Theatre, opera and film reviews

2020 FILMS etc

  1. 1917 (Odeon, Aylesbury). This is an extraordinary film, utterly absorbing and with quite amazing cinematography that draws the viewer into the action and has you almost on the edge of your seat and with a knot in your stomach for all but the opening shots. The main character is followed from start to finish almost as if by a roving camera – George MacKay fully deserves any awards that come his way for a great performance. Minor parts are taken by some very big-name actors: Colin Firth, Andrew Scott and Benedict Cumberbatch and I thought that Mark Strong’s character was particularly good.
  2. Luzia (Cirque du Soleil, Royal Albert Hall, London). Subtitled ‘A Waking Dream of Mexico’, in this hugely entertaining show Cirque du Soleil demonstrate yet again how the best traditions of circus can still excite audiences without any animals being involved. With mime, song, humour, dance, incredible acrobatics, juggling, puppetry, amazing costumes and the most extraordinary contortionist – there really cannot be many people on the planet whose bodies are as flexible – it was a feast for the eyes throughout.
  3. The Personal History of David Copperfield (Barbican Cinema, London). This was a preview showing, the day before general release, followed by a Q&A with the director and producer, and it was very interesting to hear some of the background to things such as casting decisions – as well as that Iannucci always has a period of rehearsal with his actors prior to convening the cast and crew on set, and that the making of all British films now includes quite stringent sustainability measures. The film was excellent, with the very Dickensian device of framing it as David giving a public reading in a theatre of his autobiography. Dev Patel is wonderful, as are Ranveer Jaiswal, who plays his younger self, Peter Capaldi and Hugh Laurie. With wonderful humour and none of the darkness associated with so many Dickens adaptations, the film nevertheless does not shy away from portraying poverty, homelessness, despair and Mr Dick’s mental illness.
  4. Come From Away (Phoenix Theatre, London). A return trip to see this wonderful show again. Just as good as last time – and appreciating even more the energy and stamina of the cast and musicians, on stage almost non-stop for around an hour and three-quarters. Highly recommended, and see 2019 Films, etc post number 48 for my review!
  5. Cyrano de Bergerac (NTLive, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury). With almost no stage props and in modern dress this was a very twenty-first-century setting of the nineteenth-century play originally set in the mid-seventeenth century. As a result, for someone who had never seen the play before and had no real idea of the story, it took a while to work out, from the rapid-fire rap delivery in the opening scene, what was going on. The plot is straightforward and has echoes of a Shakespearean comedy or tragedy but what comes across especially well from this production, with its excellent cast, is the power of words and the importance of character. And James McAvoy’s vocal ability is astounding.
  6. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Netflix). This is a fun film, effortless viewing and cheerful. Ben Stiller is very good as a twenty-first-century version of the daydreamer Walter Mitty, although not as ‘round’ as you might expect from the cartoon’ The hero has a series of unlikely and action-packed adventures in his madcap attempt to track down a magazine photographer and retrieve a vital picture. There is some rather clever visual commentary on the theme of corporate identity and mimicry.
  7. Late Night (Netflix). This is quite unlike anything I have seen Emma Thompson in before – she stars as a US-based British comedian and talk-show host, a sort of female Graham Norton/Jonathan Ross. All her material is written by a team of men and she and the show have lost their way until the arrival of a young woman really stirs things up. Although it is done quite subtly there is an underlying message about the pointless and shallow nature of much comedy but how it can and should be used to make valuable social commentary in an accessible way. Thompson’s outfits are amazing; and I have since discovered that the screenplay is by the film’s co-star, who plays the new writer: what a talented young lady.

 (24 March 2020 – UK lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic; all theatres and cinemas closed)

  1. Mrs Lowry & Son (Netflix). Incredible and utterly convincing performances by Timothy Spall and Vanessa Redgrave, the latter as a bitter, selfish, demanding and thoroughly unlikeable old woman. With almost all the action taking place in their small urban home, there is a real feeling of claustrophobia in the portrayal of the life of mother and son, relieved only by the fact that Lowry’s daytime job took him out and about, exposing him daily to the scenes that inspired his art. It seemed to me that his talent and his obsessive need to paint what he felt were what saved him: if contemporary crime dramas are anything to go by he would otherwise have been a prime candidate for becoming a really ghastly mass murderer.
  2. The Two Popes (Netflix). Two really excellent actors play Pope Benedict and Pope Francis in this moving, fascinating and often quite humorous film. The very clever use of contemporary news footage, alongside flashback sequences and subtitled foreign-language exchanges all give the film a semi-documentary feel and given the international status enjoyed by the head of the Roman Catholic Church, I felt that this picture did a lot to bring out not only the inevitable human flaws, but also the humanity, emotions and loneliness of those elected to the office. It also gave a rather wonderful insight into how two people with widely divergent views can nevertheless find sufficient common ground to become forgiving and tolerant friends.
  3. Becoming (Netflix). The film of the book – or the film of the book tour? Both, really – as this feature-length documentary uses film from events surrounding Michelle Obama’s book tour as the framework in which to include footage charting the campaigning and presidency of her husband. I thoroughly enjoyed this film and recommend it whether you have read the book or – like me – have not yet got around to it. This woman has energy, passion, faith and a wonderful commitment to the empowering and encouraging of young people. I admire her honest reflection on giving up a promising career to be a full-time mother and in so doing to become such a significant support in her husband’s political career and the race for the White House, and then in its reshaping as a more inclusive and welcoming place.
  4. The Laundromat (Netflix). This is a really clever film: without the docudrama reality feel of The Post or All the President’s Men, it nevertheless packs in a huge amount of fact-based action centred on offshore tax havens, financial fraud and tax avoidance on a huge scale. At the core of the story are events surrounding the Panama Papers revelations, but what makes this film so easy to watch and yet also so informative is the central role played by Meryl Streep as a hapless victim of this high-level activity. The film is billed as a comedy drama but knowing that there will be thousands upon thousands of victims out there makes what humour there is rather poignant – and the twist at the end with an appeal to tackle this sorry state of affairs is really well done.
  5. The Pianist (Netflix). Based on the autobiography of Wladyslaw Szpilman, this is a harrowing film that is nevertheless impossible to turn away from. The story of the establishment of the ghetto in Warsaw, the suffering of those who remained there and the bravery of those who attempted to fight back against the occupying forces from behind the walls is related through a gradually narrowing lens – starting with Warsaw society, then a single family and finally just one man. Not a physically strong man, the pianist uses his friendship with non-Jews to escape the ghetto and its forced labour but risks starvation and discovery. The music he cannot play but practises in silence is probably what keeps him sane in isolation as the closing stages of the war and the destruction of the city are seen through his eyes.
  6. The Irishman (Netflix). My goodness, at three and a half hours this is a very long film. It also defies the idea that, as with a good book, you need to really like or identify with one of the central characters and care about what happens to them. Based on the true story of Frank Sheeran, an American who almost accidentally graduates from theft to become a hitman involved with crime mobs and their associates, it paints a grim picture of senseless and brutal killing, gang rivalry and greed for power. And yet – the acting and the filming is so beautifully done that it is impossible not be drawn in to the autobiographical account with its layers of flashbacks and to feel a certain sadness at the very understandable rejection that Frank suffers at the hand of his favourite daughter, who sees him for what he is – a ruthless killer. Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci give incredible performances and although Sheeran cannot quite bring himself to make a deathbed confession or express true remorse, I could not help reflecting that the God in whom he believes would nevertheless be more forgiving than his child.
  7. … (to be continued)  

2019 FILMS etc

  1. The Tragedy of King Richard the Second (NTLive, Aylesbury Odeon). Simon Russell-Beale was amazing in the title role in this play. With a cast of just eight, a number of the actors took on two or more parts and everyone was on the minimal, box-like stage throughout the performance. The only props consisted of buckets containing either water, blood or soil, and by the time that Bolingbroke had seized the throne as Henry IV most of the contents had been thrown around the set – much of them over the deposed king. Although initially slightly disappointed at the lack of costume, which not only grounds a play in its particular era but can help with working out who is who, I found that what this production achieved was to reinforce the timelessness of Shakespeare’s text (the speech by John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke’s father, containing the lines ‘That England, that was wont to conquer others, hath made a shameful conquest of itself’ seemed very timely on the evening of the parliamentary vote on our proposed departure from the European Union). With no distractions at all, it was also easier to pay close attention to what was being said, and to appreciate the tragedy of a king who had his very identity wrested from him.
  2. The Mousetrap (St Martin’s Theatre, London). There is very little I can say about this – the whole point being that audiences are asked to keep the whole thing secret; no doubt partly as a result of the intrigue generated around this play there have been over 27,500 performances and it is by far the longest-running production in theatrical history. Suffice to say that it is classic Agatha Christie from the 1950s – and there is a murder involved.
  3. Katya Kabanova (Royal Opera House, London). Great performances by a large cast, with particularly moving acting by the singer in the role of Katya. I overheard an audience member afterwards remarking that the ‘moral of this tale is that you should never live with your mother-in-law’ and in this case – where she is possessive, jealous and bullying – that is certainly true. However, there is much more to this timeless story of an unhappy wife with not only a terrible mother-in-law but a weak and drunken husband. She almost inevitably falls for another man who, despite his profession of love, turns out to also be weak and also cowardly, leaving her to her sad fate. Were it not for the haunting and beautiful music – and some moments of almost farcical comedy – this could have been depressing.
