Posts Tagged ‘mystery’

Tom George’s See How They Run is a film about a film based on a play. Initially I thought it was a film based on a play about a film based on a play, which would obviously have been a much more pleasingly symmetrical arrangement. But it turns out that See How They Run (the movie) is not actually based on See How They Run (the play, originally filmed back in the 1950s); who would have been so foolish as to think something like that? So perhaps (in the name of absolute clarity) we should say that See How They Run is a film not based on a play about a film (which, come to think of it, never gets made) based on a play (which does get made, and is indeed still being made eight times a week at St Martin’s Theatre in London). I’m glad we have got that straight.

The movie opens in London’s theatreland where celebrations are underway to mark the fact that Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap has just had its 100th performance (these seem a touch lavish considering that 100 performances indicates the play has only been running for about three months, but I digress). Everyone is there, from producer Petula (Ruth Wilson) to star Dickie Attenborough (Harris Dickinson – it’s not the actor’s fault, but this isn’t a particularly flattering or respectful portrayal). Also around and non-fictional is film producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), in real life possibly best remembered for The African Queen (possibly due for a remake as The African Woman King, who can tell) and Oliver! (though lovers of the weird and obscure will also be familiar with the magisterial TV hoax Alternative 3, which he executive-produced). In the movie Woolf is very interested in making a film adaptation of The Mousetrap, and various people associated with this – the screenwriter (David Oyelowo) and the director (Adrien Brody) are also at the party.

This proves to be a bad move by Brody, as – after a fracas at the party – he is murdered backstage, his corpse left on the set of the play. As he was a fairly disagreeable character, no-one is especially surprised, but the police still have to be called in. Leading the charge of the forces of law and order are lugubrious old hand Detective Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and his eager young assistant WPC Stalker (Saoirse Ronan).

What ensues is a whodunnit in the classic style, as it turns out that various parties had good reason to bear a grudge against the dead man, and various secrets are uncovered. The light of suspicion is shone into some quite unexpected places, and there is a bit more incidental mayhem, before all is done and dusted (but the film is only 98 minutes long, so there’s a limit to exactly how convoluted everything can get).

On paper is does look like a very ‘straight’ murder mystery, but from the very beginning the film has a jaunty, slightly screwball air about it which makes it very clear that we are in comedic territory at least some of the time – the presence of performers best known for their comic pedigree (Shearsmith, Charlie Cooper, Tim Key) is also a pretty big tip-off. It’s certainly not a film crying out to be taken seriously, or naturalistically – the setting is a idealised version of 1953 which in some ways more closely resembles the present day than post-war Britain (one of the film’s other historical characters, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, is played by Lucian Msamati, for instance).

If you twisted my arm and asked me to suggest a film that See How They Run is a bit similar to, my answer would not be one of the many other Christie adaptations or pastiches that have appeared in recent years – it’s actually more like Shakespeare in Love in many ways, by which I mean that the script is very carefully pitched – there is a fair degree of quite broad slapstick and wordplay, but also moments of genuine wit and erudition carefully sprinkled in (some of the jokes are so obscure that only a handful of audience members were responding to them at the screening I went to).

One of the writers on Shakespeare in Love was Tom Stoppard, and this may be partly where Sam Rockwell’s character got his name from. However, various other things – up to and included a line of dialogue where another character is described as ‘a real hound, inspector’ – lead me to suspect that this may be more a homage and reference to Stoppard’s 1968 play The Real Inspector Hound, partly a satire on The Mousetrap itself. In many ways the most distinctive thing about See How They Run is the extent to which it is stuffed with this kind of knowing self-referentiality. In the midst of one of the flashback sequences which pepper the film, a screenwriter archly proclaims that he despises the use of flashbacks in movies; he goes on to criticise the use of captions as a storytelling device – and this is, inevitably, followed by a caption. See How They Run itself starts turning into The Mousetrap adaptation Woolf is looking to produce – one of the cleverest and most impudent things about it is the way it frequently seems to be threatening to copy and thus reveal the big plot twist in Christie’s play, but in the end never actually does so. There’s a casual reference to the Rillington Place murders which really took place in London in the early 1950s – a film about them featured a notable performance from Richard Attenborough, who (as mentioned) features here as a character. There’s even a minor character who’s a stuffy butler named Fellowes, which I’m assuming is a reference to Julian Fellowes, whose Gosford Park (his best work, if you ask me) is another updated pastiche of the country-house murder-mystery genre.

