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Friday 27 April 2018

Lady Bird, Film (2017), written and directed by Greta Gerwig, 9.5* out of 10

“Lady Bird” is a beautiful coming of age drama rewarding us with moving and witty scenes, dialogues and characters.  Saoirse Ronan in the title role and Laurie Metcalfe as her mother are outstanding. With this film, Greta Gerwig establishes herself as a supremely talented filmmaker with an original and intelligent voice. 

Christine “Lady Bird” MacPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is in her last year at the private catholic St. Xavier High School in Sacramento (California). Her parents can hardly afford to send her there. Her father (Tracy Letts) an IT specialist in his late 50 is in a precarious job position. Her mother, a psychiatric nurse, runs the family household, which includes an adopted brother and his girlfriend , with an eye on its worsening economic prospects. Making ends meet is her greatest challenge, just at a time when Lady Bird is dreaming of attending an expensive college on the East Coast of the USA. “I want schools like Yale, but not Yale, because I probably couldn't get in.” 

Meanwhile Lady Bird is making her final year experiences, rebelling against authority, falling in love, conducting real friendships and engaging in useful ones. Lady Bird is not beyond a bit of cheating in pursuit of her worthy academic goals and love interests. She is in that place where behaviour can dramatically switch, from needy child to self-assured adult with bouts of hard-nosed rebelliousness, mainly against her mother. A mother who wants to instil a tough realism into her daughter who sees the future as exciting open and full of possibilities: the hopes you have for your future are not likely to be fulfilled; make the best you can with the hand you are dealt; do your duty to your family and your community; be a good rather than happy person, live in dignity but prepare on living with very limited means. As she starts into the new phase of her life Ladybird does not want to settle for that. With mother and daughter are both headstrong and persistent.

For me, “Lady Bird” is drama with hilarious moments, rather than a comedy.  With this film, Greta Gerwig shows that she is a supremely talented filmmaker with an original and intelligent voice. As a writer, all the characters in her film are complex and interesting, all have something to commend them to us – no stereotypes or caricatures here. As a director, Gerwig packs a great deal of content into a scene.  Dialogue, pictures and music each tell a different aspect of the story, but everything is carefully composed, like separate melodies that come together beautifully, but are not always in obvious harmony. This makes for cognitively challenging but exciting viewing. For me it took two viewings to fully appreciate the punch “Lady Bird” packs. I find it difficult to decide whether this is a criticism of me, or of the film. Important developments in the plot and the dialogue happen spontaneously –  you snooze you lose. Witty lines and great cinematography seem to come at you seemingly out of nowhere and yet they are clearly carefully crafted. If you are attentive, they will delight you. 

Saoirse Ronan in the title role and Laurie Metcalfe as her mother are outstanding in the way they embody their characters and render the turbulent relationship between mother and daughter utterly believable. They movingly bring to life the great scenes and wonderful lines they have been gifted by Gerwig. Together they have created characters that will stay with us long after the film has ended. The supporting roles are memorable too, notably Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird's best friend Julie.  

“Lady Bird” is a truly original coming of age film rewarding us with moving and witty scenes, dialogues and characters, which will stay etched in our memories for a long time. 

Thursday 19 April 2018

The Shape of Water, Film 2017, written and directed by Guillermo del Toro starring Sally Hawkins, 7.5* out of 10

Big Oscar Winner of 2018, Guillermo del Toro's 1960s fantasy is a simplistic politically correct fairy tale, celebrating "the other". Yet even the most critical viewer will be tempted to surrender to this irresistibly beautiful film.  

It is 1962 in the USA, when nice people were elected President and nasty people joined the military-industrial complex. The mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) has a very organised life with a set daily routine, including a daily bout of sexual self-sufficiency in the bath with an egg-timer ensuring it does not make her too late for work. Elisa also has two friends. One is her middle-aged neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) a commercial artist who has fallen on hard times. The gay Giles is a fan of 1930’s musical films featuring Betty Grable and Shirley Temple. Her other friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is a feisty black lady with whom Elisa works as cleaner in a secret underground laboratory complex of the US Department of Defence in Baltimore. 

