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We seem to be going through a period in which many of the films on release, certainly the significant ones, seem to be suffering from elephantiasis of the run-time: the new Avatar is three and a quarter hours long, Babylon likewise cracks 180 minutes, critical darlings Tar and The Fabelmans are two and a half hours, and even the Whitney Houston biopic (a film about the life of a pop star), is longer than 2001: A Space Odyssey (a philosophical exploration of the nature of human intelligence and the ultimate destiny of the species. Without any singing in it).

It’s a relief to come across something a bit more digestible, length-wise at least, such as Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men. This is also a film with a very easy-to-grasp title, provided you speak Cornish (‘stone island’ is the answer to the question you may well be framing in your mind at this point). Most of the rest of the film is, to be fair, considerably less straightforward.

Jenkin, a long-time TV and film professional, caused a bit of a stir with his previous film, Bait, a striking tale of non-singing Cornish fishermen, and this film should only cement his reputation as British cinema’s leading chronicler of life in the south-west, although quite what Enys Men is saying about the region is not always apparent.

Mary Woodvine plays a woman, credited only as ‘the volunteer’, who is living on the small island of the title, somewhere off the coast of Cornwall. It is the late Spring or early Summer of 1973. She appears to be there to conduct some sort of botanical survey: every day, she leaves her small cottage, makes her way across the island to where a small clump of flowers is growing, makes some observations about them, and then returns home where she writes up her notes, normally detouring to drop a stone down a disused mineshaft. She is alone; contact with the outside world is by radio – this is how she arranges fresh supplies of food and petrol.

But is she quite alone? The whole question of what is real and what is happening solely in her mind is an important one, considering the audience has no way of being certain. A young woman occasionally seems to be in and around the cottage. Other figures – a preacher, a boatman, women in traditional clothing, miners – also appear from time to time on the island. There is a further rather peculiar and rather baleful presence: a distinctive rock formation, which is (usually) not far from the cottage. However, given the ongoing disintegration of the fabric of space and time which seems to be in progress, this is not always a given.

There are various signs that past and future are piling up on top of one another, and that the distinction between the island and herself is slowly becoming confused. Does the landscape itself have a strange sentience of its own, operating through the rock?

Naturally, the film is much stronger on questions than answers. Its effectiveness stems from the success it has in evoking the  same kind of atmosphere as some of the weirder short films, TV shows and public information broadcasts of the decade in which it is set – creepy and unsettling little things I barely remember from my own young childhood. (It’s helped by the fact it is filmed in 16mm, the same format so many of those things used.)

Other than a brief sequence of self-harm, there is no violence and relatively little blood in the movie, but it still achieves a profound sense of disquiet and inescapable wrongness, especially as it continues. The film has its own rhythm and structure, built around the pattern of the protagonist’s days, and it is the small intrusions into and deviations from this that tell the story. The repetition produces an almost mesmeric effect as the days go by (or is it just the same day, endlessly repeating?).

On the other hand, I can imagine many people more used to conventional horror films being profoundly unimpressed by a film with very little dialogue, the story of which the audience really has to figure out for themselves. Perhaps we are in the realm of the post-horror or the horror-adjacent here – though, perhaps inevitably, suggestions that Enys Men is really a new folk horror classic are already in circulation. (To be fair, the fact that the film appears to be set almost exactly at the same time as The Wicker Man is surely not a coincidence, and suggests Jenkin himself was thinking along these lines.)

You can’t really discuss a film like this without considering the contribution of the main performer, and Mary Woodvine gives a remarkable performance – obviously, there’s a tricky balance to be found between overplaying her reactions to what’s going on around her (which might topple the film into camp) and just being too deadpan (which would probably result in a baffling art piece). She gets it just about right and the film is, for the most part, engrossingly enigmatic, with moments of genuine shock. Most of the other cast are in non-speaking roles – though I feel obliged to mention the appearance of Woodvine’s father John in a small part, 93 years old and clearly still going strong (Woodvine was a familiar face on British TV in the 1970s and 80s, but his biggest movie role was probably playing the doctor in An American Werewolf in London).

I see that Enys Men is being billed in some places as an ‘experimental horror film’, which to be honest makes me suspect some caution on the part of the people publicising it – ‘experimental’ being a kind of shorthand for ‘don’t complain to us if it’s not what you were expecting and you don’t like it’. I suppose in the end this is an accurate description – it’s a movie with the odd definitely scary moment, but which has only one character, is fairly repetitive, and the role of the monster is played by a pile of rocks – and I can imagine a lot of people not really connecting with it. However, there is craft and imagination here, and in its own way it is a quietly rather rewarding film.

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Everyone has their blind spots and I’m afraid that one of mine is the work of David Lynch, pretty much: now that I think about it, it may not so much be the case that I don’t like his films as much as my just not feeling any desire to watch them. Until recently the only ones I’d actually seen were The Elephant Man and Dune; the former is – it seems to me – a classy but essentially conflicted movie, while the latter is a watchable train-wreck of a film. I should say that I started watching Twin Peaks when it first came on in 1990, but I bailed out very early on – a few minutes into the first episode, in fact. I can’t quite remember why – there was a kind of measured intensity to scenes in which virtually nothing seemed to be happening which I found quite uncomfortable to watch.

However, my co-spousal unit is a) very interested in senior citizens and films dealing with them and b) always glad of a break from horror and exploitation movies, so when Lynch’s 1999 film The Straight Story came on the telly not long ago I made a point of recording it for her. This is famously the ‘nice’ David Lynch film – apparently many industry figures were shocked and mystified by the fact that the film was not shocking or mystifying. (This little bit of paradoxy alone is enough to make me well-disposed towards the film.)

Lynch sets out his stall very early on in the film with various sweeping aerial shots of the agricultural heartlands of the United States, golden fields of corn waving in the sun, etc. We are in for some max strength Americana in this movie, clearly, although it takes an unusual form: the form of Iowa-dwelling retired labourer Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth). Straight is, not to put too fine a point on it, knocking on a bit as the film begins, and probably qualifies as a decrepit physical wreck (you know, I say that lovingly, of course, and with a due sense of measured objectivity). After being found sprawled on his kitchen floor he is whisked off to the doctor, who diagnoses joint problems, failing eyesight, and incipient lung disease – and things are likely to get even worse unless Alvin Straight makes some different lifestyle choices.