Of course, once you start heading down the rabbithole this way it can be difficult to drag yourself out – the slightest little thing starts to look like a fiendishly clever in-joke. It’s also worth pointing out that the film is fast, funny, and silly enough to satisfy most audiences, regardless of their familiarity with this genre or theatrical metatextuality, mainly due to a very game set of performances – Sam Rockwell underplays things, for once, while everyone else seems very happy to put the pedal to the metal. Dame Agatha herself briefly appears, portrayed by Shirley Henderson; it is a sweet little cameo in a film I can imagine the most murderous woman in history quietly rather enjoying, if not quite admitting to approving of. It’s a rare example of a good comedy film which makes a virtue of its own cleverness, and is thus something to be applauded.

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I’m starting to think that my whole thinking on the which-early-episodes-of-Blake’s-7-are-filler issue has been somewhat coloured by the collected works of Trevor Hoyle, the (one suspects) main writer of the Blake novelisations that appeared around the time of the series’ original transmission. This was not a comprehensive project: there were only three, two covering the first season and one the opening episodes of the final year, and even then Hoyle was selective in which material he covered – not The Web, and not episode seven, Mission to Destiny. (Breakdown and Bounty likewise go un-adapted from this first year.)

You can kind of see why: these episodes don’t link into the rest of the series particularly, and they’re not concerned with either Blake gathering his crew or their various clashes with Travis and Servalan. Still, this isn’t to say that Mission to Destiny is a bad episode as such – it’s a little atypical, for sure, but not necessarily in a bad way.

Much of it occurs on the spaceship Ortega, where right at the top of the episode a crewmember played by Brian Capron (later a sympathetic Grange Hill schoolteacher and a less sympathetic Corrie serial killer) is murdered by a bang on the head. The Liberator later comes across the ship, which is going round in circles and not responding to their hails. As Jenna is still not allowed to do anything interesting, Blake teleports over with Cally and Avon to see what’s up.

Well, all the crew are asleep, thanks to someone putting knockout gas in the air supply, but Blake overcomes the urge to have a nap and sees to it that everyone wakes up. The controls have been damaged and the ship will be stuck on its circular flight-path until someone can fix it. The ship is under the command of one Dr Kendall (Barry Jackson) and they are heading home to the planet Destiny, an independent world noted for its voluminous collars, which is currently experiencing a grave crisis. The problem can only be solved using a neutrotope, an immensely valuable and important plot device which they have just spent all of Destiny’s money on.

The sabotage of the ship and the murder of the pilot are clearly connected to one of Kendall’s Seven wanting to nick the neutrotope and retire to a life of luxury. Avon is supremely unmoved by the plight of Destiny, but does confess to a desire to see this mystery solved – which is just as well, because the damage means the Ortega can no longer travel at superluminal speeds, meaning someone else will have to deliver the neutrotope if it’s to be there in time to save the planet. Naturally, Blake volunteers and zips off in the Liberator, leaving Avon and Cally behind to complete repairs and ponder about the times and velocities implied by the script and their implications for the rest of the series.

(The shade of Terry Nation will probably rise screaming from the grave if I even start down this route, but: we are told that, travelling at sub-light speed, the Ortega is five months from home. The Liberator, apparently, can do the trip in four days travelling at ‘standard by six’ (which seems to be, as the name suggests, a fairly standard speed).

Assuming that ‘sub-light speed’ is a fairly high fraction of C, some fairly basic maths reveals that the Liberator can travel 971,327,563,920 km a day at standard speed. This means that the trip from Earth to Alpha Centauri, at four light-years only a hop and a skip in astronomical terms, would usually take the Liberator roughly five weeks.

This meshes fairly well with the long flight times indicated in some of the other episodes of the series – the eight month trip from Earth to Cygnus Alpha mentioned a couple of times – but it does seem a bit on the long side, all things considered. The characters fly from one planet to another fairly casually, after all: Travis goes back and forth between Kentero and Servalan’s HQ multiple times in one episode, and this is on a Federation ship which is slower than Blake’s. I think we are obliged to assume that there are some other factors in play.)

Yes, we are in Agatha Christie pastiche territory here – an area which, I should say, Blake script editor Chris Boucher had previously displayed considerable aptitude for. The main downside to doing this kind of story is that, obviously, you need a fairly extensive guest cast for the whole whodunnit angle to have any interest to it – which means that many of the regulars get less to do than usual; Vila, Gan and Jenna are all minimally served in this episode.

‘You’re probably wondering why I’ve called you all here today…’

The upside, however, is that Paul Darrow gets to play Inspector Avon and crack the case aboard the Ortega, which he does with his usual sardonic panache. Darrow is clearly having great fun throughout the episode; you can almost see the writers and production team waking up to what a felicitous combination of character and performer they’ve stumbled upon here. He gets all the good lines, up to and including the unacceptable-but-still-great-the-way-Darrow-delivers-it ‘You’d better get her out of here, I really rather enjoyed that’, after punching out the villainess of the piece.

