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Thursday 28 February 2019

La Promesse de l’Aube (Promise at Dawn) Film (France 2017) co-written and directed by Eric Barbier, 8* out of 10

Adapted from Romain Gary’s autobiographical novel, Eric Barbier, his cast and crew have made a beautifully designed and photographed film that tells a powerful story based on true events in the turbulent Europe of the first half of the 20th century. Pawel Puchalski as the very young Romain Gary and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Romain's mother Nina shine.

Mexico 1960 – Day of the Dead, amid the crowd of the celebrations, Lesley Blanch (Catherine MacCormack) is looking for her French husband Romain Gary (Pierre Niney). He is feverish and believes that he may be dying. On the five-hour taxi ride to Mexico City to take her husband to the hospital, she reads the manuscript of his autobiographical novel, which comes to life before her eyes. Young Roman Kacev (Pawel Puchalski) comes from Russia where he was born to Polish Vilna (today Vilnius the capital of Lithuania) as a child with his mother Nina (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her maid Aniela (Katarzyna Skarzanka). Nina hails from a Jewish family, is a seamstress with an imagination that is larger than life and a love of everything French. She puts her creativity into her clothes as well as into her marketing efforts and she puts a boundless ambition into her son Roman. Her willingness to share the ambition she has for her son to become a leading recognized figure in the arts, in the French military and diplomatic corps, does not only lead to most of her neighbours considering her megalomaniac but makes her son’s social life hell. Yet Nina goes further: she quite practically ensures that between the ages of 8 and 14 her son practically prepares for the fantastical life she has ordained for him: Roman learns French, takes dancing lessons, takes pistol shooting lessons and acquires other skills, some more successfully than others. Although talented in painting, he is not allowed to become a painter, since, in Nina’s view, great painters have sad lives and only get recognition after death; this is certainly not what she wants for her boy Roman. What follows is the story of Nina imposing a giant sublimated Oedipus Complex on Roman which leads him on the road to seemingly reluctant multitalented achievement and almost effortless success in obtaining the attentions of beautiful women. Yet inner unrest and suffering are growing inside Roman as time passes. No matter how many successes he may try for to please his much-larger-than-life-mother, he cannot will happiness and everlasting life for Nina and himself.

Adapted from Romain Gary’s autobiographical novel, Eric Barbier, his cast and crew have made a beautifully designed and photographed film that tells a powerful story based on true events in the turbulent Europe of the first half of the 20th century. The story of young Roman and his mother's early days in Vilna is particularly well told and acted; Charlotte Gainsbourg as Nina and the Pawel Puchalski as the very young Roman shine. In the second half of the film, the telling of the story is still very competent and the production values are impressive, but the psychological depth of the relationships is lost somewhat. It is too much up to the viewers to add this aspect in their imagination. Nevertheless, the multi-award winning Promise at Dawn is a spellbinding film based on a true story of courage, promise, ambition, talent, and love.

Promise at Dawn

Wednesday 6 February 2019

The Who and the What, play by Ayad Akhtar translated from English into German by Barbara Christ, Akademietheater Wien, 7* out of 10

Ayad Akhtar’s comedy/drama is watchable, entertaining and raises important issues of growing up in different and especially since 9/11 often conflicting emotions concerning living in America, as an American of South East Asian/Muslim heritage, in the first and second generation. But faced with an all-white cast I asked myself: are there no German-speaking competent actors of Southeast Asian extraction? If so, it is high time for something to be done about this by theatre schools in Europe's German-speaking countries.

Atlanta, Georgia, USA 2010. Afzal (Peter Simonischek) originally from Pakistan is a widower and successful owner a local taxicab company. He has two grown-up daughters, who he brought up in a modern interpretation of his traditional Muslim faith. The elder one Zarina (Aenne Schwarz) is a writer who is respectful yet interested in exploring deeper questions of faith and culture. Her sister Mahwish (Irina Sulaver) is prepared to make painful compromises to maintain outside appearances of following her faith while being attracted to leading a modern life without the religious and cultural restrictions of her Pakistani ancestry. Mahwish has presumably chosen a high school sweetheart from her own cultural group as her future husband. For Zarina, Afzal starts a search for a partner on the internet site As Afzal, Zarina and Mahwish each try to reconcile modern American life and the traditions of the Pakistani Muslim heritage in their own way, serious conflicts arise. Will the love and respect they have for each hold up in the face of the choices they need to make in their professional, personal and spiritual lives.