  4. All Is True (Odeon, Dundee). A wonderful film; I enjoyed every minute of it and Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench were fantastic. I think what writer Ben Elton has succeeded in doing is really clever: while Shakespeare himself manages to speak into every age and, despite language that is three hundred years old, to still sound relevant and important today, Elton has used modern-day speech with its current idioms and turns of phrase to bring real emotional depth and sympathy to the story of the bard’s final years back in Stratford. William Shakespeare may have been a rather better parent to his dramatic creations than to his children but this film suggests that in retirement he made amends for that.
  5. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Dundee Contemporary Arts cinema). This could almost be subtitled ‘how not to become a successful author’, because the story of how Lee Israel turned from struggling writer to literary forger, although entertaining, is really quite sad. As a reclusive and anti-social individual she seems to have been completely ill-suited for all those aspects of modern publishing that contribute towards success – having a poor relationship with her agent and hating all the hard graft of promoting her writing. A salutary tale, but laced with humour and with utterly convincing performances by Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant.
  6. Akhnaten (Coliseum, London). This production was very entertaining indeed. Although Philip Glass’s music can be extremely repetitive it flows rather beautifully, almost like a background river and even when the soloists had lengthy wordless arias they still conveyed enough emotion to be engaging. There were a few instances when I found the slow-motion movement of all the main characters rather irritating, and I wondered how they managed to maintain it, but the excellent troupe of ten jugglers added pace and contributed significantly to the action. The staging, choreography and particularly the costumes were spectacular and I suspect that the order of the pharaohs – Amenhotep III, Akhnaten, Tutankhamun – is now fixed in my memory in a way that school history lessons failed to achieve.
  7. Mary Queen of Scots (Cineworld, Hemel Hempstead). Atmospheric, with fantastic scenery and an excellent cast – and the film’s two leading ladies and impressive supporting cast were brilliant. It was, however, something of a cinematic unkindness to have Elizabeth I – having been ravaged by smallpox and making increasing use of wigs and white lead make-up – age considerably over the course of the sixteen years of this story, while Mary was apparently not a day older when she lost her head than when she landed in Scotland aged 18. I suspect this was designed to keep the audience’s sympathy with the eponymous queen rather than with the English monarch, but both women were oppressed in a number of ways, and were ultimately at the mercy of scheming men; only Elizabeth’s refusal to marry kept her on the throne for so long. Such were the times in which they lived, but both women nevertheless displayed a certain arrogance and sense of entitlement, probably typical of sixteenth-century royalty, and only occasionally accompanied by a recognition of duty and responsibility.
  8. Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again (Vintage Cinema at NHM, Tring). This was good fun – and I have never before watched a film while seated next to large seals and a walrus, albeit they were behind glass. Toe-tapping music, lovely sunny Greek scenery and a happy ending. Just as well it had a good dose of ‘feel-good’ factor, though, because the ‘Oxford’ scenes near the start were really terrible – no Oxford College conducts degree ceremonies, they all take place in the Sheldonian Theatre (I am surprised St John’s let them get away with this); and you cannot cycle round a corner in the city straight into a Cotswold village. But Julie Walters was wonderful, so all is forgiven.
  9. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Netflix). Watched this on the day it was released – and it is a wonderful film, sad and uplifting in equal measure. It highlights what has been happening as a result of climate change for decades, with the threat to livelihoods and life itself of changes in the patterns of the seasons, delayed rains leading to crop failure, deforestation contributing to flooding, etc. But it tells the true story of what educating the young can achieve in the face of such disaster. The filming is beautiful and there are some extremely poignant moments illustrating the conflict arising between one generation clinging to tradition and resigned, even fatalistic, about the future – and their children’s, with an ability to see new possibilities, dream dreams and teach their parents a thing or two.
  10. The Greatest Showman (DVD). Having not seen this film before, its music has popped up at two events in just three days – and we are also about to use it as the basis of a Lent study course (From Now On: A Lent course on hope and redemption). I had heard quite divergent opinions on the film, and of the half dozen I have seen so far this year it was probably the least impressive. There is a lot of rapid action – so rapid it screams digitally manipulated rather than genuine live action; and the music, while very catchy, was so jarringly of the wrong era that it just didn’t really fit with what was happening on screen. I know that the film is not pretending to be a faithful representation of the life of P. T. Barnum but on balance I think I would have preferred a more ‘docudrama’ account, so that at least I could have ended up feeling that I had learned something about a real individual.
  11. First Man (Tring Cinema). An amazing film; there were a couple of real tear-jerking moments but the overwhelming impression I came away with was of the very human side to a remarkable scientific and technological achievement, its costs as well as its triumphs. I remember watching the first moon landing back in 1969 and did not really appreciate just how incredible it was. This film had me almost on the edge of my seat for much of the time and with a real tension knot in my stomach during a number of sequences, despite knowing full well that Neil Armstrong was going to survive through to the end. Very powerful indeed.
  12. Green Book (Odyssey Cinema, St Albans). I really liked this film, and have deliberately not yet read anything about the controversy it has apparently sparked. It was a coincidence that I saw these two very different films – both fact-based, both set in 1960s’ America – on consecutive evenings and I was impressed by them both. In this, the two lead actors were also utterly convincing and the take-home message of Green Book that I felt came across really strongly was that the only way prejudice can be broken down is through real relationship, spending time with and getting to know the ‘other’. That both the (talented, cultured and wealthy) black American and the very different Italian-American represented communities facing prejudice and abuse from others was clear – and it was also very obviously the former who had much to teach the latter – but through sharing their experiences they both became better people.
  13. A Star is Born (in-flight). A really sad film, slightly relieved by nice music, a doomed love story and a cute dog. I suppose there must be people within the popular music business who manage to avoid the excesses that are all too obvious from stories in the media week by week, but I presume that they very sensibly keep their lives private. This film struck me as a rather convincing way of not recommending the life of a singer/songwriter.
  14. Wildlife (in-flight). I have liked every film in which I have seen Carey Mulligan since thoroughly enjoying An Education almost a decade ago. She is good in this very different story, although her character is by no means wholly likeable, and for some reason – perhaps the title and an early review read some time ago – I had expected much more of the film to be about the causes and problems of wild fires in the USA. However, it was a much more domestic drama and for me the striking performance was that of Ed Oxenbould as the teenage only child caught in a family triangle beginning to come apart at the seams.
  15. Roma (Netflix). What could have been a rather ordinary film detailing the ups and downs of life for an extended family in Mexico City, as shared by their live-in maid-cum-nanny, is made outstanding and memorable by the absolutely beautiful black-and-white cinematography, which is so crisp and full of contrast that each scene is like a photograph that could feature on a gallery wall. The minimal, subtitled, dialogue and multiple dramas faced by the family within a single year are set against the background of violently opposed student unrest in 1971. It is no surprise that this film has won a number of awards.
  16. The Other Boleyn Girl (Netflix). I had seen this film before but was struck on seeing it again after about ten years by how very successful so many of its cast have become – and how extremely young Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne and Scarlett Johansson looked. The film is a faithful portrayal of Philippa Gregory’s very successful historical novel with a neat twist in the title: everyone knows of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, so her sister Mary is the obvious candidate to be ‘the other’ Boleyn girl and yet this is a phrase that Anne uses of herself when her younger sister Mary marries first. The film conveys perhaps more forcibly than the book the unscrupulous ambition of the sinister Duke of Norfolk, uncle of the Boleyns, and his heartless betrayal of his sister’s family when they no longer serve his purposes. Mary, despite her genuine love for Henry VIII, had a miraculous escape from the world of the royal court and her story, alongside that of her ill-fated siblings, suggests that in Tudor England it was safer to be a peasant than of noble birth.
  17. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Netflix). One among a number of novels with improbably long titles to have found literary success in recent years, this story of wartime occupation in the Channel Islands very soon hit the big screen. Although it has a happy ending that could be foreseen from very early on, there are enough twists and turns along the way – and such neat contrasts between the post-war superficialities of London life and the still-raw and painful memories in post-occupation Guernsey – to make this a thoroughly enjoyable film.
  18. Colette (in-flight). In the title role of this film – based on the colourful life of the French writer – Keira Knightley transforms from a nature-loving country girl into a sophisticated, rule-breaking and independent feminist. She marries very young and with her talents as yet undiscovered, to an older, Paris-based writer played by Dominic West, who has just recently been seen as another Frenchman in the BBC adaptation of Les Miserables; here he is a lot better dressed but ultimately less principled. The marriage appears to be happy and a love-match but suffers under the very different expectations of men and women in the early twentieth century. Whatever else might, and does, rock their relationship – infidelity and professional jealousy – ultimately it is straightforward dishonesty that is most harmful.
  19. The Bookshop (in-flight). I loved this film – and Bill Nighy is just wonderful. Every time I see him in a film or play I wonder whether there are two very different types of great actor: those who are incredibly versatile and apparently able to inhabit and convey completely different characters utterly convincingly and those who instead manage to find roles in which they can seem almost to just play themselves. Nighy here plays a reclusive reader drawn briefly out of seclusion by his love of a good story. This is a gentle film with a rather surprising ending and an extremely clever twist as the narrator closes her tale.
