Review: Atomic Blonde (cinema)

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Okay. Okay. Now I want to drive around at speed, punch things, and listen to ’80s music LOUD. It’s like my normal state, but MORE. This movie looked and sounded gorgeous. Blaring synth-pop tunes and flickering projectors, neons, and fluorescents tried to smother the violence, but the violence won out. You think Daredevil’s corridor fight looks tiring? You ain’t seen nothing. And between it all Charlize Theron smiles a wan smile and looks at you from beneath her too-long fringe. And you think: yes, please punch me in the face too.

To be honest, it took a little while to win me over to this extent. The way the music and the fight scenes intersected was telegraphed in such a stylised way that it bugged me at first, as did the stilted dialogue and self-conscious posing of Theron and James McAvoy around their ever present cigarettes and vodka. When she wasn’t speaking, Theron’s face said so much, but then something that wasn’t convincingly an English accent came out of her mouth in a clipped monotone and I wished repeatedly that the movie had no dialogue. This feeling faded — and I can’t decide if in the end my suspicions were validated or made redundant — and about a third of the way into the movie it hit its stride; basically once Lorraine had managed to gain some control over her mission.

It’s a movie that will benefit from rewatching (though perhaps I’m just bad at guessing the twists in spy movies), though it will mean rewatching the bad with the good. There’s a trope that’s embedded firmly in the genre that coincides with a trope that occurs too frequently across various media anyway. It wasn’t ‘as bad’ as I’d expected, having been spoiled, but frankly it remained unnecessary; and perhaps by not being ‘bad’ in the way I’d expected, it ended up being worse for being lazy in a different way.(1 – spoilers)

Anyway, probably because I knew it was coming, I let myself compartmentalise that part of the story, and I’m a little ashamed with how much I enjoyed the rest. It wasn’t terribly afflicted with the male gaze, but with mirrors everywhere it maintained a sexy, stylised look that I’d argue was a rung or so above Music Video. In the action scenes, and the less people talked, it felt less like a comic adaptation (and in this case I’m saying that’s a good thing). The action was where it shone: you could feel the bruising impact of each blow; you knew how much harder Lorraine had to work to land the kind of punch she needed to; but you knew she was capable of it. The stairwell fight and its follow-up were exhilarating and horrifying in equal parts.

By the end, what was a fairly simple premise — that many might have guessed the twists to earlier than I did — was wrung to a taut, smart finale. With all of Lorraine’s antagonist’s monologuing about the nature of ‘truth’, her contemptuous silence told you all you needed to know. His musings barely scratched the surface of her own experience.

She was a compelling hero, and Theron’s skills brought out layers of vulnerability as well as cunning that a lesser actor wouldn’t have managed. If it wasn’t for the specificity of the setting (as with so many Cold War movies) I’d be eager for a sequel that took care to avoid some of the tropes this one languished in. As a stand-alone it’s good fun though, and I’ll happily watch it again. It’s just not as revolutionary as it might have been, sadly; though it’s still smarter than a Bond movie.


(1) spoilers

Of course I’m talking about Delphine’s death. So soft and sweet and naïve — of course she wasn’t going to make it through. She managed more fight than I expected, and indeed was around longer than expected. But these were manifestations of the lazy storytelling I’m talking about: the movie wants you to think she means something to Lorraine. It wants you to see how close she came to winning, to living, to being rescued. But when you know from the beginning that she’s going to die, because not only must the love-interest die, but we must bury our gays, it’s … shall we say, very hard to let yourself get involved? Though tbf she did a lot better than Irina in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy…(and I love that movie too).

Review: Pom Poko (1994)

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Ok, I don’t think this is an uncommon response for those unfamiliar with the tanuki, but it took me a while to come up with more than: “I never thought I’d see so many raccoon scrota in one movie.” Apparently the connection between the raccoon dog/tanuki and enormous ball-sacks emerged relatively recently in Japanese folklore and popular culture, and is to do with the process of hammering out gold leaf inside a tanuki skin. Cool. There’s no indication of that connection in Pom Poko though, where the focus is very much on the legendary transformative abilities of the animals, which are put to use here to try to defend their land from human development.

Part precursor to Princess Mononoke, part Ghibli does The Animals of Farthing Wood, this is a strange blend of cute woodland shenanigans and the bleak realities of urban expansion. These two sides are represented in the art, as stylised and beautiful as we’ve all come to expect from a Ghibli movie, and from Isao Takahata himself. Generally, when they’re around humans or human activity, the tanuki are depicted realistically; when they’re experiencing strong emotion (grief, fear, joy) the crowd becomes more of a caricature, apparently in the style of surrealist manga. Most of the time though, they are anthropomorphised as above, the slightest details of hairstyle or accessory enough to make each individual stand out.

Now you’re just showing off…

Structurally, the movie is told in what might be described as chapters, although the narrative voice-over treats it more like a chronicle of the years since the tanuki were forced to band together to seek a solution for their shrinking habitat. At first, they fight each other, then they try to learn about the humans from television, and to rediscover the art of transformation. This leads to increasing levels of interaction with the human world as their abilities improve: initially they transform into trees and other objects in order to force road accidents at the construction site. This develops into more elaborate types of hauntings and apparitions at shrines, before culminating in a wild display of spirit activity in the nearby town (that unfortunately all goes a bit Beetlejuice on them). Their last act is to show the encroaching humans what the forest once looked like to all of them, before it was bulldozed for housing estates.

The story does end up dragging because of the necessarily repetitive nature of the tanuki’s attacks on the humans. They have a ‘five year plan’ that is begun early, but the movie still covers several years in the lives of the tanuki protagonists. Their lives revolve around the seasons — initially, they practice abstinence in order to keep their numbers steady, but after a year of this, followed by a series of small victories, self-control is lacking the following spring. See also: any comments section under an article connecting global warming to an ever-increasing human population. The tanuki are human-like also in their adoration of television and tempura, their disagreements over whether the solution to their problem should be a violent one or a peaceful one, and in the divisions between those who are able to transform and those who are not. I don’t know if it’s relevant to Japanese culture in the same way as British culture, but by the end of the movie I wondered whether the whole thing was actually meant to be a comment on class as much as on environmentalism. The tanuki who can transform become normal middle class humans: busy and tired with work and commuting, some of them selling out their old lands for easy money. Those who could never transform simply become urban wildlife: living fast, making lots of children and dying young. Additionally, there are the foxes (kitsune), who long ago gave up on their fellows who couldn’t transform, and moved wholesale into the human lifestyle, exploiting whoever they can, and clearly being depicted as suave and successful in their new lives. At the end, the main character, Shoukichi, sees his old friends frolicking gleefully under the moon on a golf course: after a long day in the human world, he sheds pieces of his human identity bit by bit, racing to join them in their carousing and singing. Concern for the tanuki is deflected by the voice-over, as we witness their success within the human world, and instead the movie ends with a reminder to think of the real animals, who can’t transform: rabbits, deer and others.