The exigencies of time mean this is only really a vague wave in the direction of an actual whodunnit – only a couple of characters are properly developed, the only motive Avon discusses (correctly, as it turns out) is financial gain, there’s only one red herring worth mentioning. It’s also notably a whodunnit in an SF setting, rather than an SF whodunnit – by which I mean a story where the murder is achieved or the killer’s identity obscured by some science-fictional means. SF whodunnits are tricky to do at the best of times, and attempting one inside fifty minutes for a BBC 1 audience would really be a big ask.

Nevertheless, it’s a solid episode that hangs together rather well – mainly around the central armature of Paul Darrow’s performance. This first appearance of a dominant Avon may be its main significance in the history of the show, but that doesn’t stop it from being rather engaging, even if many of the regulars hardly appear and the actual murder-mystery is only handled with the broadest of strokes. It’s hardly essential, but it’s hard to dislike, too.

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Allo again, ma dear friends! Yes, I, ze great Poirot, ‘ave been called out of retairment once more to feel in for your regulair correspondent as he ‘as ‘ad a beet of a sneefle zis week. Ze timeeng is, again, fortuitous, as zees coincides wiz ze arrival in cineemas of Kenneth Brannair’s latest crack at one of my most celebrated cases, Death on the Nile (as originally told by ma old pal Aggie, of course).

Zis is a movie wheech ‘as been ‘anging around for a bit, because of ze pandemic playing ze merry hell with cinema release dates. Indeed, since ‘e finished it M. Brannair has gone off and made an ‘ole othair movie which ‘as already come out. It eez, as you might expect, a laveesh sort of affair and so all the various backairs are surely keen to get a proper return on their investments. So, if ah poot ze little grey cells into action, can ah ascertain just what their chances are of an agreeable outcoom?

Ken ‘imself returns as ze Brannair-Poirot, who – like ze real me – is a brilliant detective and wonderfool chap, but also – unlike ze Poirot vrai – a beet of a weirdo who someone at one point calls ‘an egomaniacal freak’. Tch! Perhaps ze most obvious difference is that, in these over-exposited times, Poirot is not to be permitted just to be Poirot, and so zere is ze extended prologue sequence filling in ze back-story of the Brannair-Poirot, particularly why he has grown ‘is rideeculous moostache and why he approaches his detecting wiz such an all-consuming monastic zeal. It is not streectly necessary from a plot point of view but it does ze nice job of setting up ze moral premise of ze movie.

Anyway, back in ze present day, or at least ze 1930s, zere is a bit of rinky-dinky plotting involved in setting everything up before all ze principal characters actually end oop on ze rivair Nile. (Brannair ‘elpfully puts up a caption saying ‘ze Nile’ over a picture of a rivair wiz some big pyramids next to it, because you should nevair overestimate the intelligence of your audience.) Ze plot basically concerns a luxury cruise taken by a boonch of rich people, two of ‘oom ‘ave just got spliced – zey are played by Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer. Of course, both of zem ‘ave ze odd old flame ‘anging about ze place, and zere are various troublesome relatives, servants, entertainairs, and so on, because if you are going to ‘ave ze all-star cast zey all ‘ave to ‘ave parts to play. (Some of ze more prominent folk involved are Annette Bening, Sophie Okonedo, Russell Brand, French and Saunders, and so on.)

Inevitably, what wiz ze film being called Death on the Nile, someone gets ze chop. Actually, zere is quite a lot of chopping zis time around before everything is resolved, and ze Brannair-Poirot must spring into action and do some heavy-duty detecting before ze cruise ship gets back to civilisation. Zere is even some actual springing into action involved, wiz ze Brannair-Poirot chasing ze killair about and getting quite physical, not soomthing I would evair actually do mahself. Can Ken get his man (or woman)?

Well, ah think we all know zat ze idea ‘ere was nevair going to be to do soomthing very bold and experimental; ze Agathair Christie oodunnit iz a kind of cinematic comfort food – ze audience is ‘ere for the costumes and the slightly ‘ammy performances and ze conventions of ze form. And zese are all in place, even if most of zem feel like zey are a bit lacking in substance for whatevair reason. Most of ze cast are quite acceptable – and ze Russell Brand is startlingly effective in a completely straight role – but it feels as if zey are mostly playing slightly camp stock charactairs. Ze danger is zat zees will just be another film which looks good but which is ultimately only flippant and trivial.

Zere is at least an attempt to give ze movie a bit of ballast by establishing a proper moral premise or theme, which is zat love is a dangerous thing which makes people act like zey are crazy. Maybe love is a kind of crazy, I would not know. (Ze Brannair-Poirot, on ze other hand, does know, which is what all ze business wiz ze origin of his moostach has to do with – as I said, it is all a bit thematic.) Whatevair you make of zis motif, it is at least carried through thoroughly and energetically, although ze subtlety of ze implementation perhaps leaves just a leetle to be desired.

