Righteousness and humidity


Yankee Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is found wounded in the Virginia woods by schoolgirl Amy (Oona Laurence) and brought to Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies. Prim and proper Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) tends to McBurney’s leg wound in the name of Christian charity and, as he recovers, they all vie for his affections by dressing to impress and offering gifts and banquets in their isolated mansion with its candles and Doric columns. The enemy soldier, using sly charm, disrupts their genteel routine of French lessons, prayer, sewing and music until matters come to a shocking head. McBurney fled the gunpowder and shot of a Civil War battlefield only to discover southern hospitality can also be deadly with its righteousness and humidity. Writer-director Sofia Coppola channels southern gothic in her screen adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel. It made me want to revisit Don Siegel’s 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood as the wounded Yankee.


Postcards of protest


“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This quote, attributed to the 18th century statesman Edmund Burke, came to mind after I watched Alone In Berlin at York City Screen today. Brendan Gleeson plays a Berlin factory worker who defies the Nazi regime after his son is killed in combat by secretly casting scores of hand-written postcards across the city. He naively hopes those finding them will pass them on and the anti-Hitler messages will eventually clog up the Nazi war machine like so many grains of sand. He is aided in this act of subversion by his grieving wife played by Emma Thompson. Daniel Brühl plays the professional detective who gets on the wrong side of his SS boss while trying to track down the furtive scribe. The film is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel. Their defiance of Hitler inspired the novelist Hans Fallada to write a fictional account in 1947 which was published in 2009 under the English title Alone In Berlin.

It’s bleak up north…


Salvage by Robert Edric is a bleak novel about inertia and our inability to cope with environmental disaster.
It is set in the 22nd century; the UK is a barren country blighted by pollution, erratic weather systems and flooding. Livestock have long since been culled due to contagion with farms being converted into landfill sites; the nation is choked by crumbling infrastructure, corruption and red tape.
Quinn, a disillusioned civil servant, is sent to a remote northern town to write a report designed to pave the way for its rapid expansion in order to resettle families fleeing the floods.
He encounters selfish individuals desperate to maintain their own fiefdoms while everything around them is falling apart. Tragedy is personified by a son of the earth crushed by the loss of his family farm and a jobless journalist driven to drink by professional impotency.
Edric depicts a ruined land where politicking reigns supreme. In creating characters reduced by their grubby little compromises, he shines a critical light on contemporary Britain.

A sultry tale


In his novel The London Satyr, Robert Edric cleverly couples spirits with strippers to create a vivid Victorian melodrama peppered with subtle psychological observations.
It’s an imaginative plot device as spiritualism and pornography both rely on carefully choreographed staging to exploit basic human desires.
Set in London in the oppressive summer of 1891, the novel’s central character is Webster, a debt-ridden photographer working for Sir Henry Irving and Bram Stoker at the Lyceum theatre. To earn extra cash, Webster supplies costumes to Marlow, a devious pornographer dubbed the “London Satyr”.
When an aristocrat is accused of murdering a child prostitute, the capital is convulsed by the sex scandal and Webster’s reputation is suddenly in danger as his links to a sleazy underworld risk being exposed..
To increase his anxiety, his wife deludes herself into believing she can contact the restless spirit of their dead daughter and starts holding séances in the family home, thereby exploiting the gullibility of her clients as well as, sadly, fooling herself. Her burgeoning career as a sought-after medium brings into sharp focus the grief Webster himself feels for their lost child.

Bigotry and hypocrisy


The tumultuous story of Ireland’s recent social history is told through the eyes of a gay man in John Boyne’s latest novel.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies is narrated by Cyril Avery and his opening words set the tone: “Long before we discovered he had fathered two children by two different women… Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church Of Our Lady in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.”
Banished from her family and parish, “the whore” flees to Dublin where her son is born out of wedlock amidst the spilled blood of a brutal, vicious and violent attack.
Misfortune dogs Cyril throughout his melancholic life as a potent  brew of fear, shame, guilt and secrecy corrodes his relationships. His is a love that dare not speak its name; being gay was illegal in Ireland until the 1990s; furthermore, the country’s influential Roman Catholic Church regarded it as a mortal sin.
Boyne combines anger, comedy and poignancy to take a satirical swipe at bigotry and hypocrisy in this compelling novel.

An imaginative tour de force


Lincoln In The Bardo is an extraordinary debut novel by acclaimed short-story writer George Saunders. It was inspired by newspaper reports about a grief-stricken Abraham Lincoln visiting a crypt alone one night in February 1862 to hold the corpse of his beloved son, Willie, who had died of typhoid fever, aged 11. The American President entered that dark, lonely place on the verge of a breakdown, barely able to cope with the incessant demands of leading a nation at war with itself. He leaves that crypt a changed man; charged with resolution and empathy, he is determined to win the bloody civil war and end slavery. This epiphany, according to the author, was down to the influence of lost souls lingering in a supernatural realm known, in Tibetan tradition, as the bardo. Saunders populates this realm with freakish characters that will live long in the memory. It’s is a remarkable feat of the imagination and, as a play for numerous voices, this novel will work brilliantly as an audio book.

War-time cinema


Their Finest is a movie set in the dark days of the Second World War when Britain stood alone after the defeat of France and the Nazis were trying to bomb London into submission.

Life during the Blitz is precarious as Londoners cope with meagre rations, shattered buildings, dingy bomb shelters and losing loved ones. Many escape this harrowing routine by going to the cinema.

What’s needed is a rousing movie to lift the nation’s flagging spirits. Backed by the Ministry of Information, three writers hammer out a script on clunking typewriters about the miracle of Dunkirk, focusing on twin sisters who absconded with their father’s boat to help evacuate British soldiers from the beach.

Welsh valley girl Catrin (Gemma Arterton) is hired to write dialogue for the female characters (aka “slop”) and it is her highly-charged relationship with fellow scriptwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) that gives the movie its emotional heft. However, Bill Nighy steals the show with his entertaining portrayal of Ambrose Hilliard, a fading matinee idol desperate to make the most of the limelight.

Adapted from Lissa Evans’s 2009 novel Their Finest Hour And A Half, the movie portrays the war-ravaged London with a deft touch where the making of a propaganda film offers ample opportunity for both comedy and tragedy. I enjoyed watching Their Finest at Vue Cinema, York, last night.