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Thursday 10 December 2015

The Golden Bride (Di Goldene Kale), Operetta, Music by Joseph Rumshinsky, lyrics by Louis Gilrod and a book by Frieda Freiman, National Yiddish Theater – Folksbiene, New York, 8* out of 10

Goldele (Rachel Policar) is being brought up by a foster family in a Russian Village. One day her uncle and his son Jerome (Glenn Seven Allen) from America turn up and inform everyone that her father who had left for America leaving her behind has died and left her a great fortune. Her uncle who is himself wealthy wants to take her back to America to live with him. Misha (Cameron Johnson), the son of her foster parents who has been in love with Goldele when she was poor, now finds that he must compete for her with suitors attracted to Goldele by her nouveau riche state.

The National Yiddish Theatre - Folksbiene now in its 101st season, is a theatre established as entertainment for the Jewish immigrants from Russia and Ukraine that arrived in large numbers between 1885 and 1922, when legislation hostile to accepting immigrants abruptly ended this chapter in the history of immigration from Europe to America. They lived and worked mainly in the textile industry in the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side looking for freedom from pogroms and the opportunity to better themselves economically.

The Golden Bride was written and composed in the New York of the 1920’s, the high point of Yiddish theatre in New York with more than 20 Yiddish theatres on 2nd Avenue, as a light-hearted operetta. 

It was first performed at the Folksbiene in 1923 and fell into oblivion; but parts of the original score and libretto have recently been found and made this revival possible.

This gives audiences in 2015 an immersive treat as they enter into the world of this immigrant community; in particular, The Golden Bride speaks of their dreams hopes for economic and social advancement.  But it also gives us a glimpse of their humour, of their nostalgia for their home-country, of the customs of their Jewish religion and even of their hopes that the October Revolution would make Russia a dynamic modern country with equal rights for workers of all backgrounds and religions. 

At key moments the protagonists switch from Yiddish to Russian. and the operetta form and its tunes reminiscent of of the central European masters of the genre Johann Strauss or Franz Lehar, was the equivalent at that time what would be the Musical today. 

But quite apart from its historical interest, The Golden Bride, is an enjoyable and funny musical romp. The ensemble of the Folksbiene enthusiastically performs in more or less authentic Yiddish with some Russian bits. English and Russian surtitles are provided for the audience. The singing and the live orchestra conducted by Artistic Director Zalmen Mlotek are of good quality and the direction  and set make “Di Goldene Kale” a highly enjoyable treat and a fun show.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Award of the Jonathan Swift International Literature Prize for Satire and Humour to Berlin-Based Austrian Author Eva Menasse, Literaturhaus Zurich, November 2015

Literaturhaus Zurich high noon. About 100 members of Zurich society sip champagne, wine and orange juice, nibble on blinis with salmon caviar and catch-up on the latest Zurich gossip. They have just attended the ceremony awarding the brand-new Jonathan Swift Prize for Satire and Humour in International Literature of the Werner Dessauer Foundation. 

The Burghers of Zurich have many things in abundance: champagne, wine and blinis with salmon caviar among them; humour and satire however are in somewhat short supply. But the Swiss are nothing if not practical and so they have decided to import what is locally in scarce supply. 

Therefore, the Jonathan Swift International Literary Price for Satire and Humour will henceforth be awarded every year. Eligible are living authors with no restriction of provenance and nationality, who either write in or have been translated into German.

The first Jonathan Swift Prize has been awarded to an Austrian author living in Berlin Eva Menasse, who having received her award cuts a lonesome (though perhaps not lonely) figure in the foyer next to the bookstand on which her various publications are available for sale. And very kindly she is ready to sign a book or two, bought by those few attendees of the ceremony who may actually have been brought here because of their passion for quality literature. She looks rather relieved to stand here in the foyer rather than joining the cocktail party. 

An hour earlier, at 11:00 am sharp the award ceremony had begun.

The publisher Gerd Haffmans, explained who Jonathan Swift the author of Gulliver’s travels and the rather shocking Modest Proposal was and managed to digress incongruously to Samuel Pepys, the German translation of whose diaries he had recently published. 

Helmut Schödel from the Süddeutsche Zeitung spoke with insight and skill about the work of award winner Eva Menasse, doing his job professionally and thoroughly as you would expect from a German journalist and professor and keeping scrupulously to the the time allocated to him. 