Ze outstanding feature of ze film, and I say zis from a position of complete impartiality, is ze performance of M. Brannair as me. As we ‘ave noted, zis is perhaps not ze purist’s Poirot, and zere are still ze running-gags about Brannair-Poirot being a leetle bit OCD and obsessed with sophisticated dessert dishes. But ze enormous moostache is less of a sooprise zis time and less distracting as a result. What becomes clearer, perhaps, is ze intelligence and presence which Ken brings to ze role; ze Brannair-Poirot initially appears to be a ridiculous fop but proves to be a man of great wisdom and authority when ze chips hit ze fan. Truth be told, M. Brannair’s performance is perhaps rathair bettair than the rest of the film warrants and certainly ze main reason to watch it.

As ze director, M. Brannair puts togethair an appealing enough package, although it is perhaps a bit heavy on ze CGI much of ze time, and ze resolution of ze story is enjoyably convoluted and devious. Ze new Death on the Nile is nevair what you would call a heavyweight affair, except perhaps when it comes to ze star performance, but I would imagine it ticks all ze boxes for ze many people who are still aficionados of Aggie’s work and – of course! – me. Everyone else will probably find it a divairting entertainment if not exactly memorable.

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Every now and then, when I’m about one of my creative endeavours, I’m suddenly struck by a sudden attack of self-doubt and become convinced the thing I’m doing has no value. Nowadays when this happens, I tend to park the thing and either forget about it or think about something else for a bit before returning to it with fresh eyes. In years gone by, though, rather than waste the work I’d already done, I often used to try and turn what I’d been working on into something else that I found myself filled with more enthusiasm about: ghost stories would turn into post-apocalyptic sci-fi, high fantasy would turn into a western or spy story, all with little regard for logic or coherence.

This is all very well when it comes to someone labouring (for want of a better word) in obscurity (this is already the best word), creating solely for their own amusement. It’s a bit more of a surprise when something similar seems to be happening in a reasonably big-budget TV series. Which brings us to Sakho & Mangane. After watching a lot of old TV shows high in comfort-viewing value and The Queen’s Gambit (well, everyone’s been watching it), I decided to strike out in a bold new direction and check out the ‘world drama’ section of one of the big free streamers (rather curiously, there are some TV shows available on Netflix also available for free elsewhere, if you hunt about). Quite why I decided to watch what was billed as a ‘fast-moving African cop show’, I’m not completely sure: simple curiosity, I guess, never having seen a TV series from an African nation before.

Anyway, Sakho & Mangane mostly takes place on the streets of Dakar, where a new special Crime Brigade has been set up. In charge is the no-nonsense Mama Ba (Christiane Dumont), despite the fact that veteran cop Commander Sakho (Issaka Sawadogo) half-expected to get the job. Sakho is very stern and serious all the time, for reasons we will later discover. The new brigade’s first problem is a dead Belgian anthropologist who’s turned up dead on the sacred island of a local tribe of fishermen. The problem (and our first splash of Senegalese colour) is that the fishermen won’t let non-tribe members onto the island to investigate. Luckily, there is a cop from the tribe in the building – but he’s in the cells, as Sakho has just busted his derriere on suspicion of being corrupt. His name is Basile Mangane (Yann Gael), and he is a bit of a rogue.

Mama Ba decrees that Sakho and Mangane, horribly mismatched though they are, must partner up to solve the case of the dead Belgian. ‘I work alone!’ the duo cry in outraged unison. ‘So do unemployed people!’ responds their boss. And so a fairly convoluted police-procedural gets underway, involving a stolen idol, people-traffickers, a mysterious local gangster named Bukki, and Mangane’s on-and-off relationship with local journalist Antoinette (Fatou-Elise Ba). It’s fairly engaging stuff, helped by the charisma of the two leads.

Fair enough. After an opening two-parter, the third episode goes with another resonant theme, that of European sex tourists (mostly women) visiting Senegal to enjoy themselves with handsome young gigolos. It opens with one of these lads turning up dead on the beach. ‘Looks like a ritual killing, his balls have been cut off,’ announces one of the team (not something you often hear in Midsomer Murders, nor indeed Death in Paradise). Naturally, Mangane has to go undercover as a gigolo, which he is not delighted about. Again, it’s slightly knockabout stuff, but colourful and fun, with the actors clearly growing into their roles – I particularly enjoyed the performance from Christophe Guybet, who plays the team’s perpetually drug-addled pathologist.

Episode four is where things take… a turn. Mangane’s old army mate turns up dead in mysterious cirumstances, leading him to become even more excitable and impulsive than usual. It seems he was working undercover to expose a gangster leading a counterfeiting ring (I think, this episode is not one of the best-scripted). The bad guy is either a midget or a pygmy, but more importantly he claims to have a magic amulet that makes him bulletproof. Just another nutter, right?