  20. A Private War (in-flight). I felt almost traumatised after watching this and yet I recommend it unreservedly. The title is a perfect reflection of the two parallel threads of the film: terrible violent conflicts on the one hand and the anxiety, stress and compulsion experienced by war journalists on the other. There are some extremely uncomfortable scenes when writer and photographer are documenting the stories of death and misery as they unfold, and their presence seems wrong and intrusive – and yet, it is so clear that what they are doing is vitally important, and that those caught up in the midst of such appalling circumstances desperately want their stories to be told. But at such a price.
  21. The Merry Widow (Coliseum, London). This was really rather good fun, with lots of soothing waltz music, some very funny songs, farcical storylines and a wonderful staging of the operetta’s best-known aria, ‘Vilja, O Vilja’. And the costumes, evoking late nineteenth-century Paris, were fantastic, although the leading lady’s dresses were much more twenty-first-century, red-carpet style. The fact that the performance was in English had allowed for some liberties to be taken with the libretto, so that there were some unmistakeable references – on the day on which the UK had been due to leave the EU – to the current chaotic state of British politics. Sadly, there may well be some justification for comparing the fictitious poverty-stricken Balkan state of Pontevedro with modern Britain.
  22. La Forza del Destino (ROHLive, Aylesbury Odeon). What an incredible production, with amazing soloists and a large chorus. The central characters – played by Russian soprano, Anna Netrebko; German tenor, Jonas Kaufmann; French baritone, Ludovic Tézier – were just spellbinding. With Verdi’s huge swelling music and some lovely choreography, it was hard to believe that the performance spanned four hours altogether. The storyline is actually pretty bleak – young love thwarted, tragic death, separation, concealed identity, reunion and more tragic death, all coupled with a vengeful brother on an ‘honour killing’ mission – not untypical of opera, but with glorious and tender moments. A bonus of seeing theatre or opera in the cinema is the interval material, and conductor Antonio Pappano on Verdi’s spirituality was really interesting.
  23. All About Eve (NTLive, Aylesbury Odeon). This play had received a great deal of advance ‘hype’, but it didn’t disappoint: tremendous performances by the two leading ladies, Gillian Anderson and Lily James, with a really strong supporting cast, made for a very thought-provoking and absorbing evening. The production was outstanding, with director Ivo van Hove’s trademark use of simultaneous video projection adding some very dramatic touches and set transformations happening almost seamlessly while sometime narrator Karen updated the audience on unseen developments. A play about the theatre, drama about acting – but very cleverly incorporating perennial themes such as fear of growing old, deception, ruthless ambition, betrayal and the power of the press.
  24. Bohemian Rhapsody (Tring Cinema). What an amazing film! I knew very little about Freddie Mercury beyond his role as lead singer of Queen and his early AIDS-related death, but this fantastic tribute to him and to the band put these stark facts into a much richer and more rounded context. He seems to have been extraordinarily fortunate in the vast majority of his close relationships, with a family who loved him even when they must have been confused and perhaps disappointed, fellow band members who saw through his bad behaviour and diva tendencies to the talent and loneliness – and who forgave him when it really mattered, and, perhaps most astonishing and heartwarming of all, a long-term girlfriend, sometime fiancée, who remained devoted and loyal. Without her patience and persistence – and Live Aid – it might have ended even more tragically.
  25. Faust (ROHLive, Aylesbury Odeon). A brilliant production, full of drama, spectacle and colour, and the music and singing were superb. There were moments both of humour and of tenderness in this really quite disturbing story. The complex and very varied characteristics of Satan/Méphistophélès were really well done: the supposed friend and companion to his victim, Faust; the rabble-rousing cheerleader for departing soldiers; the seductive tempter with promises of youth and riches; the charmer and deceiver; and, most troubling of all, the accuser holding court within the church and condemning the heroine whose only fault has been to succumb to love. I don’t agree with the interval interview comment by the conductor, Dan Ettinger, that the point of church organ music is to instil fear but, in this story at least, there is certainly no suggestion that the church can offer sanctuary or solace. However, prayer is effective and God is merciful.
  26. Billy Budd (Royal Opera House, London). Wonderful – with a quite amazing set design that allowed the audience to see scenes both on and below deck simultaneously and with a huge male chorus supporting the main voices, you really could imagine that this was a whole ship’s company on the stage. I estimated that there were perhaps sixty to seventy men altogether – and it rather looked as if many in the cast of Billy Budd had been spending long hours at the gym as well as in rehearsal, as there were lots of rippling muscles hauling on ropes. The story is both sad and uplifting as the eponymous hero, a good man, faces a death sentence bravely and without either regrets or blame. There is a strong suggestion in their echoed final songs that he and the captain who has passed judgment on him share a firm hope in a yet better life beyond death.
  27. The Old Man and the Gun (in-flight). Robert Redford has lost nothing of the endearing twinkle in his eye in this, his last film – a fitting swansong. It is the violence-free story – based on the life of a real career criminal – of an armed bank robber, who finds friendship that has the potential to become more with a lonely widow. Ultimately slightly unsatisfying, the film leaves a whole host of unanswered questions. But then perhaps that is only reasonable for less than two hours’ worth of someone’s life story.
  28. The Wife (in-flight). Brilliant performances by Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce in this tale of the late disintegration of a literary marriage. Utterly fitting that the film’s title reflects not the Nobel-laureate author but the woman who has been his constant support over many years. A sad reflection on the twentieth-century American publishing industry and its male-dominated culture and I was left wondering whether things might have been different in the UK, where the Bronte sisters provided a good example of how to start out on a successful writing career if you are a woman.
  29. Mary Poppins Returns (in-flight). This somehow lacks the charm and sparkle of the Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke original, despite a stellar cast, lashings of cartoon and CGI effects and some catchy songs. As a feel-good family film it is absolutely fine but I was surprised to find that aspects of it made me slightly uncomfortable. The film is set in the Depression of the 1930s and although I sympathised with the Bankses in not wanting to lose their wonderful family home, there was no reference here to any of the real suffering of the less well-off – no bird-seed seller on St Paul’s steps.
  30. Shutter Island (Netflix). I had seen this film a few years ago but had forgotten – or perhaps my subconscious had deliberately suppressed – some of its darkest aspects, along with the penultimate and final twists. A cross between a crime drama and a psychological thriller in which Leonardo di Caprio (not looking quite old enough to be a traumatised veteran of the Second World War and the Americans’ liberation of the Dachau concentration camp) is pitted against the psychiatric staff of a secure mental hospital located on a remote island eleven miles off the coast from Boston. It is clever, and harrowing. But, in the end, who is more sick – the inmates or the staff?
  31. On the Basis of Sex (in-flight). A brilliant film about the beginnings of the battle in America to overturn legally enshrined gender discrimination. This was spearheaded by a woman who took her inspiration from earlier women who had fought for access to legal training; she was married to a supportive specialist lawyer who – quite unusually I would have thought, for the 1960s and 70s – both encouraged and aided her career. This somehow serves to reinforce the natural justice of her cause rather than making it a particularly feminist issue. The fact that their initial case was on behalf of a man who was disadvantaged under tax law for not being a female care-giver suggests that without this clever approach change might have been even longer in coming. I think this film stands alongside Hidden Figures in reminding us, both of how much has changed in sixty years and of how much strength and courage it takes to challenge the status quo.Top of Form


  1. The Railway Man (in-flight). Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman bring to life the story of a lifelong train enthusiast fighting the demons of his wartime experience as a prisoner of the Japanese forced to work on the Burma railway. The Guardian described it as a film of ‘torture and redemption’ and that is a neat summing up. It is based on the autobiography of Eric Lomax and the film gives a lot of credit to the woman who becomes his wife, Patti, who persists in her quest to uncover his past and supports him in coming face to face with it. The casting of the young soldier is excellent – Jeremy Irvine is very convincing as a twenty-something Colin Firth/Eric Lomax.
  2. At Eternity’s Gate (in-flight). A slightly ponderous but very atmospheric film recounting the life of Vincent van Gogh from the time when he left Paris to paint in Arles, through to his death. Willem Dafoe is uncannily like the artist – the gaunt face and hollow eyes conveying well his periods of mental illness. The frequent early sequences that had jerky, hand-held filming were possibly a good way of indicating the disjointed and erratic character of Vincent but I found them slightly dizzy-making. Having very recently seen an excellent immersive sound, light and film installation in Hong Kong celebrating his work, and van Gogh’s paintings on display in Amsterdam, this was a really interesting film to see, and the closing text had some fascinating information.
  3. The Mule (in-flight). Another film in which a veteran actor with a string of action-hero roles behind him turns his hand to a part as a criminal instead. Clearly we are meant to find this, initially unwitting, crook a sympathetic character, despite his obvious failings as a husband and father. Clint Eastwood does bring a certain charm to the character – uncomfortable in the twenty-first century and innocently but very politically incorrect. And the film carries a strong message about the advisability of prioritising family over work – whether as a police officer or their prey. However, for all this, I was left slightly uncomfortable about the complete failure to acknowledge the damage caused by drug cartels, both to their victims and also for the families and communities of those involved.
  4. Stan & Ollie (in-flight). I am not a comedy fan – especially when it comes to stand-up or slapstick – but this is not really a comic film. Instead it reinforces the notion that many, if not most, comedians are actually really quite sad a lot of the time and possibly only avoid melancholy for a while by making people laugh. The difficulties of a relationship as close as that of being in a comedy duo are probably much the same as those of any close pairing and the film really brings this out. Nineteen fifties’ Britain looks suitably bleak and Steve Coogan is really good as Stan Laurel.
