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Monday 6 July 2020

The Restaurant (Vår tid är nu), Swedish TV Series (2017-2019), starring Hedda Stiernsted 7.5* out of 10

What makes the nordic telenovela The Restaurant special, is that next to some 30 years of family drama it treats us to a post-World War II social history of Sweden. The mix of melodrama and Swedish modern history makes for surprisingly compelling viewing. 

The Restaurant is a popular Swedish Telenovela that charts the path of the bourgeois Löwander family which owns and runs a traditional restaurant in the centre of Stockholm and their members of staff. The series spans the time period from the last days of WWII to the early 1970s. It serves up a rich smorgasbord of family intrigue. Brothers Peter (Adam Lundgren) and Gustaf (Matias Nordqvist) and their sister Nina (Hedda Stiernsted) are vying for their mother Helga’s (Suzanne Reuter) preference and inheritance. 

What makes The Restaurant special, is that next to almost 30 years of family drama we are treated to a post-World War II social history of Sweden. It is largely a sympathetic view of the creation of the Swedish welfare state by the country’s Social Democratic Party. Its reforms enable the restaurant’s assistant-waitresses to become political bigwigs; Swedish working-class boys who look like Jamie Oliver can become Swedish television chefs who look like Jamie Oliver, and once penniless Italian immigrants may rise from washing the restaurant’s dirty plates to introducing sceptical Nordic bankers to the joys of the pizza-oven. Pizza, after all, is an affordable and tasty food which can ease the hard-working unionized Scandinavian meatball-eater into the ever more multicultural society their country is about to host.

Meanwhile, upper-class and bourgeois Swedes learn to love Rock’n’Roll, Jimi Hendrix, and glittering disco balls imported from the USA via London. They also adapt to understand that immigration and social democracy are acceptable and perhaps even advantageous to the upper-middle class too. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the figure of Gustaf a reluctantly homosexual Nazi sympathiser not only in the closet and fighting with alcoholism but also on a stony path towards born again Christendom and missionary service in Africa. For him, the arc of history is long but bends towards potential happiness with a male Palestinian nurse who has looked after his ailing wife. 

By the time the iconic Olof Palme becomes prime minister and leads Swedish Social Democracy, which has briefly lost touch with Stockholm’s tree-loving, anti-Vietnam-War protesting inhabitants, back towards its more daringly leftish reformist path, he can even risk nominating a card-carrying lesbian former assistant-waitress to his cabinet.

Much credit for the success of The Restaurant goes to the writers, principally Ulf Kvensler, Malin Nevander and Johan Rosenlin. Hedda Stiernsted is a quite charismatic Nina and Charlie Gustaffson a successfully understated Calle. Josefien Neldén gives a strong performance as the modest yet upwardly mobile assistant-waitress Maggan.

Almost reluctantly, I found The Restaurant’s mix of telenovela and social history compelling viewing and binged on its three seasons of 10 episodes each. The acting is sometimes a bit hammy but not distractingly so. One does root for the potential love story between the bourgeois Nina working-class Calle (Charlie Gustafsson) who meet in May 1945 with an uncharacteristically spontaneous kiss. Will they get together? And where will each of them be 32 years, and an equal number of episodes, later? 

I watched this series that was apparently very popular on its first showing in Sweden (2017 to 2020) with my subscription to Sundance Now, which I purchased in order to still my hunger for the new 5th season of Le Bureau des Legendes, one of the best espionage-thriller series bar none.

The Restaurant

Saturday 6 June 2020

The Bureau (Bureau des Legendes), TV Series Season 1, Canal+ France, created by Eric Rochant starring Matthieu Kassovitz, 10* out of 10

Season 1 of the Bureau (available on Amazon) is an outstanding French espionage story. Tightly scripted, brilliantly played, with great character development even in the smaller roles it keeps the audience riveted with a plot that is cleverly embedded in current political developments in the Middle East and North Africa Region. Emotionally and intellectually satisfying binge-watching not only for COVID-19 quarantine times. 