Wrong. Come the climax, Mangane unloads into the pint-sized perpetrator, who’s coming at him with a machete, only for it to have no effect. He is only saved when Sakho appears and plugs the villain. What was that all about? Even weirder, an old bloke who’s been turning up occasionally to give Sakho vague, ominous warnings puts in another appearance. ‘You can’t use your powers that way!’ he tells Sakho. What powers? What is going on here?

Now, anyone watching Sakho and Mangane via Netflix will have had a slightly different experience: there, the show is advertised as a story of two mismatched detectives taking on strange forces as the supernatural threatens Dakar – anyone tuning in for that must have found three episodes about dead Belgians and sex tourism rather confusing.

Nevertheless, this is a show which takes one of the hardest and weirdest left-terms mid-season that I’ve ever seen. What was going on behind the scenes on this series? Was this planned all along? Did the people making it get bored of doing a police procedural and decide to have a go at making something more like The X Files instead? It’s baffling and intriguing at the same time.

From this point on, things get progressively more peculiar, as you might have guessed. Episode five is a post-financial-crisis story, with bank executives involved in selling dodgy sub-prime mortgages turning up dead with their faces melted off. Working out the connections and identifying the individual with a motive takes us briefly back into the realms of a detective story, but the killer turns out to be some sort of avenging angel with supernatural powers (Sakho and Mangane face a sticky moment until the big man calls on his ‘special powers’ again).

Episode six throws the format well and truly up in the air, with the entire regular cast reporting for special training at a cinema inside a deserted theme park. But it’s a trap! Bukki (who, it seems, is a close relative of Mama Ba) has managed to get out of prison and unleashes a horde of zombies against our heroes. Sakho is forced to reveal his special abilities to the whole team before the day is saved.

Yeah, it’s about rampaging zombies in a theme park. By this point I was just letting the show sort of wash over me, as there was clearly not much point in trying to anticipate what was coming next. This looks like the kind of episode made in a hurry, as a response to some kind of behind-the-scenes crisis, so different is its structure and style. None of the regular sets appear (and indeed the Crime Brigade’s HQ is blown up while they’re all off fighting the zombies, and is never seen again).

Episode seven finds the Crime Brigade now based out of Mama Ba’s back yard, with a rather peculiar sex attacker on the loose and the team a man down, as Sakho has gone AWOL now everyone knows he is an exorcist or a magician or something. Mangane seems more bothered about finding his former partner than the killer, which gives some of the minor characters a chance to shine; the fact the culprit turns out to be a demonic incubus (or ‘night husband’, as such things are apparently known in Africa) is not really a surprise at this point. (The demon is surprisingly well-realised.) Highlight of the episode, for me, was the scene in which a government minister summons Mama Ba and announces that the Crime Brigade is publicly being shut down – but it will continue as a secret task force fighting paranormal threats! Mama Ba takes this news with surprising stoicism, and does not appear to inform anyone else on her team of this minor change in focus.

By this point I was expecting something pretty spectacular from the last episode, in story terms at least. However, and this may not come as a total shock if you’ve been paying attention so far, iron narrative control and thought-through structure are not amongst Sakho & Mangane‘s most obvious virtues: the last episode is one of the duds of the season, over-preoccupied for most of its length with a sub-Saw plotline: Sakho is held captive and put through various fiendish tortures (some of them supernatural, of course), while the killer sends Mangane all over the city doing various errands for him. By the time we get to the climactic revelations (something to do with an evil cult Sakho would rather cut his ties with, various estranged relatives, and Mangane’s soul), there’s not much time left to sort it all out.

Furthermore, this is the 21st century, and no self-respecting series bothers with closure if there’s the slightest chance of a continuation, so everything ends on a rather confusing cliffhanger, bringing an end to one of the weirdest viewing experiences I’ve had this side of the final episodes of The Prisoner. Was a second season on the cards prior to the pandemic? Is it still a possibility nowadays? Where can this series possibly go next?

I don’t know. The thought of another full season of Sakho & Mangane quite as detached from the anchor of reason as the first one certainly gives me pause. But I suspect that in the end I would feel compelled to give it a look. In a world so often characterised by tedious competency, it’s important to cherish these eruptions of wildly inconsistent madness. Bravo, mon braves.

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Genre’s a funny old thing, especially when you start playing games with it. I used to watch a lot of rather formulaic American TV shows and in some cases the only specific episodes I can remember are the ones which stirred a big dollop of fantasy or horror into an otherwise naturalistic set-up: both CHiPs and Matt Houston did episodes about alien abductions, while there were also episodes of Quantum Leap featuring vampires and the Devil. As we have recently touched upon, British series have sometimes done the same thing – just today they repeated the episode of The Saint with the giant ants in it, while we’ve been talking about those episodes of The Avengers which included things like alien plants and genuine telepathy, rather than the usual tongue-in-cheek whimsy. (I suppose it works the other way too: the various Star Trek series would very occasionally do a show which was SF only in virtue of its setting.)

