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Archive for September, 2011

This book is the first one to feature one of le Carre’s recurring characters, British Intelligence Agent George Smiley (a subsequent Smiley book was Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which was made into a very popular tv series in 1979, and more recently a film starring Gary Oldman – as Smiley – and Colin Firth).

After a brief introduction to Smiley – a small, morose, and probably rather uncharismatic man – the story gets underway.  Smiley is sent to interview Samuel Fennan, a Foreign Office civil servant, who is suspected of being a spy.  The interview is informal, and Smiley is confident that Fennan is innocent.  He reassures Fennan, but later that night, Fennan is found dead, having apparently committed suicide.

Smiley suspects that Fennan was murdered, and investigates with the help of Inspector Mendel, about to retire from the Metropolitan Police, and Peter Guillam, one of Smiley’s own colleagues.

The investigation uncovers deception and espionage – and Smiley soon realises that his own life is in danger.

I liked this book a lot.  It’s short (less than 200 pages), but packs a lot of story in.  The storyline itself is not over-complicated, but there are enough twists and turns to keep it interesting and exciting.  The writing itself flows beautifully, and made me want to keep reading.

The book is also the perfect introduction to George Smiley, and I definitely want to read further books in the series.  Despite Smiley being in some ways an unremarkable character, rather than a typical handsome hero, he was a very interesting character, and entirely believable.  He is a decent but flawed man, and his emotions during the investigation were well portrayed.  I ended up liking him very much.

Overall, this was an exciting and hugely enjoyable read, and I will definitely be reading more by le Carre.  Spy fiction has never been a favourite genre of mine, but I picked this book up on a whim – and it might just have converted me!

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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The Dorothy Fish is a psychiatric hospital in London.  N – the narrator of the book – has been a patient there for 13 years, and like the other patients, her ambition is to never be discharged.  So when a new patient named Poppy Shakespeare arrives, furious at being sent there, claiming that she doesn’t have any psychiatric problems, and determined to get out, N is confused by Poppy’s attitude.  Nevertheless, the two become friends, and N tries to help Poppy prove that she does not belong in the hospital.  But they soon realise that they are up against ludicrous bureacracy and a system that hinders those it is meant to help.

I had high hopes for this book – one of the quotes on the cover describes it as a cross between One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and Catch 22 – praise indeed!  Unfortunately, while it definitely has some qualities to recommend it, I found that it fell short of my expectations.

As a narrator, N was unreliable, and I could never be sure whether she was telling things the way they happened, or the way she imagined them.  This was probably part of the point however, and I had absolutely no problem with it.  Certainly some of the things she claimed to witness seemed too ridiculous to actually be real, but despite her self-centredness and her skewed take on events, she was quite an endearing character.  The whole book is told through her eyes, and using her vernacular (“I’m not saying nothing, but you know what I’m saying?!”)  She was also very funny at times (unintentionally on the part of the character, but surely intentionally on the part of the author).

One of the things that became apparent quite early on was how each patient (known as ‘dribblers) had a name that represented a letter of the alphabet – and it seemed only possible for anyone to admitted to the Dorothy Fish when the previous patient with that initial had left (for example, Poppy was admitted to the hospital, after Pollyanna had left).  I assumed that this was the author’s way of making the point that the health services saw them only as statistics rather than as actual people.  And that illustrates part of the problem of the book – it seemed to me that it didn’t know whether it wanted to tell a straight out story, or whether it wanted to be satirical view of the health services.

The ending was also unsatisfactory, at least from my point of view, and never really resolved the questions in my mind – which may have been deliberate, but was certainly irritating.  Certain parts of the plot didn’t make any sense – the process that led to Poppy being sent to the hospital in the first place for instance, but as we only have N’s account of how that happened, it’s impossible to know how much of it was true.

On the plus side, as I have already mentioned, it did have a number of very funny parts, and despite the problems, was very readable.  Other than the narrator herself however, it never seemed that any of the other characters were really studied, and they were mainly portrayed as broad stereotypes – again, possibly as a result of N’s view of them, but either way it didn’t work for me.

Having said all that, I probably would pick up another book by Clare Allan – she has a flair for humour and the writing flowed well.  Overall, it wasn’t a raging disappointment, but it didn’t live up to the rave reviews which I had read.

 

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This 1999 movie was Hollywood’s take on one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays.  It boasts an impressive cast – Michelle Pfieffer, Rupert Everett, Anna Friel, Dominic West, Christian Bale, Calista Flockhart and Stanley Tucci among them.