The movie is funny and surreal and, of course, looks utterly gorgeous. The characters aren’t deep enough that I ever felt it tugging hard on any heart-strings, but they’re a likeable bunch nonetheless. The blend of whimsy and brutality works fairly well; the animals, even with their anthropomorphic qualities, are made animal in a way I don’t recall seeing done so well since The Animals of Farthing Wood adaptation (though that certainly did do individualism and personality in more depth). Their lives are not bloodless and nor are the human lives they are at strife with. As with the sympathy shown to Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke, the humans living in the town nearby are shown to be as much at the mercy of the developers as the animals are: one says he’d happily leave only he can’t afford to live anywhere else. The workmen scared away by the tanuki are constantly replaced by more workmen. Maybe it’s ironic that the pressure already put on the environment by the human community ends up being added to by the foxes and raccoon dogs who transform to join their society.

Uncomprehendingly, a family that sees the tanuki close by their house marvel at the sight of them so near, and wish they could see them more often. There’s no answer or solution or happy victory at the end of Pom Poko: mingling folklore, environmentalism and a distrust of the distant bosses it remains contemporary, despite also feeling very early ’90s in some ways. The tanuki ultimately accept their fate with either the aggressive lack of compromise or the cheerful optimism with which they lived. It’s up to the viewer to take away a message from the film or to let the same thing keep happening.

Review: Okja (2017)

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This is a movie that can be taken in a couple of different ways. A lot of people have latched on to its message about industrial farming, using it as an argument for a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle — a view that can be seen as represented in the movie by the Animal Liberation Front, and its most extreme member, Silver, who starves himself out of fear that he’s contributing to exploitation even in agricultural farming systems. But even this hints that it’s also a story about human exploitation, from the way Mija’s grandfather lies to her, to K’s mis-translation of her wishes, to the way Mirano uses her love for Okja as a marketing tool. I absolutely don’t want to take away from the messages about how we treat animals, and about the toxicity of vast agri-business (TOPICAL GUYS), but to me this remained a very human movie. Maybe because it uses an invented creature — that is a fairly adorable pig-hippo-dog mash-up — to tug the heartstrings, maybe because the victory at the end was necessarily limited, or maybe just because the characters were written so well. After all, even within the ALF there are arguments about when ‘the cause’ should come first and when Mija’s wishes should come first.

Okja is a far sweeter tale than Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, but it’s not so sweet that it shies away from the utterly gruesome. Somehow it balances a host of different elements and slightly disorienting casting choices into a coherent, heartfelt whole. Wrangling together Mija’s idyllic, protected upbringing in a remote part of South Korea with the bustle of Seoul, the divided but devoted ALF, and the calculating marketing machine behind an American agri-business is no mean feat in itself, with the movie managing to give each character a distinctive personality and just enough of a backstory or motivation to bring depth to the story. Bong makes good use yet again of Tilda Swinton, who’s enjoyable as ever, but after her scene-stealing in Snowpiercer here she has the rug taken out from under her by Jake Gyllenhaal’s manic, egotistical nature documentary presenter. He’s somehow even more horrifying than the two-faced business-people: they lie about how their ‘super pigs’ are made because they know it’s the only way to sell the meat, but Gyllenhaal’s character, who made his career on the back of his professed love of animals, now turns most cruelly on them in order to cling on to the shreds of his pride. He’s been more effectively absorbed into Mirano than the top brass, it seems. But I think for me the strangest thing was Paul Dano’s turn as Jay, the leader of the ALF. All the cultish charisma and intensity he brought to There Will Be Blood is still there, but it’s softened just enough; nevertheless, the tension between the credo ‘do not harm’ and between the urge to do violence to various humans is, well, never that far from bubbling to the surface. It’s a really effective piece of casting, anyway, because with Jake Gyllenhaal trying to skew the movie’s balance in favour of his scenes, to Seo Hyun-Ahn’s quiet, stubborn heroine, Dano keeps the ALF parts equally strong.

Ultimately, it proves impossible to reconcile Mija’s simple desire to return home and not to join the underlying and ongoing struggle against the corporate giant, however. Mija gets her companion back again — traumatised but still trusting of Mija — and one little addition, but the abattoir remains; Mirano endures under stricter management; and only the sting after the credits gives you any idea of the continuing work against industrial agriculture. In this interview (warning, spoilers for Snowpiercer if you haven’t seen it), Bong talks about the underlying problem when it comes to environmental damage and animal cruelty being capitalism. It’s far easier to read this movie as a lament about the exploitative nature of multi-national corporations than as a direct call for veganism: Okja lives ‘free range’ with Mija and helps her harvest persimmon and fish, also contributing to the fertility of the ecosystem. Mija and her grandfather live remotely and grow what they need to sustain them, including chickens. But Mirano’s local contact Mundo must be almost a family friend, a trustworthy face familiar with the local terrain, and a bridge between foreign corporate interests and the perceived naïvité of the local farmers. It’s a naïvité that K in the ALF also exploits, telling Mija she should really learn some English after he mis-translates her wishes to the rest of the group. The movie isn’t just interested in animal rights, but in human rights, and in the colonial inheritance of globalisation.

There’s even more going on at a minor level, including themes of family that I don’t think I’ve quite managed to wrap my head around yet. Tilda Swinton’s Lucy is haunted by the legacy of her sister and her father, who were recognised as cruel and untrustworthy, even though they were still successful business-people; consequently, she is the dangerous mask of ‘friendly’ capitalism, terribly sad that she has to lie to her customers, but resigned to the fact that it is necessary. Mija, on the other hand, lost her parents at a very young age and latched onto Okja as her family — as Jay recognises when he gives her the choice of whether to help them or not. But her grandfather does not recognise the importance of Okja; an older, more conservative generation, he supposes that Mija has more of an attachment to the parents she can’t even remember, and thinks that the loss of a pet is just a part of a coming-of-age story where she can now move on and start thinking about meeting boys. I don’t think Mija’s story is a coming-of-age story at all though: if anything, it’s a rejection of it when she finally hands over what would traditionally have been a wedding gift in order to get her beloved Okja back.

Perhaps in the end there are a few too many balls in the air. Although the movie is a coherent whole, I’m not sure how much it needed Lucy’s personal motivation for her brand of friendly capitalism; it felt like a loose thread that was there to give Tilda Swinton more to sink her teeth into. The public, whose hearts and minds are the ones both the corporation and the ALF need to win over, are oddly absent, but there is too much awareness of the bigger picture for everything to focus in satisfactorily on Mija’s return home. It’s a victory, and it’s a happy victory, but it seems very small by the end. Nevertheless, I think this is a movie that will absolutely benefit from multiple viewings, with more emerging on each one.

Review: Pryor Convictions (Richard Pryor and Todd Gold)

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My main experience of Richard Pryor before reading this autobiography was ‘Live in Concert’, filmed in 1978. It’s a pretty damn perfect introduction to the variety and humanity found in his performances — though of course, do remember it was the ’70s. Elements, like the Chinese waiter with the stammer, might not have aged well; but a lot still stands either because it’s universal or because, more depressingly, it’s still accurate. There’s a lot in Pryor Convictions, and Other Life Sentences that’s universal too — and even more that’s uncomfortable reading but still holds true. The tension between these elements drives both the comedy and the tragedy or Pryor’s work and his life: no matter how many times he tries to come back to the idea that we’re all just human, just the same, he’s pulled back into the realities of inequality and racism that continue to dog society.