  5. Vice (in-flight). A seriously disturbing, must-see film charting the rise of George W Bush’s vice-president. Very cleverly done, and with an incredible and very convincing performance by Christian Bale, this film demonstrates in terrifying fashion why absolute power should never be vested in individuals who are able to manipulate systems in order either to effectively render themselves infallible or to suppress information; that this can and has happened in an apparent democracy should make people think twice before assuming that the vote is a protection against tyranny.
  6. Rocketman (Rex Cinema, Berkhamsted). Another really excellent rock music bio-pic. Packed with Elton John’s best-known numbers and with really amazing performances by the lead actors, this manages to end up as quite a feel-good film, despite the really rather awful early life story that comes across. It has a number of elements that were strikingly similar to those in Freddie Mercury’s story – the failed attempt at a heterosexual relationship that nevertheless had real love in it, the initial debauched period after diving headlong into the gay world and the way in which extremely talented but insecure stars can be preyed on by the greedy and unscrupulous. The film quite rightly makes a lot of Elton’s recovery through facing up to his addictions and conquering them. Moving and entertaining.
  7. Sometimes, Always, Never (Rex Cinema, Berkhamsted). Old cars, brown crockery, a Dymo label-maker, truly ghastly wallpaper and some deliberately outdated filming techniques. Sounds disastrous, but add in Scrabble and the always-wonderful Bill Nighy and this was actually a rather endearing and gentle film about coming to terms with loss – and how the failure to do so leaves you stuck in the past. It also has a lovely message about how teenagers can bond with difficult grandparents in unexpected ways.
  8. Vita and Virginia (Rex Cinema, Berkhamsted). This was a rather beautiful film to watch, with glorious scenery, and lovely interiors and costumes. It covers only the period from the women’s first meeting to the publication of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando in 1928, and so focuses on the intensity of their quite tempestuous early relationship. I thoroughly enjoyed it but I think it has to be said that it is all rather too lovely: not a speck of dust on any of the gleaming automobiles – and even the air in 1920s’ London looked clean; perfectly manicured gardens; and only occasional cleverly done references to Virginia’s instability. The film implies that a more-experienced Vita seduced a younger and vulnerable Virginia whereas the latter was actually ten years older – and photographs of the writers suggest that neither was quite as attractive as the stars of this film.
  9. Peterloo (National Portrait Gallery, London). It was fascinating to see this long – at around two and a half hours – film, shortly after hearing a lecture from the historian who was a consultant for it. She had described not only the circumstances surrounding the events of 16 August 1819, but also the detailed and meticulous research undertaken by director Mike Leigh and his leading actors. The film is really powerful and I was reminded of the description of the Amritsar killings when hearing about how the protesters had no way of escaping as the army and militia charged at them. Peterloo, both the film and the history, makes a very strong case indeed for peaceful protest; it came at a very high price and was a long time coming, but ultimately those with a just cause did win the victory that was hoped for.
  10. Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf (Odyssey Cinema, St Albans). It is so good to have local independent cinemas that show more than just the latest big releases – and this was certainly rather a ‘niche’ film, with a small audience. I had never heard of Piet Oudolf, but apparently he is very famous among those who really know about gardens. Working largely on public spaces, where his designs can be enjoyed by many people, he specialises in using very dense perennial planting; his designs certainly wouldn’t work in a small or average garden but as seen at Durslade Farm in Bruton, Somerset they are impressive, and his design drawings are pieces of art in themselves.
  11. Downton Abbey (Odeon, Oxford). When the world seems to be full of madness, there is the wonderful Maggie Smith to make us feel better for a couple of hours. The feature film cleverly brings the various stories from the fifty-two episodes of the television series to neat and satisfying conclusions – and as such it is riddled with ‘spoilers’ for anyone who has yet to watch all six series. The settings, the costumes, the music and the fact that there is a core of goodness in all the central characters – even the superficially prejudiced and reactionary dowager Lady Crawley – make this a comforting and thoroughly enjoyable, if perhaps slightly complacent film. Very clever writing by Julian Fellowes provides a touching and often humorous window into the upstairs-downstairs life of a great estate around ninety years ago.
  12. Yesterday (Netflix). This was a thoroughly enjoyable film which was also a really good reminder of the song-writing genius of the Lennon and McCartney duo. A struggling singer, formerly a schoolteacher and now working shifts in a warehouse, suffers a freak accident when there is a global power outage. Having recovered, he discovers that the world has changed: crucially, it has no memory whatsoever of The Beatles or their songs, of Coca Cola or of cigarettes (clearly, the world would be a much better place without these latter two!). This gives him the break he needs to succeed, with a little help from Ed Sheeran, whose role here is brilliant – he comes across as very natural and seems to be a genuine Beatles’ fan. There is a good moral about the price of fame, and the benefits of honesty, too.
  13. Finding Your Feet (Netflix). A feel-good film about a woman who rediscovers the joys of her youth after her marriage fails. Dancing, a sister who loves her, and good friends who are genuinely caring and supportive – all that she needs to start afresh and get back in touch with her real self. These new-found treasures give her the strength to survive heartbreak and bereavement and the courage to embark on a new adventure and enjoy her natural talents all over again. With Imelda Staunton, Celia Imrie and Timothy Spall, it couldn’t really fail.
  14. The Intern (Netflix). From one film about older people coping – or initially not – with loneliness, to another, albeit with a very different feel. This is set in a glitzy, modern America, the hi-tech world of online sales, where a seventy-year-old widower (Richard Gere) takes the plunge and applies for a role as a ‘senior intern’. Back in the building where he worked for forty years, in a business that was rendered completely redundant by advances in modern communications, he is initially a fish out of water. Gradually, however, his calm common sense and experience make him indispensable and unexpectedly he also finds the companionship he has been looking for.
  15. How Do You Know? (Netflix). A box-office failure starring Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson and Jack Nicholson, the latter in his last on-screen role before retirement. The writer and director apparently wanted to explore two particular themes, that of the young female athlete and also of business executives who end up being held responsible for corporate misdemeanours that they were not even aware of. No surprises, then, that these two are brought together in the unlikely pairing of Lisa and George, finding friendship just when their work and personal lives are failing. This film is a really bad ‘advert’ for American male athletes when it comes to standards of behaviour within relationships, but it does at least have a happy ending.
  16. Present Laughter (NTLive, Aylesbury Odeon). Not strictly speaking a ‘live’ screening as this had been filmed during the summer at the Old Vic, but the first cinema showing of the stage production. Andrew Scott (Sherlock’s Moriarty) was astounding, on stage for almost the entire performance and speaking for much of it; his role required so much emotional and physical energy, together with frequent changes of ‘voice’ and mood, that it is a wonder he was able to stand to take curtain calls let alone dance across the stage to do so. The Nöel Coward play is about an actor and his inner circle of four closest friends and dependants; they are all needy in their own way, and reliant on his success, and they seem never to be entirely sure whether he is acting or being real. With some very funny lines and a good deal of pathos, this play is just as much a reflection on the high price of fame as when it was first staged over seventy years ago.
  17. Come From Away (Phoenix Theatre, London). This had been highly recommended and completely lived up to expectations. A cast of a dozen, playing multiple roles for which changes of accent were required, completely mastered the story of how thousands of passengers arrived in Gander, Newfoundland, on 11 September 2001, on board diverted aircraft and not knowing why they had been unable to land in the USA. Based completely on real incidents occurring over the next four or five days, and set very cleverly to music, this is an extremely uplifting show, a celebration of human kindness, resilience and good neighbourliness. However, the production manages to avoid appearing unrealistic or sugar-coated for the stage by portraying – on the part of both locals and visitors – moments of fear, frustration, prejudice and impatience. That tensions were calmed, friendships made and hospitality offered freely with no expectation of reward is a huge credit to the community of Gander.

2018 FILMS etc

  1. Dinner For One (DVD). Utterly bizarre – but apparently this is a New Year must-see in Germany! While in the UK we might sit down to watch Die Hard, Home Alone or It’s A Wonderful Life over the Christmas season, our friends in Germany are typically more efficient and so this film is less than 15 minutes long. It is a 1963 black-and-white comedy featuring a cast of two and consisting of exactly the sort of humour that I am afraid I find completely unfunny. Most disturbing of all, when I read who the lead actor was I recognised his name from my childhood, which made me feel very old indeed.
  2. Salome (Royal Opera House, London). The Financial Times described this production, in the headline of their online review, as a ‘blood-soaked, sex-crazed spectacle’, which was rather an overstatement but may have been designed to increase audience numbers. It was, however, easy to see why the Oscar Wilde play on which Strauss based the opera would have been very shocking indeed to an early-twentieth-century audience and was therefore banned. This staging was dramatic, powerful and very convincingly portrayed Herod’s court and his birthday banquet as corrupt and dissolute. Going way beyond the biblical account in Mark 6:14-29, and painting Salome as the prime mover in John’s beheading, rather than her mother Herodias, it was an absolute tour de force by the soprano Malin Byström, who was on stage for virtually the entire 110 minutes, and singing for much of it. Very impressive indeed.
  3. The Post (cinema). Brilliant film: no sex, really minimal bad language or violence (in opening war scenes only), but absolutely gripping, and with superb performances. Surely this is one of the things that the currently beleaguered film industry can and should do best – telling important real-life stories and bringing history to life? Two wonderful and very experienced actors, with an excellent supporting cast, giving utterly believable portrayals of people whom I had never heard of, but whose dedication to the ideals of the free press was incredibly important. Just such a shame that the huge lesson in this – about how crucial it is that political leaders should not be allowed to use relationships with the media to keep truths hidden from the people, and by implication that pressure in the reverse direction should also be firmly resisted – has clearly not been learnt on either side of the Atlantic.