However, being a rugged American individualist, Alvin is not the kind of man to meekly take advice from a medical professional and goes home to smoke a cigar. Not long after, however, the news arrives that his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton, who doesn’t actually appear in the movie until the very end) has suffered a stroke. Alvin resolves to visit him, over 200 miles away in Wisconsin, which seems entirely reasonable.

However, as Alvin can’t drive due to his bad eyesight and doesn’t have the money for a bus ticket, he chooses to make the trip on a riding lawnmower, which is perhaps a less reasonable choice. Certainly his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) reacts with concern as her old pa starts building a trailer to carry all the essentials he will take with him on this epic road trip. You might actually expect any dutiful daughter to say ‘Dad, no, this idea is nuts’ – but Rose is a slightly odd bird herself (the film doesn’t really dig into this, but she has some sort of atypical neurology) and lets him set off. After a false start and a change of mower, the great journey begins in earnest…

Forrest Gump on a tractor’ was the apparently-devastating verdict on The Straight Story, whispered into the ear of the renowned British film critic Mark Kermode by his colleague David Cox. It’s a very good line, and there is an element of truth to it, but I’m not sure it’s the beginning and the end of critical commentary on this film. (It’s also possibly worth noting that Cox made this observation just as the film was starting, making this an example of pre-reviewing a film for comic effect, something I try hard to avoid myself.)

Forrest Gump is another of those films I’ve never really sat down and got to grips with, but at the very least it’s a lavish and earnest attempt to make an insightful journey through the American experience of the latter part of the 20th century. The Straight Story is about a man travelling across country on a lawn mower, filmed in a very straightforward, no-frills sort of way. I suppose, if we accept the proposition that both films are essentially pieces of Americana, and as such primarily concerned with the nature of that great but somewhat fractured nation, then Forrest Gump is loudly and verbosely shouting about what it thinks that nature is. The Straight Story doesn’t shout or gesticulate, it just presents its answer in a slightly oblique and very understated way and leaves it for the viewer to figure out what that answer is.

And what is that answer? Well, if Alvin Straight is some kind of paragon or American folk-hero, we’re back to the archetype of rugged individualism, a man determined to make this trip on his own terms, without asking for help or charity from anyone. But he’s also a decent man, thoughtful (if not especially demonstrative) when it comes to his family and friends and the other people who meets on his journey. They are also routinely kind and considerate people. This is one of those rare films where all the characters are nice people who spend their time being pleasant to one another: the only crises driving the plot are the result of medical problems or lawn mowers breaking down. If nothing else this is a refreshing change of pace.

Nevertheless, at nearly two hours, you do find yourself wishing the lawn mower could go a bit faster well before the end. Saying the film has longeurs may not be entirely accurate or fair, as it seems like it’s deliberately paced the way it is (an alternate view might be that the whole film constitutes a single extended longeur); perhaps this is Lynch’s way of challenging the audience on this occasion. It seems like most of the film’s other quirks happened behind the camera – the film was shot in chronological order, according to the director, who said it was his most experimental film. Nevertheless, he handles the actors and the various scenes well and – once you get into the film’s groove – it’s actually very soothing and involving to watch. The story may be – perhaps inevitably – linear, but the acting is excellent and the cinematography and direction also good. I wouldn’t rush to watch it again, but it’s – how can I avoid the word ‘nice’ again? – a pleasant and worthwhile watch.

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This is what you get for not staying in touch with the specialist press. I feel quite bad enough for not referring to the recent death of Stephen Greif in this voyage through the complete Blake’s 7, and now it turns out that Chris Boucher, whose praises I have been regularly singing for the best part of a year, passed away before Christmas and I’ve only just found out about it. It’s impossible to imagine a Boucher-free Blake; Terry Nation may have come up with the premise, but you could easily argue that it was Chris Boucher who ensured the show is still remembered nowadays.

Of course, we’re potentially looking at quite a long run of episodes by other people now (typical), the first of which is Stardrive by Jim Follett. Follett’s previous contribution was the horrendous Dawn of the Gods from series three, so you could be forgiven for adopting the crash position before the opening credits even roll.

One of the nice things about the previous episode was the sense of the crew genuinely putting themselves into danger: the Scorpio, we are frequently told, is still essentially a pile of old junk despite Dorian’s modifications, and not capable of mixing it with Federation combat ships. Apparently it’s even in danger of running out of petrol, as this episode opens with the crew planning to sneak into the Altern system to secure a new fuel supply.

This is where I propose my new thesis: which is that the various traumas at the end of the last season and the beginning of this (Blake’s apparent death, Cally’s actual death, the loss of the Liberator, humiliation by Servalan, etc) have driven Avon round the twist and he is now properly mad. Quite apart from his new-found resolve to stop the resurgent Federation’s advance in its tracks, he has now hit upon the scheme of avoiding the Altern system’s patrols by hiding in the sensor shadow of an asteroid – even though this will involve going within fifty yards of a lethally massive chunk of space rock (interesting to see that they still haven’t gone completely metric even in the Federation’s era).

Inevitably things go wrong and the ship gets a massive ding, sufficient to invalidate its No Claims bonus for quite some time (if Dorian had taken out a policy). Luckily Vila comes up with a cunning plan to effect repairs (especially cunning considering he manages to avoid all labour and risk himself) – but this seems to have happened in vain as a patrol turns up while Tarrant and Avon are fixing the drive.

But what’s this? The Federation ships appear to spontaneously blow up before they can do anything too unfriendly. The crew head back to base to ponder this (this seems to be mainly an exercise in filler as the Xenon base set is not used; everyone stays on the flight deck for the handful of scenes while they’re there). Luckily they have made a remarkably detailed recording of the patrol ships exploding – if the dialogue is to be trusted the frame rate is extraordinarily high, which may explain why the special effects are not entirely convincing.

At Orac’s prompting they review the tape in detail, which reveals a tiny spacecraft moving at extraordinary speed buzzing past the patrol ships and destroying them – the implication is that this thing can move even faster than the Liberator could (this is made explicit in the novelisation – this was the final episode to be novelised). Because the recording is detailed to a credulity-strangling degree, they are able to deduce it belongs to a cult of interplanetary speed freaks called the Space Rats, who have somehow managed to lay their hands on the revolutionary new photonic space drive. Avon decides he wants this very badly and the Scorpio is soon blasting off for the Space Rats’ last known address…

Well, it’s better than Dawn of the Gods, I’ll say that for it – quite appropriately for an episode concerned with speed and movement, it doesn’t hang around, with the trip back to Xenon being the only real piece of padding in the story. It’s never dull and there’s a pretty good chase through yet another sandpit at the end of the episode. There’s even a quality guest star in the shape of Barbara Shelley, although it is extremely obvious that she didn’t turn up for the location sequence in which her character appears (but has no lines) – the person doubling for her in these scenes might as well have a bag over her head, it’s so obvious her face is being deliberately concealed.