Until fairly recently, I did not enjoy reading Shakespeare’s work – it seemed very ‘dry’ when written on a page (to me, at least).  However, when his words are acted out on stage or screen, it all falls in to place, and it’s much easier to appreciate the wit and intelligence of Shakespeare.  (In fact, watching this made me want to read the play.)

In this case, I would suggest that some knowledge of the storyline of the play is helpful before watching (it does cover three interlinked stories), but it is certainly not necessary to have studied or read the play in any detail.

Briefly, Egeus (played by Bernard Hill) wants his daughter Hermia (Anna Friel) to marry Demetrius (Christian Bale).  However, Hermia is in love with Lysander (Dominic West).  When she is given the choice of marrying Demetrius, being sentenced to death, or living as a Nun for the rest of of her life, Hermia and Lysander decide to run away together.  Hermia’s friend Helena (Calista Flockhart, in a fantastic turn) is in love with Demetrius, but he loves Hermia.

Meanwhile, King of the Fairies Oberon (Rupert Everett) is estranged from his Fairy Queen Titania (Michelle Pfieffer); she has taken over the care of a changeling boy, after the death of the boy’s mother, who was one of Titania’s worshippers.  Oberon wants the boy to work for him.  He summons his mischievous but loyal fairy servant Puck to sprinkle a magic flower on Titania’s eyes while she sleeps – the spell it casts causes the sleeping person to fall in love with the first living thing they see upon waking.  Oberon believes that Titania will fall in love with a creature of the forest (where the fairies all live) and while she is distracted, he can take the boy.

After seeing Demetrius and Helena arguing, Oberon also orders Puck to sprinkle the magic flower on Demetrius’s eyes so that he will see and fall in love with Helena.  Puck however has never seen Demetrius and when he stumbles across Lysander asleep in the forst (he and Hermia have stopped there for the night before continuing with their escape), he sprinkles the magic flower on Lysander instead.  Helena then comes across Lysander and wakes him, and Lysander falls in love with her immediately.  When Puck’s mistake is discovered, he also sprinkles the magic flower on Demetrius’s eyes, and Demetrius too sees and falls in love with Helena.  The two young men argue over who should be with Helena, while Hermia accuses Helena of stealing Lysander’s love.

While all this is going on, a group of workers in the village are practicing a play to put on at the wedding of the Duke Theseus and his bride to be, Hippolyta.  During their rehearsals in the forest, Puck sees Bottom (Kevin Kline) and casts a spell giving Bottom an ass’s head, which naturally terrifies the fellow performers.  They run away, and Bottom falls asleep.  And then he is the first thing that Fairy Queen Titania sees when she awakes…

The plot sounds complicated, but it all plays out beautifully.  The action is moved from Ancient Athens to Italy at the turn of the 19th century.  The reason for this is not made clear (and the script retains its references to Athens), but it doesn’t matter – Italy looks lovely – the film was shot on location, large in Tuscany.  The fairy forest is enchanting, and even the cast are beautiful – in fact the whole film looks as though it has had its own sprinkling of fairy dust!

The cast are all terrific.  Stanley Tucci – always under-rated – excels as Puck, and really seems to be having fun with the character.  Kevin Kline also makes the most of his part and gives a great performance.  Puck and Bottom are probably the two funniest characters in the script, and I thought Tucci and Kline did great justice to the roles.

The script is actually very very funny – I laughed out loud on a number of occasions – and very romantic and sweet too.  The interlinked stories tie up together well and the ending is perfect – well, there must be a reason that Shakespeare is so revered centuries after his death.

Overall, this is a very amusing, and beautiful looking film.  Even if you’re not a fan of Shakespeare, I’d recommend giving this film a watch.

Year of release: 1999

Director: Michael Hoffman

Writers: William Shakespeare (play), Michael Hoffman

Main cast: Michelle Pfieffer, Rupert Everett, Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci, Anna Friel, Dominic West, Christian Bale, Calista Flockhart

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Click here for my review of the play (Penguin Shakespeare edition).

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When a mysterious and reticent young woman moves into the country abode of Wildfell Hall, with a young son but no husband, the interest and suspicions of the villagers are soon aroused.  Gilbert Markham, a young farmer in the village is intrigued by the newcomer, Helen Graham.  They become friends and before long Gilbert falls for Helen.  However, the other residents of the village start imagining all kind of things about Helen’s past and start spreading gossip and half-truths, especially regarding her apparent relationship with her landlord Mr Lawrence.  Gilbert confronts Helen, and it is only when she allows him to read her diary that he understands her reluctance to make friends or discuss her past – Helen has left her alcoholic and cruel husband, and has taken their son in order that her husband cannot be a bad influence upon him.  But can she ever escape the spectre of her unhappy marriage, and find happiness again…?