  4. Darkest Hour (cinema). I could say very much the same about this film as about The Post! A quarter of a century earlier and it was Britain rather than the USA at war, but being honest with the people was again a central issue. And thankfully for all of us who were born into post-war freedom, Churchill (a flawed human being, but a statesman and a great orator) did discover in the end that when you trust the electorate, and your fellow politicians, with the facts – however bad they appear to be – they can be just as courageous as you and are prepared to make the same sacrifices to avoid tyranny and evil.
  5. Kinky Boots (Adelphi Theatre, London). Uplifting, funny, moving and so packed with incredible dance action that at times it was almost exhausting to watch: we were only three rows from the stage and I have never seen such amazing legs on a group of men! The emotional twists and turns in the stories of the two male leads, one the inheriting son in a long-established family firm – initially desperate to escape from a destiny he has never wanted – and the other a glamorous drag queen rejected by his father, who wanted him to fulfil his own failed dream of becoming a boxing champion, are conveyed well by both the dialogue and the songs. With very powerful lead performances and an amazing supporting cast, this was a fantastic evening out.
  6. Mary Stuart (Duke of York’s Theatre, London). This was pretty incredible, with one of its underlying themes – that both queens, Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, were trapped by their positions, were both in many ways ‘imprisoned’ and therefore shared a great deal – encapsulated in the opening scene. Using an overhead camera and aisle screens, the entire audience could see a coin, spun in a bowl by the ‘Earl of Leicester’, its head or tail determining which of Lia Williams or Juliet Stevenson would play Mary for the next three hours. It was Stevenson – but both roles must be hugely demanding and they were both excellent in this pared back staging of a play that introduces some unhistorical elements – but to good effect. The two queens never actually met but here they do, which allowed us to hear exchanges between them that may well have reflected the substance of their thoughts and letters in the days leading up to the fateful signing of the death warrant. Some very familiar faces – and some very modern betrayed allegiances – among the men who scheme and manipulate around the monarchs.
  7. Molly’s Game (cinema). This really didn’t rate as a memorable film alongside either The Post or Darkest Hour but was nevertheless entertaining and with an interesting, true-life story. Idris Elba was really good as one of two contrasting ‘pushy’ fathers but it was Kevin Costner’s flawed character who was the only one to show any real warm human feeling, in a scene very near the end of the film. Given that the story revolved so much around poker it was frustrating that a possible legal loophole (is it a game of chance or of skill?) was not followed through and that the verdict rested solely on the good sense of the judge in Molly’s case.
  8. Counting the Clouds (St Martin in the Fields, London). This short one-act play performed by the Riding Lights Theatre Company very cleverly lifts themes from the Old Testament book of Job and transports them directly into what starts as a debate between science (Job, the scientist, who is also a Christian) and faith (Felix, the local vicar who is wary of science). As the play develops, the message emerges that these two strands of knowledge need not be in conflict but should complement each other. The play is followed by a panel discussion with a number of people who work in or have studied a scientific discipline but who are also people of Christian faith; they respond to questions submitted by members of the audience. This really helpful ‘Faith in the Questions’ evening is being performed around the country as part of a project to demonstrate that bringing science into conversation with theology and vice versa is vital for our understanding of contemporary life.
  9. Satyagraha (Coliseum, London). This lengthy Philip Glass opera about Gandhi and his time in South Africa at the turn of the twentieth century requires some stamina from audience as well as performers. Without the now customary surtitles enabling you to follow the words, and sung entirely in Sanskrit but with occasional projection of key text onto the stage, this was nevertheless an enthralling production. The set design, lighting and use of puppetry were all wonderful – although I could have done without the ‘sellotape scene’ – and the often slow-motion action helped to convey both the passage of time and also perhaps how laborious and slow is the task of bringing about peaceful change. There were key references to those who influenced Ghandi – especially Tolstoy and Rabindranath Tagore – but also to his influence on Martin Luther King Jr, with a striking mime oration sequence in the final act. Underpinning everything was the music, like a ceaseless river, running sometimes tranquilly and almost soporific, at other times as an urgent and racing torrent.
  10. Counting the Clouds (St Peter’s, Vauxhall, London).
  11. Counting the Clouds (St James’s, Royal Tunbridge Wells).
  12. Smile Upon Us, Lord (Barbican Theatre, London). This was something very different – a play based on two novels by a Lithuanian writer and performed by the Russian Vakhtangov Theatre. Its overall theme is that of journeying: travelling towards dreams, seeking for lost children or simply wanting to leave a place of sorrow. There are encounters on the way and new people who become part of the story but as the main characters are Jews and their destination is Vilnius – named by Napoleon as ‘Jerusalem of the North’ – there is a universal diaspora or exodus feel to the play, but that they are journeying towards rather than away from the horrors of war becomes gradually apparent. The soundtrack was very dramatic and what struck me was the way in which much of the dialogue was declaimed into the auditorium rather than towards others on the stage; however, as the vast majority of the very full audience clearly understood Russian and had no need of the surtitles, that seemed entirely fitting.
  13. The Crucible (Pendley Court Theatre, Tring). An excellent reminder of how fortunate we are to have local theatre on our doorstep. I had never seen Arthur Miller’s play before, and know rather less than I probably should about either the Salem witch trials or McCarthyism, but the central themes of this story are clearly relevant in any age and certainly resonate today. It is all too obvious that we fail to learn from the errors of our ancestors and seem incapable of escaping the tendency to believe that suppressing ideas that differ from our own can be a good way of making the world a safer or a better place. Really good performances by a large cast of talented people.
  14. From the House of the Dead (Royal Opera House, London). This was a bit of a ‘curate’s egg’: the music and the singing were excellent; the theme – in the absence of any real storyline – was fairly bleak, with only the tiniest hint of light that could easily have been missed without the programme notes; and while the set was clever the staging was confusing and overly complicated. The final act was slightly more straightforward and was easier to follow but we were left with the overall impression that far too much was happening on stage at any one time and that as a result the performers themselves were often sidelined by extraneous action. The film clips did not add anything particularly helpful either; despite this technique having been used to such very good effect in other productions we have seen, here they were overwhelming. And I had a good deal of sympathy for everyone involved in getting various bits of percussion plus a harp from the pit into two audience boxes!
  15. Phantom Thread (Rex Cinema, Berkhamsted). This was possibly the slowest-paced film I have ever seen – the only sense of speed, apart from the clicking of heels up and down those fantastic staircases, occurring when Daniel Day-Lewis was behind the wheel of his car, in brief scenes that in a TV drama would have heralded catastrophic and near-fatal accidents. Yet the acting, the music and the settings all contributed to something absorbing and captivating, a film based solely around a triangular set of relationships and the rather dramatic accommodations that get put in place in order to sustain those relationships. I am not sure that any of the main characters were, in the end, going to live happily ever after; being engaged in a strange dance of mutual disrespect and neediness – even if living between two wonderful locations and being beautifully clothed – is possibly not a recipe for success in marriage.
  16. Hamilton (Victoria Palace Theatre, London). This was pretty amazing, with an extremely impressive cast and two leading men and two leading ladies who were exceptionally good, along with superb music, staging, choreography and lighting. The innovative use of rap style, which has drawn a good deal of media attention, actually worked really effectively and there were some wonderfully humorous moments, especially from King George. The packed audience – every American in London seemed to be there! – gave this performance an enthusiastic standing ovation at the end and it was well deserved.
  17. Coraline (Barbican Theatre, London). This production only received its world premiere a few days before we saw it and the reviews were slightly mixed. Based on Neil Gaiman’s first children’s book, described as a ‘conventional fairy story with a moral’ and made into a film in 2009, this new opera with music by Mark-Anthony Turnage was very cleverly staged indeed and the cast performed to a full auditorium with a number of children in the audience. I had read it described as a cross between Roald Dahl and C. S. Lewis’s, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and there were certainly some similar themes, although the message that came across powerfully was that children who think they are hard done by really should learn to appreciate what they have. I confess that following the singing in English (rather than on surtitles), and therefore watching the performers closely, seemed to result in my not paying much attention to the music, except to notice that it really fitted so well with what was happening on stage that it was almost unobtrusive – not sure whether that is a good thing or not!
  18. All The President’s Men (Rex Cinema, Berkhamsted). Having thoroughly enjoyed the gripping film, The Post, earlier this year, which ends with the Watergate burglary, it seemed like a good idea to catch up on a film that I had missed seeing when it was first released – possibly because I got married that month! It was somewhat startling to realise that in the offices of The Washington Post two journalists had been preoccupied with this story for virtually the entire four years that I was at university back in the 1970s. A long-haired, chain-smoking Dustin Hoffman and a really rather wonderful Robert Redford managed their exposé of wrongdoing at the highest level of American politics without any of the search tools that we now take for granted, and this was brilliantly conveyed by a scene in which Redford frantically searched through US phone books trying to track down a key contact.