One of the criticisms thrown at the fourth season when it was new, I seem to recall, was that Servalan wasn’t in enough episodes and that even when she was, she didn’t get enough face time with Avon. Vere Lorrimer’s public response was that a) Servalan knew of Avon’s determination to kill her and would therefore stay out of his way and b) the Federation had by this point become predictable punchbag villains, hence the choice of a more diverse group of new heavies across the season.

Possibly I overstated things when I talked about the gritty naturalism of season four.

Including, presumably, the Space Rats (I first saw this episode as a rather small child and was a little disappointed when the Space Rats turned out not to be actual monsters, but men in silly costumes and wigs). They’re certainly different, but also a wildly cartoony bunch and not particularly credible on any level (the brightly-coloured costumes and ridiculous hairstyles don’t help – how the hell do they get their crash helmets on?). The least you can say about Damien Thomas, playing lead Space Rat Atlan, is that he has figured out the appropriate level to pitch his performance at as a guest Blake’s 7 baddie.

The end of the episode inaugurates a bit of a tradition where the crew spend the episode looking for a scientist or invention and end up losing them or it, although at least on this occasion they do get to keep the stardrive of the title, which is conveniently plumbed into Scorpio’s systems. One does have to wonder about the thinking going on here – saddling the crew with an old and substandard ship was a dramatically interesting choice and a worthwhile change to the format, so why put them back into the fastest ship in the galaxy only three episodes later? Never mind. This is a fairly silly episode but it knows to move fast enough to keep that fact from really registering.

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It’s that time of year when everyone is gearing up for the start of gong season, and after the various upheavals inflicted by the pandemic there are hopeful signs that normal service is being resumed (always assuming you were a fan of normal service in the first place). Amongst the films which have acquired a bit of awards-season momentum are representatives of most of the classic types – biographies and semi-autobiographies (Elvis and The Fabelmans), more challenging and dark borderline-arty fare (The Banshees of Inisherin and Tar) and – of course – a big film about Hollywood itself (Babylon). And there’s also a plucky little British film, eschewing a big budget and expansive story – mainly because the former wasn’t available to pay for the latter – in favour of quality and authenticity. Living falls into this category, and so does Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light.

British films always seem more at ease when they’re actually set some time in the past, and the great thing about the past is that they keep adding new bits to it: Empire of Light is set in 1980 and 1981, which I can actually remember not being the past at all. And yet here those years are, the period backdrop to movie which – at least in part – trades on nostalgia. (Short version: this film made me feel quite old.)

The film is set in Margate on the south coast of England and concerns the lives of the staff of the old-fashioned cinema there, the Empire. The central character is Hilary (Olivia Colman), the duty manager; she is quietly having… how to put it? ‘An affair’ would be overstating things a bit… non-work-adjacent relations with the actual manager, Ellis (Colin Firth, doing one of those studies in petty corruption he’s actually rather good at). There are various other ushers and minions about the place, and also Norman the projectionist (Toby Jones, also thoroughly in his comfort zone). It turns out to be central to the film’s thesis that Norman proves to be something of a sage and a font of wisdom before the story ends, for his job makes him a High Priest of Cinema. It takes a while for us to reach that point, though.

The plot proper gets underway with someone new starting at the cinema – Stephen (Micheal Ward), who is, to coin a phrase, young, gifted and Black. His presence causes a stir amongst the female members of staff at the cinema, but it is the older Hilary who he seems to make the strongest connection with, especially after they explore the disused upper floors of the old building together. But a sour note is entering the national culture and there are all kinds of obstacles to a relationship like theirs…

The critical consensus on Empire of Light seems to be something along the lines of ‘great performances, pity the script isn’t better’, which I think gets it about fifty percent right. The acting is universally excellent – but then we’re at the point where you really expect that from people like Olivia Colman and Toby Jones, they seem genetically incapable of ever giving a bad performance. I’m not entirely sure that dismissing the script of the film (written by Mendes) is really justified.

Here’s the thing: this is clearly intended to be a life-affirming drama about ordinary people, with moments of sadness and poignancy but also joy and hope. So in a very general way it’s shooting at the same targets as A Man Called Otto, which we talked about last time. Empire of Light isn’t as funny as the Tom Hanks film, nor is it as moving, so there’s a sense in which you could say it was less successful. On the other hand – you can watch Otto and within about ten minutes get a strong and accurate sense of which way the film is going to go. That isn’t the case with Empire of Light – there’s essentially a kind of plot twist halfway through which turns it into a slightly different film than it initially seems to be. The twist is carefully set up and doesn’t seem arbitrary or unrealistic, so narratively it works, and it does leave you guessing as to how the rest of the film is going to play out.

I am not going to say that it’s a bad thing for a film to be predictable, as this is sort of one of the joys of genre and often a sign of capable storytelling. But on the other hand, Empire of Light somehow feels more authentic than A Man Called Otto – in real life, things don’t always resolve neatly and happily in the way you might expect them to. It’s also worth pointing out that Mendes’ film never feels sentimental – it’s not emotionally cold, it just doesn’t feel like it’s laying it on with a trowel; perhaps this is a sign of the film’s essential Englishness.

If I have a brick to sling at Empire of Light, it’s that… well, I suppose it’s the fault of the trailer I saw, which features all the big scenes, an epic soundtrack, and narration from Toby Jones that implies that the film is, in some way, about how going to the cinema is somehow a metaphor for life itself. I was quite looking forward to seeing that film – what I ended up seeing was a very well-done drama about recognisable human beings in a particular time and place, but not much more than that. The whole issue of cinema-as-life does make an appearance, quite late on, but it feels like an afterthought – Toby Jones is easily a good enough actor to sell Norman’s various pronouncements of wisdom, but it still stretches credulity a tiny bit that it turns out that one character, despite having worked at the cinema for ages, has never actually watched a film there. (Mendes’ choice of the film they eventually watch, resulting in a transcendent, revelatory moment for them, is an intriguing one.)

I did enjoy Empire of Light quite a lot in the end, simply because it’s very well-acted, well-made, and quite well-written. After his various successes with Bond and 1917, Sam Mendes is probably at the point where one of his films just being a reasonable success, commercially or critically, probably counts as a disappointment. This is a shame. There is surely always a place for a good film, which is what Empire of Light is.