One day a mysterious humanoidly-handsome water creature caught in the Amazon is brought there by Strickland (Michael Shannon) a brutal careerist working for military intelligence. He and his bosses are afraid of falling behind in the cold war space and scientific race with the Soviets and believe that water-creature vivisection is the path scientific dominance over the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Elisa gains the mistreated creature’s trust and a romantic attachment forms between the two outsiders. A race against the clock begins as Elisa helped by her two friends tries to set the water creature free.

The story of Guillermo del Toro’s movie is largely a remake of some of our favourite fairy tales and iconic films, such as Beauty and the Beast, Frankenstein or ET. Given the watery theme, the “frog prince” comes to mind - with the slight twist that the princess feels sexually attracted to the frog and does not want him to turn into a prince. The characters are helpfully stereotyped to underline the simplicity: white men are evil unless they are gay. Women are good unless they are suburban white housewives. Hofstettler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Soviet spy scientist is the only ambivalent and conflicted character. 

Having said that, it is difficult to escape the attraction of this simple tale of good and evil. Casting is excellent and the actors led by Sally Hawkins do a very good job. But above all it is the captivating visual power of this film with its early 1960s aesthetic (reminiscent of the iconic television series “Mad-Men”) and the magical dream-like watery sequences that win you over.  Designer Paul Austerberry and cinematographer Dan Laustsen are the creators of the atmosphere and of film sequences which together with Paul Desplat's music ensure that The Shape of Water will remain etched into viewers’ memories. 

Watching the Shape of Water all my critical faculties slowly ebbed away; I surrendered to this irresistibly beautiful film. 

Wednesday 18 April 2018

The Great Wave, Play written by Francis Turnly, directed by Indhu Rubasingham, National Theatre London, 8* out of 10

The Great Wave is a suspenseful political thriller based on recent true events, which successfully juxtaposes this with the moving story of a small, close family in Japan.  It holds the audience's attention from beginning to end.

1979: Teenage sisters Hanako (Kirsty Rider) and Reiko (Kae Alexander) live with the mother Etsuko (Rosalind Chao) in a house near the Japanese coast. After a typical teenage sister quarrel, Hanako and Reiko are caught up in a storm and a great wave. Hanako disappears. Has a local boy from Reiko’s class who claims to have seen her that night on the beach murdered her? Has she been swallowed by the great wave? Hanako’s body cannot be found but her mother feels that Hanako is still alive. She and Reiko will not rest until they find out what has happened to her. It will take years before they get a first clue which points to Japan’s neighbour North Korea. Moreover, their tireless efforts  to find answers will be frustrated over decades by successive Japanese governments' "Realpolitik" towards the volatile neighbour North Korea overriding the duty to individual citizens in distress.  

At the heart of this play is the plot hatched by Kim Il-sung the President of the “Democratic Republic of Korea” (North Korea) and his courtiers. Like his grand-son Kim Jong-un, the current President, he is at the head of a brutal and unscrupulous regime that demands adulation and spreads fear and preemptively deploys mental and physical cruelty. Playwright Francis Turnly has managed to write a suspenseful political thriller based on true events, which successfully juxtaposes this with the moving story of a small, close family in Japan. Through no fault of their own find mother and daughters find their lives permanently changed by a mysterious secret service operation almost too fantastical to be believed. With the help of a great set by Tom Piper and Indhu Rubisingham’s straightforward direction production tells the story in a manner which holds the audience’s attention from start to finish. There are strong acting performances by Rosalind Chao, Kirsty Rider and Kae Alexander. The Great Wave is a good example of how a modern political story can be told in an engaging and deeply human way that we can all share rationally and emotionally irrespective of “identity” and culture.

For those who have missed the short run of the play at the National Theatre's Dorfman Theatre, one can hope that this play, which had its world premiere on 15 March 2018 will transfer to another London theatre in due course.