Apart from the master of ceremonies, the Swiss author and member of the jury Charles Lewinsky, whose very readable and funny family saga Melnitz is available in English, the first speakers seemed rather sombre, especially for a prize that is dedicated to satire and humour. Perhaps this was out of politeness, a desire to leave the monopoly of "good humour" in both senses of its meaning to the protagonist of the event. 

Eva Menasse’s acceptance speech dealt with the nature of humour and distinguished between two very different kinds of humour, one that thankfully she doesn’t have a lot of time for (the one that is present at the German and Carinthian Carnival) and the other one that is central to her writing. 

Best known for her autobiographical novel Vienna she is an excellent exponent of the fine Viennese-Jewish tradition that one could be forgiven for thinking had been erased the special German thoroughness amplified with the special Austrian nastiness directed towards the Jews of Germany, Austria and the rest of Europe between 1933 and 1945. Against all the odds though, a small but significant and visible group of Viennese writers with (semi)-Jewish roots, whose parents had somehow escaped the fate prepared for them by the German Nazi government and its more or less enthusiastic acolytes, grew up in post-World-War-II Vienna. There they found not only their distinctive voices, that have enriched modern German-speaking literature as a whole, but also with resolute political engagement courageously, yet inevitably less successfully, fought against against racism and anti-Semitism in post-war Austria. They include Robert Schindel, Eva Menasse’s brother Robert and the Tel Aviv born Viennese historian and novelist Doron Rabinovici. 

Born in 1970, Eva Menasse is probably the youngest of that "second generation group" of Viennese authors. She is also the only woman among them, which makes her achievement as a journalist in the Austrian quality journal Profil and as an editor on the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung especially remarkable. 

With an unerring sense for the perfect epithet, she has become expert at explaining Viennese-ness to the Germans and the German-ness to the Viennese. In the process, Viennese and Germans can unwittingly learn even more about themselves than about each other. 

Central to the success of Menasse’s writing is the role humour has in it: it is the key instrument that allows the reader to gain insight into difficult subjects; difficult because, flawed emotional sentient thinking beings that we are, we are programmed to jump to conclusions that allow us to repeatedly confirm our most dearly held preconceived ideas and prejudices. 

Eva Menasse masterfully makes her and our preconceived ideas and notions ricochet around the brain, slowing them down just enough to create that little space for reflection, including self-reflection, which is needed to give us room for really considering another point of view -  a process that is indispensable to learning and understanding.  She does this authentically and humanely, not like many of her German colleagues with the moral index finger held high, but with deploying humour in a way that exercises our deep-thought muscles like a Pilates session exercises the deep muscles, that we need keep us straight and upright. That is probably why she does this quite successfully. Besides, Menasse’s humorous prose  makes for a damn enjoyable read. 

As befits a worthy winner of a prize that carries the name of a British/Irish satirist, Menasse’s highly successful, thought-provokingly humorous and critically acclaimed first novel "Vienna" has been published in English translation (and I hope still in print). I can recommend it; and I am already curious to see who the jury will select as Zurich's purveyor of fine satire and humour in literature next year.

Werner Dessauer, Eva Menasse and Charles Levinsky

Thursday 19 November 2015

Amber (German Title: Bernstein), written by Liao Yimei, directed by Meng Jinghui, Beijing Young Dramatists Association, Schauspielhaus Zurich, 7.5* out of 10

Director Meng Jinghui and his enthusiastic and talented acting ensemble manage to maintain coherence and dynamism in this play of two disparate halves. 

Gao Yuan is a charismatic small time crook, expert at extracting financial gain out of any life situation. Operating from a shady downtown club, he leads his entourage, a motley crew of none-to-bright hangers-on, who help him carry out his various schemes. 

Bored with the easy success of his various small-time schemes, Gao Yuan decides for his next scheme to enter the national big time (; when national is all of China, it is bigtime by any standard). Yuan’s new plan, fully in tune with the Zeitgeist, is to ghost-write a blog detailing the sexual exploits of a 21st century libertine girl. For this purpose, he also engages a young lady of suggestive looks, easy-virtue and negligible intellectual faculties to front as the blog’s actual author. 

But Gao Yuan is a crook with a heart. And when his heart seriously malfunctions, after his blog-plot has been exposed before he can reap its profits, he finds himself in hospital undergoing a heart transplant. While this does not seem to have much influence on his character, it does in some mysterious ways lead to him meeting a young lady museum guide, who is not his type at all, but seems to have developed an inexplicable interest in Gao Yuan. Almost imperceptibly, and disturbingly for the unprepared seemingly unchanged and unfazed Gao Yuan, she finds her way to his new heart and more. 