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There’s a popular current thesis which suggests that the era of the movie star is coming to an end – ‘movie star’ meaning someone who can ‘open’ a movie, and ‘open’ meaning ‘someone whose mere presence in a film will make people want to go and see it’. No-one like that is coming up through the ranks, the theory goes: good actors and popular performers, maybe, but no-one who is bigger than the film they’re in. We’ve discussed previously the odd case of someone like Chris Hemsworth, whose films are massively popular… as long as he always plays the same character. The character here is the star, not the actor.

With all this going on there is, inevitably, a parallel discussion about who the last great film star standing is. You can make pretty decent cases for people like Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Harrison Ford, but it frequently boils down to one of the two Toms – Hanks or Cruise. It looks very much like Tom Cruise is in the dominant spot at the moment, following the massive (if slightly bewildering) success of Top Gun 2 last year, and the publicity machine already gearing up for the next episode of Mission Impossible. Tom Hanks hasn’t done himself any favours, either, I might suggest, by lending his talents to streamers (Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio and others) – Cruise has remained absolutely faithful to the primacy of the theatrical experience. I’ll admit to being one of those people who in the past has occasionally suggested the Cruiser might be a bit nuts, but you have to admire him for taking a stand like that.

Still, Tom Hanks is still a contender to be reckoned with, in his own field at least. (There seems to be a definite demarcation between the two Toms – Cruise only really does action thrillers these days, while Hanks is rarely to be found outside a good-natured comedy-drama.) He is back on screens in Marc Forster’s A Man Called Otto, which is based on a Swedish movie (and novel) called A Man Called Ove. This isn’t the first Anglophone remake on Hanks’ CV, of course, while Forster’s filmgraphy is sufficiently eclectic (gritty drama, literary adaptations, family-friendly comedy drama, and the profoundly unpopular Bond film Quantum of Solace) for nothing he does to really be much of a surprise any more.

The premise is fairly simple: Hanks plays a man called Otto Anderson, a recently-widowed engineer living in (I guess) Pennsylvania. ‘Prickly’ doesn’t begin to do justice to Otto; he comes across as an inflexible, unfriendly pain-in-the-neck to anyone who meets him. He castigates the young manager of a hardware store for only selling rope by the yard rather than the foot. His retirement party descends into acrimony when he complaints he feels pushed out of his job by new management. Long-standing feuds with neighbours and the local property development company rumble on.

Otto retires to his home, arranges to have his electricity and telephone disconnected, affixes a hook to his living room ceiling, and prepares to hang himself using the five feet of rope he was attempting to buy earlier, all in a very businesslike manner. However, it is a measure of the man that a display of substandard parallel-parking taking place across the street is enough to make him put this plan on hold and go out to complain. It turns out the offenders are his new neighbours Marisol and Tommy (Mariana Trevino and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and at this point the trajectory of the film becomes very clear indeed: Marisol’s relentless cheery friendliness will somehow find a way through Otto’s crusty carapace (the winsome cuteness of her daughters will also be a factor) and this will prove to be the story of How A Spiky Old Git Rediscovers The Joy Of Living.

It’s the kind of film, aspiring to be heart-warming and life-affirming, which it’s very easy to be cynical about – in fact, when not done well, it’s the sort of thing that often inclines me towards slipping off somewhere and quietly opening a vein. On paper it sort of resembles the TV show One Foot in the Grave, albeit with a substantial dollop of the earnestness and sentimentality you occasionally find in some of Hanks’ less successful projects.

However, Tom Hanks hasn’t managed to maintain his position at the top of the Hollywood system for nearly forty years simply through good fortune – he’s technically a very skilled actor in addition to being a hugely likeable screen presence, and he does have an edge over the other Tom in his willingness to stretch himself – these days, it’s impossible to imagine Cruise appearing in a bonkers ensemble film like Cloud Atlas, or being so prepared to be grotesque and unlikeable as Hanks was in Elvis last year (I tried to think of the previous film I’d seen Hanks in before this one and completely forgot about his turn as the Colonel, eventually settling on A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood from 2020).

Hanks’ performance is this film’s greatest asset, but this is not to say that the rest of it isn’t very capably put together too. It manages to negotiate a tricky path between being an actually quite morbid black comedy – there’s a running gag about Hanks’ various attempts to top himself being interrupted or otherwise going wrong – and something genuinely heart-warming. You’re never in any doubt as to how this is going to play out, but as ever it’s not necessarily the destination but the journey which really counts – the script rarely puts a foot wrong as it introduces the various characters, fills in Otto’s back-story (Rachel Keller plays his late wife, the young Hanks is played – in a remarkable coincidence – by someone named Truman Hanks), and basically charts the reappearance of Otto’s appetite for life.

Parts of it are very funny, while others are intensely moving and poignant (although the film benefits, as any film or TV show does, from the canny deployment of a Kate Bush song on the soundtrack). I saw it with the co-spousal unit and she described it later as ‘a film that will make you feel every emotion’. This is not far from the truth. Maybe there is a tendency towards sentimentality, but then this is part of A Man Called Otto‘s conception, and there is enough darkness, loneliness and grief to compensate for this. Not the biggest film of Hanks’ career, but a good one nevertheless.

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One of the perks of being the new producer of Blake’s 7 in late 1980 was the chance of a flight to Los Angeles on expenses for a chat with Terry Nation, creator of the show, who had lately relocated there to try and launch himself as a screenwriter in American TV. (All that seemed to result from this were a few scripts for MacGuyver and the occasional TV movie.) Nation couldn’t involve himself much with the fourth series in terms of the actual scripting, but he had ideas about the direction it should take. Prompted, perhaps, by the largely directionless third series, the idea that Nation and new producer Vere Lorrimer ginned up was that, faced with a resurgent Federation, the crew would be obliged to take a stand and gather the resources to stop them (it feels entirely appropriate to shorthand this as ‘Andor but on a BBC budget’).

It’s a sensible way to go and another sensible decision was to hire Robert Holmes for a couple of episodes this year, as Holmes was a writer who could always be relied upon for a solid, coherent script, usually with some nice touches to it. His first contribution was the third episode, Traitor, which kicks off the new approach in earnest.

