Review: The Shape of Water (cinema)

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I wasn’t too sure what to expect here, in terms of a fairytale. How much would it be the sanitised nineteenth-century idea of that, and how much would be drawn from the cruelty and violence of, for instance, Il Pentamerone and its recent adaptation? No need to worry, Guillermo del Toro has these things safely in hand: this was not sanitised, but nor was it cruel. It was simply a love story unfolding in an oppressive society, and offered few surprises, but was told beautifully, with impeccable work from the whole cast.

And I should say that I don’t doubt that it is a fairytale, and should be viewed as such: the unnamed Facility and its obsession with the Asset is just how we imagine such places to be, but takes the underdog perspective of the best fairytales and asks: don’t facilities such as this need cleaners? There are punch-cards and cameras, certainly, but the security as a whole is rather lax, and shouldn’t be dwelt on. When the story requires it, it is strict; when it requires it to be loose, it is loose.

So, once upon a time, there was a mute woman called Elisa who kept a rather odd day’s routine: at 9pm she got up, boiled some eggs, had a wank in the bath and then went to work for midnight. She kept her artistic neighbour company and occasionally caught a matinee at the cinema downstairs. And if you’ve ever stumbled over a narrative before in your life you’ll understand that the scars on her neck and the fact that she was found orphaned beside a river will turn out to be relevant later; although, perhaps, only as relevant as you choose to let them be. Naturally, del Toro’s monster (the ambitious government man in charge of the interrogation of an ‘amphibian man’ hauled out of South America) thinks they are an example of man’s cruelty to man: that a human person harmed her as a human child, making her at once defective (‘incomplete’ is how she knows people view her) and also ideal in his mind, because she is a silent woman, and he equates silence with a lack of thought and agency.

The movie does a good job of exploding the notion that spoken language is what separates us from the animals. The deepest connection is between Elisa and the amphibian man, who communicate in snatches of sign language, but mainly even without that. Giles, perfectly capable of expressing himself through speech, suffers a painful miscommunication with the man in the pie shop, who can also change his accent at will, but whose words are empty. And the agent, Strickland, spends all his time trying to be the perfect man: two kids, of whom only the boy speaks to him, and a wife who is perfectly obedient to all his needs (even if she momentarily cannot help but complain at being bled on). He gets himself the Cadillac, that all successful men must have, and makes his proclamations about bathroom etiquette. But a man like him is not human, as Elisa’s impassioned address makes clear: he’s hollow, obediently seeking to conform to the encroaching norms of mass marketisation, from candy to cars.

Meanwhile, those who deviate too far from Strickland’s idea of man made in the image of god form an unlikely alliance. Giles doesn’t even like the pies from the franchised store, he keeps them half-eaten, hoping that if he pretends for long enough things might change. But it’s the goalposts that keep changing, red jelly to green jelly, and he cannot hope to conform when society does not really want to include him. ‘Bob’, trapped between his Russian handlers and his American employers, cannot make either see the beauty and personhood of the amphibious man, and finds no support for his own ideals. In some movies, ‘Bob’ would be revealed to be a scientist before he is a human at some point: he’d want to continue his studies outside the lab perhaps, but in a kinder manner than before. The Shape of Water doesn’t need him to be like that though: his conviction is that the amphibian man should not be killed, and once he’s free, ‘Bob’ only wants to know that he will be truly free. And of course, there is Elisa, and I couldn’t put her situation any better than she does (I’m a little sad so much of it was spoiled by the trailer though), and Zelda, who, when she commits to help her friend, fully commits.

Of course they are all underestimated, and of course Strickland is more vindictive than ever when he realises his career is being thwarted by ‘the help’. But in the end, he still doesn’t understand: ‘you are a god’, is all he can manage, as if, after all this, there are still only gods and men, and no one else. The Shape of Water is a warm, playful and yet deadly serious, committed film. Much of the fallout for the individuals isn’t explored, because that’s not how fairytales end, and Doug Jones still had more to do in Hellboy if we’re honest. But this is beautiful and heartfelt, and Sally Hawkins is fantastic. It’s not the best of the Oscar nominees I’ve seen, but I’d rather see it win than many of the other candidates.

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Review: The Ringed Castle (Dorothy Dunnett)

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Adam Blacklock, illustrated by hellsownapollo.tumblr.com. I had been looking at this after Disorderly Knights and wondering about the scar. Now I know.

Yes, it’s that time of the week again, where I have to drag myself away from the Dorothy Dunnett book I’m actually reading, and write up the review of the previous one!

In The Ringed Castle I think I finally appreciated the real cruelty of inventing a character like Francis Crawford. He’s as accomplished as all the famous men of his time, and precociously so, but he is fictional where they are real, and so he can never get the credit for the great changes he contributes to effecting. Also, in his wisdom, he frequently sees disaster on the horizon that he is unable to avert. But because Dunnett writes him and his contemporaries so well, this never feels like an impossible standard of brilliance: rather it’s part of the narrative’s guiding hand, forcing a young man to figure out how to retain his skills and ambition without losing his humanity. Here, Lymond’s taken it upon himself (with a little inspiration from the single-minded ambitions of Güzel) to drag Russia kicking and screaming into the Renaissance. As he negotiates the volatile atmosphere of Ivan the Terrible’s court, his wife — Phillipa Somerville, married on paper only — must find her way through the similarly paranoid world surrounding Mary Tudor and her Spanish husband, Phillip.