The book reads as a kind of therapy, set down and published during the 1990s as he struggled with the increasingly unpredictable effects of the MS he was diagnosed with in 1986. Although he seems to reach an acceptance of life by the end of the book, it’s never really clear how far he ever got with the occasional bouts of actual therapy: he’s self-aware, but remains fearful of confrontations throughout, not least when it comes to how his childhood informed his adult anxieties and addictions. This means it’s a book without very much closure: even the afterword in my edition, written by Jennifer Lee Pryor*, provides little of this kind of resolution. I’d been looking forward to hearing Jennifer’s side of things, too; Pryor is open about the violent, cruel side of their relationship with each other, offering neither excuses nor apologies, just context; but beyond his interpretation of Jennifer, all I got from her afterword was a sort of hardness amounting to protectiveness, but little more to help me understand her. But, to be fair, this isn’t her autobiography, it’s Pryor’s.

This is the kind of book where you’ll find yourself laughing along at an anecdote at the top of the page, but a couple of paragraphs down your jaw has clenched and you feel a bit sick, or wonder whether you should now feel guilty about laughing at what just came before. But, as Pryor makes clear, he was happy to use his own mishaps and mistakes for laughs from the beginning. Attention, any and all attention, is what he craves, from the moment his family laugh at him slipping in dog poo, to the fearful urge to be married at the time of his death — so there’ll be a woman to cry for him afterwards. Nevertheless, he lets a bit more context seep into his autobiography than he does his comedy — context and consequences. For instance, the ending to the skit about his relative’s Great Dane trying to hump his Shetland Pony: the dogs are left unsupervised in the backyard with the pony and they eat it, much to the horror of the housekeeper. It’s rather more gruesome than tragic, as in the vein of his self-gassing squirrel monkeys whose deaths do make it into his stand-up. Good comedy is as much about the pauses, the gaps, about knowing what to leave out, as well as knowing what to put in … but it’s not like life always ends on the punchline.

Above all, there is a good-natured, hopeful kindness to Pryor’s comedy and to his autobiography. Even the uncomfortable stereotype of the Chinese waiter I mentioned above isn’t meant to be nasty; he speaks of ex-wives and of the grotesques he grew up around (pimps and whores and thieves and fighters and more) with a fondness and a love that allows you to understand (or to come close to understanding) why he remains so loyal to people who had little use for him as a child, and seem to be primarily interested in his money once he grows up. There’s no judgement from Pryor — well, what precious little there is he reserves for the man who abuses him as a child, and even then Pryor chooses rather to present a faintly ludicrous scene, where the man later arrives at Pryor’s trailer asking for an autograph for his son. Pryor is torn between terror at seeing him again, and hope that the man’s child isn’t now suffering at his hands, but he simply signs the autograph and leaves it at that. He presents the scene, but he doesn’t delve into its depths: they’re there for his audience to see, should they wish to look.

This might again be why Jennifer Lee’s afterword is so jarring: she (rightly, it seems) has no patience for the hangers-on (‘locusts’) she finds taking advantage of him when she returns to him in 2001. She judges them plenty, and it highlights the fact that Pryor doesn’t mention this aspect of his care (there may be a bit of a time lapse though), reminding us again of the ever-present need to be wantedlovedlaughed at; to avoid confrontation at all costs. The closest his own words ever come to such bitterness is the way he talks about his time working on the script of Blazin’ Saddles, and you can tell it always rankled that he suspected Mel Brookes didn’t fight for him to stay involved once filming started.

It might sound weird to say that Pryor avoids confrontation, given his reputation as a brash, sweary and dangerous performer. But I’m thinking particularly of his reaction when he received a backlash for the realisation he came to after a trip to Kenya. How shocked he was to find out that plenty of people could not see things from his point of view, and how they claimed his identity as public property, not only his to define how he wanted any more. So he sank into depression and stayed away from the limelight for a while rather than engaging further. You might say the divorces amount to the same; rather than look too closely at himself, he moved on to the next relationship. See also: substance abuse. So rather than scrutinising his life up-close, he side-eyes it through the autobiography as he does through his comedy.

Throughout parts of this autobiography I found myself wondering what sort of influence it might have had on Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, which also began life as stand-up-comedy-cum-therapy. Her love for her dysfunctional family, her recurring addictions and her underlying insecurities all echo themes in Pryor’s autobiography. But then maybe they’re both just products of America in the third quarter of the twentieth century.

In any case, Pryor’s whip-smart intellect shines through it all, and he’s justly proud of the hard graft he put into his comedy. This book is eye-opening but not sensationalist, socially aware and angry, but not preachy. The success with which Pryor projects himself into other characters in his routines, into people of all kinds, as well as different kinds of animals, speaks to his ability to turn a situation around and empathise with others — at least when he has the distance to do so. No matter the proximity or the distance to his life(style), every reader should find something to empathise with in this book then, just as in his comedy.

*His fourth wife, 1981–2; they remarried in 2001 and she remained with him until his death in 2005.

Review: Spider-man — Homecoming (cinema)

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Well, that’s Blitzkrieg Bop stuck in my head forever now.

I was pretty ambivalent about seeing this beforehand, but I need to get better use of my cinema membership, and I want my local cinema to be used more so it stays open, so… it appealed more than Cars 3. And it bucked the trend regarding my waning interest in Spider-man movies! I only saw Sam Raimi’s 1 and 2; one Amazing Spider-man was enough for me; and despite everyone telling me he was the best thing in Civil War *whispers* I still haven’t see Civil War. But I’m actually quite keen to now, which is an outcome that way outstrips my expectations for how much I’d enjoy this movie.

Right, sorry, enthusing, yes!

The first sentence was my way of saying this has a great soundtrack. I don’t need to reiterate what everyone’s already said about Peter Parker actually being allowed to be a kid in this, but it does make the movie much more refreshing, not least when it manages to combine his unpopularity with a believable level of nerdiness. It was about time we ditched the skateboard, frankly. And it probably helps that we don’t need to see his transformation from unhealthy super-nerd to … super-nerd with a six-pack. Nuance — shock! — is brought to the dynamics of the American high school (well, the academically prestigious New York high school anyway), because the love interest is also a nerd; the weird outsider is a nerd; the bully is a nerd … and I’m getting sick of the word ‘nerd’. Nerds are great anyway. Basically, Spider-man — Homecoming builds on some of the successful alterations of The Amazing Spider-man but casts a guy who can plausibly play a teenager in the main role. And — praise be — Uncle Ben didn’t even need to die onscreen or within the narrative timeline. Not even the man with the nice sandwiches needed to die!

In fact, no one died!