Anne Bronte is far less celebrated than her two sisters, Charlotte and Emily.  Most readers are familiar wtih Charlotte’s most famous novel, Jane Eyre (one of my personal favourites), and Emily’s only novel, Wuthering Heights.  (Even people who have not read the books usually have an idea of the storylines,due to the numerous television and film adaptations.)   This is the first time I have read Anne Bronte, and I am at a loss as to why she is less well known than her sisters, because I thought this book was superb.

The narrative has three distinct parts – the first and third take the forms of letters written to an unseen friend, by Gilbert Markham, in which he tells his friend about the mysterious stranger who has taken up tenancy in Wildfell Hall, and the  events surrounding her arrival in the village.  The middle section consists of Helen’s diary entries, which detail the events in her marriage and her flight from her husband.

For the time it was written, this was a very brave subject to tackle – no matter how badly a husband treated his wife, a wife was simply not expected to leave him.  Indeed at the time, it was not possible for a woman to obtain a divorce from her husband – although there was nothing to stop a husband divorcing his wife.  Helen comes across as a strong character, reluctantly but necessarily flying in the face of social convention, and finding herself the subject of salacious gossip rather than sympathy for her troubles.

Comparisons to the works of Charlotte and Emily Bronte are inevitable, and whereas Emily depicted Heathcliff as a passionate and incredibly romantic hero, Anne portrays a far more realistic picture of life with such a man – her husband is certainly attractive and passionate in the beginning, but she soon realises that he is selfish, cruel and concerned more for himself than anybody else.  I rather admire Anne for daring to show this less than savoury aspect of his character.

The characters were extremely well drawn, and while Helen verges on being overly pious and religious, it is important to remember the time that the book was written, when people were expected to be devoutly Christian, and not to go to church was seen as a serious transgression (early on in the book, the local Vicar calls on Helen to admonish her for her non-attenance at church).  Helen does however come across as wilful and strong in extrremely difficult circumstances, and is determined to do what she believes to be right, even if it is not what others believe to be right.  She was an admirable heroine.

Gilbert was a very likable and believable haracter.  He was essentially a decent young man, but perhaps due to his mother who pandered to his every whim, he sometimes could behave in a selfish or childish manner – a fact that he himself was not blind to.  However, this just served to make him all the more believable and realistic.

The other main character is that of Arthur Huntingdon, Helen’s husband.  He does not narrate any of the book himself, but is fully brought to life in Helen’s diary, and was a despicable and ultimately rather pathetic character.

The story had sufficient twists and turns to suprise me on many occasions, and the ending was very satisfying.  There were also moments of unexpected humour, although unlike some other reviewers, I did not see any similarity with the humour of Jane Austen.

Above all, this is an exciting story, with a heroine who was ahead of her time in many ways, but trapped by the social conventions of the time in which she lived.  The book kept me gripped throughout, and I would recommend this without hesitation, especially to anyone who may have read books by the other Bronte sisters, but have yet to give Anne’s work a try.

(For more information about the author, please click here.)

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Warning: If you are thinking of watching this film, DON’T watch the video clip above, as it pretty much tells the whole story!  I did try to find a clip of just the trailer, but incredibly was unable to do so.

This story is based on the novel of the same name, by Steve Szilagyi.  The book in turn was inspired by the real life events surrounding the Cottingley Fairy pictures.  However, the events shown here are fictional, and names and circumstances have been changed.

Toby Stephens is excellent as Charles Castle, a photographer who is devastated and loses the will to live after his wife dies on their honeymoon in 1912.  After fighting in Word War 1, he sets up a photography business, and is initially cynical when shown photographs which appear to depict two young sisters playing with fairies.  However, as he digs a little deeper into the mystery, he starts to question his initial disbelief and wonder if indeed fairies do exist.  His investigations take him to the village where the girls live, where he discovers that eating a specific flower slows down time and allows him to see the fairies for himself.  In exploring the phenomena further, Charles finds himself becoming obsessed with finding out the truth…

(If all this sounds slightly ludicrous, it’s worth remembering that many people fully believed that the Cottingley Fairy pictures were genuine, including none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who is also a minor character in this film.)

I loved this film…I confess I only initially watched it because I am a fan of Toby Stephens, but I soon found myself wrapped up in this lovely story.  It really doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in fairies (I don’t), because the story is beautiful enough to carry you away, at least for its duration.

The supporting cast were all excellent – Phil Davis as Charles’ friend Roy, Emily Woof as Linda – the nanny to the two girls, and especially Ben Kingsley who was magnificent in a very disturbing turn as an intolerant Reverend and the father of the two girls.  The Reverend despises Charles and his presence in the village, and his anger is pivotal to the plot.