  19. and 20. Paddington; Paddington 2 (DVDs). I first watched the original film a while back and enjoyed it as a bit of family fun, but the release of the second film prompted a home-based double-bill showing. This time – as often happens on those rare occasions when seeing a film for a second time – I was much more aware of the subtext. Perhaps it is partly because recent years have brought the issue of immigration much more to mind, but I was really struck by all the references to welcoming the stranger and caring for the ‘other’, overcoming prejudice and seeing the inherent goodness in others: Paddington really is a modern morality tale in many ways. The second film, still with the wonderful main characters Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins, and with the mellow, gentle voice of Ben Whishaw as Paddington, retains the ‘good triumphing over evil’ theme, with a grasping and deceitful ageing actor played wonderfully by Hugh Grant, and it is all good fun but it somehow doesn’t have the same strength of message of the first film – but perhaps I need to see it again.
  20. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 and 2 (Palace Theatre, London). This was incredible! Without giving anything away – like audiences attending The Mousetrap we were asked not to reveal secrets – this two-part production totalling over four hours of absorbing theatre continues the theme of parent-child relationships and what is passed down from one generation to the next. In the world that runs parallel to our ‘Muggle’ existence, magic is a powerful force that can be used for good or evil, and in dealing with this, and the possibilities behind parallel ‘universes’, the writers tap into very current and adult themes within great family entertainment. So much happens that it is certainly helpful to have read the HP books and also the published script version of this complex story but even if you haven’t the sheer spectacle is fantastic. Without any of the wizardry that can be employed in modern film-making, the combination of staging, sound, choreography and illusions makes for a brilliant piece of very magical theatre.
  21. Edie (Rex Cinema, Berkhamsted). This is both heart-breaking and heart-warming and Sheila Hancock is absolutely marvellous in a powerful and courageous performance as an elderly woman plagued with regrets. Her co-star Kevin Guthrie is also really good and their believable portrayal of how a most unlikely friendship develops between them forms the core of this film. It spoke to me about the healing power of acts of kindness and I found it incredibly moving (definitely a multiple-tissue film!). The filming was beautiful and a major star of this film is undoubtedly the glorious Scottish scenery. Highly recommended.
  22. Down to Earth (Picturehouse Central, London). This was the UK pre-premiere screening, with an introduction by the filmmaker and a Q&A session afterwards. A fascinating film about how an urban family were inspired by an extended stay with Native Americans to undertake a five-year journey visiting people groups and individuals all around the world who have retained a special connection with the earth. The wisdom they impart, and the hope that comes across, is inspirational and there is an emphasis throughout on the centrality of the spiritual importance of creation. One of the most striking things – and so very relevant today – was that when this white western family arrived among local peoples everywhere, they were never treated as being ‘other’ but were always welcomed, their children immediately joining in games with their contemporaries without any need for shared language; shared humanity was always enough.
  23. The King and I (London Palladium). A thoroughly enjoyable family show, with an excellent cast who all add something special to the overall story – right down to the tiniest child, who gets a speaking part towards the end. The star of the show is undoubtedly Kelli O’Hara, who convinces as a well-brought-up English mother and has a beautiful singing voice. Ken Watanabe is also great – perhaps not such a strong singer, but for anyone who has seen the 1956 film with Yul Brynner he looks just right. In some of the other great shows there are moments when the music or the action drowns out the words but this never happens and one of the very striking things about this musical is that every word spoken or sung could be clearly understood. The issues of polygamy and male dominance – suitably challenged by Mrs Anna – do not prevent this production from feeling fresh and lively.
  24. King of Thieves (cinema). How many of us read or heard about the massive Hatton Garden robbery some years ago without remarking that it would surely be made into a film one day – starring Michael Caine? And here it is: a male- and crime-dominated ‘action’ movie without the usual addition of attractive young women. The acting is superb, the language frequently – but probably appropriately – absolutely appalling and with an ending that we all more or less know about already. But it is a really good film – and does it, to address those who are already suggesting it, glamourise crime? Absolutely not! The crooks are sad, friendless and largely unattractive. They trust no one, least of all each other, despite the fact that most of them have been ‘mates’ for decades, and they look set to end their days without having contributed anything meaningful or valuable to society – and without anything to focus their time and energies on except the criminality for which they are now so ill-equipped.
  25. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Tring Cinema). As my pet hates include bad language and blasphemy this film became challenging pretty quickly, and I have to admit that, had it been a book, I might well have given up on it for this reason, not to mention the level of violence and the absence of any character you could really identify with. However, it proved to be a really good film – managing to extract utterly ‘un-pc’ humour that somehow seemed natural and appropriate out of even the bleakest of situations, perhaps reflecting the fact that life can actually be just like that: so awful that you can only laugh at it. The really sad observation that there probably are communities defined by prejudice, misogyny and violence, not only in the USA but all over the world, can be at least partially countered by the revelation in this film that even the apparently worst of human beings are nevertheless capable of displaying sensitivity, tenderness and compassion.
  26. Tina: The Tina Turner Musical (Aldwych Theatre, London). This was a wonderful show; the storyline was clear and so although I knew very little about the history – remembering only that ‘Ike and Tina Turner’, like ‘Sonny and Cher’, were pretty big when I was a child and that Tina Turner (like Cher!) has since had a huge following as a solo artist – it was both informative and very, very entertaining. The cast were superb and as we were at a weekday matinée I believe it was Jenny Fitzpatrick who played the title role and, my goodness, she was good. On stage almost throughout and singing with tremendous energy, she conveyed all the twists and turns of emotion that Tina’s story contains. The live music was fantastic and it was great to see a number of the musicians – recognised as being members of Jools Holland’s band – up on stage, introduced and getting their much-deserved applause towards the end of the show.
  27. The Poet Who Loved the War (Barbican Cinema). This BBC film about the poet and composer Ivor Gurney was shown as part of an ‘immersive’ day of cultural events to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. An introduction before the film, by the main presenter – for whom it represented his debut in front of the camera – provided some background to the making of the film. It was a fascinating insight into aspects of the war for one particular man, and a great way to start a day that included works from a range of young men, a number of whom did not survive the conflict.
  28. The Silver Tassie (Barbican). A semi-staged production of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera about a young man who suffers life-changing injury during the First World War, and the effects that this has on his relationships. It would have been great to see this as a fully staged opera but unfortunately it is rarely performed; nevertheless, the soloists – and the adult and young boys’ choirs who sang in Act 2 – gave a great performance and having read the very good synopsis beforehand almost made up for the lack of ‘set’. A review in one of today’s Sunday papers describes it as a ‘gently poignant and powerful anti-war opera’, but I am not entirely convinced about ‘gentle’: there is a lot of anger and of the four small props that appear on stage, three are violently smashed. A powerful anti-war opera, certainly, though.
  29. The Height of the Storm (Wyndham’s Theatre, London). It is very difficult to say whether I ‘enjoyed’ this play, because it was not entertaining in the conventional sense. On balance, however, it was so beautifully acted – most especially by those in the lead roles, Dame Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce – and provided so much food for thought that yes, it was actually extremely worthwhile viewing and to be recommended. The action seemed to me – and it was fairly complex, so I might well have got this wrong – to be an interweaving of three different scenarios around the central theme of an elderly, long-married couple and their two adult daughters. Each of the latter had issues in their personal lives – and a good deal of tension between them as well – and were grappling with the dementia of their father and trying to deal with the possibly imminent death of one or other of their parents. The way that this played out was such that the audience is left with questions rather than answers.
  30. War Requiem (Coliseum, London). We rather assumed that this staged performance of Benjamin Britten’s composition would round off commemorations of the centenary of the end of the First World War but in fact this production deals much more widely with conflict and related situations. With a full orchestra plus chamber orchestra, and choirs of both adults and children in addition to three soloists, there was a lot going on. By virtue of some extremely clever choreography as well as screen imagery the singers were able to portray a range of situations not immediately obvious from the score: scenes of battlefield carnage; serried ranks of corpses; the plight of refugees shipwrecked on Mediterranean shores; a wintry funeral. This added a great deal, and the projection of wartime documents at the beginning was striking. I was less certain about some of the images used later on – wondering about their relevance tended to distract from the music – and, in a rare piece of stage set, what was possibly a rocky outcrop, from which the children sang in one scene, looked for all the world like a scaled-up piece of root ginger: probably not what the designer intended. But this was a very thought-provoking and enjoyable evening.
  31. Antony and Cleopatra (NTLive, Aylesbury Odeon). What a fantastic production! The stars of the show, Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo, have deservedly won awards for their performances but the whole cast was excellent and the set, the music and the costumes all contributed to a really wonderful theatrical experience. Among the advantages of seeing this as a live transmission in a local cinema were the close-up shots – tears and perspiration, the details of facial expression – and the really interesting interval film about the design and creation of all the stunning costumes worn by Cleopatra. There can’t be many stage plays featuring a live snake (apparently it has three ‘understudies’, so only has to appear every fourth performance), and it was very clear just how up close and personal both Cleopatra and her lady Charmian have to get to the ‘asp’ in the closing scene; there should be additional theatre awards for that, I think. If you cannot get to London to see this, and missed the live screening, do look out for NTLive encore showings in the future. This was superb.
  32. Hairspray Jr (Leighton Buzzard Library Theatre). This was great fun and a very impressive performance by such a young cast of weekend stage school students. As with many stage appearances by youngsters, it was fascinating to see how the less mature performers conveyed a lot of their own personality from the stage: the slightly nervous; the outgoing; the ultra-confident; the attention-grabber, etc. – it all added to the entertainment. However, in the older age group there were some very polished performances and, although I might be ever so slightly biased because her mum is a good friend and this was my reason for being there, I would have to single out the ‘big’ solo number from Motormouth Maybelle. A beautiful singing voice and a rendition of a very moving song that gave a number of us tears in our eyes – well done indeed, Naomi.

