Film review: A Man Called Ove

The repeated attempts by a lonely Swedish old man to end his life and so join his beloved wife who has recently died should not really be the stuff of life affirmation and yet, successfully adapting from Fredrik Backman’s novel, A Man Called Ove is exactly that.  The bittersweet triumphs and tragedies of the eponymous curmudgeon giving depth to the acute observation of suburban mores and the petty rules of life.

The surface story is simple. Ove tries to kill himself and is frustrated every time as the lives of his neighbours intrude.  The background, sometimes revealed teasingly, at others in longish digressions, is of a boy and man who has only been able to find emotional release by understanding how things work and by doing.  There is a lot here about how men communicate, or fail to do so.  Not laboured but clear.  The portrayal of Ove by Rolf Lassgård is a thing of majesty. Who knew a movement of a face could portray so much?  Bahar Pars as new arrival (with loser husband and giggling children) Parveneh gives over the right amount of enthusiasm and understanding.

The film opts to repeat certain framings (Ove’s walk to his wife’s grave for example, or how people sit in a church) as a way to show both repetition of daily life but also how things subtly change over time.  The description of Sonja (Ove’s wife, tenderly played by Ida Engvoll) from the book, that she brought colour into his life, is carried over visually without being hammered home.  This is a very well put-together film that is true but not slavish to its source material and is damn good in its own right.

There’s a lot to enjoy here and very little to quibble about. If you aren’t moved by at least some of it then I’m crossing you off my friends list.  And if you don’t share the frustration of a man who has a coupon for two bunches of flowers at 70KR and can’t understand why he can’t then get one bunch for 35KR then I wonder if you’ve ever truly lived at all.

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Film review: Una

Based on David Harrower’s Blackbird (and adapted by him for the screen), Una tells of a day-long encounter between Pete, a warehouse middle manager, and Una, the now-woman he groomed and slept with when she was 13.  Una has tracked him down and now wants what psychologists might call ‘closure’ but what that means and what it might look like changes as the balance of power shifts and twists.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of this feels very stagy. Harrower is a theatre writer adapting from his own script; Benedict Andrews has twenty years of stage work behind him and this is his first film.  The set designs are precise.  When someone wants to show frustration there is a handy uncleaned table whose contents they can discard.  Characters stand just so and don’t enter each other’s worlds unless there is a need to.  Sometimes this feels too much but, overall, it helps.  Una isn’t a realistic film.  People don’t get to exchange well written and damning lines with those whose actions have controlled their lives in real life.  This really is something that could only happen like this in a dramatic imagining.

Rooney Mara is very good as Una (and Ruby Stokes equally so as her thirteen year old self).  Mara deftly handles a role that requires a mask of strength over a personality that is fractured and incomplete, who both yearns for and wants to destroy the man she has sought.  Ben Mendelsohn handles the critical role of Ray well. You never quite believe his protests of genuine affection but, perversely, you never quite believe that he’s the monster those who tormented him during his four years in prison saw either.  The film would have done well to keep a tight focus on this relationship alone.  Instead, we have an almost sub plot about sackings in the factory that doesn’t really go anywhere.

On balance, Una is worth watching.  It’s smart and never goes for easy answers.  Where I have reservations it’s because it falls so agonisingly short of being brilliant – but it is a cut above a lot of what is out there.

Film review: Shell (2012)

A lonely petrol station in the highlands of Scotland. The father fixes things. The daughter fills up the cars that stop.  A handful of regulars.  The wind blows remorselessly.  In the cold air there are occasional attempts at warmth.  Silence is endemic. This is the world of Shell, where the title is the name of the daughter not the brand of fuel and where the landscape and setting are as integral to the success of the film as the plot and performance.

At the heart of Scott Graham’s film is the seventeen year old Shell (Chloe Pirrie).  As she tells on passer-through, she went to school for a bit but then was home-schooled by her dad. Mum left when she was four. Her world is the garage, her father and the emptiness around them.  Pirrie’s performance, the observance of it by the camera, is why Shell works. Tender and defiant, confused and yearning, Shell is trapped in her world and in charge of it. The men, emotionally damaged all, who pass through the garage seek their salvation or are kept going through her.  There is a power but it is of a perversely deferential kind.

The cinematography of Yoliswa von Dallwitz (credited here as Yoliswa Gärtig) is a thing to behold. Muted hues abound in the countryside and its inhabitants with the lights of the garage outpost standing out against the dark like an Ed Ruscha snapshot.  It’s all rather beautiful.

How much you enjoy it will depend on how much you’re prepared to invest in a film whose action and sparks of mood come after involved stretches of introspection.  I liked it a lot.

On the radio: Three Sisters

I’m not sure that I would have expected to think of a production of Three Sisters as being life-affirming but this radio adaptation (originally broadcast in 2016) by D J Britton, beautifully handled by director Alison Hindell, was exactly that.  That it managed to be so whilst faithfully following the fortunes of the siblings and their shattered dreams is nothing short of remarkable.

Everyone knows the story, or at least they know the repeated wish to move to Moscow from the dreary provincial town in which the Prozorov family dwells.  The sisters (Olga, Masha, Irina) yearn for more.  The brother Andrei shares their intelligence but surrenders to cards, to violin playing and, tragically, to Natasha, the local woman who becomes his wife and who cuckolds him with the head of the local council.  Only Natasha ‘wins’ in any meaningful sense.  Everyone else sees their lives either ended or compromised.  And yet, from observations that dead trees in a forest wave like those who are alive, to a final, almost redemptive cry that the girls will live in the future, there is always hope.  And it’s that fragile hope which can destroy but which can, if nurtured, be the route to some kind of fulfillment.

