‘silence’ around Kane’s deployment. Kane tenderly says they will be under the same stars, but Lena mocks the idea of pining for her husband.

Kane goes MIA but materializes a year later at their home, clearly unwell. The couple are ambushed and held in a facility where Lena meets creepy wierdo Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who explains that Kane volunteered for and escaped the Shimmer, but is now in multi-organ failure.

With Oscar Isaac on a ventilator, a guilt-wracked Lena joins Ventress on the next Shimmer trip. The rest of the team are all damaged in different ways: an unkempt Tessa Thompson is self-harming physicist Josie, Gina Rodriguez is recovering addict Anya, while geologist Cass is a grieving mother. “We’re all damaged goods here,” she explains.

Inside the Shimmer, radio waves are scrambled and time is distorted. Flowers twist into the human form, deer have tree branches, and alligators have shark teeth.

“The Shimmer is a prism, but it refracts everything,” realizes Josie, meaning DNA gets reshuffled and recombined. When Cass is killed by a mutant bear, its jaws open and her voice screams for help. Josie doesn’t want terror to be her surviving fragment; shoots and buds are already pushing out of her self-harm scars, and she walks peacefully into the flower mannequin forest.

For most, the thought of being broken down and incorporated into this new ecosystem would be grotesque. Ventress rages that it feels like the onset of dementia. Lena realizes that Ventress was already dying and is resigned to her fate, but wants to face the alien entity while still herself.

So is Annihilation about how we accept the inevitable? Some viewers saw it as a movie about cancer, or interpreted the Shimmer as a manifestation of Lena’s guilt. To others it’s a searing depiction of depression, or all about Pokémon. Garland, meanwhile, said he was actually going for something on a theme of self destructiveness.

annihilation swimming pool

F U Humanity!!

OK, but this stupid thing invaded us. And although Lena believes the organism doesn’t ‘want’ anything, it’s hard not to take it personally; there’s something about the fruiting corpse in the swimming pool and the artfully arranged skeletons that feel like they sprung from the imagination of a serial killer on NBC’s late, lamented Hannibal.

Despite the triumph of Ex Machina, Paramount had little faith in Annihilation; international rights went to Netflix. American audiences – who had the benefit of experiencing this admittedly visually and aurally accomplished movie on a cinema screen – only gave it a ‘C’ CinemaScore.

Maybe it’s because of the incoherent narrative. Some claim to enjoy the fact that it “doesn’t give us all the answers”. Others might point to the umpteen articles ‘unpacking’ the movie as a sign that it falls back on making audiences feel stupid for finding it all a bit of a muddle.

Mudbound – historical page-turner becomes solemn NETFLIX prestige

“Mudbound is the Oscar movie we need right now,” admonished The Washington Post.

The female-helmed drama about two families – one white, the other black – living side by side in the Jim Crow South, seems to embody the term “Oscar bait”, with its all-star cast and script adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2006 Bellwether Prize-winner (for ‘socially engaged fiction’).

It is also extremely well-timed; it follows in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, and appears during a season when the industry is under scrutiny for its systemic sexism.

One snag – Mudbound is distributed by the inexperienced awards player Netflix, and voters apparently remain sniffy about a streaming service project that shuns traditional theatrical runs.

There was a landslide of articles emphasizing the tough shoot and the transformation of star Mary J. Blige, and warning voters that the movie should not be overlooked.

For me, Mudbound’s Netflix berth (there were no other takers following its Sundance premiere) meant I actually got to see it – while I can’t compare it to its competition, as Oscar movies tend to reach UK screens after awards season.

Narrated by members of both the McAllan and the Jackson families, the story unfolds when stubborn Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) drags his prim wife Laura (a simpering Carey Mulligan) and their small children to a dilapidated shack/farm in the Mississippi Delta, where the frequent rains leave them stranded in acres of mud.

The lives become entangled with those of their share tenants, Hap and Florence Jackson (Blige), who keep house for the McAllans. Their voices are joined by Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and the Jackson’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who are both returning from WWII Europe.

The veterans form a bond that riles racist McAllan patriarch Pappy, while Laura becomes infatuated with her brother-in-law (although unlike the prickly character of Laura in the book, she doesn’t check his shirts for lipstick, or take her frustrations out on Florence).

Some writers have described the movie as focused on Florence and Laura as two Strong Women whose differing views of the world are shaped by race and class. According to Refinery39, “both women…feel the growing weight of a patriarchal society bearing down on their shoulders...”

This is an interesting projection, as writer-director Dee Rees concentrates on the friendship between two men. 6’2 leading man Hedlund’s Jamie is portrayed as more heroic and enlightened, while Ronsel (as played by quirky little character actor Mitchell) is far less remarkable than his book counterpart.

There is a frightening and brutal scene near the end, but so much of Jordan’s historical page-turner has been cut (including a drunken Jamie’s comic encounter with a hapless cow) that I can’t work out why the movie is still a two hour-plus slog.