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The Day Today – in 1975, no one died…

I really wanted Michael Keaton as Tooms not to be Michael Keaton, but to be Doug Hutchison, who played Eugene Tooms in two of the creepiest X Files episodes ever. Anyway, I guess Michael Keaton was pretty good. His Tooms was the kind of antagonist you’d expect from this movie: a cross between the archetypal Spider-man antagonist (surrogate dad figure, is confused about his priorities, thinks he’s just helping his family but is in love with Mad Science) and the archetypal Iron Man antagonist (Tony Stark killed his family/dog/job/blew up his country/stole his science etc etc). It was a combination that worked surprisingly well, and Spider-man — Homecoming isn’t here for any of your usual Spider-man déonouement clichés: the set of scenes in which Peter and then Tooms recognise who the other is is done brilliantly. The atmosphere is claustrophobic from the moment Tooms opens the front door, letting us suspect (along with Peter) for a good while that this is a set-up, that Tooms has restrained the house’s occupants and brought Peter into a trap. But then a supremely awkward feeling takes over as it’s revealed to be the cozy family home of the villain. And normally this kind of thing is done in such a tired way that it really bugs me, but Tooms’ daughter* and wife keep the lightness of domesticity about it, particularly in the car journey where teenage exasperation meets sinister scheming. In the end, Peter’s not made to have the weight of anyone’s death on his hands, and complications are avoided because Tooms’ family moves away, with no suspicion of Peter’s involvement.

Avoiding creepiness as a male is a recurring theme in the movie too, and Peter treads a believable line between longing after Liz but not wanting to be a jerk about it. From Stark’s early ‘wait, that was creepy, wasn’t it?’ — his usual brand of admitting problematic behaviour out loud as though all he has to do to make amends is acknowledge that it’s wrong, without doing anything about it — to Peter’s baffled rejection of ‘suit lady’ Karen’s advice, Peter Parker shows he’s a hero without a sense of entitlement. Marissa Tomei’s Aunt May is also a refreshing take on the character, both relaxed in a New Age-y kind of way, and yet clearly worried about her ability to single-handedly raise a teenage boy. The scene where she and Peter try to figure out how to tie a Windsor knot using Youtube says it all, really.

Of the other MCU movies the one it most resembles is Ant Man (which I also thoroughly enjoyed). It skirts the big stuff, doing another nice job of showing the fall-out of the Chitauri invasion and, like Ant Man, it’s a story in which the new hero, manipulated by an older hero (even one with good intentions) needs to learn how to define themselves and to stand up for their own position in, or around, the team. Peter starts off on the outside, longing to be on the inside, but this is about the Avengers, not about who he hangs out with at school. Along the way he misses out on the kind of formative teenage experiences that previous Spider-men have pined over, and the ‘tough love’ that Stark tries to claim as the making of him as an Avenger is ultimately the making of him as a more rounded, normal teenager. That Stark still doesn’t understand what it entails to ‘be better than [him]’ is clear from the scene in which Peter surprises him, Happy and even Pepper.

So, a feel-good Spider-man movie; a Spider-man who longs for something, but who is mature enough to realise when it’s handed to him that it’s not something he needs right now. For his own sake, it can wait. There’s no great self-sacrificing moment where he must interalise his angst in order to protect a Gwen or an MJ; by the end of the movie quite a few people know his secret and he’s much better off for it.

*Referring to her as this to avoid getting too spoilery.

Review: Guardians of the Whills (Greg Rucka)

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Inevitably, I’m going to compare this with Rebel Rising. Inevitably, it does far better. Also — no doubt equally inevitably — it sadly does not confirm anything about the nature of Baze Malbus and Chirrut Îmwe’s relationship. But it doesn’t deny anything either. Probably the best we can hope for from Disney’s Star Wars right now.

This is a book aimed at a slightly younger than young adult audience, and is interspersed with black and white illustrations of Chirrut and Baze with Very Serious expressions on. Despite the po-faced presentation, Rucka conveys the characters’ dry humour well; the finest moments are when the two of them are left to bicker and bounce off each other. Much of the book is simply scene-setting on Jedha, explaining how life in the Holy City deteriorates once the Empire takes an interest in the moon’s kyber crystals. A plot emerges subtly from the side-lines about three-quarters of the way through, tying together characters and details encountered earlier. It’s simply done, and it’s nicely done. Let’s be honest: few stories of the cast of Rogue One are going to be happy stories, and I did find myself fearing a different ending at some points. But Rucka lets our heroes get away with their sheer chutzpah, allowing us a glimpse of one hopeful moment in Jedha’s grim period of occupation.

It’s been pointed out in fandom already that what unites Rogue OneRebel Rising and Guardians of the Whills is the presence of Saw Gerrera. Initially I felt like relying on Saw in Guardians of the Whills was something of a cop-out; aren’t there enough stories to tell of the Holy City that you could use original characters? But Rucka does a good job of showing how Gerrera’s actions affect life in the city, of how he manipulates those who are already fighting back in their own way, and how he will seek to turn any situation to his advantage. His Gerrera rings far more true to me than Revis’ — though she did have the more complex task of showing how he changed and his paranoia deepened — and Rucka paints him in plausible shades of grey in his private meeting with Baze. Baze and Chirrut’s reactions to Gerrera are muted and knowing, grimly accepting of what is necessary but also wary of Gerrera’s methods. As a direct lead-up to the situation as it is in Rogue One it’s a rich, detailed character study that works nicely as a complement to the film.

Original characters who are introduced include three women — none of whom are in Saw’s team, which is something I’m still pondering on. Killi, Kaya and Denic are supporting characters who are just rounded out enough to make an impression. Their individual personalities shine through the brief encounters we have with them and each one tells us something about the Holy City’s past and the difficulties of living in its present. No romance is foisted on the reader (*side-eyes Rebel Rising again*), but the respect between Baze and Chirrut and these women is palpable, and there’s real emotional heft in the siblings Kaya and Killi’s relationship.

As for Chirrut and Baze, well, we learn little more of their youth, but it seems to me that one could infer quite a bit from the final word of the novel in reference to them: ‘together’. They share a small room, Baze cooks, they drink tea that Baze hates, they snark and snipe affectionately, they worry for each other without it undermining the respect they have for each other, and they agree wordlessly on plenty.

Rucka hedges with regard to Chirrut’s Force abilities, allowing him some measure of Force-awareness, but backing it up with an echo box to help him navigate the city. It’s a compromise that works well; if he’d tried to convince me that Chirrut was in no way Force sensitive I’d have rolled my eyes out of my head. As I said in my post on re-watching Rogue One, the depiction of the Whills and of Jedha was one of the things I appreciated most about the story. It took the Force away from the Jedi, freeing it from their hierarchical system once more; Guardians of the Whills builds on this with interspersed ‘extracts’ from the sacred texts of the Guardians, hinting at all the different ways people have interpreted the Force. You don’t need to be a Jedi to be Force sensitive, and Chirrut’s persistence in developing his limited connection with it shows another side to interactions between the Force and its users. (I’m speaking here in ignorance of the animated series and most new EU novels, to be fair, but I’m still bitter about the prequels’ depictions of the Force and the Jedi).