If I thought The Disorderly Knights achieved the best combination of historical detail and emotionally-motivated interpersonal drama, the balance of Pawn in Frankincense was towards the latter, and The Ringed Castle is heavier on the former. The research behind it is so impressive, the characterisation and the detail so vivid and convincing though, that it was still a great read. Perhaps a small problem was that the blurb on the back of the new editions I’ve been reading books 4-6 from, references an event that only happens about two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through The Ringed Castle. So up until everyone ends up in London it feels like a waiting game: it’s odd to watch Francis Crawford, more convinced than ever that he’s in control of his life, whilst knowing that all his assumptions about his future will be upended, because we know from the back of the book that despite his intentions, he will not stay in Russia.

Mirroring Lymond’s efforts, the book aims at a fairly clean break with much of what has come before: a few loyal members of St Mary’s, the élite fighting unit born in Disorderly Knights, tag along for the Russian escapades, but the dynamics are changed. Adam Blacklock is not the central witness that he was back in book 3, instead he’s moved to the sidelines of the group, his bad leg, stammer and addictions forgotten beside his private mission to change the artistic sensibilities of the Orthodox Russian court. Fergie Hoddim and the others become a little more rounded out from the impressions we’d had of them earlier, but even then this doesn’t really come to much until the action moves away from Russia. At least the newcomer Danny Hislop is an over-talkative smart-arse, simple in his interests but clever and efficient in his work for Lymond. He brings a little levity and heart to the group of fighting men who have been tasked with whipping the Russian army into shape. (Ahem. Sorry Adam.)

By and large, the passages in Russia are about the vast landscape, the harsh conditions, and the tension inherent in keeping various bickering princelings on the same page. Few of the princelings emerge with much personality of their own; Baida, the general Vishnevetsky, is the only one who comes close, being selected as the historical figure most likely to butt heads with Lymond. Whilst the night-time fight in the winter garden is entertaining, and the confrontation at the front line is grimly inevitable, the scenes don’t quite reach the dramatic heights of Lymond’s other adventures. Appropriately enough, as he exerts his greatest control over himself yet, and Güzel guides him to lose all trace of weakness, the action feels distant and professionally detached. The odd crack does, of course, appear: as Lymond hesitates outside Güzel’s room, Dunnett suddenly reminds us of the impact of the death of Robin Stewart and it’s as abrupt and fleeting an emotional sting as a slap to the face. Similarly, the Tsar’s demand to play chess with his confidante is horrifying, even without any detail other than Lymond’s polite evasiveness.

Lymond remains slippery for me through so much of this though. He and Güzel present a perfect picture of cultured intelligence and taste, but still the emotion is missing. No one gets close enough really to needle him like I needed Jerott to needle him in order to extract the exasperated confession about what Francis Crawford actually wants for himself. Jerott, incidentally, is barely mentioned. I’m fine. This is fine. At least I could take a vague interest in the travels of Diccon Chancellor, an intelligent man with a healthy regard for Lymond’s career and person, who bonds a little with our hero during the visit of the English Muscovy Company to Russia. Oh boy, did I miss what was coming though. So caught up with the strangely compelling horror of Willoughby’s frozen corpse (I’d been to visit the Scott Polar Institute earlier in the week, and will lap up stories of ill-fated Arctic expeditions any time), I missed the historical event on which this novel actually pivots. Some historical figures are well enough known to me that their death is not a surprise; some are in positions where tragedy is not surprising when it occurs; in the Scottish Borders, the historical characters are hard to disentangle from the fictional ones, so that their demise feels like a cunning extension of Dunnett’s own plot. With Chancellor I totally dropped the ball though. I was, like Lymond, still getting to know him. I was gently intrigued by the potential of his relationship with Phillipa, excited for the possibility of his exploration of the north coast of Siberia, and it never once occurred to me that anything would interrupt all that. And that is, of course, the source of the tragedy of Chancellor’s accidental death, written thrillingly and without mercy by Dunnett.

After that, things move more quickly in Scotland and England. The inevitable meeting between Richard and Francis, predictable as the two block-headed idiots are, hurt a lot. Since the beginning of Pawn in Frankincense the bond between these brothers has been pulled taught in the reader’s mind, as we know that they will either never again meet, or their meeting will confirm the fact that they cannot be full siblings. The mores of the time mean that this is no trivial point, and neither Francis nor Richard comes out well from the encounter. In London, finally, we return to Phillipa Somerville, who featured earlier in the novel only briefly before the great chunk of narrative set in Russia. The most prosaic schoolgirl in Northumberland has become an elegant lady of the court, well-versed in the books that Lymond read in his youth and able to quote in multilingual verse alongside our hero. Around her, Lymond discovers the carefree youth that he missed out on — and meanwhile, the scheming Margaret Lennox, arguably the reason he missed out on a carefree youth, works tirelessly to find a way to bring him down.

John Dee rubs shoulders with the loyal Archie Abernethy, and everyone from the Marquis of Allendale to Lady Jane Dormer has an opinion on Phillipa and Francis’ marriage of convenience. History and fiction blend seamlessly once more in London, but it’s only really so that in the end, Lymond can be deposited right back where everyone thought he should be after the events of Pawn in Frankincense. In the meantime, his realisation of his feelings for Phillipa is deftly and beautifully described, as is her carefree ignorance of her own feelings. Characters and rivalries that have been established, subtly, since way back in Game of Kings come into play in new ways, and Francis is given one final test by Güzel, designed to temper the strength she fostered in him. As a whole, the book feels like a very elaborate piece of scene-setting for the grand finale to come in Checkmate, but it does this in no plodding or formulaic way. The humanity of everyone is what drives it, from the isolated, lonely and cruel monarchs Mary and Ivan, to the flawed man at the centre of these stories. I want to sound brave when I say roll on book six, but I don’t think I feel brave. Be kind, Dorothy…

Review: Early Man (cinema)

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Well, this was quite a different type of animation to Coco! Nick Park knows what he likes to do, and he knows the formula works. There’s very little to surprise or startle in this Aardman Animations production, and though it’s not quite up to the slick level of The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists, this is an enjoyable use of ninety minutes, with inventive gags and a surprising vocal cast having a whale of a time.