The production of the Beijing Young Dramatists Association uses costume music and dance very effectively to create the ambience of a dystopian comic-strip world eerily close to the one whose pictures and icons invade our space nowadays through television, cinema and social media. For European audiences very much dependent on the surtitles for being able to follow the Chinese dialogue on stage the the visual cues and the dynamism and enthusiasm of the young ensemble are not only enjoyable but genuinely helpful. The fact that a non-Chinese speaking audience is able to follow what is going on and not to tire from the effort of reading surtitles is a tribute to director Meng Jinghui as well as the acting ensemble with Kong Yan as a charismatic lovable rogue in the role Gao Yuan. Yu Lei und Jnby & Croquis also deserve a special mention for costumes.

Amber is a play of two halves, which are at risk of not fitting together; the fact that this production manages to maintain coherence and does not lose the plot is a credit to the director and the acting ensemble. 

The Schauspielhaus is to be commended for bringing this contemporary Chinese play to Zurich, even if only for two performances.

Friday 23 October 2015

The Father (Le Père), play by Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton, directed by James MacDonald, Wyndham’s Theatre London, 9* out of 10

Florian Zeller's award-winning play is savagely funny, playful and disconcerting; the cognitive dissonance felt by the protagonist on stage sets out to infect the audience with fear, uncertainty and doubt. Theatre as it should be: relevant and riveting. 

André (Kenneth Cranham) is charming and witty and knows what he wants. He is a former tap dancer and circus artist in his eighties living with his elder daughter Anne (Claire Skinner) and her husband Antoine. No not really. André is a former civil engineer in his 80s living in his own apartment, whose daughter Anne will be moving to London soon. André is intermittently losing his mind. Or is he? André’s daughter Anne is trying to make him believe he is losing his mind in order to lock him away in an institution and take possession of his lovely apartment in Paris. And where is Elise, his younger favourite daughter whom he loves so much? Why is she never coming to visit?

In a series of short scenes at times savagely funny at times uncomfortably disconcerting playwright Florian Zeller makes his audience feel the cognitive dissonance André. Those moments of doubt and uncertainty in the intentions of those he has loved and trusted and in his own ability to correctly interpret what is happening around him and to him – and who he is. 

In Christopher Hampton’s excellent translation from the original French the play does not lose any of its punch – on the contrary. And James MacDonald’s direction keeps the audience's mind riveted to the action. The use of light and music enhance the suspense.  The musical ambience that life, as the title of a film by Eric Rohmer puts it, “is a long tranquil river” breaks into frightening moments straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Gaslight”.  
Amid strong supporting performances by the other members of the cast, Claire Skinner is an excellently understated Anne. Kenneth Cranham is outstanding in the title role. 

Modern theatre that’s everything theatre should be; definitely one to watch.

Monday 28 September 2015

The Intern, Film 2015, written and directed by Nancy Meyers, 7.5* out of 10

The idea of senior-citizen internships at internet start-ups certainly sounds far-fetched; but then again this film may turn out to be prescient of the shape of things to come.

Former business-executive Ben Whitaker (Robert de Niro) is desperately looking for ways of making his retirement active and enjoyable – particularly in the three years since his wife of many years passed away. When a successful internet fashion shop start-up with offices near Ben’s Brooklyn home launches a senior citizen internship, he decides to apply and gets the job.

The fast-growing internet business is being run by its founder, mid-thirties working mom Jules Ostin (Ann Hathaway), who is committed to her ideas and her customers and wants everything to run just so. But while her employees, all young, seem to have a great time, the long and busy working days, take their toll on Jules and her family life. And the the Venture Capital providers are pushing her to hire an experienced CEO to bring order and shareholder value orientation into the business. The last thing she wants is getting landed with having an intern assigned to her, least of all a seventy-year-old male.

The Intern is a gentle romantic comedy-drama about the possibility of friendship developing across generations. The premise of the story, some witty repartee and competent acting especially Robert de Niro, lifts The Intern a bit above the traditional competently executed rom-com, and makes it a film worth watching; this is also to the credit to writer/director Nancy Meyers.

Anyone 10 years either side of the prospect of retiring in what increasingly feels like advanced middle age, will be given food for thought. The idea of senior-citizen internships at internet start-ups certainly sounds far-fetched; but it may turn out to be prescient of the shape of things to come; God help us.  In this sense, The Intern, beyond being an enjoyable film to watch, transcends its genre.