If I have one regret about Guardians of the Whills it’s that Disney chose to aim it at such a young audience. And it feels churlish to regret this, but when we’re never going to get sequels to Rogue One it’s frustrating that all the prequels are aimed at teen audiences and younger. I’d love to read Rucka’s take on Chirrut and Baze’s youth, on life as a Guardian when that still meant something on Jedha: something with more depth and detail than you can fit in a book aimed at younger audiences. I mean, when I was the age this book is aimed at, I was discovering Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy for the first time. And I’m not saying Star Wars shouldn’t be marketed to kids — that’s how it all began, of course — but I’d like to see it complemented by some heftier works. Still waiting on that Tales from the Holy City, Disney. Come on, get to it.

Review: Emily Brontë: Heretic (Stevie Davies)

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(Illustration by Rovina Cai, for The Folio Society’s edition of Wuthering Heights)

I’m no English literature student, and I don’t really know how to review this book. But I do know that I really enjoyed reading it; on nearly every page there was a turn of phrase to make me fall in love with it again and again. I might not agree with every word that Davies writes (well, wrote in the early nineties; this book was published in 1994), but she writes them all passionately, persuasively, and engagingly.

This book is part literary analysis of Wuthering Heights and Emily’s poetry, and part biography. Both elements seem successful to me; her Lacanian reading of identity in Wuthering Heights only lost me at the analysis of shared letters in the names used in the novel (but the analysis of personal names is something that’s been badly misused by scholars in my field, so I’m skeptical whenever I come across it). For the most part, Davies is appropriately cautious when offering up suggestions regarding Emily’s sexuality, or her experience of masturbation. She willingly admits to a lack of proof, but carries the reader along with talk of her own intuition; it’s not an approach you’d get away with in a strictly academic book, perhaps, but it’s a very small part of her overall argument in Heretic. On Davies’ side is not only the striking language of the poem ‘Julian M. and A. G. Rochelle’, but the hypocrisy of generations of male scholars who have dismissed the visions of religious women as the by-products of sexual (self-)pleasure, but who view the same language as ‘religious visionary’ when it appears in poems such as ‘Julian M. and A. G. Rochelle’.

One of the most refreshing and successful aspects of the book is the way that Davies places Emily in her historical context, scrubbing her clean of the romantic, patronising idea that she was simply a ‘natural genius’ who’d read a few Gothic novels. She refers to Charlotte’s assertion that ‘Ellis Bell’ might have been a provocative essayist and philosopher, and highlights the modernity of Emily’s attitudes towards the natural world, human nature and Christianity. This is aided by the publication, for the first time, of two essays she wrote when in Belgium: Le Chat and Le Papillon. When, towards the close of the book, Davies prints an analysis of one of Emily’s last Gondal poems, concerning a mercenary who reflects with disgust on the nature of civil war (written and reworked as revolution struck France again), it is astonishing to read that others have viewed her as apolitical, disengaged from history, and burnt-out and absent of new ideas at this point of her life.

Davies also provides a sharp antidote to the romanticised ideas surrounding Emily’s death, particularly that she wanted to die, her productivity exhausted. The Emily that Davies characterises is a doer: constantly busy around the house, impatient with inactivity. She is equally impatient with illness, and the refusal to see a doctor is ascribed to her natural stubbornness and pride, and to the roughness with which she’s seen treating everyone from Héger, the Belgian professor, to her beloved dog.

It becomes clear through the book that Davies holds Charlotte — and the family associates whose accounts emerged to feed a growing curiosity about the house of literary siblings — responsible for a good deal of the softening and romanticising of Emily Brontë’s legacy. Just as Davies is quite happy for us to see Emily at her most brutal, undignified and unpleasant (a ‘gurt bellaring bull’ as Branwell calls her, mid-tantrum), so she is content to expose Charlotte as a conservative, evangelical Tory, who hated revolution, thought the poor should know their place, and was horrified by her sister’s perfectly lucid, but radical, heretical thinking. I’ll admit to feeling a little sorry for Charlotte, given her portrayal in this book; Davies sticks faithfully to her subject, so that the nuance she brings to Emily’s less pleasant traits is not made available in her representation of Charlotte. I’d love to read Davies’ full take on the other Brontë sisters.

This nuance is carried over to the analysis of Wuthering Heights, however, where the ‘heresy’ that Davies detects in Emily’s thinking emerges in the shared religion of Heathcliff and Cathy, who worship only each other, with an unthinking necessity that leaves no room in their lives for the Church, represented in the book only by Joseph, and the abandoned ruin of a chapel on the moors. Davies contextualises the cruelty of the characters within the natural world: Emily saw the survival techniques of birds and animals and tadpoles on the moors, and she accepted its necessity. She was not so lenient on mankind, though, wrestling again and again with the standards of praise assigned to human cruelty and animal nature. Her portrayal of Heathcliff wasn’t the accidental byproduct of a fevered artistic imagination, but a precise study of humankind, as finely controlled by the author as the ‘wild’ Heathcliff controls his ambitions over his vengeance on Hindley.

Although Davies asserts again at the close of the book that Emily was ‘not nice, but proud, discourteous and misanthropic’, her admiration is undimmed by this. Davies highlights Emily’s stubborn individuality, the way she carved out a domestic space in which she could be practical, but undisturbed by others’ demands, the contradictions and frustrated discussions with herself that emerge in her poetry. She made me want to go and re-read a lot of that Gondal poetry that I’d previously just skimmed over, lacking the context for the names in the titles. She certainly made me want to re-read Wuthering Heights. In that, her book does Emily Brontë justice, opening up depths and angles on her thinking that I look forward to bringing to my next reading of her works.

Review: Rebel Rising (Beth Revis)

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Spoilers for Rogue One as well as Rebel Rising throughout this review.

I want to be fair to this YA story about Jyn Erso’s youth, but I’m finding it really hard. Rogue One ensured that I was the Star Wars EU’s bitch again, for life, because having killed off all these new characters who I already adored, the marketing teams knew I’d be slavering for any tidbits they’d throw my way. So I was obviously eager for the YA novel about Jyn, the kids’ book about Chirrut and Baze, and the forthcoming graphic novel about Cassian and K-2S0, all meant to give the starving fans of the died-too-soon a little more information about their faves. But I’ve been trying to keep realistic expectations about how far these might deviate from my own ideas about these characters and their pasts. And realistic expectations about how much a franchise with a drafted-in author will have thought about characterisation in the way that I, a PhD graduate in the field of literature, who’s been voraciously reading and writing fanfic again, will have thought about it. Unfortunately, Rebel Rising disappointed even those expectations.

Let me get two particularly petty points off my chest first:

  1. Devaronians don’t have furry arms!
  2. Why would Zohrada call Jyn ‘Jyn’ just before she dies, not ‘Liana’?

These petty points are to remind me that no one who proof-read this cares as much about the Star Wars universe as the fans themselves, so, assuming this book is intended as a gateway to the EU for new, young female fans, I need to try and be fair. And possibly just to stick to reading fanfiction.

