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Julia Ormond plays Rachel, a dentist who after her marriage breaks up, takes a job in a prison two days a week, providing dental treatment to the inmates. There she meets Philip Chaney (Tim Roth) and an attraction quickly develops. Nearing the end of his sentence, Philip is on day release one day a week and the couple see each other and fall in love. However, such a relationship could be disastrous to both of them if discovered and matters soon get out of hand.

I really enjoyed this film. Tim Roth is one of my favourite actors and with just a look, he can say so much. Julia Ormond is also brilliant as Rachel, displaying a perfect mix of toughness and vulnerability. It’s unusual to see Colin Salmon playing such an unpleasant role, but he has a flair for it!

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Year of release: 1994

Director: Angela Pope

Writer: Frank Deasy

Main cast: Tim Roth, Julia Ormond, Keith Allen, Colin Salmon

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Genre: Drama

Highlights: Likeable characters, great acting

Lowlights: None

Overall: A hidden gem. Watch it if you get chance

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Margaret Atwood is probably one of the most popular writers of dystopian fiction. For my money, The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the best and most disturbing books ever written, and it was with eagerness that I picked up The Heart Goes Last.

The story is set in America in the near future, after an economic meltdown has resulted in unprecedented unemployment and homelessness (which makes me hope that Atwood is not also a fortune teller, given the current political climate!) Stan and Charmaine, a once happily married couple, are now resorted to living in their car, eating whatever they can scrounge, scavenge or afford from Charmaine’s low-paid bar job, and constantly avoiding the thieves and violent gangs who roam the streets.

So when they see an advert for a new social experiment called Consilience, they are keen to join. The idea is that everyone who lives in the restricted community will be given a nice house, a good job, and will have money for food and luxuries. In return they will have to give up their new luxury home every second month and go into Positron, the prison in Consilience…but even that doesn’t sound so bad. They get square meals, a bed and a job within the prison. However, once they are inside Consilience they realise that there is no way out – and that their every move is being watched. Each of them develop an obsession with their ‘alternates’ – the couple who live in their house during Stan and Charmaine’s prison months and vice versa – which only leads them further into the tangled reality of what really goes on in this promised utopia.

If I’m  honest, I am still not entirely sure what to make of this book. I definitely don’t think it is up to the standard of The Handmaid’s Tale, but that was truly one of my favourite books ever, so maybe it’s asking too much to enjoy every Atwood novel quite so much. For me, The Heart Goes Last started out very promisingly. The awful situation the main characters was living in was all too believable and I could see how they could be drawn into something which would seem like a wonderful way out of their dire straits. However, as the story progressed it got more and more unrealistic – and here’s the thing…for me at least dystopian fiction has to have an element of feasibility. Not that you would want it to actually happen in real life, but you have to see how it could. This novel just did not have that. The last third of the book in particular almost seemed to descend into farce, and this wasn’t helped by the fact that neither Stan nor Charmaine were particularly likeable or relatable characters. (In fact, there were very few people in this book who I felt I could root for).

That said, I still liked Atwood’s acidic humorous writing, and she does have a marvellous turn of phrase. The book is funnier than I expected, and it was an undemanding read despite some distinctly unsavoury events within the book.

This has not put me off reading more books by Margaret Atwood, and I probably would recommend it with caution to fans of the author. However, if you are trying her novels for the first time, I would suggest starting with The Handmaid’s Tale or maybe The Robber Bride.

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Okay, confession time. I have never seen the film The Shawshank Redemption. That’s right, I’m the one. And maybe this is a good thing because when you see a play that has also been made into a film (although they were both adapted from different source material, in this case Stephen King’s novella ‘Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption’), it can be difficult not to compare. I’m reliably informed that this play is actually closer to the source material than the film is, but nonetheless both tell the same story of Andy Dufresne, a banker who is imprisoned for the double murder of his wife and her lover. Andy is innocent but he still serves years in prison for the crime he didn’t commit, and during that time he becomes best friends with Ellis Boyd Redding – or ‘Red’ – who is also in prison for murdering his wife (although Red freely admits that he is guilty).