With a small budget and short shoot, it has a sparse yet epic feel, especially in the flashback scenes, and we get lots of stunning farmland vistas courtesy of Rachel Morrison’s cinematography (the first woman to be Oscar nominated in the category).

Blige got a best supporting actress nod for doing little more than look dignified with her arms crossed, while Dee Rees earned an adapted screenplay nomination for turning a compulsively readable historical suspense into solemn prestige.

TV REVIEW: Game of Thrones, where the rules are all wrong

Dany-02Farewell Season Seven. You left me even more Thrones-ambivalent then ever before.

And farewell Viserion! Considering all the characters who met tragic ends, I don’t know why I sniffled when a CGI dragon took his leave.

Moving on, because everything was anticlimactic after that poor innocent (Reminder to self: He’s not real!) firebreather slid into his icy grave. Sob.

…But seriously that Night King is a legend in his own icy mind. OK, he can throw a javelin, but Westerosi politics would shatter him. To defeat him, I propose a marriage alliance with Cersei. I can’t think of a worse fate for any man.

Get Littlefinger on it, he’s the wedding planner…oh. He was murdered by that pesky trio of non-acting Stark kids. Totally ungrateful of them, because there’d literally be no show without his scheming, and all three would be busy accruing student debt instead of playing princesses, blank-eyed assassins and three-eyed ravens.

We’ve got pompous psychic Bran, and pompous psycho Arya. I’ve touched on this before, but what would people call Bran if he threatened to cut off his sister’s face and wear it? Ramsay Bolton? Hannibal Lecter?

When psycho Arya isn’t menacing Sansa, she’s missing dear old dead dad Ned, like the rest of us. He haunts the show, rattling his chains and reminding us how good Thrones used to be.

Arya recalls how he caught her secretly practicing archery. “I knew that what I was doing was against the rules, but he was smiling, so I knew it wasn’t wrong,” she says. “The rules were wrong.”

There’s a lot of talk now about changing the world, about ‘breaking the wheel’ and making Westeros a better place. Tyrion tried bandying around alternative political systems to absolute monarchist Daenerys. At The Wall (R.I.P) a group of largely illiterate men elect their leader. He hopes this might catch on and pave the way for a brighter future.

Careful what you wish for T – the last lot stabbed Jon full of holes after an incredibly divisive campaign and election, and his wounds still look kind of oozy and gross.

It’s not just the rules that are wrong; the rhythms of the show are as disordered as the crazy seasons. Thrones took too long on the road to this point, and now they’re rushing through with dazzling set pieces to reach the end.

And the show isn’t fooling anyone. After a final season of death, deprivation and dragon human suffering, it’ll all end with a benevolent fairyland ruler – beautiful like Daenerys, but good like Jon. Their child, I’d imagine. Stark-Targaryen 2019.

TV REVIEW: Game of Thrones season 7 is short and full of terrors

At the start of season seven I wrote a grumpy post about how much I didn’t love Game of Thrones. Once they used up Grim’s good books (the first three!) from the Ice and Fire series, and then outpaced the novels entirely, the HBO show went downhill.

Of course, I carried on watching for the sheer spectacle. It’s fun to read the theories and get into the post-episode breakdowns. Plus (with a few glaring exceptions) it’s a fine cast, and easy to invest in the characters (knowing full well they’ll get killed off when you do).

I like to muse over which character I’d be if Westeros were real, although I’d probably be stone cold dead. I’d try to live by the sea, eking out my days and avoiding trouble – basically the same as my life here on Earth really.

The Red Priestess gig looks good. They never seem to feel the cold, and Stannis’ erstwhile sorceress possesses the hocus-pocus to look fab at 400 years old.

I’d love to be that arch and dramatic, but I’m more of a Gilly, the girl who thought being a Wildling made her “sound a bit dangerous.” She’s currently in the Citadel with Sam, who has turned out to be a total wildcard.

gilly

Knocking spots off that Targaryen girl: Hannah Murray as the absent Gilly. Credit HBO

Jon, meanwhile, is busy stomping around Dragonstone for his precious obsidian. (He got Davos to make those cave drawings, right?)

I hope Tyrion gets behind Jon, and I hope Jon & Dany don’t happen. Kit needs something to act opposite, and Jon, like Robb, needs to avoid exotic bimbos and marry a nice Westerosi girl. Meera Reed is available…

Because Bran is the Three Eyed Raven now, and people are gunning for Sansa to claim the North. Really? So far, Sansa has excelled at two things: being brutalized and running a castle. She was born to be a good highborn wife and run the domestic sphere – not command men or be a politician.

High on my Thrones wish list is seeing Jaime get together with Brienne, assuming she’ll still have him after he got sucker-punched by an old lady. I suppose the Kingslayer is a catch, although I wouldn’t want Cersei’s cast-offs. Ugh.

I think in the books he was well shot of her by now. Maybe the Drogon near-miss and the dip in a lake will bring him to his senses, finally.

It’s winter for our heroes, but summer for us fans. Years of trudging through the seasons have led to this payoff –  dragons over Westeros, Stark reunions and the unveiling of secret Targaryens.