Most of Rebel Rising focusses on Jyn’s time with Saw, with another large chunk of it given over to a year she spends on the planet Skuhl. Jyn’s real wandering years — 18–21 — are skipped over in a couple of paragraphs near the end. This means that Revis (none of whose novels I’ve read before, and none of which seem to be part of the Star Wars franchise) can focus on a young Jyn, still hopeful, and try to explain her loss of trust and hope in the galaxy. It also gives a lot of time to Saw, who sounds nothing like the Saw Gerrera of Rogue One in this novel, so perhaps he’s more like the Saw we meet in Clone Wars? I’ve not yet caught up on the animated series. But this Saw is bemused and somewhat under-prepared for the introduction of an eight-year-old girl to his (literal) man cave on Wrea. Saw Gerrera, the Saw Gerrera, who’s been nursing an ever-growing hatred and paranoia since his sister’s death, and he didn’t have a plan for the eventuality that he’d get Jyn off Lah’mu, but neither of her parents? Who didn’t bother to say to Jyn before anything else, before anyone else arrived on Wrea: ‘your name isn’t safe anymore. Here’s what we’re going to tell everyone else about who you are and why you’re here.’ Frankly, the Saw Gerrera in Revis’ novel deserved his betrayal by Reese, Dudebro Extraordinaire, whose Villainy(TM) and Loose Morals were evident from the first time we met him.

There are so many details in the plotting that made no sense to me. Why leave Jyn on Tamsye Prime?? It’s crawling with Imperials and has a munitions factory being bombarded by star destroyers. It has a population based on indentured servitude so (MOTHERFUCKER AS I TYPED THIS I REALISED SOMETHING*) so has way more people than ships to get the people off-planet. It seems like an unnecessary gamble to leave the girl you’re trying to keep hidden from the Empire right there in the thick of things; it’s not like it takes the next people Jyn meets long to figure out that’s where she’s fled from, after all.

Oh god, I’m going to have to talk about those people, aren’t I?

It’s not enough, apparently, for Jyn to have lost her parents and Saw: third time’s the charm! So Revis gives her an idyllic year on Skuhl, living with Akshaya and Hadder Ponta. The former is the archetypal mother figure: over-protective, huggy, and very caring. The latter is the strangest seventeen-year-old boy I’ve ever heard of: polite to his mother, an excellent cook, seemingly unemployed for a whole year after he’s finished school. He’s so sweet he even gives Jyn a cute little rodent to pet after they have sex in a field.

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Is this kind of barftastic romance a thing that needs to happen in YA novels? I mean, I’m glad Hadder’s a nice person (and explicitly described as not white — the representation in this novel is actually great, even if nothing else is), and I guess I’ll take it on faith that some seventeen-year-old boys in the galaxy are that nice, but did Jyn’s life of grief and loss really have to be redefined all over again by another male?

She goes from seeking Saw’s approval, and viewing him as a heroic figure, to seeing great things in Hadder’s future. What did she see in her future? Was it really just settling down and being homely on Skuhl?

I think Rebel Rising suffers greatly from one major problem: no one laid out what this story is meant to be for.

Rebel Rising needed to take us to meet the Jyn Erso of Rogue One, to show us how she became what she is. Code-breaking and hacking don’t feature in the story of that Jyn Erso at all; nothing in Rogue One relies on her forgery skills. What she does in Rogue One, is somehow light up a room so that people will follow her into certain death (look, if you didn’t get this from the movie you’ll have to take my word for it; plus it’s spelled out in the Freed novelisation). Her skills are in combat and leadership, even if the latter barely gets fully realised before she dies.

Although her combat skills feature in Rebel Rising, and they’re some of the most satisfying scenes, she’s largely kept from doing anything too unpleasant by being assigned the hacker girl role. Cue lots of looking to the men for affirmation. Ugh. Additionally, because she’s made into a works-alone hacker, we never really see her take on a leadership role. A prime example Revis could have used is the previously canonical story of how Jyn actually got arrested: trying to steal weapons and destroy a dictator’s ship on Corulag. It’s all there on Wookieepedia; fandom’s been drawing on it for months for their fics. But Revis chooses to throw that out, squeezing Jyn once more between the Rebels and the Empire, forcing her into a betrayal whilst also conveniently implying that she might have come round and joined the Rebellion herself, left to her own devices.

Revis’ characterisation of Jyn’s dislike of the Rebellion is heavy-handed, and all ultimately comes back to the deaths of Hadder and Akshaya, which may, or may not, have been the fault of the Rebels. I’ve seen Jyn’s professed dislike of the Rebellion in the movie (her scene with Saw, and her argument with Cassian) used as a stick with which to beat her in bits of fandom: oh she’s apolitical, she doesn’t care, she’s only doing this for her father. Although Revis tries to maintain nuance — Jyn does The Right Thing(TM) with the slavers — in trying to make Jyn too nice, too likeable a person, she doesn’t do her any favours. Jyn never really does anything wrong, she doesn’t make any mistakes, she’s not cruel or sharp in the way that she’s become by Rogue One — in the scenes with Saw and Cassian I read it as a case of her saying what she thinks will hurt them most, rather than saying what she genuinely thinks or believes.

I don’t know about you, but as a seventeen-year-old, with access only to the nightlife of Hull, let alone a whole galaxy of troubles, I was able to make quite a lot of mistakes. Also, having grown up in a remote bit of countryside, I can tell you that in the days before the internet you could get a bit weird over long summer holidays playing on your own — let alone spending three years on a remote planet with only your parents for company, then living in a cave that was occupied only by an old, paranoid partisan for 75% of the time. Basically, Revis’ Jyn is far too well-adjusted for me to believe in her.

Ok, it’s a YA novel, we don’t want to make it too dark. But, representation aside, couldn’t we have had something a bit more imaginative? I’d have told Jyn’s story completely differently to this. I know a lot of other fic writers who would have. In fact I could name at least half a dozen whose versions of Jyn’s backstory I’d rather have seen. I’ve written in blogs here before about how, as a medievalist, you get used to multiple versions of a tale existing. You learn to embrace the variants, the different interpretations. But you’ll still have versions you prefer.

For now, I’m keeping my headcanons, and discarding Rebel Rising.

* What occurred to me as I typed that: Revis is implying Cassian is the boy from Tamsye Prime. No, this makes no sense in canon, nor does much else about this novel. But he supposedly reminds Jyn of someone she can’t place when she’s in the command centre on Yavin 4, and there’s no one else in Rebel Rising this could be referring to.

Review: Wonder Woman (cinema)

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First of the new DC-verse movies I’ve seen! Largely, I went because of the argument that is now defunct, given Wonder Woman‘s box office performance: I’m sick of conversations about how successful female-directed, female-led superhero movies need to be to be considered a ‘success’. Plenty of people went to see all the other new DC movies because they liked Batman, or Superman. I went to see Wonder Woman because it’s a female-led, female-directed superhero movie. So, obviously I don’t want to write anything incorrect from a point of clear ignorance, but nor do I feel I should need to look things up in order to make sense of what should work fine as a stand-alone movie.