The opening scene of dinosaurs wrestling in the shadow of an erupting volcano looks very much like a deliberate reference to 10,000 Years B.C., but here half the point is that these dinosaurs are meant to look like they’re made of plasticine. In fact, there seemed to be a quite conscious decision to leave the traces of the creative process visible here: in Pirates the edges are all smoothed away, but here there are thumbprints visible on faces and mouths, a touch that must be deliberate when texture is elsewhere so carefully controlled. The rough and ready edges suit the plucky cavemen underdogs, and are a reminder of just how much effort goes into the creation of stop-motion animation.

Happily, you don’t need to either care about or understand football to enjoy this movie either. It’s an, of course, very British take on things: the tribe that taught football to the world is actually crap at it, and gave up when it got beaten by all the other teams. This does rather ignore the real-world satisfaction of seeing former colonies get a small measure of revenge on the empire, because the bronze-loving new tribe are the colonisers here, but if this is in any way a Brexit allegory it’s at least a subtle one. The characters are also far more diverse than I’ve seen in any previous Aardman production, both in the stone age tribe and in the cosmopolitan bronze-lovers, in skin colour and in accent.

The requisite puns, visual humour and scatological jokes to appeal to the kids are all there, the puns reaching a peak in the scene in which hognob the hog gives Lord Nooth his evening massage. A particularly fun side is the inventiveness that the setting allows Park and co.: in the ‘badlands’ beyond the tribe’s safe meteor crater, evolution has taken strange turns. Giant, fanged ducks and many-eyed primordial soup share the space with the exiled tribe (although I also spotted a sabre-toothed badger in the valley itself). Caterpillers make handy football boots, but the contraptions aren’t over-done. It’s not Wallace and Gromit in the Neolithic period, but something in and of itself.

From Tom Hiddleston’s outrageous (should that be ‘outrrrrrrrageous!’) accent to Richard Ayoade’s repeated groans of ‘Mum…’ the voice cast is surprisingly star-studded, but most are restrained enough to leave Hiddleston the space to ham it up. Miriam Margolyes continues in the vein of Imelda Staunton’s Queen Victoria, but her Queen Oofeefa is a more benevolent ruler, whose displeasure with the vain Nooth is made clear through the enthusiastic delivery of a messenger bird played by Rob Brydon.

There aren’t any surprises here, but it’s good-natured fun, into which just as much creative energy has gone as any big studio’s 3D animated feature film. The characters are expressive and the glory is shared, with a warm, sporting finish to top it all off.

Review: Coco (cinema)

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Disney, suitably chastened by the initial response to their efforts to copyright a national festival, have learned their lesson well here. For all the similarities to Guillermo del Toro’s Book of Life in its early marketing, this has ended up very much its own film, and with detailed, respectful research, it gives us two glorious animated tales set around Dia de los Muertos rather than one. It’s perhaps a little odd that both stories focus on music as a forbidden aspect of family life, but the differences are many and are treated naturally, not coming across as a forced attempt to distance Coco from Book of Life.

This film focuses on its young protagonist, who as a child is frustrated by the family strife from earlier generations. It’s that age-old story that I grumbled about in the review of that Woody Guthrie graphic novel: artist finds art incompatible with family life and ups and leaves. Here, the woman left behind picks up the pieces of her life and forges a successful business as a cobbler, shunning music from her life and the life of her family because of the hurt it has caused her. Of course, such extremes are not healthy, even if the initial abandonment makes her rage understandable: without interrogating the nuances, her descendants loyally keep her rule about music, until Miguel responds as children so often do to nonsensical, poorly explained prohibitions.

The characterisation of the family and its generations is beautifully done in Coco. The staunchest defendant of the dead woman’s rule is her granddaughter, the head of the household, who maintains the rule against music with an iron, uncompromising, unquestioning will. Her son and his wife are not troubled by the rule, and her mother is a silent presence, the Coco of the title, an old woman in the grips of dementia. The extended family is cruel in their domination of Miguel, predictably equating the rule against music with loyalty towards family and respect towards the elders. But by the end of the story there is, naturally, a reconciliation. This is a story about how old wounds continue to reverberate through families, about how remembrance of the past can keep grievances alive and sour them as human context is lost, but also about how remembrance can heal when it comes with understanding.

It looks absolutely stunning, and is less stylised than The Book of Life, going for a glossier, more realistic look and dwelling proudly on its carefully researched elements. Expressions are subtle and gorgeously detailed, like Miguel’s as he plays guitar in front of old recordings, his eyes closed as he’s lost in the music. The guitar-playing is flawless, no finger out of place, and the use of pattern and colour in the Land of the Dead is beautiful, from the neon-pattered animal guides to the shades of carved and detailed bone: those who are beloved of the living have bone that’s a glossy, pristine white, whilst the unloved, who are on the verge of that ‘final death’ as they are forgotten, have scuffed and stained skulls in dirtier shades.

The story won’t contain many surprises for an adult audience I suspect; I certainly found it easy to predict. But it’s sweetly done, and it doesn’t let anyone off the hook: the slighted woman is not asked to forgive, or to abandon her anger even when an explanation is given. She must play an instrumental role in Miguel’s escape from the Land of the Dead, confronting her own painful past in the process. The absent artist is given his own chance to reconcile his behaviour and his ideals, and this version of the restless ghost seeking justice for a murder gives the end of the story an affecting twist. On top of that, the treatment of the second childhood, old age and dementia, is sensitively handled and packs a real punch.