Paul Lefebvre (Matthieu Kassovitz) is a French-teacher in Damascus, Syria at the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Except that he is neither a French teacher nor Paul Lefebvre but Guillaume Debailly senior undercover operative of the French Intelligence Service Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE). Having spent six years on assignment in Syria, he is called back to his unit in Paris, the Bureaux des Legendes, the unit which trains, handles and provides the logistical infrastructure for these DSGE undercover operatives abroad. One of the loose ends to tie up is ending his romantic relationship with a married woman, the very attractive Nadia el Mansour (Zineb Triki) an Alawite Syrian Professor of Geography at Damascus University. On his return to Paris, he finds it difficult to forget her and when he finds out that she happens to be in Paris on a UNESCO sponsored programme, he cannot resist keeping his old identity in parallel with his new one for the clandestine prolongation of their affair, which has perhaps become more serious than intended. This, of course, goes against the rules of his employer, but he thinks he can handle the complications and protect himself and the Bureau from the risk that his relationship with Nadia might pose to him. But things are about to get a lot more complicated for all involved. Meanwhile, the Bureau des Legendes has hired Dr. Laurene Balmès (Léa Drucker) to keep an eye on its operatives and help them and their handlers and managers to ensure they can function well as they enter, stay in and leave the psychological pressure cooker each of their assignments puts them in. And, Marina Loiseau (Sara Giraudeau) a young new recruit is being prepared for an important new assignment in Iran by Marie-Jeanne Duthilleul (Florence Loiret -Caille), while a DGSE agent in Algiers is going off the rails with dramatic consequences. Clearly, Jacques Duflot (Jean-Pierre Daroussin), the Head of the Bureau, will need all of his cool to manage everything that he has on his plate and keep his superiors off his back.

Tightly scripted to fit into political developments in the Middle East and North Africa by the series creator Eric Rochant and his numerous colleagues, The Bureau makes for compelling viewing. The plot is intelligently constructed and developed. Moreover, an unusual amount of attention is given to detail in the character development even in the smaller roles and the dynamic between the different people working at the Bureau including their private lives. An excellent acting ensemble makes the appeal of the script to emotion and intellect credible. The Bureau is an outstanding example of suspenseful tightly scripted espionage thriller, a credible French pendant to the more emotionally stilted British John Le Carré plots and characters. I can hardly wait to start to binge-watching Season 2 tonight.

Tuesday 5 May 2020

Unorthodox, Netflix miniseries US-Germany 2020, directed by Maria Schrader, 8* out of 10

A miniseries with quite a bit of Yiddish dialogue and an unusual subject, Unorthodox is well made with much attention being paid to speech, costume and customs of a Hassidic sect in New York. Unorthodox, inspired by Deborah Feldman's autobiographical book, succeeds in appealing to a wide audience, not least due to another moving performance by the talented Shira Haas in the main role.

Unorthodox is a fictional drama -miniseries by Netflix inspired by Deborah Feldman’s autobiographical book of the same name. Esty (Shira Haas) never quite fit into the ultraorthodox Jewish Hassidic sect in New York (the fictional sect is based on the actual Satmar Hassidim). She grows up without a mother who has left the community and a mentally challenged alcoholic husband. Esty is brought up by her aunt and uncle and has developed a special relationship with her grandmother who introduces her to romantic German music. This despite the fact that anything German is despised by the Hassidic sect whose members have settled mainly in New York under the leadership of their Rabbi after World War II and live their lives deliberately isolating their own community from the rest of the city. Like other girls in the community, Esty is expected to enter into an arranged marriage by the age of 18 and then bear children and run the household. But her curiosity and appetite for interacting with music and culture in the world outside her sect make her take increasingly bolder steps towards exploring the outside world; she secretly takes piano lessons. One day, she decides to flee the confines of her community and go to Berlin, Germany, where her estranged mother (Delia Meyer) now lives. 