The cast were excellent.  Leila Crerar seemed to have great fun as Natasha and Robert Pugh held many of the final moments together as his Dr Chebutykin copes with the world by humming a happy tune.  Hattie Morahan, Scarlett Alice Johnson and Flora Spencer-Longhurst were compelling as the sisters; Alex Waldmann rightly infuriating as the wilting Andrei.  The production didn’t put anything in the way of the dialogue and yet was still able to convince you of the setting.  And those words and phrases had the power to make you catch your breath.

This was, overall, an example of the best of radio adaptations of the stage: the kind that can take something you thought you knew only too well, almost to the point of tired parody, and make it feel fresh and alive again.

At the match: Hastings & Bexhill 26-17 Park House

This is what a match-winning try looks like – (C) Jon Smalldon 2017, All rights reserved

“This is the first time I’ve come here and been able to see the sea.” So said the affable chap from Park House, beer in hand and, evidently, channel in sight.  The skies were indeed clear but there was a sod of a wind and, on the field, Hastings and their visitors served up a brutal, bruising battle whose result was in doubt almost until the final minute.

Hastings could proudly lay claim to being top of the table before the match started.  They started with a game against Bromley last week (which they won) whilst the rest of the division only got going today.  As is usual at this level the pre-match conversation from all directions was how many players were missing from both teams.  I swear, if you believe the talk every week, no team can ever start a match with fifteen fit players they’d be happy to call a first team.  No matter, both sides were well drilled and the match was tight as a drum.  It helped that the ref missed a lot for both sides so there was a tasty edge to proceedings throughout.

Hastings opened the scoring with a well run-in try and had a narrow advantage, 10-8, at the break.  Park House play a solid, up-front game, and frequently looked like they might break through but they never were able to, either on the field or on the scoreboard.  They held a slight 16-15 advantage going into the dying stages and had a favourable wind but it was Hastings who added two late tries to take the points.  They also grabbed a second bonus point in two games and so can still lay claim to leading the division.

There was a decent number of folk enjoying the spectacle and, thankfully, the threatened rain held off.  This was a damn enjoyable and competitive encounter.  I took some woeful photos of it here.

Coastal Currents: Tom Dale “Department of the Interior”

Tom Dale, “Department of the Interior” (2012)

The aim of Tom Dale’s Department of the Interior is to frustrate, and to tantalise us with questions about power games.  A 6.5m leatherette bouncy castle that you’re not allowed to have any fun on.  It’s like every kind of masochist’s dream: the ultimate pleasure is going to be forever denied to you despite being so tantalisingly close.

It’s quite a funky design.  All butt-plug turrets with jet-black easy-wipe coat.  It is also, I can confirm having viewed it with two kids in tow, the challenge of a lifetime to not hurl yourself on it and have a bounce.  Still, it’s interesting to come across some art that denies you as so much now is about the direct opposite: helter skelters that come with a tedious arty message to justify taking your money and giving you a detached wordy excuse to enjoy yourself.  This is on display in Hastings (St Leonards) after all.  If you really want some simple fun there’s plenty down on the seafront.

Barefoot Opera: La Boheme

“Do you know the story?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, it’s boy meets girl but he’s poor and she’s ill … and then she dies.”
Such was the conversation behind me as St Mary in the Castle audience began to fill the room in anticipation of Barefoot Opera’s interpretation of La Boheme.  Yes, it’s a simple story., so to get it right requires everything to fall in place.  You need to believe in the beauty that exists on the border between love and death.

Barefoot’s performers had the advantage of being mostly the right age to suit struggling bohemians loving poetry and art but failing to pay their bills.  Sarah Foubert and Laurence Panter made a heartbreakingly convincing Mimi and Rudolfo.  The acoustics of St Mary in the Castle were made for their initial declarations of love and, later, their final, beautiful, reconciliation.  Elaine McDaid was equally impressive as Musetta but it did feel that the production wasn’t quite sure what to do with her role, a similar problem faced by Matthew Thistleton’s Colline. He sang wonderfully as well though and it’s not that much of a surprise to find that one of the first hits you find for him on google is on a page called ‘barihunks’.

Without room (and, hopefully, inclination) for a full orchestra this was a Boheme accompanied by a four-piece band which included Andrew Sparling who doubled up his clarinet performance with the role of Shaunard.  Credit to him and them, I doubt anyone in the room was lamenting the absence of orchestra.  The playing was, to this untrained ear, spot on and supportive of the action on stage.

The production was simple without feeling empty, and it all looked properly bohemian too.  I was impressed by the ability to use the back screen to host the surtitles essential to the action. The focus throughout was on the drama of this simple story.  Another production of La Boheme is making the arts pages at the minute as Covent Garden seeks to replace its five-decade-old warhorse of a show with a shiny expensive retelling.  I’ll eat Mimi’s little pink hat if that production comes even half as close to the emotional clarity of this one.

So, all in all, I enjoyed it.  Barefoot Opera’s goal is to expand audiences and educate performers.  If they are able to take work as good as this into new places then they will surely succeed.  They are back in Hastings in November for a spot of the old bloodlust (and lust) of Coronation of Poppea.  I am just about to book my ticket.

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