The inter-generational links in Coco are convincing, and the uniqueness of each relationship in the family is subtly drawn. The music is great, the animation gorgeous, and the story does not patronise. It is a very different movie from The Book of Life, and I can safely say that I enjoyed both, and that both did what they were doing very well.

Review: Pawn in Frankincense (Dorothy Dunnett)

 

Graham “Gabriel” Mallett from the Lymond Chronicles. Stole the palette/vibe from this painting by Klimt:I’m not afraid of Gabriel. YOU’RE AFRAID OF GABRIEL. WHATEVER.

Graham ‘Gabriel’ Reid Mallett, illustrated by http://linovadraws.tumblr.com.

Gosh. Hello world — thanks to all who came to like my last post on the Lymond Chronicles! Following on from that, Monday to Friday, I have been unbearable, with my nose stuck in this book at any possible moment. I’ll say at the outset, before distracted by enthusing and other matters, that, strictly speaking, I do not think this book was quite as good as The Disorderly Knights. But it was still excellent. And I couldn’t put it down. Nevertheless, it was slow at the beginning, and the nature of the story made it feel uneven and piecemeal, though the tension of the plot and the high stakes in every encounter carried it through all this without much impact on the reading experience. I do still have reservations about one element, which I feel guilty for not liking more (I’ll expand on this below). As for interrogating the plausibility of Graham Reid Mallett’s elaborate schemes, of considering the devotion of his allies and lackeys, of finding the threat he holds for so many so plausible…well, let’s say I am not capable of questioning these elements. I trust Dunnett, and for the most part she has a masterful, vicelike grip on her plot and chronology and backstory, and there are very few threads worth pulling at or cracks worth picking at. Certainly not when you’re hurtling through action and emotion with no clue as to what, precisely the ultimate tragedy will involve.

Following the revelations of the full extent of Mallett’s influence and forethought at the close of The Disorderly Knights, we are now plunged headfirst into an absurd, desperate hunt for Francis Crawford’s lover and their illegitimate child. Dunnett, though making it clear that this amount of effort for an unmarried woman and an unknown child would be seen as extraordinary by Crawford’s contemporaries, does not try to make us think for long that Lymond has forgotten Oonagh and Khaireddin. Accompanied by Jerott Blyth, the romantic former monk who seems to have placed all his faith on Lymond’s shoulders, and the dogged, practical Hexham girl Philippa Somerville, Lymond now must make his way around the Mediterranean coasts, playing cat and mouse with Mallett. If he kills Mallett first, Oonagh and his son will be killed too; if he tries to save the children first, Mallett will have time to plot even worse things for Lymond’s friends and loved ones — not to mention the carefully poised empires whose delicate pride could turn them to all-out war at the drop of a hat. Philippa is there to make sure the child is not forgotten, and that all possible is done to save him. Jerott is there for his own reasons — though Dunnett leaves these ambiguous.

It’s in the course of Pawn in Frankincense that I really began to appreciate why fans of these books read and re-read them time and again. This gave me a feeling that is comparable to my first encounter with The Lord of the Rings, where a world is so dense and detailed but the plot so urgent that you know you’re probably missing things in the frantic race to find out what happens. Dunnett also loves to drop reveals and twists in, long after they have begun to affect the characters. The late reveal about the poison in Lymond’s system blindsided me, and it’s only on a re-read that I’ll be able to make much use of this knowledge to interpret the hero’s behaviour. I also worry that in my desperate love for Jerott Blyth — and continual fear that he’d do something rash and ‘helpful’ and end up getting himself killed — I missed clues from Dunnett as to her actual plans for him. I am not quite reconciled to it all, and it makes me as exasperated and worked up as Jerott in that scene in the Algerian palace owned by Güzel.

Oh ok, let’s get the complaint out of the way then. I should love Marthe. I know I should. She’s so smart, she’s got the languages and the poetry and the razor-sharp wit and the ability with all people of all kinds and cultures, and she’s furious with the world because as a woman, and a woman with no family, she has no right to respect or wealth or to make her own choices. God I should love her. I do, when the description is left at that, I suppose. But she’s apparently Francis’ sister. Long lost. Unnamed, unclaimed, unknown. She hates him, because he doesn’t welcome her with open arms, and probably because she doesn’t like the feeling of having to rely on him. He hates her, because she is an unforgiving mirror to his own personality, perhaps also because she is a living, breathing example of what becomes of illegitimate children when their families abandon them, and that’s a sore point with Khaireddin at large.* But despite it all, Marthe is very much her own agent. She has more affinity with the east than the Christian west, and she tells us again and again that she has no interest in men. So I don’t think it’s just protectiveness of my favourite, Jerott, who of course falls head over heels for her, when I complain a little about the execution of this character and her story.

One very prosaic issue have is that the complexities of Marthe’s feelings and background can never be explored in detail, because she is keeping secrets throughout much of the book. Dunnett never gives us Marthe’s point of view, not to the extent where we’d learn anything about her own feelings in any depth, because the author would then presumably have to give away the fact that Marthe knows she’s Francis’ sister, and that she and Gaultier have their own business in Aleppo and Stamboul. And she is so very like Francis anyway that I had to summon the effort to make myself open to liking her, as I had to do initially with Lymond. All this will perhaps be less of a problem on a re-read. But then, in the end, there is no certainty to her claim that she’s his sister: poetry in the DNA and uncannily similar looks have to do, because there’s no other evidence (except that the Dame de Doubtance told Marthe?). Maybe this is explained down the line, but I found it a frustration too far in the isolated context of the one novel.