Thursday 3 September 2015

The Second Mother (Que Horas Ela Volta?), Film, Brazil (2015), written and directed by Anna Muylaert, 8* out of 10

Director Anna Muylaert has managed to meld an acutely observed study of the upper middle class urban Brazilian household with an ultimately uplifting tale of courage and emancipation. Regina Casé’s performance is a tour de force. 

Val (Regina Casé) works as a live-in housemaid for an upper middle-class Brazilian family in Sao Paolo. She has been with the family for many years. 17-year-old Fabinho (Michel Joesas) whom Val has looked after while his mother Barbara (Karine Teles) launched a successful business career, is devoted to her. Barbara is married to Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), whose inherited wealth allows the family to live well, but who appears frustrated and unhappy. Val who is originally from Pernambuco in the north of Brazil, has left her daughter Jessica (Camila Márdila) with relatives to whom she regularly sends money, but out of guilt she has not seen or spoken to her 17-year-old daughter for 10 years. But as Jessica announces she is coming to stay with Val to prepare for the difficult admission exam to university of Sao Paolo, the Val’s life and her employers’ household are in for some unexpected turbulence.

The Second Mother is a slow and atmospheric film. It beautifully shows the relationship of the different protagonists as individuals living in a confined space of one household. And in acutely observes the Brazil of the 21st century, where the social rules of interaction between “upstairs” and “downstairs” are present and known to all who live within. The camera shows the action mainly from the perspective of the household staff. Director Anna Muylaert has managed to meld an acutely observed study of the upper middle class urban Brazilian household with an ultimately uplifting tale of courage and emancipation, in which all the protagonists are flawed but some are flawed heroes, non more so than Val. 

Among a competent cast, Regina Casé’s performance as a formally uneducated housemaid, who is woman with her feet on the ground and an irrepressible good humour and optimism is a wonderful tour de force thanks also to Camila Márdila, who shines in the role of Jessica.

Go see this is a little jewel of human and social observation; it fully deserves the prizes it has received at the Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival.

Thursday 27 August 2015

Splendour, Play, by Abi Morgan, Donmar Warehouse, London, 9* out of 10

Written in 2000, Abi Morgan’s four-women-play is as fresh and relevant today as it was then. Tense political and human drama that should be on the syllabus of any political science course.

In the presidential villa of a country in the throes of a long drawn-out civil war four women wait for his return home from a long and difficult working day. Catherine (Genevieve O’Reilly) the photo journalist has obtained access to the President in his natural habitat of the hoped for perpetual power he has achieved and hangs on to by the skin of his teeth. Gilma (Zawe Ashton), Catherine’s interpreter and fixer, has made the compromises she needs to make to survive and is determined to do what it takes to continue to survive even though her ethnicity makes her a perpetual suspect. Genevieve (Michelle Fairley) is a friend of the dictator’s wife, whose late artist husband’s painting hangs prominently in the living room. And finally, Micheline (Sinead Cusack) the President’s the strong and ruthless woman who is behind the successful man behind the failing state.

Written in 2000 and premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Abi Morgan’s play is as fresh and relevant today as it was then. From Ceaucescu’s Roumania to Assad’s Syria. By focusing on women in the company of other women Morgan dispenses with male political self-deception and lets her characters serve the truce about themselves, in no case more ice-cold ruthless, brutally accurate than in the case of Micheline, the President’s wife.

"Splendour" is true, intelligent, tense and insightful. The direction by Robert Hastie keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. Peter McKintosh's broken-glass faux art-deco set is just right. The cast is excellent, with Sinead Cusack giving Micheline just the right amount of fear and courage, humanity and coldness.

Ninety-five tense minutes of excellent political and human drama that should be on the reading/watching list of any political science course. It's also great theatre.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Three Days in the Country, after Ivan Turgenev, adapted and directed by Patrick Marber, National Theatre, London, 8* out of 10

Shortening Turgenev’s original “Month in the Country” to three days, Patrick Marber focuses on the comedic side of this Comedy of Manners. Even on the first preview night, this was a smooth and most enjoyable sell-out performance on the big Lyttleton stage.