The setting is primarily the planet Helotrix, an old Earth colony which at some point in the past threw off Federation rule – it’s not entirely clear whether this happened before, during or after the Intergalactic War, and there is even a suggestion that there was another Terran empire that predated the Federation itself. (This is also one of the very few episodes – perhaps the only one – to mention, even in part, the date when the series is set, for we hear of the ill-fated Fletch expedition of ‘twenty-nine’.) But Helotrix has recently been recaptured and the Federation command network expanded via something called the Magnetrix Terminal.

Orac has been monitoring for this sort of thing but the sheer speed of the Federation expansion alarms everyone: how are the Federation conquering planets so quickly? Vila, not entirely surprisingly, wants to run in the other direction, but Avon refuses, insisting he wants to do something about it. So the Scorpio sets course for Helotrix, determined to discover the nature of the Federation’s new advantage.

It eventually turns out that this is a drug called Pylene-50, which can be shot into people from a distance and instantly removes their capacity to resist authority. The drug is the handiwork of the enigmatic Commissioner Sleer, who is presumably travelling around taking the drug production facilities with her (the script specifies that it doesn’t stay stable for long and can’t be transported long distances). Sleer’s assistant Leitz (Malcolm Stoddard) does most of the dealing with the Federation military and Helotrix’s puppet president – but could the pair of them have anything to do with the fact that the president gets murdered in his quarters?

There’s a lot going on in this script, which to its credit is agreeably pacey (it probably goes without saying that Tarrant’s performance is also extremely Pacey), even if it feels as if it’s lacking in a single big attention-grabbing idea. More than usually, Helotrix feels like a real place inhabited by characters who are doing more than just playing prescribed roles in a plot – we learn the resistance leader used to be a geologist at the local university, for instance, while Holmes, with characteristic humour, writes the Federation officers (Christopher Neame and Nick Brimble) as a parody of blimpish officer-class types.

Nevertheless, the actual storyline about the Helot resistance and the identity of the actual traitor isn’t that engrossing, although the idea of the drug has potential. Story-wise the interesting element is the subplot about Sleer, who – spoiler alert – turns out to be a deposed Servalan, working under an alias and murdering anyone who can identify her. Quite what has happened to Servalan since we last saw her is not at all clear: she is believed dead, having been ‘killed in the rear-guard action on Gedden’ according to the president (who also refers to her as the ‘Supreme Empress’, not a title I recall hearing before). Just as mysterious as what happened is when it happened – Tarrant says the Liberator was destroyed ‘fairly recently’.

It does seem as if the counter-revolution mounted against Servalan’s rule in Rumours of Death was only one of many, and one of the subsequent ones succeeded (after some kind of off-screen civil war). My guess is that this happened at some point between Death-Watch and Terminal – in the former episode, Servalan still seems to have a sufficiently strong grip on power that she’s actively contemplating invading new territory, but there must be quite long gaps between season three’s episodes. If Servalan is indeed a fugitive at the time of Terminal, it explains why her aides in that story aren’t in Federation uniform, and also – maybe – why she seems to have higher priorities than disposing of the crew in that story. Perhaps the new fleet she speaks of building in that episode is one she needs to win back power.

I’m not entirely sure what the show gains by including the Commissioner Sleer storyline, but I do know why it’s here: Jacqueline Pearce’s illness made her appearance in the fourth series look doubtful at one point, and the Sleer character was created as a replacement for Servalan (who presumably would have been killed on the Liberator). Pearce’s recovery required a change to the planned storyline.

The other notable character change in this episode is easier to spot: Paul Darrow spends the whole of it on the same set, but he still has a remarkable presence. I know people who criticise Darrow for his supposedly operatic performance style, but this is the first episode I can remember where he genuinely seems to be going over the top – his glazed delivery of a line like ‘I need to kill her myself’ is enough to give anyone pause. (The fake tan is still there; perhaps it is an element we can enjoy throughout the season.) And even beyond this, Avon seems to have become committed to fighting the Federation in a way he’s never been before, for no very obvious reason. Perhaps the events of Terminal really have pushed him over the edge. Vila accuses him of behaving in a way that would make Blake proud; Avon responds that Blake was never very bright, but doesn’t object beyond that.

In the end it is, as I say, a solid episode that takes the series back to its core themes, and it’s nice to come across one of those – especially when it isn’t written by Terry Nation or Chris Boucher. Even if it doesn’t exactly shine, it’s still more satisfying than most of the episodes we’ve seen from the second half of the series.

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My default position when it comes to John Carpenter is that he is basically one of those people who did their careers backwards – most of us, when starting out in a new field, have results which are a bit hit and miss, until we figure out what we’re up to and (given sufficient time, dedication and natural talent) eventually master whatever it is we’re doing. Carpenter’s career isn’t like that. Even though his first film Dark Star is flawed, it’s still arguably the most influential science fiction movie of the last fifty years, while Assault on Precinct 13 is flat-out brilliant, and Halloween changed the face of the American horror movie. And then, at some point, he just went off the boil – by the late 1980s he was making schlocky films like Prince of Darkness, a decade later it was warmed-over rehashes like Escape from LA, and after 2001’s Ghosts of Mars (a fairly dreadful film) he more or less gave up.

A sad decline. Most people point to the tipping point being the commercial failure of his version of The Thing, which was competing at the box office with E.T. and came off distinctly second-best. I disagree: I think the last genuinely really good Carpenter film came a couple of years later, in the form of Starman. It seems to be a film that slips easily from the mind when it comes to discussing Carpenter’s work, perhaps because it is so uncharacteristic of the films he’s known for.

The film opens with the slightly hackneyed plot device of the Voyager 2 probe being intercepted by an alien intelligence. The aliens give it a good checking out, paying special attention to the gold disc placed aboard, and return the favour by sending their own probe ship to Earth to see if it’s as nice as the LP suggests. You know those Earth people, they’re devils for sending mixed signals, and the probe is shot down by the US Air Force somewhere over Wisconsin. It crashes near the home of recently-widowed Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) and the pilot – an immaterial being of pure energy – zips around the house curiously before settling on one of her mementoes of her late husband Scott; a lock of his hair. The alien uses this to grow itself a new body to inhabit, a body which is naturally the spitting image of Scott (Jeff Bridges).

Jenny herself takes this about as well as you might expect, but there is more bad news on the way – the alien Starman’s colleagues are coming to Earth to pick him up, but, for important reasons of plot, their agreed rendezvous will be in Arizona in a few days time. Road trip! The chances are it will take just long enough for Starman to learn to appreciate the beauties of life on Earth and for him and Jenny to fall in love. Meanwhile a scientist from SETI, on the government’s payroll (he is played, very capably, by Charles Martin Smith), is hunting for the visitor, but increasingly beginning to question the rightness of the uncompromising approach taken by the authorities.