Oh, and then Jerott. That scene in Algiers. My initial take away, and what I really wanted, was that Jerott looked at Lymond, smelled the Agha on him, and knew his heart i.e. that Marthe was right but he didn’t know how to admit it to himself or articulate it. When Jerott repeatedly declares his love for Marthe I remain baffled: all we really know of her is that she looks and sounds and behaves like Francis, but she happens to be female, and perhaps also because of her illegitimacy my dear melodramatic Chévalier Blyth sees someone who needs saving. So I worry that I simply don’t like Marthe as much as I should because I think Jerott should love Francis and not her. Or, should love both of them equally, as he is frustrated and teased equally by both of them.

But there’s also just the matter of convenience. She’s very convenient for a Dunnett creation, and it seems almost like laziness next to the elaborate care with which the rest of the series is constructed. She is Francis’ sister, but it’s unconfirmed and never really addressed between them until it becomes convenient for her to melt a little and save him from opium with poetry. It ought to have been a touching scene, and it was still, to a degree, but I couldn’t switch off my questions: did La Dame de Doubtance set her up deliberately to be a foil to her brother? Do I have to believe that the old woman genuinely had some mystical powers in order for their similarities to have ended up so uncanny? Again, I thought of Lord of the Rings, and Éowyn softening in the healing rooms of Minas Tirith, learning love and the care of herself through the care of others. I re-read that relatively recently, and despite my fears, I had no feeling of Éowyn’s power and independence being squashed or dismissed: it is a healing moment for her, after the longing for death, it’s a moment where she finds a role in life for herself. And her finding fulfillment in war would not fit with the rest of Tolkien’s message. Meanwhile, Marthe’s transformation felt abrupt, her sudden decision to relent to Jerott came without warning, though the line ‘Kindness. He shall have it’ absolutely wrecked me. Marriage (if that is where this is going) means putting herself in another’s hands in a way that she has been furiously against doing: the significance of her talk with Philippa about helping each other, of her realisation that Francis was disillusioned like her but fought on anyway, just didn’t have the force of impact that these moments ought to have done, because we had no sneak-peek of this side of her in advance (that I recall at least). It is not just that I doubt that she will find it easy to keep that promise of kindness, and that I worry for Jerott’s hurt feelings: I worry because it would mean Marthe giving up one of the few aspects of herself that are unambiguously hers.

Ah well, I’m probably just a bit miffed that having invested so much worry in Jerott, Dunnett very firmly reminded me at the end that this isn’t about him, it’s about Francis. So colour me chastened as I try to re-focus my attentions on the actual hero of the series. And anyway, the main thing about Marthe is that, alongside Kiaya Khátún, Philippa Somerville, Roxana Sultána, Madame Donati, La Dame de Doubtance and others, she complements a varied and powerful cast of female characters. It turns out, after all, that these women drive the book, that it is their actions that hold the balance of power in the game played between Lymond and Mallett, and their unpredictability that can change the arranged outcomes.

Whilst Lymond tries to maintain control of the situation in the only way he knows how, two women initiate their own plans, each for her own reasons: La Dame’s, which is yet to be discovered, Güzel, in pursuit of a long-standing ambition, Marthe, in search of independence, or perhaps hoping to be persuaded that acceptance would also satisfy her, and…Philippa. Philippa who really shouldn’t be called an ordinary, prosaic or plain anything after her iron-willed pursuit of Lymond and his child across Europe and the Middle East. I don’t pretend to understand much about Philippa Somerville, but she’s a force of nature, who Dunnett seems to have far more fun writing than the elegant, the mysterious and the cultured women of power.

And throughout, Francis is fighting against all of Mallett’s advance preparation, in ignorance of the women’s plotting, and doing so in territories where Mallett seemingly has more allies. He’s two steps behind from the outset, and it’s only gradually that we realise quote how vast these steps are: one child becomes two, a betrayal within his crew turns out to have been orchestrated from near the beginning of the story, and no amount of bluffing can help his case. The confrontation at Zuara is a pivotal moment in the drama here, where we learn the full consequences if Lymond makes the wrong move, or the wrong choice. When, in the end, that it precisely what he appears to do (the book is painfully ambiguous, and I can reason with myself either way, but things lean in a particular direction all the same), it is heartbreaking, and immediately irrevocable.

I hope I haven’t sounded too critical here. I loved this book. If The Disorderly Knights finally got me with its claws, Pawn in Frankincense gripped me by the throat and wouldn’t let go until the fight had been shaken out of me. It made me laugh, it left me appalled, it made me smile like a love-struck idiot on public transport and it probably ruined my chances of making friends at my new job, because my nose was stuck in this book for the first week. I can’t wait to read it again.


*Obviously, in order to write this review, I had to prise myself away from The Ringed Castle, in which Philippa learns lots of interesting things about Lymond’s family. I think now that part of his resentment of Marthe must be that he sees one parent in particular in her similarity to him…

Review: The Disorderly Knights (Dorothy Dunnett)

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Jerott Blyth, illustrated by hellsownapollo.tumblr.com

Note: I have had to forcibly remove myself from Book 4, ‘Pawn in Frankincense’ to finish this review. Note 2: it didn’t work. I finished ‘Pawn in Frankincense’ in five days flat rather than finishing this review.

Reading the Lymond Chronicles makes me feel like any one of the people left in Francis Crawford’s wake. Rumpled, exasperated, annoyed at my own weakness and enjoyment, and itching to get back to the bastard. And I don’t even like the character that much!* Happily, Dorothy Dunnett’s grand series is packed with people who are the perfect ciphers for the frustrated reader like me: men and women who are reluctant and angry and uncomprehending throughout the many adventures our hero has, but who are always there at the end, coming through to do the right thing, and to see Crawford do the right thing. Along with allies and enemies both ambiguous and staunch, this is masterful historical fiction, saga-telling in the truest sense, with a vast, carefully balanced cast of characters historical and fictional, and richly imagined relationships linking them all.