In conjunction with this, I recently mentioned the Bergerac Christmas special from 1986, which is a) exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about and b) memorable for being properly scary (at least it was when I was not yet in my teens). Bergerac, for those not in the know, was a sort of precursor to modern shows like Death in Paradise and Midsummer Murders, in that it was built around competently-presented detective story plots (with perhaps a touch more action to them than usual), occurring against an attractive, escapist background. To pay for the thing, the BBC went into partnership with an Australian network, and quite possibly the Jersey tourist board too, given this is where the series is largely set.

Our lead character is Jim Bergerac (played by John Nettles), a detective with the (fictitious) Bureau des Etrangers, a usefully vague fictitious branch of the Jersey police. Bergerac has the two essential attributes of a 1980s TV detective, namely a memorable car (a 1947 Triumph roadster, it says here) and a complicated personal life (he is divorced and has a history of alcoholism).

The Christmas show in question is entitled Fires in the Fall, and was written by Chris Boucher (this must have been one of the last things he did on the show before departing to focus on Star Cops, which we have also discussed recently). The tone is quite properly set by a scene in a darkened graveyard and what sounds like a child’s voice chanting a nursery rhyme. Yes, this is going to be a bit spooky. The plot itself gets underway with Bergerac’s father-in-law, local tycoon Charlie Hungerford (Terence Alexander), asking for his help in exposing a man named Raoul Barnaby (Barrie Ingham) whom Charlie believes to be a fake medium (widescale cognitive dissonance ensues for anyone used to John Nettles himself playing a character named Barnaby in Midsummer Murders).

Barnaby has been attempting to insert himself into the good graces of wealthy local widow Roberta Jardine (Margaretta Scott), a friend of Charlie’s, by trying to contact her late husband. Jim and his partner Susan (the great Louise Jameson) duly attend the seance, something Susan is not entirely pleased about following a rather eerie experience at an old house she is involved in selling. Further odd events ensue at the seance, with the voice of a young girl being heard, strange scratches appearing, and a grave in an one of the island’s cemeteries bursting into flame at the same time.

Barnaby appears convinced he has been contacted by the spirit of the girl whose grave was interfered with, and goes to the press with this – a scummy reporter (Paul Brooke) duly appears – which in turn forces Bergerac’s boss to task him with finally closing the case on the girl’s death. Apparently she was the only victim of a spree of arsons back in the 1960s, but what is the connection to the Jardine family? It turns out the cop who was assigned to the case back then retired after it went nowhere – well, not quite ‘retired’, but took a well-paid job with Jardine’s company. There are also some irregularities involved with the firm of undertakers who handled the interment.

Bergerac thinks he’s cracked the case – the arson attacks back in the 1960s were the work of Mrs Jardine’s disturbed son, who is known to have committed suicide. Bergerac thinks he killed himself out of guilt, after being responsible for the girl’s accidental death, and the family covered up the scandal. Now Mrs Jardine’s rapacious niece (Amanda Hillwood) has uncovered the family’s dark secret, and – in partnership with Barnaby, an old associate of hers – is using it to damage her aunt’s mental stability to the point where they can fake her suicide, allowing them to inherit the family fortune.

So far, a satisfying and clever detective story, as smart and cynical as the best of Boucher’s work elsewhere. The supernatural trappings just seem to be set dressing, fun though they are. But what was that scene with the spooky old house all about? Before we even have time to ponder that, things abruptly take a different turn. Mrs Jardine abruptly rumbles Barnaby as a fraud after he affects to receive messages from her dead son. The corrupt copper involved in the cover-up (Ron Pember) and Barnaby himself are found dead in mysterious circumstances, with a black-robed figure seen near them shortly before, both times.

It turns out that the dead son did not in fact die: he was just horribly burned and smuggled off to a Swiss sanatorium by his mother, with the story of his death put about to facilitate the cover-up. Now, it seems, he is back in Jersey, and seeking revenge on the individuals involved in his mother’s murder (quite why he offs the bent copper is a bit of a plot hole). It also seems that he used to live in the spooky old house where Susan had her scary experience at the start…

Cue a rather creepy sequence where Susan is stalked around the old house again by the cowled spectre – all of the set-piece ‘phantom attacks’ are very well directed, with Tom Clegg the gentleman responsible. Perhaps running and screaming is a bit less than Louise Jameson deserves as a performer, but Bergerac was a show with a very large and unwieldy regular cast at this point (there’s Bergerac, his girlfriend, his ex-father-in-law, his ex-wife, his daughter, his boss, his boss’ secretary, two other detectives from the Bureau, and a nightclub owner of his acquaintance) and I suppose this was as elegant a way of incorporating all of them into the plot as any. It’s almost a shame they don’t make more of this horror angle, but the script still manages to bring it into the resolution of the main story: the villain confesses to the murder after glimpsing Nemesis over the shoulder of an oblivious, genially sceptical Bergerac: an almost uncannily creepy moment.