And yup, we’ve already hit this season’s halfway point, for it is short and full of terrors…(Come back Melisandre!)

NETFLIX REVIEW: To the Bone…

to-the-bone-sundance-e1495026297494-03To the Bone opens with two alien stick figures walking down a bright corridor. It’s peaceful, as the beings glide from the light towards the camera.

….and into a group therapy session/art class. A girl is feigning righteous anger at magazines for promoting thinness, when a sarcastic voice interrupts.

“Ugh. Society’s to blame. The world is so unfair. I have to die.” Meet Ellen (Lily Collins), a twenty-year-old anorexic artist bored out of her mind. “There’s no point in blaming everybody. Live with it,” she sneers, before holding up a crude sign saying “suck my skinny balls.”

Not eating makes you cranky. The anorexic Queen of Shade – in off-duty model chic – goes to the middle-class Californian home of her stepmother and half-sister, where she does sit-ups, counts calories, and misses meals. Anorexic stuff.

Ellen’s mother and her lesbian partner are living at their ranch in Arizona and “feeling blessed” on Facebook. Ellen’s father is always working, and interestingly, he’s never onscreen.

His wife, Ellen’s stepmom, played by Carrie Preston, is the driving force behind finding a new specialist, Dr Beckham. He’s described as ‘unconventional’, although it’s not clear why. Perhaps because he’s good-looking and played by Keanu Reeves. He agrees to treat Ellen, as long as she is admitted as an inpatient.

She moves to Threshold, a facility for young people with anorexia and other types of eating disorder such as bulimia and binge eating disorder. Here she befriends a young Brit patient named Luke, who is an annoying show-off. He already knows who Ellen is, thanks to a whole angsty subplot about her Tumblr artwork supposedly inspiring a girl’s suicide.

Family therapy with Keanu Reeves proves to be a waste of time, although it does allow the film to communicate the contemporary understanding that eating disorders are complex conditions with no single ’cause’. The film is also good at portraying the powerlessness and frustration that families often feel.

Viewers are likely to be as confused as Ellen’s sister, wondering why she doesn’t “just eat.” Anorexia is abstract and internal. Films can show emaciation with weight loss, body doubles, makeup and CGI. But anorexic thoughts, or a compulsive urge to get ‘down to the bone’, is a challenge for storytellers.

Perhaps anorexia could be better explored through fantastical, less literal means. To the Bone’s opening moments promised something more creative, and Ellen’s out-of-body experience where she sees her malnourished form with a different lens also had the inkling of something more original.

As balance, there’s a cringe-making dance scene that goes on forever, as artsy dance scenes tend to do.

Verdict: Lily Collins proves there is more to life than being beautiful and the product of nepotism. To the Bone is a conventional teen drama, with a message of hope, recovery, and fighting for your own identity.

TV REVIEW: Game of Thrones is back…

IMG_20170717_180832-01Are you glad it’s back? And by ‘it’ I mean the TV phenomenon that’s as big as Star Wars, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings?

I’m not a constant admirer of the Game of Thrones juggernaut anymore. Characters get arranged into starting positions for epic showdowns, rinse and repeat. This season has seven episodes, and “Dragonstone” probably won’t be the only hour devoted to groundwork and prepping the set pieces.

We had Sam in the library, and Sam emptying bedpans. We had Emilia “I Can. And I Will” Clarke strutting around her ancestral home like a plump 12-year-old trying to be a haughty catwalk queen. (And I’m not sure the show has enough time to explore the attraction dangling between her eunuch warrior and her handmaiden.)

Like Dany, Sansa is coming into her own, as the Lady of Winterfell. Soft-hearted Sansa now feeds her husbands to hungry hounds, and while I’m all for character growth, not every female character has to be a Strong Woman, and Strong Women don’t have to commit grisly murders to be powerful.

Perhaps they don’t know what to do with Sansa – the whole rushed, overripe Ramsay plot was not her book story – and Sophie isn’t a believable enough actress to play a ruthless killer AKA junior Cersei. Thanks to her dreary line readings and whiny nasal voice, I use Sansa scenes for any unpleasant chores, like putting the recycling out.

But Sansa, like sister Arya (they look nothing like sisters), is probably part of George R.R. Martin’s endgame, and can’t be bumped off.

Maisie is a good little actress, but she seems super-aware that there’s a huge audience who love Arya and who think a bloodthirsty (female) child assassin is cool, and maybe this awareness is sometimes ever so slightly to the detriment of her performance.

Arya is on her way to King’s Landing, where Bad Uncle Euron is trying to woo Evil Queen Cersei and come between her and Jaime, who have reached that stage where they’re more brother/sister, than red hot lovebirds…oh yeah.

There were things I liked, I promise, I’m not as grumpy as Sandor Clegane, who is still with the Brotherhood and in delightfully surly form, shaming Thoros’ topknot hairdo. (He’ll be coming for Jon’s man bun next.) The Hound is seeing visions in the flame, and it sounds like those screeching ice men are going to overcome the Wall by just….walking around it?