This is the third of the Lymond Chronicles, and only the third book by Dunnett I’ve read — and that across three years or so. I enjoyed the first a great deal, but found it slow to get into, and the second was even slower and less to my tastes, with its burlesque debauchery and wheels within wheels of deceit and intrigue. So I’ve taken a while to come to The Disorderly Knights, but did so knowing two things: one, that in several friends’ opinions it is the best, and two, that a favourite character of mine would die, because historical fact demanded it. With this level of ignorance, the blurb on the back of the book seemed rashly frank and full of spoilers, so it’s lucky that despite that, my friends were right and this is easily the best of the three I’ve read so far, where Dunnett’s skills really and fully come into their own.

First, for the uninitiated, Dunnett’s books are set in the mid-sixteenth century, roving across Northern Europe and the Mediterranean, sprinkled with witticisms in Spanish, French, Latin, Italian, Irish, Turkish and more. They follow the unsteady path of a second son to a Scottish lord, Francis Crawford, who in the absence of a title to inherit is left to get into many, many forms of trouble. Cool, ruthlessly skillful, appearing old beyond his years, and a man of his own counsel, Crawford of Lymond is made to be difficult to know and frustrating to love. Dunnett is strict in keeping the reader well away from Crawford’s internal processes, only rarely telling us how he feels, and describing his external responses unambiguously with little more frequency. But she does let those who observe him express their feelings: it’s a prurient, delicious twist on the kind of ‘objective’ narration that is best known, to me at least, from the medieval Icelandic family sagas. Sometimes you find yourself driven to distraction by his obtuseness, and cheering on the comrade who chides him; at other points you find yourself gleaning a part of his plan before his internal observers do, and then you side with him against them. Crawford is the books’ hero (I wouldn’t call him an anti-hero) but he’s a slippery hero nonetheless, and a very human one.

In this third installment, Dunnett dials down the comedy costuming (no soot in the hair nor faux-paunches or absurd Spanish accents here, just a smatter of cross-dressing) and rustles up a real match for Crawford’s icy, detached intellect. She smartly begins with a nostalgic look back at the Scottish border before the events of book two, bookending a hotly claustrophobic tale of disasters un-averted in the Mediterranean with the bracing Borders environment that gave the English language words like blackmail and bereave. Her feuding Scots and English are an awful delight, described and pictured in loving detail, right down to every brutal, pointless killing. ‘Honour’ in all its forms is ripe for ridicule by Crawford of Lymond, but he takes the feuds of his homeland entirely seriously. By reminding us at the outset of the rough warmth of the Scotts Wat and Will, of Janet Beaton’s homely good sense and Tom Erskine’s pragmatism and kindness, Dunnett prepares the reader cruelly for the hell that breaks loose a couple of years down the line.

I’ll admit that I hoped, for a very long time, that the villain of the piece was as subtle and/or guileless as he first appeared. If I stop to think about it, the revelation of the extent of his malice, tinged with madness, is really rather more than I’d say is necessary. But god, by that point I was so hooked I just wanted the bastard to lose. Oh yes, we always sense there’s something a little…off about him, though whether this is just because by now we trust Lymond’s judgement and Lymond never quite takes to him, I’m not sure. Still, by the denouement, his elaborate schemes and attempts to draw others to him by force of personality reveal him to be not the epitome of what Lymond might have been, given a cause, but rather the inversion of Lymond, a magnificent, terrible brute who encourages others to love him so he can use them, where Lymond rejects the love offered to him by so many others. It works a treat: sticking this great, vain nemesis into the mix, because it forces Lymond to prove to everyone who thinks, initially, he should grow up to be just like this man, why he is different, and why that is better. Gradually, more of Francis Crawford’s person is revealed, and though not all of it is good, it is a rounded, complex portrait of a man both of and ahead of his time.

Interestingly, he is also a decidedly reactionary hero. In his first outing, he must clear his name, having been slandered and set up in his homeland. In book 2, he must race to uncover an international plot against the young princess Mary of Scots. And here, while he tries to consider how he might shape his future and that of his country, he is thwarted by the ambitions and intrusions of a stranger who would claim him and keep him, or ruin him and remove him from the world. It is quite hard to know what Francis Crawford of Lymond would do, left to his own devices, and what he wants. So I am unspeakably grateful for the hot-headed, mistrustful drama queen that is his childhood friend Jerott Blyth (see the fanart above), now a monk and soldier in the Order of the Cross of St John, a man who cannot take ‘no’ for an answer from Lymond. Jerott finally forces our hero to admit that really, all he wants is peace: peacetime and normalcy in which to enjoy music and poetry.

Poor Francis, that’s not to be: he lives in a violent age, in a violent place, and he rises in a very human way to the challenges set. Dunnett neither romanticises nor effaces the cruelties of the era, and from the mutually despicable encounter between Lymond and Joleta to the two-fold butchering of old Wat Scott, she leads the reader firmly through the worst as well as the best of the characters she describes. I’d say that much of it isn’t easy to read, but in the most literal sense it’s horribly easy to read: it’s gripping and it’s dramatic, with constant twists and turns, some anticipated and orchestrated by the hero, some as much of a surprise to him as to us.

Anyway. You want shocking character deaths, people who are killed horribly even when they do the right things, beautiful incestuous siblings and factional politics with big swords? Leave GRRM be until he hires an editor. Read Dunnett, who did it better, long before him.

*n.b. I’m not sure I believe this any more. I am baffled and perplexed by Lymond a lot of the time, but I do quite like him. It’s why I find Jerott so appealing: he wants to follow Francis, he likes him, and probably loves him, but finds that it’s often like pouring yourself out into a bottomless pit. You have to trust that Lymond is in control, that his plan is solid and his intentions are for the best, because he will keep things from you, and he will be irritated when you do things in ignorance of his plans/when you judge him one way or another without having the full picture.