Ayad Akhtar’s comedy/drama raises important issues of growing up with different and especially since 9/11 often conflicting cultures and emotions. It is about living in the US, as an American of South East Asian/Muslim heritage, in the first and second generations. It also touches on questions concerning second-generation Pakistani Muslim American women. The play is written by a man, so given this limitation, it does what it can to portray the dilemmas from the perspective of the female protagonists. Akhtar won the Pulitzer Prize with his first more edgy and dark play Disgraced which deals with similar subjects from different perspectives. The German translation of the play by Barbara Christ is good, although I was unable to divine why Ms. Christ did not translate the title of the play. Perhaps the money of the organisation commissioning the play ran out just when she was about to deal with the play’s title? European Film Award Best Actor Winner Simonischek (for his role in the Oscar-nominated film Toni Erdmann) leads a competent cast. Felix Prader’s direction is straightforward and clear.

It takes some adjusting to watch a modern American play in German translation, but it is not too much of an effort. My problem is with white actors (thankfully not black- or brown-face though) playing the roles of people of South East Asian/origin. Are there no German-speaking competent actors of Southeast Asian extraction, i.e. Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi etc.? A young woman in the audience raised this issue with her parents after the play and made the point that it was said that she was the only person in the audience who even noticed or cared. This was not quite correct, as there were at least two of us, but I believe she had a point. The answer by her parents that the public would not accept anyone but the best actors in what is being performed by a cast of the famous Burgtheater and that would today exclude German-speaking actors of colour is not a satisfactory one. It is time that the German-speaking theatre finds young people of all colours and backgrounds to train. After all, metropolitan areas in Germany, Austria and the German-speaking part of Switzerland have become very diverse. I can see and hear Viennese dialect spoken by people of all backgrounds and colours every day.

In summary, The Who and the What at the Burgtheater’s Akademietheater in Vienna is watchable and entertaining but left me with questions and mixed feelings about the production.

Monday 4 February 2019

The Favourite, Film UK 2018, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos 9* out of 10

The Favourite is an excellent film with a witty screenplay,  beautiful sets, costumes and photography. Direction and editing are excellent.  The ensemble acting performances by Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are outstanding. Highly recommended.

England in the early decades of the 18th century. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is suffering from gout and her trusted friend and advisor Sarah Churchill, the Duchess Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) makes many decisions concerning the affairs of state on the Queen’s behalf. Sarah’s husband the Duke of Marlborough is a successful commander of the British army in the Wars of the Spanish Succession against the French. But parliament is divided between 2 parties, the Whigs who favour continuing the war to beat the French decisively and the Tories who largely pay for the war effort and wish to see the war come to an end as soon as possible. Sarah uses her influence with the queen to support her husband and the Whigs. When Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) an impoverished cousin of hers asks her for a job in the royal household, Sarah helps her to a lowly position; but young cousin Abigail is cunning and ambitious. Moreover, Queen Anne is not always as malleable as Sarah would like her to be. A fateful dance of personal and political intrigue, affection and sexual desire is beginning to take its meandering course.  

The eccentricities of English politics and its protagonists are spectacularly on display these days as the story of Brexit is unrolling before our eyes. What we may have assessed to be as edgy exaggerated and satirical in Yorgos Lanthimos highly entertaining telling of the fiery triangular relationship of three deceptively headstrong women and the effect it has on the politics of the kingdom is probably pure realism. 

Not long ago, an expense scandal in the UK parliament uncovered that a member of parliament put in an expense claim for a custom- built duck-house another for the cleaning of his moat. When Lanthimos shows us a Tory prime minister awaiting an audience with the Queen with his cherished racing-duck Horatio in his lap, we may conclude that 300 years is a short time in politics. Moreover, Lady Sarah's descendants include Winston Churchill, Princess Diana and the princes William and Harry.

The Favourite is an excellent historical costume drama which manages to wrap the personal, political and satirical in a rather moving and entertaining package, where All About Eve meets Saturday Night Fever without detracting from the historical narrative. An excellent, witty screenplay is the starting point, sets, costumes and photography are striking, direction and editing are excellent. The acting performances, jointly and severally, by Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are outstanding.

A highly entertaining film about some larger than life female characters in a little-known chapter of English history. The prizes and the 10 Oscar nominations for The Favourite are deserved. Highly recommended.