Really? Give fans their answers already!

(OK maybe I am as grumpy as the Hound after all.) 😉

TV REVIEW: Channel 4’s The Windsors

thewindsors

Channel 4

Channel 4’s spoof royal soap opera The Windsors – which just returned for a second run – may not be subtle, but it’s a fun distraction, and if there’s any one thing this blogger is addicted to, it is fun distractions.

I know a lot of people think the show is puerile.

Yes, the actors (led by Harry Enfield as Prince Charles) all give outrageous, panto performances. They’re either gin-soaked villains and/or monumentally, irredeemably stupid.

Save for the Duke of Edinburgh’s expletive-riddled written missives (“Dear Funny Foreigner…”) which are read out by other characters, the Queen and her husband are absent, which is more than fine, as they’ve got The Crown, and it’s on Netflix and it’s waaay more prestigious.

And although The Windsors is meant to be silly, all the characters are actually quite sweet and sad and touching, like poor Fergie (Katy Wix), desperate to be allowed back into the fold.

I’ve read the anonymous comments about the real Royal Family on places like Mail Online and people can be harsh and resentful (to put it lightly). Then there are fawning blogs, where for ‘Princess Kate’ fans, she’s Cinderella. (The Windsors writers Bert Tyler-Moore and George Jeffrie have the former Miss Middleton as a gullible sweetheart from a family of travellers.)

With the media focus on the ‘main three’ of Kate, William and Harry, Fergie’s girls have been relegated to bit-part players, but Tyler-Moore and Jeffrie have made B&E (Ellie White and Celeste Dring) main characters, which is nice. They’re depicted as airhead Sloanes who didn’t get the memo that they’re on the fringes of their own family, which..isn’t so nice.

It makes me feel almost sorry for the real Yorks, who sadly lack a certain media-friendly, fashion-savvy charm (constantly referred to as the ‘ugly stepsisters’), unlike the willowy Delevingne sisters, or even the Middletons. (I’ve written before that nothing would end the monarchy faster than an unattractive princess/future queen waiting in the wings.)

Pippa too (played here by the very talented Morgana Robinson as a vampish vixen seething with sisterly jealousy) can’t be seen to be having too much fun, before some online commentator yells: “Your sister is royal not you!!!” It’s as if to kowtow to the Cambridges, we have to remind ourselves we have some dignity by gloating at the position of the ‘lesser’ royals and royals-by-association.

Miss Markle, are you sure you want to join the cast of this real-life institution?!

The Windsors series 2 consists of six episodes. It continues on Channel 4 in the UK on Wednesdays. Get ready for the arrival of one President Trump!

TV REVIEW: King Charles III on BBC2 and PBS

charlesiii

BBC/Drama Republic

When “Charles III” trended on Twitter last Wednesday there were probably more than a few people who feared that an era had ended.

Luckily, Wednesday’s tweets were about the BBC TV adaptation of Mike Bartlett’s award-winning future history play.

After the glossy Netflix hit The Crown, and ITV’s vapid Victoria, it was a more unsettling production. First staged in 2014, it imagines the current Prince of Wales as a tormented ruler who causes constitutional chaos by refusing to grant Royal Assent to a bill passed by Parliament.

What draconian new law upsets Charles so much he’d risk the monarchy? Banning homeopathy on the NHS? War on one of his other pet causes? Nope, he’s royally peeved about a nasty bit of legislation that restricts the freedom of the press. (Hooray for Charles! Journalists probably aren’t his favourite people.) Cue rioting outside the palace and Diana apparitions wafting down the corridors.

The actors in this play-turned-TV-drama make the blank verse dialogue sound easy (most of the cast are veterans from the stage run): the late Tim Pigott-Smith is Charles; Chris Oliver is a dithering, weak-willed Wills; Richard Goulding a dour, hunched, Daniel Radcliffe-like (Prince) Harry.

The cast aren’t doing impersonations so much as original portrayals of real people in a parallel universe; the only thing Goulding’s Harry shares with the prince is red hair.

And poor Harry! While the real ‘spare’ has created a role for himself, in the play he’s a ‘ginger joke’. There are really embarrassing, unbelievable scenes featuring the melancholy prince with Working Class Londoners who don’t recognize him.

There’s an unlikely love interest in a working-class woman named Jessica (Tamara Lawrance), who is not Meghan Markle, the glam, highly-educated American actress and true-life Harry girlfriend. She came along too late to be written in, although there is Camilla (Margot Leicester), and there is Kate (Charlotte Riley.)

The BBC were criticised for portraying William’s wife as a scheming Lady Macbeth when Catherine has actually always seemed more quietly traditional than quietly revolutionary.

While the real Kate doesn’t seem career-driven or devoted to public service, in Bartlett’s play it’s her children’s royal status that is jeopardized, and she acts decisively to protect them and their social standing. (Charlotte Riley defended her character as ‘just being pragmatic’…)

Charles III might be a little alienating and cold for some audiences, with its Shakespearean black verse and apparitions etc. It reminded me of Pablo Larraín’s crazy Jackie biopic: a dark little 90 minute horror with powerful, haunting music (by Jocelyn Pook), while a country is in limbo and mourning.