And Boucher still hasn’t quite finished – the final twist of the episode is that the believed-dead son has not snuck back to Jersey, killed his mother’s tormentors and then escaped. According to the Swiss staff, he has been there in the sanatorium all the time. Nettles delivers this information with a completely straight face, in complete contrast to the amused scepticism about the supernatural that’s been going in. It’s very nicely pitched, in fact: it’s up to the viewer to decide whether this a simple case of the Swiss staff getting it wrong, or some sort of psychic projection, or something even stranger and more obscure. Anyone who doesn’t like Christmas ghost stories is afforded just enough wriggle-room to be able to avoid feeling peeved.

At the time this felt like a fun seasonal change of pace, but it seems that Bergerac did its first horror-tinged episode earlier in the same season (I should say that every other episode was shown in 1985) – What Dreams May Come, starring Charles Gray (and very much informed by Gray’s appearance in The Devil Rides Out). The annual excursion into something a bit supernatural became something of a Bergerac tradition (I remember my teenage sister being genuinely scared by 1990’s The Dig, about a Viking burial site with a spectral guardian), but I don’t think any of them were quite as effective as Fires in the Fall (maybe the ninety-minute run-time helps the story and atmosphere develop). No-one, I think, would describe Bergerac as a genuinely classic piece of TV, but this is a solidly entertaining episode.


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Episode four of the second season of The Avengers is another Eric Paice script entitled Bullseye, although it has nothing to do with sweeties or speedboats. Once again it has a very different style and structure from the other episodes so far, in both the shape of the story and how it handles the regulars.

It opens with a secretary at Andersons, a successful London company, discovering her employer dead in his office, apparently by his own hand. Not surprisingly, ructions ensue at a meeting of the shareholders, because of both this and an attempt to buy the company by a venture capitalist named Cade (Ronald Radd, an actor perhaps best known for playing the Rook in the Checkmate episode of The Prisoner) – the management and senior shareholders have vowed to fight Cade’s takeover. The motion is made, and carried, that another major shareholder should replace the dead man on the board to find out just what kind of state the company is in. This just happens to be Mrs Gale, whose stake in the firm has obligingly been bought for her by Steed.

Steed’s interest is that someone is running guns into a volatile region of Africa, and Andersons is a small-arms manufacturer – very possibly the firm that made the guns in question. But how is Cade involved in all this? One by one the other major shareholders start turning up dead in highly suspicious circumstances – is he really that determined to get control of the company? As the stock she owns grows more and more vital to the resolution of the take-over, the pressure on Cathy to solve the mystery becomes both intense and personal…

This is a solid enough episode, much more of a conventional murder-mystery than you might expect from The Avengers. There are some decent plot twists and the revelations as to what’s really been going on are quite difficult to guess, probably. Nice performance from Radd, and also from Bernard Kay, who makes the most of a relatively small role. The really distinctive thing about the episode, for me, is that this is only Honor Blackman’s third episode – in broadcast order, anyway – and it’s a very Cathy-centric story. Steed is only in a handful of scenes (all of which Patrick Macnee proceeds to steal, naturally); his role (other than contemplating the stock-market – you can tell Steed is the kind of man on first-name terms with his broker) is to provide exposition and a little light comic relief as, essentially, Cathy’s handler.

Mrs Gale herself gets to overpower another man in a fight, show off her sharpshooting prowess, hold her own with hard-headed businessmen and basically dominate the episode. As I say, it’s sound enough, provided you excuse the kind of technical flubs which many of these videotaped episodes contain, but just a little bit too conventional to really qualify as an example of The Avengers at its best. Still, one must be patient: there are many episodes yet to come, so room aplenty for outrageous quirkiness.

On we go to the next one, which is Mission to Montreal, written by Lester Powell. I believe I may have slightly facetiously given the impression that this one sees our heroes rocking up in Canada, but this is not quite the case: the story spends virtually all its time on the way to ‘the lynchpin of the English-speaking world’ (S. Holmes, 1944) but never actually gets there. It opens on the set of what looks like a slightly schlocky Gothic horror movie, where the stand-in for the leading lady is murdered by a sinister cove with a goatee and an eye-patch.