As you can perhaps see, it’s a fairly straightforward story without big twists or deep complexities. It’s not an exploitation movie or an action movie, nor is it a western modulated into a different setting, and as such it’s a fairly atypical project for Carpenter to take on. Mostly it’s a romantic comedy drama about two people sitting in a car, with the qualifier that one of them happens to be an alien.

The history of Starman is fairly interesting if you’re a student of the genre: Columbia started developing it at the same time as a script called Night Skies, which eventually became E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The studio eventually abandoned the latter project, which of course went on to be a massive hit for Universal – this in turn resulted in Starman, deemed a more adult-oriented take on similar material, being put into production. (Carpenter was hired ahead of Tony Scott and Peter Hyams, and was keen to change his image as a director.) The similarities are obvious enough; this is clearly a post-Spielberg science-fantasy film. But what struck me about the film, watching it again recently, was the extent to which it also feels like it’s parallelling The Terminator in some ways – not really in terms of the trajectory of the plot, but when it comes to the imagery of some sequences – the main character materialises naked, out of thin air, at the start of the story, and the central relationship ends up becoming an archetypal James Cameron-style romance – which is to say it concludes with a one-night stand in an unlikely setting.

Nevertheless the film has a kind of understated sweetness and authenticity to it which isn’t quite there in any of the films it resembles – the road movie element also helps to make it distinctive, Carpenter apparently keen to explore the Americana of the story. It only really has four significant characters (the other is Richard Jaeckel’s Air Force heavy) and most of it is about two of them sitting in a car or a diner together. Both Allen and Bridges are really excellent; you do wonder why Allen didn’t have a more significant career considering she’s so good here and in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Everyone seems to accept now that Jeff Bridges is one of the best actors of his generation – he remains, to the best of my knowledge, the only person ever to be Oscar nominated for playing an alien. He’s not afraid to come across as initially weird and unsettling as the Starman, before gradually toning it down and creating a credible and sympathetic character. It is, I think, one of the best ‘playing an alien’ performances anywhere.

There are lots of good things about Starman, even if the story feels a bit low-octane and familiar in places. The real flaw that jumps out at me, however, is that the script is so keen on the character-building, phatic scenes between Jenny and the Starman that some of the connective tissue that allows the script to function is a bit skimped on. For example, one scene ends with Jenny getting a fright as she bumps into the Starman, who has only just appeared in her house. The next time we see them both, he is wearing her late husband’s clothes and she is preparing to drive him to Arizona. A whole lot of quite significant stuff seems to have happened between scenes, which one would quite like to have seen. How did he explain all this to her? How does she feel about it? Is she down with the alien turning himself into a clone of her husband? And so on.

Nevertheless, the scenes we do have retain a considerable charm, and you can usually figure out for yourself what happened off-screen in the bits we’re not privy to. It’s a well-made, entertaining film for a mainstream audience, and as such fairly unrecognisable as a John Carpenter project. As I say, for me it’s the last really good film he directed – but despite good reviews, it wasn’t particularly successful and within a couple of years the director was back to making more energetic and derivative schlock. A shame – on the strength of this road movie, the road not taken by Carpenter would surely have been at least as interesting as the way his career actually went.

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If you dive back deep into the stacks of this blog you may come across some good-natured grumbling from your correspondent about a certain lack of imagination in the titling department of some SF movies from, mostly, the 1960s. I refer to films like The Day the Earth Caught Fire, The Day the Sky Exploded, and Crack in the World (the situation being somewhat confused by the existence – more accurately non-existence – of the Hammer-Harryhausen collaboration When the Earth Cracked Open).

At the time I was, as far as I can tell, completely unaware of the existence of Charles Eric Maine’s The Tide Went Out (‘a novel for adult minds only’, according to the original blurb), a 1958 novel which fits so smoothly into the narrative space between all these films it’s scarcely credible. This book was reissued in 1977 under the punchier (if less representative) title Thirst!; I imagine it would have felt fairly dated 45 years ago – it certainly feels like historical literature now. And yet it is back on sale as part of a new British Library imprint which boldly declares itself to be ‘Science Fiction Classics’. On the evidence I’ve seen this is only accurate if you accept a fairly generous definition of ‘classic’ – all the really good stuff has been snapped up by Orion’s long-running SF Masterworks range.

Maine’s tale concerns the travails of Philip Wade, a hard-bitten writer and journalist with a drink problem, a mildly unhappy marriage, and a young son who’s not much more than a plot device. The book doesn’t hang about and opens with a bit of a crisis at the office – the latest edition of Wade’s magazine has to be recalled and one of the articles replaced, on the orders of the government. How come? Well, the offending article is a speculative, sensationalist piece wondering if a spate of recent earthquakes and apparent falls in sea level in the Pacific region could be linked to Anglo-American H-bomb tests in the same area. Could, in fact, the bomb have cracked open the ocean floor and allowed the water to start draining away?

Needless to say, it looks like Wade has inadvertently hit the nail on the head, and those in high places don’t even want the suggestion of this getting out. His publisher, Stenniger, reveals that he is selling up and moving to Canada, a country blessed with much snow and ice, while it is intimated that in return for his cooperation Wade will be given a job with a new government department concerned with the control of information to avoid unnecessary public panic (i.e., an official censorship and propaganda bureau). All this duly begins to come to pass, even as earthquakes begin to affect Britain.

The government’s plan (and that of the other world powers) is to retreat to the polar regions, where the vast reserves of ice will allow some form of civilised existence to exist for quite a while. The vast majority of the population, however, is to be abandoned to die as water and food supplies are exhausted; Wade’s job, in part, is to jolly the masses along with fake good news stories and thus allow the authorities to quietly pull out without risking uproar and civil disturbances. But he will be one of the last of the lucky ones to leave the country – if anything goes wrong, his own survival may be in peril…

As a book in its own right, The Tide Went Out is fairly competently done. Every review of it I’ve read has commented on the implausibility of the central premise (where exactly is all the world’s water draining away to?), but the focus is not really on what is happening, but the effect this has on the characters and society at large. This is briskly, credibly done, although there is a bit too much telling rather than showing. Events lose their impact as a result – at one point Wade is dragged from his car and attacked by an angry mob, which Maine describes in the detached manner of a background event. Occasionally he slips into a mode where Wade is effectively talking to himself, roughly and angrily, and this is effective, but too much of the book is cool and distant.