TV REVIEW: SS-GB Episode 1

Where The Crown was a soothing, nostalgic view of Britain’s unique greatness, new BBC drama SS-GB – based on Len Deighton’s alternate-history novel – is a dystopian 1941 where the Nazis won the Battle of Britain and occupied the country with their Swastika flags and spiky road barriers.

Hitler’s head might be on postage stamps and Buckingham Palace in ruins, but Sam Riley’s Superintendent Douglas Archer just wants to keep on policing like nothing has happened.

He’s a Humphrey Bogart-esque detective with a throaty growl (top tip – subtitles ON). Sadly Scotland Yard’s finest hasn’t realised that his secretary and lover Sylvia (Maeve Dermody), and his old-school sergeant Harry Woods (Commander Mormont from the Night’s Watch on secondment) are both working with the British Resistance.

When the corpse of a shady antique dealer turns up with fatal gunshot wounds, things get murky, not least when Archer spies New York Times journalist Barbara Barga (Kate Bosworth) slinking away from the scene of the crime. “That outfit’s always going to get you noticed,” he growls of Bosworth, world-famous clothes horse.

She’s in London working on a piece about Americans who decided to remain under the occupation. “A journalist. AND a liar,” proclaims Archer.

As the murder inquiry becomes part of a more sinister investigation, Archer is assigned to work with Standartenführer Huth (Lars Eidinger), a haughty (naturally) high-ranking SS officer. Archer finds himself caught up in rivalry between his new SS and German Army overlords, as well as targeted by hardliners in the Resistance who see him as a collaborator.

“Do you work for the Gestapo daddy?” asks Archer’s son. No, daddy works at Scotland Yard for the Met police. The Gestapo are in the building next door…or something. Perhaps the reason for Archer’s strange ambivalence is simply that there isn’t much evidence of the repressive Nazi machine or their death-dealing ideology.

Despite its ambition, great acting and noirish intrigue, SS-GB plays more like a standard police procedural with Nazi window-dressing than a chilling counterfactual hell.

SS-GB is on BBC1, Sunday at 9pm.

Photo: BBC/Sid Gentle Films Ltd.

More Royal Drama for 2017: The Crown, Victoria on PBS, King Charles III

Following the Golden Globes last weekend, the internet’s post-ceremony commentary involved mocking Tom Hiddleston and gushing over Meryl Streep.

I think the real star speech was made by Claire Foy, who took home the Best Actress in a TV series (Drama) award for playing HM The Queen in Netflix’s The Crown.

 

  • Victoria Review -“WHERE ARE MY DRAGONS?!!!”
  • The Crown Review – I kept expecting Matt Smith to suggest a Doctor Who-themed nursery for Charles and Anne 

Writer and creator Peter Morgan has committed to six seasons of The Crown, each focusing on a decade of the Queen’s reign. Filming is already underway on the second season, with a November release likely.

If Foy is popular in The Crown, she’s better as Anne Boleyn in the adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, about the rise of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister. I’ve just watched the series after finding it on Netflix, and I really recommend it.

I was asked if The Crown was like Downton Abbey. No, but it’s not as gripping as Wolf Hall; there was real peril in the Tudor court.

Dearly departed Downtown’s true heir is in fact ITV’s Victoria, the first series of which debuts in America on Masterpiece on PBS this weekend. Lucky guys! Personally I can’t wait for the second series to show in the UK, so that I can take the piss review a really popular show. Jenna Coleman is the spirited young monarch and Tom Hughes is Prince Albert Emo, the original right-on royal with a social conscience.

And there’s even more royal drama to look forward to, like King Charles III….No not like that – I mean I’m sure Charles will be a wonderful king – but it’s actually the title of a new one-off BBC TV drama based on a play by Mike Bartlett.

I caught the royal history bug early (I watched my mother’s VHS tapes of the BBC series Elizabeth I starring Glenda Jackson before I started infant school). But Charles III isn’t history – it’s a future where Charles is finally in charge and causes a political ruckus. Charlotte Riley, who is probably still best known for being married to Tom Hardy, is Kate Middleton. Riley described the Duchess as “a really interesting woman”.

Sure. Has enough time passed for a serious drama about the girlfriend years? It’d beat the ratings for Anne Boleyn, QEII and a Harry/Meghan wedding combined!

TV REVIEW: HBO’s The Young Pope – difficult at the start, but worth sticking with

Over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed that a lot of traffic has come from searches for The Young Pope, which is probably because I don’t have much competition.

There were previews and reviews for the first two episodes which screened at the Venice Film Festival, but after that, nada – a vow of silence. (This will likely change when it reaches its US air date on January 15.)

In the UK there hasn’t been the online discussion like with Westworld, although the Sun tabloid ran an article about Jude Law’s titular (haha) Pope grabbing the breast of Ludivine Sagnier’s character (he didn’t).