Stephens depiction of a grieving man who feels dead inside, is touching and sad, and beautifully realised.

The film works is a lovely looking period drama, and makes lovely use of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, II. Allegretto, as a recurring piece of music throughout the film.  The excellent cast raise this from a good to a great film.  Unfortunately the film is nigh on impossible to find on DVD, and only pops up on television very rarely, meaning that it is largely unknown.  However, if you ever get the chance to see this magical poetic story, I would highly recommend it.

Year of release: 1997

Director: Nick Willing

Writers: Steve Szilagyi (book), Chris Harrald, Nick Willing

Main cast: Toby Stephens, Ben Kingsley, Emily Woof, Phil Davies

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This is quite a nice little comedy.  Made in 1968, it stars the lovely Doris Day – who raises it from being mediocre to being sweet if ultimately forgettable.

Day plays Abby McClure, a widow with three sons (two young and one who has just graduated college).  She meets and falls in love with Jake Iverson (Brian Keith), a widower with one daughter, who has also just graduated.  However, the path of true love does not run smooth as Abby and Jake encounter hostility from their families, especially the two older children.  Unable to decide whose house they should live in, the two end up switching their lives between both of their houses, and the only place where Abby and Jake can get any time alone is at a drive-in coffee place (Herbie, the man who serves them their coffee, is played by the late great George Carlin in his first movie role).

There are some funny moments; Day has a terrific aptitude for comedy, and Keith is also excellent as the man who is surprised to find himself falling in love again, and at a loss as to how to make his family and his new wife happy.

However, there were a few cringeworthy moments – possibly due to what are now outmoded ideas.  For example at one stage, one of Abby’s younger sons asks Jake if he (Jake) is his father now, and Jake just tells him that yes he is.  This seemed odd, as the better course of action to take would surely have been to say that the boy already had a father – or at least to mention the boy’s late father!

The ending of the film is also somewhat contrived (but by the ending I do mean only the last couple of minutes; the scenes leading up to the events of the last few minutes are really very amusing), and other reviewers have criticised it, although I accept that it would have been difficult to have it end up any other way.

All in all, it’s certainly not an offensive film, and it’s a pleasant enough way to pass a couple of hours, due to the two main stars and Doris Day in particular.  However it’s fair to say that this was one of the less well received films of Day’s career (and was in fact the last feature film she has made to date); nonetheless, fans could do worse than watch this.

Year of release: 1968

Director: Howard Morris

Writers: Gwen Bagni, Paul Dubov, Harvey Bullock, R.S. Allen

Main cast: Doris Day, Brian Keith, Pat Carroll, Barbara Hershey, George Carlin, Alice Ghostley, John Findlater

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This review is for the 2004, Joel Schumacher directed film version of The Phantom of the Opera (adapted from the stage show with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which in itself was adapted from Gaston Leoux’s novel).

Gerard Butler plays the Phantom, the mysterious man/creature who haunts the opera house in Paris in 1870.  The Phantom is in love with young singer Christine (Emmy Rossum), and manages to replace the usual opera singer Carlotta (Minnie Driver, in a fantastic comedic part) with Christine, in order to further the career of the woman he loves.

However, when Christine’s first love Raoul comes back to the opera house and Christine falls in love with him again, the Phantom becomes jealous and vengeful.

I enjoyed this movie very much – certainly a lot more than I thought I might.  I watched it on a whim, and I’m very glad I did.  The music is familiar to many, and it sounds fantastic here.  My three favourite songs – and probably the most famous of the show – are the title track, Music of the Night and That’s All I Ask Of You – and they all come across well.

The cast are all great – even, as mentioned earlier, Gerard Butler, who I would not normally associate with or expect to see in such a part.  Simon Callow is great and very funny in a supporting role, but the aforementioned Minnie Driver steals of her scenes and provides some terrific moments of light relief.

The story itself is quite sad, and I did actually want to cry at certain parts!  If I was determined to find something to criticise, I probably could – it’s perhaps slightly overlong, and the inclusion of Jennifer Ellison in a supporting role was something of a surprise.  But sometimes a whole film is worth more than the sum of its parts, and I think that that is the case here.  I really enjoyed this film – a modern musical with a dark theme – and I definitely recommend it.

Year of release: 2004

Director: Joel Schumacher

Writers: Gaston Leoux (book), Andrew Lloyd Webber, Joel Schumacher

Main cast: Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, Miranda Richardson, Patrick Wilson

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Click here for my review of the 2013 stage production at Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre.

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