Despite his physical incarceration, Andy refuses to allow the cruel and corrupt prison staff or the more sadistic fellow prisoners to trap his mind or break his spirit, and his determination to remain true to himself and his values, slowly changes those around him. As Andy’s imprisonment goes on, he becomes involved in doing accounts for the prison warden and helping to shield corrupt financial practices from the authorities, but despite now having the protection of the staff, he is still determined to get his freedom.

The part of Andy Dufresne was played by Paul Nicholls, who was excellent in the role and perfectly conveyed the character’s sense of self-worth and strength of mind. However, the standout role was Red, played by Ben Onwukwe. Red is arguably the biggest character in the play, and certainly has the biggest speaking part, as he narrates the story of Andy’s life in prison and speaks directly to the audience. The rest of the cast were also excellent, including Jack Ellis as Warden Stammas.

Viewer discretion is advised – there is a lot of swearing and depictions of extreme violence, including rape, so this is definitely not a show for children. However, it is a beautifully told, well acted, moving tale of the strength of one man’s spirit. Highly recommended.

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This is the story of Henri Charierre, known as Papillon (which is French for butterfly – he had a butterfly tattoo on his chest) and his incarceration in a French prison in 1930 for a murder which Papillon has always denied committing.  During his subsequent years of imprisonment, he spent time in many prisons and penal colonies, which had varying degrees of cruelty and inhumane treatment.  Papillon made several attempts to break out of the various institutions, with varying degrees of success.

The veracity of the story has often been questioned, with Papillon himself saying that it is about 75% true, while more modern researchers believe that parts of his story which he claims happened to him, were actually about other prisoners.  Either way, it’s an interesting adventure, and you have to admire his grit and determination to become a free man.

I enjoyed the book overall, although I found it took a long time for me to read.  There was so much information in parts that I had to take it slowly, to make sure I took it all in.  Charierre himself is an engaging, if occasionally self-aggrandising character, and certainly a good storyteller.  I liked the fact that although – especially in the beginning of the story – he was concentrated on his anger on the people who had wrongly incarcerated him (such as the Judge, prosecutor and people on the jury during his trial), and his determined to exact his revenge, over the passage of time, he came to focus on the kindnesses shown to him by various people, and was not lacking in compassion for others.

This was definitely a book worth reading, and the ending was particularly uplifting.  I would definitely recommend it.  (However, readers ought perhaps to be aware that the author occasionally uses some outdated and distasteful racial descriptions.)

 

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This is the film adaptation of Stephen King’s book of the same name.  It stars Michael Clarke Duncan in his most famous and memorable role as John Coffey, a child inside a huge man’s body, who comes to death row in 1935 (1932 in the book) having been found guilty of raping and murdering two young girls.  Tom Hanks plays Paul Edgecomb, the chief warden on the wing, who sees the apparent healing power that Coffey has, and starts to doubt whether he is in fact guilty of the crime with which he has been charged.

To say more about the plot would probably be to give too much away – this is really a film which people should discover for themselves.  However, if you are familiar with the book, you will find that this is a very faithful adaptation of it.  At just over three hours long, I put off watching this film for a long time; I often struggle to concentrate with films that are two hours or more – but The Green Mile did not feel long at all.  Every minute was essential to the telling of the story, and the time flew by.

Tom Hanks was already a double Oscar winner when he made this film, and he is excellent here.  However, he is also generous, and lets the talent of the rest of the cast shine through.  It’s unusual to find a film where every single cast member is truly excellent, but that is what we have here.  David Morse, Barry Pepper and Jeffrey DeMunn play Edgecomb’s colleagues.  They are also his friends, and like him, are compassionate and not always comfortable with the job they have to do.  Doug Hutchison was perfectly cast as Whetmore, a prison guard with a cold streak of nastiness running through him.  Michael Jeter and Sam Rockwell play two very different prisoners on death row – the first, Eduard Delacroix (Jeter) despite whatever (unspecified) crime he did to end up on death row, is a mild-mannered man, trying to make the best of his situation; the second Wild Bill Wharton (Rockwell, in a blisteringly good performance) is pure evil.  But the real acting plaudits must surely go to Michael Clarke Duncan for his measured, and, frankly heartbreaking turn as John Coffey.  Rarely do I cry so much at films, but Duncan’s acting was just so utterly believable and powerful that I found myself absolutely sobbing.  How on earth he did not get the Oscar for this role, I will never be able to understand.