2017 FILMS etc

  1. The Brand New Testament (DVD). I am not sure I will ever be able to decide about whether I liked this or not. I did enjoy the sound of it (in French with subtitles) and the look of it, but the satirical view of God was so extreme that it was almost uncomfortable to watch. However, there were some very funny moments, some very touching moments too, and the main character (God’s daughter) was an absolute delight.
  2. Silence (cinema). Harrowing, disturbing, moving and thought-provoking. Beautifully shot – is it really that foggy in Japan, though? I am very glad to have seen this – but be warned: don’t go to see it just because you like Liam Neeson or you will be disappointed!
  3. Notes on Blindness (DVD). An astonishing and thought-provoking film about the journey into total blindness of academic and theologian, John Hull. All dialogue is taken from original recordings made by John and his family, mostly from the period in the 1980s, shortly after his sight was totally lost. The visual effects are incredibly clever, the music haunting and poignant, and I have had the privilege of discussing it with John’s widow Marilyn. This film raises questions about how we all – whether sighted or not – perceive the world around us, and about how people of faith cope with life-changing loss. But at heart it is a human story – a rollercoaster story of courage, love and determination.
  4. Amaluna (Cirque du Soleil, Royal Albert Hall, London). For an evening of spectacular entertainment, with incredible acrobatics, amazing feats of agility and flexibility, and flashes of humour, all wrapped up within a boy-meets-girl love story with a happily-ever-after ending, you cannot beat Cirque du Soleil. This production, loosely based on the storyline of Shakespeare’s Tempest, and which the Canadian company has been touring since 2012, features a balancing act by Lara Jacobs that had many in the audience holding their breath. I had seen something very like this before on film but seeing it live was amazing, especially accompanied by the amplified sound of her breathing.
  5. Hacksaw Ridge (cinema). An extremely powerful film – and I can completely understand why Mel Gibson thought that this story should be told and its heroes celebrated. Andrew Garfield is incredible as the main character, on screen for almost the entire film. The battle scenes are utterly appalling, but what they do is to reinforce both how wasteful, dehumanising and senselessly destructive war really is, and the awfulness of the fact that this is still going on around the world today.
  6. Amadeus (NTLive, cinema). Even the minor intermittent technical problems with sound and vision that affected the first half hour or so for our audience could not detract from the power of this production. The two leading characters – Mozart and Salieri – were exceptional, in almost opposite ways. Mozart was one of the most unlikeable characters I have ever seen portrayed on stage – at least until almost the end, when he softened with approaching death. Salieri, on the other hand, evoked a great deal of sympathy, even when jealousy began to overwhelm him and – despite his continuing assurance of God’s presence – he abandoned his efforts to live as a good Catholic and instead began to emulate his rival. A highlight of the performance was the presence of Southbank Sinfonia – what wonderful exposure for these young musicians – on stage and playing mostly without their scores and sometimes on the move.
  7. La La Land (cinema). I really enjoyed going to see this film – an outing with lovely ladies. As for the film, I am glad that I have seen it but was rather disappointed in some ways. I came away without a single memorable song running through my head (compare with Sound of Music or Les Miserables and it loses out massively!). It also doesn’t have a conventionally happy ending – which is surely expected when all disbelief has anyway been suspended? Certainly, the 13-year-old with us thought the ending was a huge let-down. That said, there was some excellent piano playing and one very believable scene where the two main characters fall out and misunderstand each other, over dinner; and the importance of jazz being seen and not just heard was made very well. I could not understand why this film has had so many award nominations, until I reflected a bit: surely it is a reaction against the present state of the Western world? Here were scenes of bright colour, comfort and sunshine, where nothing is grey, there is not a drop of rain through five seasons, there are no poor or hungry and nothing really bad happens to anyone: total head-in-the-sand fantasy.
  8. Before the Flood (local screening). This National Geographic film made by Leonardo DiCaprio could hardly be more of a contrast to the last film! It has been criticised by some for being hypocritical (just how much in the way of carbon emissions were caused by all that travel?) or too optimistic about the prospects of avoiding catastrophe, but on balance I thought it was both moving and even-handed, painting a clear picture of what is at stake but not shying away from the difficult questions of just how those causing the greatest pollution can be persuaded to adopt wholesale lifestyle change. It is by no means as simple as persuading all meat-eating Americans to halve their beef consumption (although that would help massively) or every one of us to avoid products (from chocolate to face cream and everything in between) containing palm oil (which would also help preserve one of the major ‘lungs’ of the planet). But what each of us can do, we most certainly should do.
  9. Saint Joan (NTLive, cinema). Gemma Arterton is superb in this production of Shaw’s early-twentieth-century play – the only female cast member, she brilliantly portrays the complexity of the character, with elements of the simple country girl fleetingly appearing within the convinced warrior. The staging has apparently met with some criticism but we found it very clever, with all the action set in boardrooms, against backdrops that alternated between medieval paintings and very twenty-first-century newsrooms. In the brief epilogue the boardroom table becomes the altar of a village church – and haven’t today’s boardrooms become the modern place of worship for many in business? Although Shaw opposed organised religion the play makes it hard to believe that he did not have sympathy for the faith displayed by his Saint Joan.
  10. Swallows and Amazons (DVD). Childhood almost 90 years ago – the book sets the action in 1929 – may be scarcely recognisable to the majority of today’s children but thankfully there is much in the beautiful Lake District that has not changed. The scenery and the cast made this a very enjoyable film and, given the opportunity and good weather, I suspect there are many eight-to-sixteen-year-olds who would still relish such an outdoors adventure. The Arthur Ransome books were a huge part of my childhood – I collected the whole set of hardbacks – but it is a long time since I saw the 1974 film and even longer since I read the book so I didn’t find the addition of the spy plot, which gave space for Sherlock’s Moriarty to appear as a murderous foreign agent, a particular problem. Good nostalgic fun.
  11. Hedda Gabler (NTLive, cinema). I confess that although I had heard of Ibsen’s play, I knew nothing at all about the story and it was the chance to see Ruth Wilson – BBC television’s Luther’s anti-heroine – that was the attraction. She did not disappoint and here too she plays someone you want to find excuses for but finally cannot like. In a production that places the action firmly in the present rather than the late nineteenth century, the cast of just seven all seem to have incompletely explained backstories and the only absolutely clear strand is that Hedda is incapable of doing the good that she knows she should do and yet ultimately cannot cope with having done the bad that she knows she should not have done; and that her fate might have been different if she had never got entangled with Rafe Spall’s nasty judge.
  12. Jersey Boys (Piccadilly Theatre, London). This musical has had a twelve-year run on Broadway and opened in London nine years ago this week. It isn’t hard to see why it has proved to be so popular, and not only with those of us who lived through the 1960s: although the name of the group had not registered with me, I instantly remembered a lot of the songs and was surprised at just how many of the lyrics were really familiar. The audience spanned a wide age range and, with so many of the songs still being performed today, everyone was clapping along and joining in – there was even some real ‘dancing in the aisles’! The excellent cast, some very clever bits of staging and the eventful story of how the band rose to fame all made for a really great evening’s entertainment.
  13. Ghost in the Shell (cinema). Not my usual sort of film choice, but interesting nevertheless. I did not realise until afterwards that this was a remake of a 1990s’ animated film and that both were based on a Japanese comic. The earlier film had the action set in 2032, and the current film simply says ‘in the near future’, which suggests some extremely rapid – and very scary – technological development in the next decade and a half. However, to have been a genuinely thought-provoking and challenging film about such advances and their impact upon the human race, there would need to have been a lot less of the fast-paced violence and a lot more exploration of the background, thought processes and motivations of the characters. However, the holographically overlaid scenes of a just-recognisable Hong Kong were strange but fun.
  14. Twelfth Night (NTLive, cinema). Absolutely brilliant, with fantastic performances by all the cast. This was funny, clever and colourful, and the setting, in what felt very 1920s, worked perfectly well with the many and varied scene changes handled expertly on the revolving stage. For me this production was a further reminder not only of how timeless Shakespeare’s themes are but also how each performance can bring out new things through intonation, facial expression and gesture – in this instance with some hilarious results. Wonderful stuff.
  15. Crosslight (St Martin in the Fields, London). The Riding Lights Theatre Company’s Lent production, a retelling of the story spanning Good Friday to Easter Sunday but with so many references back to the life and ministry of Jesus that it effectively gave the whole gospel account in just around 75 minutes. Beautifully acted by a cast of three (Peter, John and Mary the mother of Jesus) with a spare but versatile set that very cleverly conveyed the opening anguish of Peter, the tomb on Easter Sunday and especially the ‘hiding away’ of the disciples immediately after the crucifixion. Thought-provoking and challenging, following on from the Palm Sunday theme of ‘What would you have done if you had been there then?’
  16. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (NTLive, cinema). Much as with Hedda Gabler, this was a play I had heard of but knew very little about, except that the eponymous heroes feature in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It was hugely enjoyable – a rollercoaster ride between fast-paced, laugh-out-loud comedy and intensely profound and thought-provoking musings on the nature of destiny and death. The three lead actors, David Haig, Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire, were fantastic and, as they moved around the vast extended stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – or should that be Guildenstern and Rosencrantz? – switched between periods of frenetic activity and speech and others of almost resigned inertia. The word-game banter was absolutely brilliant, and how anyone can learn those lines and deliver them so convincingly and with such apparent spontaneity is a complete mystery.