The lack of enthusiasm in the above paragraph may have warned you that what follows might not be a popular opinion, given the internet’s adoration of the movie (well, the section of the internet I frequent, anyway). That’s not to say I didn’t like it. I loved probably two-thirds of it. But it all kind of went to shit somewhere between Diana and Steve’s slow-dance and The Obligatory Bit Where Everything Explodes.

I’ll admit to shivers and glossy eyes in the opening scenes set in Themiscyra: no doubt, had I seen this film at age ten or so, I’d have been shadow-boxing along with young Diana, and on my weekend horse-rides, I’d have been imagining that no BSA-approved inches-thick riding helmet came between my flowing hair and the winds of freedom. Genuinely, even as a thirty-year-old, I’d be very tempted to chuck everything else in for a life on Themiscyra anyway. With Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen in charge, who wouldn’t? I liked Hippolyta’s unyielding flexibility: say no repeatedly, then agree when it’s obvious it’s going to happen anyway. Why force Diana to leave home with a sour taste in her mouth? It was a refreshing moment, at least.

Though I could have done without the Amazons’ insistence on trying to copy Gal Gadot’s accent. If they all speak all the languages, couldn’t the actresses have just spoken with their usual voices? Ah well, it’s Hollywood multiculturalism; despite Ze German Accents making frequent appearances (I hope Steve Trevor’s German is better than Chris Pine’s German accent), we did get to enjoy Diana and Sameer’s whip-smart ripostes in any number of global languages. Though after that scene, Sameer’s linguistic abilities did seem to collapse into repeated exclamations of ‘voilá!’ that’s still pretty French I guess.

I’ll admit that I had to look up Sameer’s name, though he was the most fleshed-out of the side-characters (arguably including Steve Trevor). Throughout the movie, I found myself wondering: what’s up with the characterisation? Why can’t I get into these peoples’ story the way I could — and so many others seemingly couldn’t — in the case of Rogue One? Again we have a rag-tag ensemble of people from different backgrounds who haven’t been able to live the lives they wanted to live because of oppression and war. Many of the meetings occur for the first time; you can perfectly well tell, rather than show their backgrounds in this instance. But it was only Sameer’s comments on how he’d hoped to be an actor that really offered a peg for me to hook my imagination on to; Chief’s peoples’ oppression in the States gives him a backdrop, but not an individual story. Spud from Trainspotting (…Charlie?) had a story that was more trope than character, and his miraculous recovery from shell shock felt a little trite in hindsight, though I enjoyed it on the initial viewing.

Steve Trevor. Steve, Steve, Steve. Maybe I’m missing something, Steve. But with the promise that he ‘tried doing nothing, and that didn’t work’, I thought we’d learn more about his background, yet we never did. He was a solid sort of guy, the usual spy with a conscience, and I was finally won round at the moment he grabbed the lasso and wrapped it round his own wrist to admit that the mission was happening anyway and it was a terrible idea and they were probably going to die. But I wasn’t really feeling the romance between him and Diana. I didn’t feel I knew him well enough to be invested, and the movie didn’t explain — for me, at least — what Diana saw there in particular. Maybe it was just because Chris Pine is ‘above average.’ SPOILERS Of course, plenty of male action heroes and superheroes have their angsty yell of motivation when the benign love-interest dies, but I find those moments just as implausible as Diana’s own cry of pain. /SPOILERS

Gal Gadot’s Diana was certainly one of the best things in the movie. Despite her lack of knowledge of the world of men, and her still growing powers, she’s not quite any of the tropes you can apply to The Fifth Element‘s Leeloo — though maybe comes close to Phlebotinum Girl? — because, as applauded by plenty before me, she’s the hero of her own movie, and isn’t ever framed by the male gaze.Her naïveté is toyed with, but never undermines herastuteness. In the first two-thirds I hope she’ll be the hero on which plenty of young girls pin their ambitions; she’s blunt and passionate and incredibly powerful. When she crosses No Man’s Land it’s an effective bit of fantasy: this space could not be crossed without someone strong enough to draw all the fire. She’s there to do that, and it’s all the opportunity the other Allies need.

But the setting does not work so well in the rest of the movie. The ensuing scene in the village is more Saving Private Ryan than Wilfred Owen, right down to the snipers and sticky bombs (I’m trying to think of towns in WW1 settings; the French girls in All Quiet on the Western Front are an escape, like Paris for characters in Birdsong and Journey’s End [if I recall my A level synoptics correctly], and The Wipers Times has the necessary capture and defence of the press, but I don’t remember the town having a fully fledged cutsey Belgian society just waiting to pop out and dance once the fighting stops). The Germans are nasty proto-Nazis who don’t even pause to blink in astonishment at the sight of leather-clad women abseiling from shining white cliffs, wielding fiery arrows, where before there had been only grey fog and dark seas. That horrific gas developed by Dr Poison, crueller than any of the chemical weapons actually used indiscriminately in WW1, doesn’t even tickle our heroine’s lungs, and even Steve suffers no more than a delicate cough so long as he doesn’t enter the cloud for long. He Judges, who had a relative killed by gas in WW1, felt that a lot of this was actively disrespectful; I wouldn’t go so far, but WW1 is such a large part of the UK education system still that it meant I nitpicked at elements of the setting that I otherwise wouldn’t have.

SPOILERS And of course, when we come to the big finale, the ‘alternate’ part of this ‘alternate history’ setting really came to the fore. The battle with Ludendorff was satisfying, and justified the super-steroid he’d been snorting, in that it allowed Diana to believe she was really fighting Ares. Then Ares turned out to be David Thewlis. Sorry, I mean Ares turned out to be an actual plot point. Disappointing. But I went ‘ok, I guess, if we’re doing this we know she can’t kill him, because WW2 is right around the corner, right?’ Uh, wrong?

But how does Diana explain the Holocaust? Hiroshima and Nagasaki? All the other genocides and atrocities of the twentieth century? Her closing monologue speaks of the good and the bad in all humanity, but it’s already been completely undercut by the fact that she’d placed all hope of ending war in the destruction of the God of War, who she duly turned into a giant, smoking crater. German boys look up in astonishment and hug the Chief; everyone is happy, either because David Thewlis is dead, or because Ludendorff is dead, or because Steve blew up all the nasty gas (won’t it still be in the atmosphere? What if it bonds with water molecules?), or maybe because Diana didn’t kill Maru, she just casually dropped a tank on her… (an accident of editing, I’m sure)

The potential for something more interesting lay abandoned beneath the CGI: as Diana and Ares fought their pointless, divine battle, the humans scurried around getting stuff done. Not, perhaps, the best way to boost your superheroine’s connection with mankind at the climax of the action… /SPOILERS

Look – I’ll make the same kind of complaints when I watch Captain America: The First Avenger. The vast majority of that movie is three montages stitched together (Steve training, Steve on tour, Steve fighting Nazis), and HISHE mocked the ending far better than I could. That doesn’t mean that Wonder Woman shouldn’t be held to account for its own problems. Though personally, I blame the men: story by Zac Snyder, script by Allan Heinberg. You can shoot it however you want, you can act it as well as you like, but the plot holes will still be there.