The story, despite the aforementioned length, is compelling throughout.  I would recommend having handkerchiefs at the ready, because this film will make you cry – but it absolutely is a ‘must-see’ movie.  A deeply moving story, with excellent performances from all involved.  Just superb.

Year of release: 1999

Director: Frank Darabont

Producers: Frank Darabont, David Valdes

Writers: Stephen King (book), Frank Darabont

Main cast: Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse, Barry Pepper, Jeffrey DeMunn, Doug Hutchison, Sam Rockwell, Michael Jeter, James Cromwell Bonnie Hunt

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Click here for my review of the novel.

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This is the second book in Paullina Simons’ trilogy about young couple Alexander and Tatiana.  The spoilers I mention in the title of this post refer to both this book and the previous book, ‘The Bronze Horseman’.

The two title characters are actually not physically together for most of this book; Tatiana having escaped to America at the end of The Bronze Horseman, believing her husband Alexander to be dead; and Alexander still in Russia and forced to lead a penal battalion in war, with not enough soldiers, not enough ammunition and certainly not enough support from his country’s leader.

While Tatiana attempts to make something of her life – she becomes a nurse at Ellis Island, makes friends, raises her and Alexander’s son Anthony, and even considers dating again – she can never escape the possibility that her husband, the love of her life just might be alive.  Alexander meanwhile has no idea where in the world Tatiana might be, or even if she is still alive.

I enjoyed this book, just as I enjoyed The Bronze Horseman.  In this instalment of the story, Alexander’s back story, including how he came to be living in the Soviet Union, and his life before he met Tatiana, is covered, with the result that he is a much more sympathetic and rounded character.  I thought the parts which detailed him fighting for a war he was no longer sure he believed in, under horrific conditions, to be absolutely compelling.  The contrast between the lives which husband and wife led during this period were very marked – while Tatiana has found comfort and luxury, Alexander is barely surviving, and watches his fellow soldiers die on a daily basis.

The ending was superb – the last 100 pages or so are genuinely unputdownable!  There is a third instalment in this series, which I certainly look forward to reading very soon.

Highly recommended.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Click here for my review of The Bronze Horseman.

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Ah, Paul Newman. Those eyes, that smile…here he plays one of his best roles, as Luke, a man sent to prison for two years, who simply doesn’t accept the unfair authority of the guards, or indeed of the other prisoners. After refusing to back down in a boxcing match with fellow prisoner ‘Dragline’, desite being badly beaten, Luke earns the respect of his fellow inmates. But he also catches the eye of the guards, who are as determined to keep Luke down, as he is to prevail and escape.

Yes, I admit it – it’s taken me far too long to get around to watching this incredible film. Luke is the classic anti-hero (I felt there were similarities between this film and the later ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ with Jack Nicholson.) Luke isn’t really a bad guy, but he isn’t afraid of anyone, and he won’t back down. His attitude in turns inspires other prisoners, and marks him out as a potential trouble maker to the prison guards.

Newman’s performance is stunning; his emotions range from anger, ambivalence, sadness, desperation and determination, and he is entirely believeable throughout. It’s impossible not to root for him and hope that he beats the system. The scene which I have posted here, was one of my favourites. Luke is boxing with another inmate, and although he knows he wont’ win, he simply refuses to back down.

The supporting cast includes Dennis Hopper and Ralph Waite in minor roles, and George Kennedy as Luke’s foe, who becomes his friend. I actually think that Kennedy tends to over-act in almost every role he’s in, and this one is no exception, although it in no way spoils the enjoyment or the impact of the film.

This film is regarded as a classic, and rightfully so. It has humour, sadness and poignancy – if you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend it.

Year of release: 1967

Director: Stuart Rosenberg

Producers: Gordon Carroll, Carter De Haven Jr.

Writers: Donn Pearce (book), Frank Pierson

Main cast: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin

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