Xmas diary: books and films

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We were hosting this holiday, so I’ve not had much time for writing things up. This is some of what I’ve been up to though…

Review: Daniel Deronda (George Eliot)

I’ll try and give this a full review some time, but for now, just some notes. It’s probably not better than Middlemarch, with its grand, masterful vision over a whole community’s lives, but I think I far prefer Daniel Deronda with all its flaws. The Zionist passages drag, and Mordecai could be an interesting character only he’s never really interrogated or challenged by Eliot; like his sister, whose only real hint of personality comes out in her jealousy of Gwendoline. I was disappointed by Mirah, having loved Jodhi May’s performance in the old BBC adaptation, but there’s really very little to her, with Eliot choosing to show little from her point of view up until the time when she realises her feelings for Deronda. Nevertheless, to have such positive depictions of devout Jews and of a suicidal woman in a book of this time was presumably fairly revolutionary, so I can admire it in that sense, even if it never once considers the lives of the people who will have to be evicted from their own lands in order to restore another peoples’ land. In amongst the straining Victorian effort to describe the indescribable processes of thought and emotion, which Eliot for the most part does supremely well, and amongst the rich, localised detail of landscape and architecture and weather and fashion, it’s Eliot’s characterisation that I love. Gwendoline and Deronda are fantastic (except in the moments where Eliot considers the possibility of a romance between them). Supporting characters are also generally handled with love and sympathy, with the author frequently apologising for their behaviour, or pleading with her audience not to judge them harshly. I adore the spoiled, superstitious Gwendoline, trapped by her fear of facing any real challenge, but dreaming of adventure all the same. The lead-up to her marriage with Grandcourt is as compelling as a thriller, all options closing down around a girl who is nowhere near as worldy as others suspect. Like Middlemarch, its beginning is stronger than its ending, and I’ve got reservations about the recurring theme of duty, but the rounded, complex humanity of Gwendoline and Deronda is so beautifully done.

Review: In Bruges (2008)

How have I never got ‘round to watching this for so many years? I think I might have been afraid it wouldn’t be as good as I hoped. Needn’t have worried though – it was funny, appalling, sweet and perfectly cast. I am so glad Colin Farrell stopped trying to be a Hollywood lead, he plays a little shit in this, but one who’s somehow still charming despite all the crassness. And it’s Brendan Gleeson in a movie by one of the McDonagh brothers, so expect tragedy. Unlike Ray, I think Bruges looks lovely in this, and there’s a cracking atmospheric soundtrack through the slow, quiet build of the plot. And Ralph Fiennes is having the time of his life in it, even if the ending was a bit *too* silly for my tastes – it was still the outcome I was rooting for…

Rewatch: Song of the Sea (2014)

This is always going to be in or around my top 10 movies. Cartoon Saloon aim to create a visual style for Irish myth that Studio Ghibli creates for Japanese myth and legend. They’re closer to one another in this than in the studio’s first major film, The Secret of Kells, but despite visual and personal similarities between Macha the owl witch and Yubaba from Spirited Away, there’s no sense of heavy borrowing from Ghibli. I think more comes down to the kind of themes explored by a good children’s movie: big, emotional themes that even adults find hard to articulate, but that affect all of us in different ways. Not that Song of the Sea is just for kids: the grief and inertia of the father who’s lost his wife and now can’t engage with his son is just as painful each time I watch this. Clever internal references and a gorgeous soundtrack add layers to the sumptuous hand-drawn animation.

Rewatch: Rogue One (2016)

Never over it. Nope. After seeing TLJ a couple of times and getting ready to go for a third time with my parents, it was time to make sure Mum finally saw Rogue One. On this viewing I mainly learnt that I probably need new glasses, and I found Bor Gullet more extraneous than ever, but it’s still up there as one of my favourite Star Wars movies. I’ve never felt the need to rail against the ending, but I’ll probably always be disappointed that we’ll never get much more in the way of official stories about these characters. The excuse that ‘they can’t live because we never hear of them in the OT’ is a poor one: when I’m not imagining alternate pasts and futures for them, I’m busy imagining what their actions meant to the survivors in the Rebellion. The mixture of ages and backgrounds, different motivations and experiences, but overall a shared horror of the Empire and refusal to continue standing by makes for such a perfect team.

Review: Inside Llewyn Davis (2012)

Another movie I’ve been putting off watching for a while, not least as recent Coen Brothers offerings have felt a bit lukewarm. But that soundtrack. Oh, I’ve loved that soundtrack for ages. I enjoyed this movie most at the end, with the repeated scenes: leaving the Gorfeins’ flat, and the encounter in the alley. The scenes are slightly different this time around, but not in a meaningful way. Llewyn hasn’t broken any Groundhog Day-style cycle, he’s in just the same place he was at the start, but occasionally the details differ. The details at the end include a nasally-voiced silhouette on stage: the dawn of Bob Dylan’s career. And all I could think was that I’d rather listen to Oscar Isaac’s voice any day. There are motifs in this film, but they’re just as hard to interpret as the repetition at the end: ginger cats that may be two or more animals, a failure to hold down responsibility that dogs Llewyn. Other people drift in and out of his story, their own lives a mystery to both him and the audience. It’s a lonely, melancholy little film about little more than a sense of loss, but it’s beautifully done. Not one to watch often, but one to put in my list of favourite Coen movies all the same.