Many Twitter users said they couldn’t understand the show and dropped it. I don’t want to give too much away here, but to be clear – trailers for The Young Pope may indicate a stylish drama full of political intrigue, but if you’re expecting House of Cards in the Vatican, you’ll be frustrated.

This is true especially of the early episodes. I confess I almost gave up on Paolo Sorrentino’s swirling ten-hour art movie after the third/fourth episodes. But episodes five, six and seven have been exceptional – scheming cardinals, slimy politicians and insubordinate monks all get their comeuppance at the hands of the “diabolical” Pope Pius XIII.

Originally Lenny Belardo from New York, Pius was chosen to be a “photogenic puppet” – a bridge between progressive and conservative elements in the Church. He decided to go rogue, much to the horror of everyone, especially the manipulative, strangely lovable Secretary of State Voiello (Silvio Orlando).

Pius XIII doesn’t want any “part-time believers”. Intolerant of homosexuality, fiercely anti-abortion, he intends to remain elusive – never seen by anyone outside his inner circle. But Pius is also possessed of compassion, as we see in his dealings with Esther (Sagnier), the seemingly-infertile wife of a Swiss Guard.

Sometimes The Young Pope is like a documentary set at a glossy fashion mag. Watching Pius XIII stalking the Vatican corridors in his gold, finery and shades, all he needs is a handbag and he’d be Anna Wintour. (Hollywood Reporter called him an “icy control freak”.)

It’s a sin he banned cameras, because he’s really putting his mark on the papal wardrobe. Red shoes? Check. He’s even decreed that the papal tiara is IN this season.

Nonetheless, as of episode seven, Pius has made himself very unpopular with the press, with the rest of the church, a billion Catholics, other faiths…the list goes on.

His conservatism and religiosity seem to stem from his abandonment by his hippy parents, and even Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), his surrogate mother and biggest supporter, fears that his papacy is a calamity for both the man and the future of the church.

Can such a damaged man with his own personal demons be the spiritual leader of a billion people?

The Young Pope is dreamlike, introspective and darkly funny. And the best thing of all? That soundtrack. Divine.

TV REVIEW: The Crown (Netflix) starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith

Netflix’s new series, The Crown, cost around 100 million dollars to make, which would cover nearly a third of the huge cost of the Buckingham Palace renovations.

It’s got great reviews, too – the series, not the impending renovations, which are proving quite controversial. (And all for a palace that according to this series, nobody much wants to live in.)

Now I’m not the sort of person who enjoys cooing over royals, or cooing over pretend-royals in sumptuous costumes. But yes, The Crown is well-made and absorbing. It’s an intensely, richly, cinematic imagining of Queen Elizabeth II’s life behind palace doors.

So it looks expensive.

The ten episodes take us from the then Princess Elizabeth’s 1947 marriage to Prince Philip, right up until the brink of the Suez crisis of 1956. In between the historical milestones, the young royal is embroiled in family dramas, and in each chapter she will have to choose between the ones she loves, and duty.

“The fact is,” her grandmother admonishes her, “the crown must win – must always win.”

I wasn’t sure about Claire Foy as our unknowable queen, with her open face and large cornflower blue eyes, her expression either astonished, anxious or vulnerable. (Sarah Gadon in the fanciful A Royal Night Out looked more the part.) But Foy is believable as a simple countrywoman, more concerned with her dogs and horses than politics or people, even if she seems too timid to rule.

Creator/writer Peter Morgan’s series is actually all about the hat, not the person wearing it.

“An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination,” is how her uncle, the Duke of Windsor, describes Elizabeth during his bitchy coronation commentary. Once anointed, she is transformed, he says, into a “goddess”.

Matt Smith layers his rubbery-faced, zany energy over the mannerisms and ‘wit’ of the notoriously prickly Duke of Edinburgh. I kept expecting him to suggest a Doctor Who-themed nursery for Charles and Anne.

In fact, almost everyone seems far nicer than they probably were/are in real life – even Eileen Atkins as scary Queen Mary (George VI’s mother, the Queen’s grandmother). Well,  almost everyone. There’s the fabulously brittle pairing of Alex Jennings as the Duke of Windsor and Lia Williams (I had to check it wasn’t Game of Thrones’ Red Woman – Carice van Houten) as Wallis Simpson.

The Crown is secure enough in its power that we also spend plenty of time with the politicians, although really needing a movie to themselves are John Lithgow as Churchill, and Stephen Dillane as the painter Graham Sutherland, hired to produce a portrait of the PM. (It ends up on a bonfire – true story, apparently).

The Crown can be artificial, as things have to be explained to the audience. Underlings tell Her Majesty: “And your father’s real name was Albert, and of course your uncle’s real name was David and your name is Elizabeth…”

It’s a bit like a popular history book come to life, and I suppose we couldn’t have expected anything more controversial in our nostalgia-obsessed times. With six more series to go, I wonder, if just once, a character will stop fretting over whether the Crown will endure, and instead wonder if it should.

the young pope

TV REVIEW: What do we know about Jude Law in The Young Pope? Who is Lenny Belardo?

