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Sunday 22 April 2012

Misterman, play written and directed by Enda Walsh, National Theatre. Lyttleton, London, 9* out of 10

Thomas Magill (Cillian Murphy) is an eccentric outsider who  lives in the village of Innishfree in the Irish countryside,where he looks after his frail, elderly mother. When he leaves his house for errands, the mission he believes has been assigned to him - by a beautiful Angel sent from God - is to watch over the good people of Innishfree and make them repent for their sinful lives. Like a conscientious local reporter, Thomas commits everyone's misdeeds to paper and to the tapes of his portable cassette recorder. His neighbours are none to pleased. What begins as harmless banter between the self-appointed guardian of good morals and the other villagers gradually takes a more sinister turn.

Misterman was first performed in 1999. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is reported to have said:“You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”  This is not much different with this play which in 2012 comes to us in a new context. We saw it in a week where the narcissistic Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik explained to his judges that he was on a sacred mission to save the future of Norway. In its service he claimed that he had to override all empathy for his fellow human beings, however hard he may have found it. 

In Misterman, Walsh gives us some insight into the mind of the loner who develops an obsession and how he is perceived treated or ignored by those around him; at some point such an obsessed person can turn into a mildly annoying or perhaps even lovable eccentric, who adds to the diversity of village life; Or such a person can turn into a perpetrator of brutal acts, beyond our comprehension.

Enda Walsh's beautifully observed play melds comedy, drama and pathos into a coherent whole which holds the attention of the audience from beginning to end. There can be no interval in this 90 minute play. Its impact is impressively reinforced by the set, a large disused manufacturing plant, and by the lighting with its neon symbols of Catholicism. The vast set reflects and amplifies the landscape of alienation and desolation of Tomas McGill's inner life. With Enda Walsh and Martin MacDonagh Ireland has given the English performing arts multi-talented story tellers, that can write and direct for the stage and film alike.

Beyond the excellent writing and the great set, it takes a brilliant actor to fill the stage and bring the story and its characters to life in this one-man play. Cillian Murphy's performance is mesmerising.  He is an actor whose talent shines on the stage and in film (for example as the evil Dr. Jonathan Crane in Batman begins). In this production at the Lyttleton, Cillian Murphy is truly outstanding. The rapturous applause from the full house was thoroughly deserved.

Monday 16 April 2012

Headhunters (2011), Film directed by Morten Tyldum based on the novel by Jo Nesbø, 7* out of 10

“Short people got nobody
Short people got nobody
Short people got nobody
To love

They got little baby legs
That stand so low
You got to pick em up
Just to say hello
They got little cars
That go beep, beep, beep
They got little voices
Goin' peep, peep, peep
They got grubby little fingers
And dirty little minds
They're gonna get you every time
Well, I don't want no short people”

from Short People, music an lyrics by Randy Newman

In 1977 the still brilliantly active singer-songwriter Randy Newman brought out his album “Little Criminals” with contained the controversial song “Short People”. As Newman saw it, the lyrics were written from the point of view of a maniacal bigot prejudiced against short people. As the song became a hit, Newman ended up hating it, since the irony of its original intent had got lost on a great number of its fans. 

The narrator and hero of Headhunters, Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), is 1m68cm (5 ft 6 inches) tall. He makes it clear to us in the first scenes that compensating for lack of physical height is key to understanding what drives him. Yet there is more to him than meets the eye. Senior Executive Search Consultant in the morning, burglar of paintings in the afternoon, he is constantly in financial trouble. The reasons his expenses consistently exceed his not inconsiderable income are many. There is Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), the tall attractive trophy-wife whose new art-gallery he has to finance, the designer house with the its stylish interior in the Norwegian countryside, the big powerful luxury coupe and last not least the made to measure suits. 

Diana introduces Roger to Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the tall and handsome ex-elite soldier turned ex-Chief Executive Officer of a high-tech defence firm. Greve has just taken early retirement, but Roger sees his chance to earn a big fee for tempting him back into a new high tech firm. As luck has it Greve also is the owner of a valuable painting that captures Roger's moonlighting-job interest, too. In two fell swoops, Roger's financial problems might be over; but if all this seems too good to be true, that maybe so, because it is. From here the plot develops into a quite entertaining thriller with a bit of sex and violence ( against people as well as a dog) and a considerable number of twists and turns. 

Scandinavian crime novels, films and TV series are in fashion: There is Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy, Henning Mankell's Wallander series and the recent Danish television offerings The Killing and Borgen. And now the Norwegian bestseller writer Jo Nesbø has moved in where Swedish and Danish creatives have shown the way. Headhunters is the first of his books to make it to the silver screen and international release.

The problem with Headhunters is that the plot seems to be constructed first and then peopled by the characters. The transition of scenes from hard hitting realism to comedy is not very well handled and often leaves the viewer a bit unpleasantly confused. It's not that easy to identify with any of the characters and their predicaments. Having said that, Headhunters has its moments, the plot its twists and turns and, all in all, they do make this thriller quite watchable.

Sunday 15 April 2012

Les Intouchables (France 2011), Film written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, 8*  out of 10

In his latest book, The Upside of Irrationality, the rising star in the field of behavioural economics, Professor Dan Ariely, quotes research on the psychological phenomenon of adaptation. People who had an accident that left them in a wheelchair and others who has just won a large prize in a lottery fill in surveys about their personal happiness. Initially subjective happiness of the lottery winner and the unhappiness of the injured people are - as one would expect- far apart. A year later there is still a significant difference, but the result is much closer. The explanation for this is the phenomenon of human adaptation, both to positive and negative events in people's lives. A powerful way in which nature has equipped us with the ability to cope.

Philippe (François Cluzet) is a successful entrepreneur who has become tetraplegic. He is interviewing candidates for the position of in-house carer. Driess (played by the French/Senegalese rapper Omar Sy), a petty criminal from the Paris banlieues is among the candidates. He hopes to be rejected so that he can continue to collect unemployment benefit. The last thing he wants to be is a carer for a tetraplegic. But he finds himself taken on for a trial period. From unpromising beginnings the relationship between the demanding employer and his troublesome new employee evolves to offer unanticipated opportunities and problems for both parties. Will it change them for good or just be a passing episode before each returns to their life before they met?

The plot for this film provides an unlikely  premise for a feel-good comedy-drama let alone the cult film of the year in France where 52% of French adults have seen it in the cinema. Les Intouchables (The Intouchabes) has also become an unexpected hit outside the French-speaking world, subtitles and all.

Les Intouchables is based on a true story. It is very well written and the writer/directors present the story with humour and intelligence so that this film holds the audience interest. It is a moving film that never resorts to pathos. Strong performances by Cluzet and Sy add to this enjoyable mix. Definitely worth a visit.