Rewatch: The Last Jedi (cinema)

Oops, third time. This time I was mainly thinking of Rey, and her journey. I never wanted Rey to be a Skywalker, I don’t want everything in Star Wars to always revolve only about them — I love Luke and Leia but not because they’re Skywalkers. Okay, I’m still curious as to how Rey understands Wookie, but other than that I want what we heard of her family to be essentially true. But TLJ did give me a new perspective on her, and when people say she’s ooc for much of it, I think it’s rather because she’s trying to be something she isn’t. She’s on her best behaviour as Leia’s emissary, and the young girl who was so eager to please in TFA is a bit more cautious around Luke, when gaining his approval isn’t as simple as fixing an electrical problem with the Falcon. Plus we start to see a bit more of her internal conflict and fear of the Force: whilst it was just a fantasy on Jakku, kept within the confines of her old X-wing helmet and life of scavenging, the reality of the power she wields clearly frightens her. She’s constructed a past for herself, where she ‘has a place in all this’, but — assuming her parents really were nobodies, as she herself volunteers — she doesn’t quite believe in her right to a place in the legends she’s heard growing up. Imposter syndrome: not even the Jedi can escape it. So she tries to be like Luke, if she can’t bring Luke back, and aim for Kylo’s redemption (less for Kylo than for herself and Luke and everyone else, to be seen to be doing something at least), but once she realises it’s not happening, and once she’s admitted to her past, she’s able to be herself again.

Review: Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads (Nick Hayes)

Nick Hayes’ art is very stylised, using only four or five different shades of dust bowl brown. His lines reminded me frequently of Craig Thompson’s work, but though he captures the dead-eyed, haunted expressions of crowds of the dispossessed well, he’s not great at the gnarly details. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if his script didn’t mention Charley Guthrie’s arthritic hands so often, but it does, and the drawings never quite match up to the grimy detail in the story. Nonetheless, where the subject turns to music and the long, living legacy of folk song, the book shines: the scenes that are really successful are where the men in a boxcar all compare versions of Gypsy Davey/the Raggle Taggle Gypsies, or Woody sings out in the wilderness, his words chiming with the sounds of nature. It’s also interesting to get a perspective on the internal barriers the USA has always erected against the poor, and on Guthrie’s gradual growth through political awareness as a musician and songwriter. He doesn’t always seem like the nicest of guys — I’ve very little sympathy for rambling men who resent the wife and child that ‘tie them down’ — but his focus and passion for the music and the land come through and keep the story moving. Keeping the tale to this particular period of his life works well too, with a natural arc that culminates in the composition of his most iconic song.

Star Wars season, Part III: Review: The Last Jedi (cinema)

This is a spoiler review. There will be spoilers.

This may also be called a ‘fan review’, as I am a Star Wars fan, and will make sweeping, self-indulgent statements about the wider Star Wars universe, the direction of the franchise, and my place in fandom. It will be in three parts, and if you just want the review of the damn movie, you can skip Parts I and II. I’ve just been thinking about how personal our experiences with such a vast body of stories can nonetheless be, and can think of no other way to approach it than by going through my own personal experience with the franchise/mythos/epic tradition/whatever you wish to call it. That’s Part I; Part II is my criticism of the narrative decisions that underlie the ST. They are things that genuinely annoy me about the ST and where the story is now, but they’re so vast and so essential to the underpinning of the ST that I can’t do anything but acknowledge them and then concentrate on what we have instead of what I’d have liked.

Also probably worth mentioning: I liked the movie. Probably no more than I liked TFA, with full recognition of what I’d have changed. But these posts are sort of a way of showing how compartmentalised my enjoyment of Star Wars is these days.

You can find Part I here and Part II here.

Continue reading

Star Wars season, Part II: A gap in the space-time continuum

This is a spoiler review. There will be spoilers.

This may also be called a ‘fan review’, as I am a Star Wars fan, and will make sweeping, self-indulgent statements about the wider Star Wars universe, the direction of the franchise, and my place in fandom. It will be in three parts, and if you just want the review of the damn movie, you can skip Parts I and II. I’ve just been thinking about how personal our experiences with such a vast body of stories can nonetheless be, and can think of no other way to approach it than by going through my own personal experience with the franchise/mythos/epic tradition/whatever you wish to call it. That’s Part I; Part II is my criticism of the narrative decisions that underlie the ST. They are things that genuinely annoy me about the ST and where the story is now, but they’re so vast and so essential to the underpinning of the ST that I can’t do anything but acknowledge them and then concentrate on what we have instead of what I’d have liked.

Also probably worth mentioning: I liked the movie. Probably no more than I liked TFA, with full recognition of what I’d have changed. But these posts are sort of a way of showing how compartmentalised my enjoyment of Star Wars is these days.

Part I can be found here.

Continue reading

Star Wars season, Part I: A fandom of one

This is a spoiler review. There will be spoilers.

This may also be called a ‘fan review’, as I am a Star Wars fan, and will make sweeping, self-indulgent statements about the wider Star Wars universe, the direction of the franchise, and my place in fandom. It will be in three parts, and if you just want the review of the damn movie, you can skip Parts I and II. I’ve just been thinking about how personal our experiences with such a vast body of stories can nonetheless be, and can think of no other way to approach it than by going through my own personal experience with the franchise/mythos/epic tradition/whatever you wish to call it. That’s Part I; Part II is my criticism of the narrative decisions that underlie the ST. They are things that genuinely annoy me about the ST and where the story is now, but they’re so vast and so essential to the underpinning of the ST that I can’t do anything but acknowledge them and then concentrate on what we have instead of what I’d have liked.

Also probably worth mentioning: I liked the movie. Probably no more than I liked TFA, with full recognition of what I’d have changed. But these posts are sort of a way of showing how compartmentalised my enjoyment of Star Wars is these days.

Continue reading