The newly-elected Pope Pius XIII wakes up in the morning and decides what to wear. He greets his flunkies and prepares to make his first address from Saint Peter’s Basilica.

In what is an inevitable dream sequence, he exhorts the faithful to divorce, have fun etc.

For Pius, that’s actually the stuff of nightmares.

So who is the fictional Pope Pius XIII??

…well, he’s young (and American) 

Jude Law’s American accent and booming oratory caught me off guard (to my British tin ear he briefly sounded like Obama).

Pius, AKA Lenny Belardo, is the former Archbishop of New York, and the protégé of James Cromwell’s Cardinal Spencer, who is mighty angry at being passed over.

…but not as young as scheming cardinals might hope

“I’m an orphan. And orphans are never young,” he explains to one old relic. Lenny was dropped at an orphanage by unknown parents for unknown reasons, and Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), raised him. She seems devoted to him, although heavens know why.

…he is not a nice man, probably

More a bullying, chain-smoking CEO than a man of God. He describes himself as “intransigent, irritable, vindictive.” He viciously abuses an elderly nun (not Sister Mary) for daring to smother him in kisses.

…he’s an arch-conservative

At first nobody knows his views or tastes on anything, let alone those whose job it is to prepare his first breakfast as Pope. “Didn’t anyone tell you I don’t eat much? Hardly anything, in fact. All I have in the morning is a Cherry Coke Zero,” he says.

But would His Holiness care for a regular Diet Coke? “Let’s not utter heresies.”

When he finally gives his first papal address, it’s fire and brimstone.

…his marketing strategy is just divine

He wants to be the invisible Pope, he tells Cécile De France’s Vatican City marketing boss Sofia. The poor, confused woman wants to discuss a photo shoot in order to plaster Pius’s handsome face over new plates, postcards and ashtrays. 

Instead he orders her to fire the Vatican’s official photographer. He never allows his picture to be taken, and for his first address there will be no lighting, no cameraman. The faithful must only see a dark shadow.

“That’s media suicide,” she gasps.

…is he entirely of this planet?!

He apparently has a bizarre affinity with animals, as we see in the first episode with a kangaroo (don’t ask).

Later he points at the stars. “That’s where God’s house is,” he says. “Half of a duplex, with a private swimming pool.” And why oh why must he keep messing with that poor priest’s head about being a secret atheist?

…is he worth the time? 

If you ask Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the secretary of state, absolutely not. He’s clearly formulating a plan to take the new pontiff down, in a scheme that may involve the devout Esther (Ludivine Sagnier).

Paolo Sorrentino’s series is surreal and slow-moving. It’s TV to savour – if you can  – but not devour.

And I wonder if the initial black humour is vanishing like a puff of smoke from the chimney on the Sistine Chapel.

The Young Pope is on Sky Atlantic. 

TV REVIEW: ITV/PBS Victoria final episode

victoriactb45buwiaa_53eAs ITV’S Victoria frolicked to an end (it will be returning for a second series next year) the one question on my mind was how the show was going to handle the giddy young Queen’s transition to motherhood.

Victoria, famously, wasn’t the mothering kind. But the monarch must produce an heir, and if surrogacy had been an option back then, Jenna Coleman’s Victoria would have done it. She wouldn’t swan around with a fake bump either. She certainly isn’t slow to hire a nanny – ok, ‘wet nurse’.

Like any self-respecting superstar, the Queen has a stalker, and apparently people signed up to celebrity relationship conspiracy theories back in the 19th century too.

Prince Albert is looking a lot more comfortable than he did mid-series, when all he did was complain about his allowance while Victoria’s awful family bickered over the order of precedence.

Victoria has also come into her own – meaning she’s learnt to throw her status around with her uncles, who are all the younger sons of a king and therefore lumbered with entitlement and insecurity.

One of those uncles, the Duke of Cumberland, is next in line to the throne and circles menacingly in case something tragic happens in childbirth. It’s not a spoiler to say that Vicky survives the birth and that Uncle Cumberbitch doesn’t get his mitts on the crown.

The series has mostly held back from portraying Victoria as a Strong Female Character, so I didn’t mind when she told Cumberbitch, “However many mistakes I have made, or perhaps am yet to make, I know I am a better monarch than you will ever be.”

The show ends with the happy family scene of Albert, Victoria and little Victoria #2. Meanwhile, a distraught wet nurse hands over her own baby, Albert’s brother Ernest pines for a married duchess, and the queen’s stylist – or ‘dresser’ – spurns the advances of a lovesick pastry chef. (It’s fascinating how snobby and devoted the servants are.)

When Netflix’s The Crown arrives, it will demand we take it far more seriously than the ‘soapy’ Victoria. But I think I’m going to miss Jenna Coleman and the rest of the ITV cast.

TV REVIEW: Victoria episodes 3, 4 and 5.

Hallelujah! Hallleluujah!!

Nope, Victoria isn’t a singing competition, even if it does fit beautifully into ITV’s weekend line-up, right next to The X Factor.