In a long hot summer, in the 1850s at the Islaev country estate the Arkady Islaev (John Light) and his wife Natalya Petrovna (Amanda Drew) are hosting guests for the summer. Their young son Kolya is being tutored in German by the young student Alekesei Bilyaev (Royce Pierreson) protégé of the German Professor Schaaf (Gawn Grainger).  While Arkady Islaev busies himself with running his estate, Bilyaev awakes the the passions of Natalya Petrovna and her 17-year-old ward Vera (Lily Sacofsky). Before deciding on whether it would be wise to engage in any sexual relations with the upper echelons of the house he has to decide whether a mutually enjoyable fling with Katya the maid (Cherelle Skeete). Meanwhile Nataly Petrovna and Vera have to consider other potential partners for what they have in mind, none as young and vigorous, as Bilyaev, though. There is Rakitin (John Simm) Arkady Islaev’s best friend and secretly in love with Natalya, who has made him her best friend and confidant and there is the hapless middle aged neighbour Bolshintzov who thinks young Vera would be a way to marry his fortune together with the Islaev estate. Livening up the proceedings is country doctor Shpigelsky (Mark Gatiss) who is better evaluating his own strength and weaknesses then making accurate diagnoses.

Shortening Turgenev’s original “Month in the Country” to three days, Patrick Marber focuses on the comedic side of this Comedy of Manners, although this being 19th century Russian comedy there is quite a bit of melancholy and drama but not the deeply felt pathos of the Chekhovian Russian soul. It should be noted that Turgenev wrote his play before the Chekhovian masterpieces had gained recognition. He had to wait a few decades to get his play past the Tsarist censor. Nonetheless interest in Turgenev grew Chekhov’s plays had become famous. In a sense Turgenev is Chekhov-light and funny. Being caught in a loveless marriage cannot be much fun for Natalya Petrovna, and restrained by her sense of bourgeois morals and absent the modern apps of Tinder and Ashley Madison, she has to make do with desiring, or not, the male company available at her country estate. 

Thanks to an attractive set and costumes, direction that underscores the intent of the writer and a very competent ensemble of actors this production, even on the first preview night, was a smooth and most enjoyable performance on the big Lyttleton stage. Mark Gatiss stands out by making the most of all the best lines, followed not far behind by John Simm’s Rakitin and Amanda Drew’s Natalya Petrovna.  Enthusiastic applause by audience in  the sold-out preview performance.

Three Days In The Country

Monday 27 July 2015

Richard II, by William Shakespeare, directed by Simon Goodwin, Globe Theatre London, 8* out of 10

Richard II contains acutely observed and depicted characters and some wonderful lines. The production is uncomplicated and focuses on the essential.  It is carried by a competent cast of actors who deliver their lines with great aplomb. This play is especially rewarding for those interested in politics or English history.

Anointed king at 10 years of age, Shakespeare’ s play deals with the last 2 turbulent years of Richard’s reign. At the beginning of the play, the King, known for his good looks, is called to arbitrate a bitter dispute between his cousin Henry Bolingbroke and Mowbray. He changes his mind several times on how to settle it. First he agrees to let them fight a duel; but then he interferes at the last moment and decides to banish both from England, Mowbray for life and Bolingbroke for 6 years. He never explains that unequal treatment, which looks arbitrary to the other Barons. They sense their king is becoming dangerously arbitrary and perhaps quite insecure. 

Relying on a very limited retinue of manipulative characters the king becomes ever more tyrannical and inconsistent in his decisions. When he needs money for a war in Ireland and hears that John of Gaunt is about to die, he alienates the landed nobility further by deciding to confiscate the dying man’s land and treasures rather than letting the inheritance pass on to Henry Bolingbroke. Enraged Henry returns early from banishment to take back what he sees as rightfully his. As things go very well for him, he decides to increase the level of his ambitions; or is it only that he decides to reveal the full extent of his ambitions only now?  In any case, Henry now wants to force Richard to abdicate. But once Henry has wrested the crown from Richard, what to do with an ex-king who, while still alive, will always be a danger to the man who has deposed him? 

For Shakespeare the wildly inconsistent Richard’s rule at the end of his reign, his narcissistic character and his inattention to keeping a wide group of his Baron’s satisfied, lies at the root of the coming Wars of the Roses between the Houses of Lancaster and York. 

Richard II contains acutely observed and depicted characters and some wonderful lines. There is John of Gaunt’s declaration of affection for England, “This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden, demi-paradise”, and there are Richard’s musings, as he realises his reign will come to a premature end “for within the hollow crown, that rounds the mortal temples of a king keeps Death his court”.

The production is uncomplicated and focuses on the essential.  It is carried by a competent cast of actors who deliver their lines with great aplomb. Charles Edwards in the role of the capricious Richard II and Edward Gaunt as John of Gaunt, Richard’s uncle and the father of the usurper Henry Bolingbroke, stand out. 
The risk you take when going to see a production at the semi-open-air Globe Theatre is that your enjoyment may be affected by the weather and other environmental factors that do not play much of a role at more conventional theatre venues. During the Friday Matinee performance of Richard II the clouds over London opened their floodgates and the passenger planes landing seemed to want to give their passengers a glimpse of the performance. The audience sitting on the covered benches stayed dry but could not hear all of the text while those standing in the pit probably heard every word, but did get absolutely drenched in the process.