  17. The Exterminating Angel (Royal Opera House, London). This was a fairly amazing event from before the curtain rose: I was glad I had read a good deal of the programme notes and therefore knew why there were live sheep on stage before the performance began! And I was relieved when, as the sheep-killing moment arrived later on, there were life-size models on stage instead! This was an often harrowing window into the disintegration of human behaviour when a dozen or so people are faced with incarceration, hunger and thirst; the music was as dramatic as the action, with a number of tension-building passages. Having the large percussion section located up in the boxes at the side of the stage added to the drama – and there were flashes of very clever humour when characters made reference to the composer/conductor.
  18. Obsession (NTLive, cinema). On balance, this was a bit disappointing. Much as it was great to see Jude Law on stage, the production – directed by Ivo van Hove, whose other work we have enjoyed recently – was disjointed and unconvincing. Supposedly a textbook case of irresistible and obsessive love between the two main characters, it became clear as the action unfolded that in fact this was the story of an unscrupulous woman capitalising on the instant attraction for her felt by newcomer Gino, seducing him and manipulating him for her own ends. Law did not come across as a less-than-averagely intelligent drifter and so his apparent surprise at news of an insurance pay-out and a pregnancy was rather ridiculous given that we had heard about these developments, along with him, earlier on. The soundtrack – apart from the muted strains of a Mass setting (also used to good effect in this week’s King Charles III on BBC) – was at times jarring and unhelpful to any in the audience without French and Italian!
  19. The Sense of an Ending (cinema). What a wonderful film! I haven’t read Julian Barnes’s book but this was just a joy to watch and was beautifully and atmospherically filmed. Jim Broadbent can do no wrong and with Harriet Walter and Charlotte Rampling, and the excellent cast members playing their younger selves, the whole thing was totally believable and managed to convey not only the heady mix of angst and delight characterising late adolescence and early adulthood but the growth of reflection and nostalgia that comes with ageing. An object lesson in never sending a letter (email or text) in the heat of emotion, but also in how confronting the truth of one’s mistakes can bring healing and, even in later life, can break down the barriers that solitude and regrets build up, leading to new hope for the future and greater happiness and enjoyment of the present.
  20. Hokusai (cinema). This was something completely different – not so much like an NTLive screening as watching a feature-length documentary on a cinema screen. Linked to a major exhibition at the British Museum, the film first provided an illustrated life story of this major Japanese artist followed by a guided tour, with expert commentary, of some of the key exhibits on display at the museum this summer. I knew nothing at all about Hokusai and if asked to guess – on the basis of his most famous image, ‘The Great Wave’ – when he had practised, I would probably have thought it was the early twentieth century. In fact, he lived from1760 to 1849 and produced a huge range of work.
  21. My Cousin Rachel (cinema). It is a very long time since I devoured the complete works of Daphne du Maurier in similar vein to a modern-day Netflix binge-watcher. I had forgotten – or perhaps failed to appreciate back then – just how much dramatic tension is woven into her stories. This film adaptation, with a setting that is characteristic of a number of du Maurier’s books, leaves you wondering and asking the same question that features at the beginning and the end. I need to read the book again to see whether it conveyed more answers. Meanwhile, with its penultimate sequence on a southwestern cliff-top, it was with a sense of déja vu that within two hours of seeing the film I was watching the opening sequence of Poldark series 3!
  22. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to power (cinema). Watched this film preceded by a live Q&A interview with Al Gore broadcast from a London cinema. He is such an energetic, tireless and passionate advocate for tackling the issue of climate change but he also, very notably, does not get either angry or rude when dealing with people who oppose him or try to undermine his case. This probably helps to explain why he appears to have a wide circle of contacts and friends who respect him and are prepared to listen and to help. This was a hugely challenging film, with a balance of near-despair and hope; ultimately it is hopeful, but the realisation of that hope depends crucially on the mobilising of public opinion and the ‘people power’ to change laws and corporate planning, and Al Gore is doing something tremendous towards this through his worldwide trainings.
  23. Eye in the Sky (DVD). This was another sometimes disturbing and challenging film, but it made me think again about military drones and other aspects of modern warfare. It must surely be true that in separating the person who drops a bomb – or those issuing or approving the orders to do so – from the field of action, there is a huge danger that they are distanced from any feeling of responsibility for their actions? However, what came through in this film – but may, of course, have been a purely fictional device to elicit viewer sympathy – was that ultimately any sense of real responsibility depends on the character and personality of the people involved and that, with up-to-date video and surveillance equipment, even individuals on the other side of the world may become emotionally engaged with the outcome of their decisions and actions. Unfortunately, the suspicion is that those who do so will not last long, and that the more dispassionate militarists would prevail.
  24. Girl From the North Country (Old Vic Theatre, London). This was a brilliant show and with a whole cast full of riveting performances. Somehow it managed to combine being a play and showcasing a host of Bob Dylan songs without actually being a musical – but it worked. The absolute revelation for me was Shirley Henderson, seen in a host of television roles with a characteristic, almost mouse-like voice but when she sings: what a transformation and what strength! Ciaran Hinds – anguished throughout as he attempts to deal with past and current trauma – radiates energetic frustration from beginning to end and as all the characters’ stories were summed up by the narrator after a choral rendition of ‘Forever Young’, there were tears and then a well-deserved standing ovation.
  25. Victoria & Abdul (cinema). It is hard to believe it is 20 years since Judi Dench appeared in the also-wonderful film, Mrs Brown, and here again she gives a lovingly portrayed glimpse into the private life of a monarchy that was becoming increasingly public-facing. Beautifully shot, with some stunning locations, the opulence of court life contrasts hugely with the simplicity of the Scottish hideaways that the queen preferred. Dench is wonderful and the tenderness, vulnerability and personal insecurity that comes out through her relationship with the open-hearted and gifted Abdul just serves to make the boorish insensitivity and racism – also extremely well-acted – of Eddie Izzard’s ‘Bertie’ all the more distasteful. However, watching the latest episode of ITV’s Victoria, including the traumatic birth of this Prince of Wales, just days after seeing the film, left me wondering how much of his disposition was shaped by a lack of maternal warmth.
  26. The Limehouse Golem (Rex Cinema, Berkhamsted). This film had quite a lot in common with the popular television series Ripper Street, both in terms of the London setting and the grisly killings. Based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd, it introduces many real-life characters into a fictional murder-mystery story. I enjoyed it as a piece of rather chilling entertainment – hard not to when Bill Nighy plays the lead – but was left with a couple of niggles about the plot: things that would/should/could have been done, but had they been then the ending would not have been nearly so dramatic. However, my overwhelming feeling is one of discomfort that completely fictional episodes can be written back into the lives of people who really lived. I am in favour of using real people and events to help set context, but a lot less happy when, in effect, their life stories are distorted for fictional purposes.
  27. Hidden Figures (cinema). I think this may possibly be my favourite film of the year – it is just wonderful, in so many ways. There was humour, despite the reminders of how really dreadful US ‘apartheid’ measures were right through to the 1960s. It was also a nostalgia trip, in that I have childhood memories of all the events that formed the backdrop to the film, but at the same time it was an absolute revelation because the story of these women had indeed been so effectively hidden. I had had no idea at all about the involvement of so many incredibly talented women – mathematical geniuses is probably not an overstatement – in such crucial aspects of the space race, but it is shocking that it took so long for them to get the recognition they so deserved.
  28. Murder on the Orient Express (cinema). As a big fan of David Suchet’s portrayal of Hercule Poirot I did not have very high expectations of this new film, but was intrigued to see what the A-list cast would bring to this big-screen remake. It was not at all disappointing; in fact, although I had remembered the main twist of the plot I had forgotten most of the detail and there was one very significant addition to the stars, all of whom were very enjoyable to watch – the scenery! I love train travel – although I would definitely prefer not to get stranded in a wintry landscape, and how did they keep the power on and the train interior so warm when the engine had apparently become detached from the carriages? Kenneth Branagh did an excellent job – not quite in the same league as Suchet, but very good nonetheless – and if one of the closing remarks is anything to go by we can expect to see him reprise the role on the Nile before very long.
  29. Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci (Royal Opera House, London). A Guardian review described this performance as ‘compellingly sung operatic misery’ and I don’t think I can really better that. The staging was absolutely excellent and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the context of a piece of music I particularly enjoy (the intermezzo from the first one-act opera). Fantastic singing and a massive chorus, including a dozen or so children who also appear as very ‘Nativity play’ angels in both pieces. I especially enjoyed the orchestral scene in Pagliacci in which the two operas were linked by what came close to giving the preceding opera an almost happy ending; it was one of the most touching moments of an afternoon filled with jealousy, betrayal and bloodshed.
  30. Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi (cinema). It didn’t matter much that I had not seen the last film in this long-running series – or that it was years since I had seen a Star Wars film at all. The scenery – the real stuff, that is – was great, the characters were fairly interesting and the special effects and action scenes were as spectacular as you would expect. So, it was fun family viewing, but I couldn’t help feeling at the end that, actually, the story was just the same as in previous films; perhaps that is the whole point and the real message of Star Wars is that within each individual the dark side is in tension with the light and the only real question is which will prevail as the credits roll?