But they keep playing it, so I’m going to have to learn to spell it: it’s Alleluia by Martin Phipps, with vocals by the Mediaeval Baebes (who sound like they could be straight out of Westeros by way of Frozen).

I already mentioned that Jenna Coleman’s Victoria reminds me of Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones – one of the most lavish, expensively produced shows in history – and even the music is like a candied version of Thrones’ epic choral masterpieces.

However, the eight-part look at the early years of V’s reign has really proved to be Downton Abbey with a teen queen and the same upstairs/downstairs theme. Dramatic embellishments notwithstanding, it actually seems to do an OK job at hinting at a world of social change.

To recap: in the first episodes we saw the little monarch come to the throne following the death of her uncle William IV. A hormonal teenager, Victoria is nobody’s ideal head of state, but such are the perils of hereditary monarchy.

Gossip Girl Vicky gets the hots for her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell), whom she relies on as her mentor. Historians have really recoiled at this notion of a romantic attraction between queen and PM, but writer Daisy Goodwin could be onto something.

Diarists and cartoonists at the time noted the unusually intense relationship, dubbing young Vicky “Lady Melbourne”. It’s not hard to believe that a sheltered young woman would fall for a powerful, urbane older man, even if he didn’t look anything like Rufus Sewell.

But by episode three M does the morally right and historically accurate thing, and doesn’t marry Vicky. Poor V!

Instead, a certain German princeling arrives at court – it’s Albert, accompanied by his bad boy older brother Ernest. Albert is on a mission to sweep Victoria off her feet, but fictional Victoria isn’t impressed with the moany-looking hipster, even if he has a fab profile. (In reality she was instantly smitten.)

Poor Albert isn’t too thrilled either. He has a social conscience, while Victoria isn’t interested in the plight of her poorest subjects.

There’s also the continued presence of Lord M, suffering stoically in the corner. At one point he advises the unpopular German brothers to keep a low profile during a visit to the Houses of Parliament, and then later booms out “Your Serene Highnesses” when he bumps into them in the corridors of power. Nice one, M.

We are supposed to titter at Albert’s nerdiness; but he is a man of the future, Melbourne is a man of the past. As episode five arrives, it is clear that the spell binding Victoria and her prime minister is broken. The British public were very slow to take to Albert, and audiences might struggle too, as he has thoroughly usurped the smouldering Sewell.

Queen Victoria was famously devoted to Albert (when he croaked she wore black for 40 years) but she wasn’t necessarily the mothering type. She even commented that carrying children was an “occupational hazard” for a wife. It will be interesting to see how the series portrays the next chapter in her life: Domestic tyrant, or domestic bliss?  

Victoria continues with episode six on Sunday September 25 at 9pm on ITV.

REVIEW: Victoria – Jenna Coleman in a royal TV drama

Soap actress and Doctor Who sidekick Jenna Coleman made her bow as Queen Victoria this past weekend.

ITV’s new series is an eight-part look at the early years of Victoria’s reign.

The show is more Downton Abbey than Game of Thrones, but I was still struck by how Jenna’s portrayal owes a lot to Emilia Clarke’s performance as Daenerys Targaryen. I can totally see Victoria screaming “WHERE ARE MY DRAGONS?!!!”

She even has a “mad” grandfather, George III, who lost America – just like Daenerys’ father the Mad King lost the Seven Kingdoms.

Anyway, it’s not been lost on Twitter users that Jenna Coleman’s little queen is far more beautiful than Victoria ever was. Looks wise, Alfie Allen in a wig could have doubled for Queen Victoria (although the craziest royal casting ever would still be Ray Winstone as Henry VIII).

Of course Jenna is too pretty to be Victoria. More importantly, would a modern-day Victoria be pretty enough to be queen in the age of appearances and celebrity? Considering the grief her 4X great granddaughters Beatrice and Eugenie get for their figures and frumpiness, no. I think nothing would end the monarchy faster than an unattractive princess waiting in the wings.

But Victoria is a frothy period drama, and movies and TV do tend to cast actors far better-looking that their real life counterparts – Rufus Sewell is too handsome for Victoria’s first PM, Lord Melbourne.

And it is such a good career move for Jenna, even if it’s not a heavyweight drama that taps into the debate about the future of the monarchy in a 21st century democracy.

Another royal drama – this time a real prestige project – arrives in November in the shape of Netflix’s super-ambitious The Crown. Planned to run for six series, it will trace the life of Queen Elizabeth II (played by Claire Foy) from her wedding to the present day. Actor Matt Smith, who plays Prince Philip, has promised that the writing – although respectful – is not “overly reverential”.

I’m all for dramas about the modern royal family that aren’t either rousing and predictable (The King’s Speech) or just silly (Will & Kate: The Movie). Victoria is entertainment somewhere between the two, and set in a time when royals didn’t pretend to be Just Like Us.

I wonder how long it will be before we get a well-researched, blockbuster Middleton/Cambridge biopic. Any scrutiny of them, however mild, seems to really hit a nerve.

At least Victoria will only upset historians.