It’s also, as noted, very much a book of its time – it certainly feels like it was written for a male audience, although this is probably a textbook case of unconscious bias. Wade and the other male characters are in charge of getting stuff done; the female characters are mainly there as either objects of sexual interest, or nuisances, or both. Not that they are any different from the men when it comes to cigarettes and alcohol – until supplies of both run out, Wade meanders through the book in what feels like a permanent boozed-up fug: every time he meets another character some variation on ‘they both lit up’ makes an appearance.

I’ve read worse, but the main problem with The Tide Went Out is that – if you know much about British SF literature of the mid 20th century – you’ve almost certainly read better books in an extremely similar style. And not just books – I’d be prepared to bet a substantial sum that this was the primary inspiration for the wonderful 1961 movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire. The similarities between the two stories are too numerous to list in detail, but they both depict the news media dealing with an apocalyptic environmental event caused by H-bomb testing and the ensuing collapse of society (the main character in the film is named Stenning; compare with Stenniger, a character in the book).

The main difference comes at the end, which in the book’s case surely makes clear its own inspiration. The first name which comes up in any discussion of the apocalyptic British SF novel is usually that of John Wyndham, but this overlooks the contribution of John Christopher. There’s certainly a touch of Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes to the decline of civilisation in Maine’s book, but its bleakness and psychological clarity are pure Christopher – taken, I would guess, from his The Death of Grass (famine destroys civilisation!), published two years earlier, but also evident in The World in Winter (a new ice age destroys civilisation!) and A Wrinkle in the Skin (immense earthquakes destroy civilisation!). All these explore the death of civilisation through the loss of the protagonists’ civilised values as they adapt to their new circumstances – something Wyndham touches on but never really examines rigorously.

I’m such an admirer of Christopher’s work in this genre that I spent a month in 2010 writing an 80,000 word pastiche of this type of story (a gaseous alien life form colonises the upper atmosphere, gradually causing the destruction of civilisation!). There was a flawed main character, a gradual collapse in civilised values, an eventual apocalypse, and all the usual stuff. Maybe it wasn’t quite as bad as I remember it being (my writing coach at the time eviscerated my outline for its non-adherence to the standard story structure), but The Tide Went Out is still probably a better book. That’s not much of a recommendation, I admit, but there you go. I’d recommend any number of John Christopher or John Wyndham books, or indeed The Day the Earth Caught Fire, ahead of it, but if you’re already familiar with those it might make an interesting example of the same material treated differently. But not that differently.

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In theory, the second episode of Blake’s final season has the job of taking the elements of the new format established by Chris Boucher and seeing what kind of viable standalone episode the series is now capable of producing using them. The situation is somewhat complicated by two factors: firstly, there were still perhaps just a few too many loose ends left over at the end of Rescue for the next episode to be a complete standalone, and secondly, they got Ben Steed in to write the script.

I have pondered at some length the question of exactly why the lesser lights of the Blake’s 7 writing paddock kept getting employed – in this case I suppose that the fact the fourth season was assembled in an unusual hurry may be relevant. Needless to say, Steed returns to the fold with another episode featuring what’s becoming his trademark mixture of extremely pulpy pulp sci-fi and even more extremely dubious sexual politics.

At its heart the episode boils down to the linked problems of a locked door and a ticking clock: the locked door being the one into the Scorpio hangar, and the ticking clock being attached to a nuclear bomb. Both of these are there courtesy of Dorian, who in many ways is one of the most important characters in the story, despite having been killed last week. Exercising what seems like quite reasonable caution, Dorian has voice-printed the hangar door and attached it to a bomb which will destroy the base: unless he resets the bomb every couple of days, the property value of Xenon Base will undergo a rapid downward adjustment. (For the purposes of the plot, this is one of those security systems beyond the combined talents of Avon, Vila, and Orac, unlikely as that sounds.)

It is, perhaps, telling that Ben Steed takes this premise and expands it to include one of those hoary old pulp sci-fi chestnuts, the planet which is in the process of reverting to savagery in the aftermath of a terrible war. This is the situation on Xenon, apparently, where the final stages of a conflict between the tribes of the Hommiks and Seskas is playing out. Perhaps inevitably, the Hommiks are all big, hairy men in armour made of leather painted silver, while the Seskas are, one and all, demure-looking women in Greek-style dresses.

It’s the kind of set-up which makes you inclined to sag in your seat even before the plot rears its head. Said plot goes like this: the Seskas are on the point of being wiped out – the Hommiks capture them and perform a surgical procedure to make them more docile (yes, really), at which point they stop being Seska and become just women (and wives to the Hommiks). Their only natural advantage is a form of cybernetic telekinesis, but even this is not enough to make this war of the sexes a fair fight: ‘It’s good, but it’s not good enough,’ declares Avon (caked in fake tan this week, for some reason), when he engages in his own battle of wills with one of the Seska. ‘It’s your strength, [but] a man’s will always be greater.’ A non-consensual kiss ensues.

In a nutshell.

Understandably wanting to get away from all this, Seska Pella (Juliet Hammond Hill) is planning to steal the Scorpio and leave the planet – but there’s that pesky nuclear bomb to deal with. To be honest, most of the exposition dealing with this in any detail comes in a big lump at the end of the episode at breakneck speed – there are significant pacing problems here, on top of everything else. Much of the episode is a runaround concerning the Hommik civilisation, mainly exemplified by their leader Gunn Sar (Dicken Ashworth) – you get the impression Steed was writing for Brian Blessed. Both Avon and Dayna get involved in what are supposedly duels to the death with him, where there is a good deal of cheating on both sides, but the message of the story – the cleverness and skill of women will never triumph over the brute force and ruthlessness of men – is present here as well.

Needless to say, watching this episode in the 21st century is fairly uncomfortable. It’s virtually impossible to look at Power critically and not conclude it is fundamentally a profoundly misogynistic piece of work. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise – Steed’s Harvest of Kairos was also mainly about alpha-male swaggering, with even Servalan overwhelmed and pacified by the rush of testosterone. Moloch, thankfully, didn’t concern itself too much with gender politics, but there was still a comic-relief sex offender character and various references to women prisoners being handed over to soldiers as ‘entertainment’ for them.