Consulted by Esty's husband's shocked parents, the Rabbi decides to send her husband Yanky (Amit Rahav) and cousin Moishe (Jeff) Willbush, a rather flawed and unsavoury character, to bring her back. Encouraged by the community whose approval he seeks, and towards which he has an ambiguous attitude, Moishe is ready to use psychological pressure and threats of violence to achieve his goal. But first, he and Yanky must find Esty in Berlin. She has meanwhile tagged on to an easygoing multicultural crowd of highly talented classical musicians, who are all students at an elite school (based, no doubt, on the reputed Daniel Barenboim- Edward Saïd Academy in Berlin).

This US-German production stands out by its extensive and impressively authentic use of Yiddish dialogue as well as its accurate depictions of many of the customs, medieval-inspired Jewish costumes, wigs, fur caps and practices of the ultraorthodox Hassidic community in New York, quite an achievement for the writers and the German director Maria Schrader.

The depiction of Berlin as a perfectly free multicultural Nirvana without tensions within and between communities is somewhat less interesting and less convincing. Although Esty for whom Berlin is the place of her liberation from the shackles of Jewish ultra-orthodoxy may well genuinely perceive the German capital in this way.

The acting performances are good. Shira Haas, who was already notable as a young girl in the Israeli cult-drama-comedy Shtisel, shines here in the main role as Esty and so makes a significant contribution to the quality of Unorthodox. As miniseries with high production values go, this one with its rather unusual and somewhat niche subject certainly manages to appeal to a wide audience.

For those interested in the original story of Deborah Feldman, whose book inspired the miniseries I recommend the following 2017 in-depth interview in English with the Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg recorded at de Balie in Amsterdam.

Wednesday 12 February 2020

The Farewell, Film USA 2019, written and directed by Lulu Wang, 8.5* out of 10

Writer-director Lulu Wang succeeds with a touching and intelligent family comedy-drama dealing with universal themes in a world where strong family ties are tested by a difficult situation, geographic distance, and new cultural influences.  

When Billi Wang’s (Awkwafina) beloved grandma Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) is diagnosed with terminal cancer and given about 6 months to live, the family decides to hide the diagnosis from her. Grandma Nai Nai lives in China and Billi emigrated to the USA with her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin). Her uncle (Jiang Yongbo) and his family live in Japan. In order to have a pretext for the whole family to say farewell to grandma Nai-Nai, without arousing her suspicions, the family quickly decide to move forward the date of the wedding between Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his Japanese girlfriend Aiko (Ahoi Mizuhara) and let grandma Nai Nai organize it in China.

The Farewell is a semi-autobiographical family comedy-drama that touches on the topics of maintaining a strong national/local family-culture finding expression in a globalized world characterized by families being spread geographically across very different cultures with different values prevailing in each of these locations. Is it right to hide the diagnosis from a patient even with the best of intent? This was a practice widespread in the Western world in the 1950s and 1960s but would now not be accommodated by the medical doctors treating a patient. In today’s China it is still possible. And then there is the simple technical difficulty of keeping something secret from a member of a family that all other members of the family know and must do their best not to divulge. That situation provides significant potential for comedy, tragedy and drama of all sorts.

The story is based on what director Lulu Wang calls “a true lie” that continued to play out in her own family during the making and showing of her film. Grandma Nai Nai’s sister “Little Nai Nai” is actually played by Lulu Wang’s great aunt Hung Lo, the actual sister of Wang’s grandmother. Lulu Wang’s screenplay and the strong acting performances by the ensemble make The Farewell a pleasure to watch, the loving relationship between Billi and the practical matriarch that is her grandmother is beautifully developed. There is some outstanding acting by Awkwafina as Billi struggling in her career ambitions and private life straddling the US and China, Shuzhen Zhao as grandma Nai Nai and particularly by Diana Lin as Billi’s mother.

This is a beautifully written, developed and acted this family story is gentle, nuanced, intelligent touching on universal themes. At the 77th Golden Globe Awards, the film was nominated for two awards including Best Foreign Language Film, with Awkwafina winning for Best Actress - Musical or Comedy.