Nevertheless, playing and watching Shakespeare in the rain at the Globe Theatre, "these scepter'd aisles this demi-covered stage", is inspiring; actors and the audience form a special bond and have a great time.

Thursday 18 June 2015

Spy, 2015, Film written and directed by Paul Feig, 9* out of 10

Spy is two hours of good slapstick, witty repartee and unadulterated, laugh-out-loud fun. Besides the screenplay, it is the great performances in the supporting roles that give this film the sustainable energy, which lasts beyond the final credits.

Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) and Bradley Fine (Jude Law) are a team. Bradley is the suave elegant super-spy with a licence to kill; Susan is the guiding voice in his ear from central command, without which Bradley’s derring-do would long have ended in his ultimate demise. Together with her however, he appears elegantly invulnerable in the most dangerous situations, while she is as invisible and eminently forgettable to her senior management as she is indispensable to Bradley’s success. To her colleagues in the vermin infested windowless open plan office, Susan is the mostly harmless cake-baking desk clerk analyst and homely single woman in her forties. But, “events dear boy, events” will soon turn her life and reputation upside down.

As far as James-Bond spoofs go, this is a very successful one. It is witty and subversive; and the social comment is deeper than can be expected from the genre. Not quite the Dardenne brothers social drama, but some memorable  “makes-you-think” moments.

Besides the screenplay, it is the great performances in the supporting roles that give this film the sustainable energy, which lasts beyond the final credits. Jude Law and Allison Janney are good. Jason Statham and Peter Serafinowicz live up to the great character roles they have been given. And among this great cast, Melissa McCarthy, in the main role is a Dawn French look-alike (think The Vicar of Dibley) with just as much comedy talent. She manages to make her character an unlikely female role model – both lovable and respectable.

My only criticism of Spy is that the few scenes of blood and gore were unnecessarily graphic for this genre.

Spy is two hours of good slapstick, witty repartee and unadulterated, laugh-out-loud fun. Knowing Hollywood, Spy 2 is probably already in the works, but, as spoof comedies go, this one is a hard act to follow.

Monday 4 May 2015

A Most Violent Year, (2014) Film, written and directed by J. C. Chandor, 8* out of 10

Brilliantly written and competently directed by J. C. Chandor, A Most Violent Year is an understated business drama playing in a mob-like world of gritty family businesses with few holds barred in the melting pot of the streets of New York. Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain and Albert Brooks are given particularly interesting roles and reward their screenwriter/director with outstanding performances.

It is 1981. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is an immigrant from Columbia who has made good in the competitive mafia-ish heating fuel business in New York. In the process has married Anna (Jessica Chastain), the bosses daughter and taken over the business. Now he is about to make a major move risking his financial and social capital to lift the business to a new level. The last thing he needs is trouble, but the not so cosy semi-cartel of competitors is unhappy with this slightly less corruptible member of their clan, who doesn’t quite want to belong. And the ambitious New York City district attorney (David Oyelowo) smells blood in the water, an opportunity for pouncing on Abel’s business at this delicate moment of vulnerability. Luckily Abel can rely on his tough, street-wise loyal wife and his calm and wise chief financial officer (Albert Brooks)– or can he?

Brilliantly written and competently directed by J. C. Chandor, A Most Violent Year is an understated business drama playing in a mob-like world of gritty family businesses with few holds barred in the melting pot of the streets of New York. Here petty crime is part of doing business and can too easily escalate into something more sinister. Chandor marvellously captures time (1980s) and New York/New Jersey and milieu, the mob-ish heating fuel business. As the great defender of the market-economics Adam Smith already warned, businesses will always have a tendency to circumvent the forces of competition by semi-illegally erecting barriers and agreeing territories and prices. The consumer loses out. So for the market mechanism to work the State has to enforce it; but to function the State needs to collect taxes and resist the gravitational forces of corruption. This leads to a clash of interests playing out dangerously across the varying moral codes of the different stakeholders. 

Strong acting performances throughout, but Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain and Albert Brooks are given particularly interesting roles and reward their screenwriter/director with outstanding performances. Thoroughly satisfying business-drama/thriller with less mindless violence than the title suggests.