Was all of Ben Steed’s work like this? I had to take a look – and it seems like he spent most of his career writing soap operas and children’s TV. His CV on IMDb lists Coronation Street, Crown Court, Triangle and Gems, but also Jackanory Playhouse, Dramarama, and something called Kappatoo which remember the name of but never actually watched. It would be curious to skim through his other work and see if it’s anything like his Blake episodes, but even if I had the resources I’m not sure I could face the prospect.

Is it a coincidence that Power arguably fails to even attempt one of its most important tasks, which is to establish and develop Soolin as a new regular character? She barely even appears, only getting a couple of scenes at the end where she asks to join Avon and the others. Her reason for joining an (at this point) rather unimpressive band of space vagrants? ‘Why not?’ I mean, there’s short production windows, but it almost seems like nobody involved in the episode is trying very hard.

Mostly this even extends to Mary Ridge, who directs her third episode in a row. She seems tired out, but then so much of the script doesn’t even get the basic storytelling right you can almost understand her fatigue. She does manage to muster a little energy and excitement for the climax – Pella succeeds in stealing the Scorpio, and so Avon has to fix the teleport and beam aboard to regain control of the ship. ‘That was always the easy answer for the man,’ groans an expiring Pella after Avon shoots her. ‘If you don’t like the answer, you shouldn’t have asked the question,’ says a visibly unmoved Avon. I used to think was a fairly snappy exchange of dialogue, and performed by Paul Darrow with his customary flair. On reflection, though, it’s just another expression of the contempt for women which runs through this episode from start to finish. Ugh.

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It seems like every big entertainment corporation is permanently on the look-out for the next big property to systematically exploit – not that it hasn’t always been thus, but these days it all seems a lot more premeditated in terms of the branding and forward-planning and so on. Next recipient of this treatment looks likely to be the writer Roald Dahl. To be fair, Dahl’s work has been the subject of numerous adaptations for decades – Walt Disney nearly made a film of his early novel The Gremlins (a word he apparently did a lot to popularise), since when there have been dozens of movies and TV shows. I get the sense the next wave will be a bit more organised and irresistible – or perhaps I’m just reading too much into the fact that The Roald Dahl Story company now has its own animated logo. (I look forward to seeing this at the start of a possible future adaptation of My Uncle Oswald, a quasi-pornographic Dahl novel from 1979 concerning an enterprising scheme to harvest the semen of famous men using an infallible aphrodisiac and some open-minded accomplices.)

This December will see the release of the surely infelicitiously-titled Wonka, a probably inevitable prequel to the films based on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but still providing a cheerful and upbeat presence in UK cinemas is the new version of Matilda, directed by Matthew Warchus. (Strictly speaking, this film is trading under the title of Roald Dahl’s Matilda: the Musical, but, you know, who can be bothered? We all know what I’m talking about.)

This is the tale of Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir), whose arrival in the world happens during the opening number: in contrast to the joy experienced by most of the parents in the maternity ward, Matilda’s are filled with profound horror – her father (Stephen Graham) would prefer a boy, while her mother (Andrea Riseborough) would have preferred not have a child at all, the mere fact she is about to give birth being a profound shock to her. This utter disdain extends into Matilda’s childhood, when she is forced to sleep in the attic and generally neglected, her parents even forgetting to send her to school.

The local school board take a dim view of this sort of thing and Matilda ends up being sent to Crunchem Hall, a grim establishment overseen by the imposing figure of Agatha Trunchbull (Emma Thompson), a former champion hammer-thrower whose idea of encouragement is a slogan like ‘None of you are special’ and whose personal motto is ‘Children are maggots’. Matilda, however, has – from somewhere or other – acquired a passionate love of reading and sense of justice, and before long she finds herself heading for a collision with the headmistress. Perhaps the psychic powers she seems to be spontaneously manifesting will come in useful…?

‘It’s a bit like Carrie,’ was how I pitched Matilda to the co-spousal unit when we were thinking about going to see it, a description which I obviously still stand by: young girl from a troubled domestic situation has a hard time at school and takes her telekinetic revenge in the final act. There, of course, the similarities start to dry up, for Roald Dahl and Stephen King, despite their shared success, don’t really have that much in common as stylists. King is always grounding things in the mundane world, while Dahl is revelling gleefully in the grotesque details which have made his books so abidingly popular – it’s an over-the-top, cartoony sort of world his characters generally inhabit.

Of course, this has led to accusations of misogyny, anti-semitism and racism being levelled at his books, but the only one which has an outside chance of sticking to Matilda is the first – Trunchbull is a hideous monster rather than anything recognisable as an actual woman, while Mrs Wormwood is a shrill, parasitic shrew. It must be said that Emma Thompson and Andrea Riseborough nevertheless lean into the repulsive elements of their characters and clearly seem to be having a great time doing so. They’re so awful it’s impossible to think the film is trying to make a serious point, any more than an adaptation of Hansel and Gretel or Snow White.

If the film does have a message it’s an entirely laudable one – not just about not being horrible to other people, but about standing up for fairness and justice (and, seeing as we’re mentioning these things, the joys of reading, telling stories, and being educated generally). The film manages this in a non-preachy, entirely persuasive way I found wholly admirable; the fact the film is consistently funny and  poignant in the right places doesn’t do it any harm either.

I suspect the main reason I went to see Matilda was because, as the lengthy full title suggests, it’s a musical, and I do like a musical even if it’s a kids’ film. The songs are by Tim Minchin, as I expect is quite well known, and they are uniformly both clever and witty. We went to a singalong showing of the film, something I’m usually wary of doing, but luckily no-one seemed inclined to join in at our screening. The subtitles were actually quite welcome as they helped us to appreciate the finer points of the jokes in the lyrics which might otherwise have got lost. Emma Thompson sings a song about how to be a champion hammer-thrower, which isn’t something you’re going to get in many films, while the terrific ‘Revolting Children’ number is as agreeable an incitement to riot as you’re likely to hear all year. Great singing performances all round, from Weir, Thompson, and Lashana Lynch (who plays a friendly schoolteacher).

I didn’t see the last Chocolate Factory adaptation and the prospect of Timothee Chalamet in a top hat practicing to become Johnny Depp fills me with inertia – in fact it’s probably fair to say I’ve enjoyed Dahl’s work for adults more than his children’s stories (too many Tales of the Unexpected at a tender age, I expect). Nevertheless I had a really good time watching Matilda – the sad bits are really sad, but this is part of the process of earning a proper happy ending, and the funny and uplifting bits do exactly what they need to do. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and well-made film that, I suspect, the whole family can sit down and have a good time with.

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