Ah, but it did look gorgeous. Best use of bullet time since The Matrix itself. And Diana is the doe-eyed warrior of my heart. Dr Poison was underused, and I didn’t even get round to talking about it here, and I’d have loved more of Sameer and Etta and the others. There was a lot that the movie wanted to cram in, and depth was always going to be lost to breadth. It’s not the balance I’d have plumped for, and not the ending I’d have chosen, but I’m glad so many people are getting so much joy from it, and I’m looking forward to the other superheroine movies it will hopefully inspire.

Review: Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen)

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The last Austen novel I read was Emma; it had a high standard to live up to, because the BBC’s recent(ish) adaptation with Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller is one of my favourite four hours of television. Yet all that I loved about the TV series was to be found in the novel. Another favourite piece of costume drama is ITV’s Northanger Abbey, with Felicity Jones and JJ Feild (it was this that got me excited early on for Jones’ part in Rogue One). It’s light and knowing, fond of its characters, and beautifully presented.

I’m also usually quite happy to read the source material for TV series or movies after having seen the derivative product; on the other hand, I can be more picky when it’s a book I’ve loved, and I’m not certain the adaptation will live up to expectations. But generally, being a fan of medieval texts, I am quite accustomed to variation between versions, to the storyteller’s right to their own preferences, and to the idea that even changes that I might not much like can happen for a good reason. With this stated, I’ll admit early on that I still prefer the ITV adaptation’s script to the young Austen’s first novel; I think that those behind its adaptation are a little more fond of the characters than Austen herself appears to be.(1)

What struck me most in reading Northanger Abbey was that the positioning of Catherine as the heroine was about the character’s perception of the world, rather than about Austen’s decision to make her a protagonist. Perhaps that’s the most blindingly obvious thing one could say, but I’ve been familiar with the opening about Catherine’s potential for heroic stature for some time, although had no context in which to fit it until now. Eleanor Tilney is surely the novel’s real tragic, suffering ‘heroine’; but Catherine takes all the information she gets from Eleanor about Mrs Tilney’s death and Catherine never thinks of what this might have been like for Eleanor as the heroine of her own story. Instead it is all refracted through Catherine’s own perception of the world, in which she is the heroine. Similarly, when we learn of Eleanor’s own romantic troubles at the close of the novel, satisfactorily resolved with the surprise acquisition of a fortune and a title, it fits the pattern of the stories that Austen is gently mocking in a better way than Catherine and Henry’s swift, dutiful professions of love.

Apologies if that reads more like an undergraduate essay than normal; I realise that Austen is parodying the genre of the Gothic novel, but have never read one myself, so my own observations must be fairly shallow…

It’s funny, as you’d expect. And Austen’s acute powers of observation are already on full show in what is, at its core, the earliest novel she submitted for publication. But in comparison to the adaptation, I found its happy couple had dated poorly, even in comparison to Emma and Knightley (that’s an essay for a whole other day). Tilney is said to want to marry Catherine for no reason other than that she likes him and he’s flattered, and by the time his father sends her away in disgrace, Tilney feels obliged to make good on what has essentially been promised to her in all but word. Austen flings this information in the reader’s face right at the close of the story, when up until then, I had been quite happy to believe, as naïvly as Catherine, that he was naturally just as infatuated with her as she was with him. Now, I’ve no doubt that such honest gallantry was much to be valued in Austen’s time, and the point of the story is rather that, next to Eleanor’s quietly dramatic life, Catherine is a very ordinary girl, with very ordinary prospects, but it’s not an ending I relished! ITV’s adaptation sticks in its equivalent of Colin Firth in a pond — Catherine and Henry’s ride through the rain; her artfully muddied cheek(2) — plus all of Catherine’s fevered, novel-addled dreams, reminding us that the appeal of all those ‘horrid’ things Catherine loves reading is a good deal less sterile than Austen’s proper manners are able to let on.

The TV adaptation also allows for more of the melodrama that Austen resolutely keeps separate from her heroine’s life: though Austen’s Tilney guesses that Catherine suspected his father of murder, or something like it, he shrugs it off, and goes above and beyond to help her get over her embarrassment at having been discovered in such imaginings. Honestly, TV Tilney’s reaction is somewhat more plausible; he’s not exactly pleased to hear that she’s imagined his father to be a murderer, and his disappointment is that of one who enjoys her company as someone more equal to him than Austen’s Tilney finds Austen’s Catherine. In the novel, Tilney is able to overlook her wild assumptions apparently because he sees her as something so ignorant and unformed, that it seems he does not expect any better from her.

The patronising attempts of those around her to ‘improve’ her aside, Catherine is still a character I’m very fond of. She’s guileless and artless, as we are repeatedly told, but I recognise the simple hopefulness with which she imagines that everyone says precisely what they mean; the frustration and exhaustion she feels when around people like John Thorpe and General Tilney, and ultimately Isabella, who all exaggerate without thought, lying and contradicting themselves at every opportunity. Catherine’s worldview is stuck between the innocence of her loving, rural upbringing, and the wildness of the worlds she reads about in novels. She needs to learn about the middle ground, but without becoming jaded. I’m not sure that she’s ever allowed to reach that point fully in the novel, but then perhaps it’s just my cynical half-eye on the relationships in Eliot’s Middlemarch that makes me fear for the future of Catherine Morland that Austen never describes. When her mother mutters about what a learning experience running a household will be for her, I want to protect Catherine from all her future embarrassments. But perhaps that’s this reader’s defect rather than the novel’s.


(1) Ok, General Tilney is a fairly obvious exception. But the TV version’s interpretation of his attitude towards Mrs Tilney — a ‘kind of vampirism’ after all — allows Henry and Eleanor to both escape the unpleasantness of his household (which Austen herself shows), sidestepping what Austen sees as a beneficial waiting period for Henry and Catherine, but compensating for it by showing them to be mutually in love in a way that Austen holds back from. And what is the propriety of the Morlands to a modern audience that is quite happy for General Tilney to remain a villain?

Total aside here, but this reminds me of how perplexed I was at the end of watching the recent movie version of Vanity Fair. I got the impression, again never having read it, that as a satire the point was not to like the characters, but to amuse oneself at their expense, but that the movie felt rather sad and mean because it made much of its cast too likeable in their fallibility. On the other hand, reading Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, I railed against the stupidity of the characters and how much they annoyed me, not appreciating that it was meant to be a parody in its own right. Perhaps this is where I find myself confused in Northanger Abbery too: are characters in a satire or parody meant to be liked and likeable? No one reads Candide so they can empathise with Pangloss and Candide, right?

(2) Put this scene, Colin Firth in a pond, and the grain store scene from ITV’s Mayor of Casterbridge in all your ‘best depictions of unspoken sexual tension in a period drama’ lists…