The leading lady herself (Patricia English) responds badly to this, as you might expect, and flees straight back home to, well, Canada – I say ‘straight back’, but what she actually does is get on a ship which is, through the wonders of stock footage, making the voyage. The actress in question is named Carla Berotti, and she is what you might call high-maintenance, a self-confessed hypochondriac amongst other things, making endless demands of the ship’s doctor – at least until he falls ill, at which point another of the passengers steps in: Dr Martin King (Jon Rollason), who may as well be called Dr Bland for all the charisma Rollason displays in the role.

Berotti lays a lot of lumpy character-exposition dialogue on the doc, concerning her various issues and dependencies, and I believe we are supposed to appreciate there is some sort of chemistry between the duo. Hmmm, well. Eventually King takes his leave and the ship calls in at Le Havre for supplies and additional personnel. One of whom is Steed, thank God: we are almost at the first ad break and yet still have virtually no idea of what’s going on or why we should care.

It all turns out to be about stolen microfilm which Berotti is suspected of carrying from Britain to Canada – but who are the enemy agents who have forced her to do so? Will she meet the same fate as her stand-in when her usefulness is at an end? With Dr King essentially in place as her personal physician, and Steed working undercover as a steward on the ship, at least they are well-placed should anything develop.

It’s Steed pouring his partner some champagne, but not as we know it.

I know The Decapod has a bad reputation but for me this is the first genuine dud of the second series. Roger Marshall, a key writer for the second and third series, has written very critically about the quality of the earlier scripts and this is the kind of episode that makes you think he may have had a point. It’s not just that a couple of hours after watching it you’ve forgotten most of the plot, it’s that it’s very difficult to force yourself to pay attention even while it’s on in front of you – you’re given no reason to care about anything that happens until Steed turns up, nearly a third of the way into the story.

Things are not helped by the fact that this is clearly a first-season-style script, with Steed very secondary to the doctor’s character. My understanding is that after Ian Hendry left, they still had a handful of scripts on the shelf wherein David Keel’s medical background was a crucial plot point – hence the creation of Martin King, to appear in just these stories. It can’t just be hindsight that makes Martin King and Venus Smith seem hopelessly flat and weak compared to the other regular characters of the series, although Jon Rollason really receives no favours from the manner of his introduction here. Anyway, we need not concern ourselves with this one any more. Next!

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I don’t want things to get too confessional around here, especially so soon after I owned up (again) to not being that big a fan of Blade Runner (probably best not to mention I’ve always been fairly lukewarm about Goodfellas, too), but: I’ve never entirely seen what all the fuss is about when it comes to Agatha Christie, either. I know, I know: two billion sales, translated into over a hundred languages, author of the best crime novel ever, apparently – words like massive and enduring don’t begin to do justice to her appeal. She is the kind of writer, it seems, that other people don’t just read and enjoy, they read and enjoy and want to have a go themselves – a friend of mine writes Christie pastiches as a hobby. (This isn’t just limited to her particular brand of suspense, of course; another friend has half a dozen Scandi noir mysteries for sale on Amazon.)

Oh well, I suppose I will just have to get used to being in the minority about this, along with everything else. Someone else in the Christie fan club is the writer-director Rian Johnson, whose new movie Knives Out is the purest example of knocked-off Agatha I can remember seeing on the big screen in a very long time. Johnson is best known for work in a different genre – he made the superior SF movie Looper a few years back, and was then responsible for the last main-sequence stellar conflict movie (apparently the worst movie ever to make $1.3 billion, if you believe the voices of the internet) – but if you dig down into his career he clearly has a fondness for the mystery genre. One of the good things about your last film making $1.3 billion, is that – regardless of how derided it is – you can basically write your own ticket for a while, and Johnson has made wise use of this.

The plot of Knives Out is, not surprisingly, twisty-turny stuff, but the basic set-up goes a little something like this. Famous and successful mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead, the morning after his eighty-fifth birthday party, apparently by his own hand. The police make the necessary enquiries, interviewing his various children and their partners (Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson and Toni Collette amongst them); it soon becomes apparent that nearly everyone in the family had a reason for wanting the old man dead – but they also all have alibis for the time of his demise, and there is no forensic evidence of any foul play. The cops are inclined to list the whole thing as a suicide and go about their business, but also on the scene is renowned private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, deploying an accent as outrageously thick as his pay packet for the next Bond movie), who is convinced there is more going on (not least because some unknown individual has retained him to consult on the case). He confides all this to Harlan’s former nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), who has her own insights into the family’s somewhat unusual internal dynamics – and, from Blanc’s point of view, the useful psychological quirk that she is incapable of telling a lie without experiencing an alarming degree of projectile emesis. Can Blanc and Marta crack the case? Is there even a case to be cracked?

As you can perhaps discern, all the essential elements of the classic country house murder mystery are present, making this a recreation of a form which was probably creaking a bit even before the Second World War. In those terms it probably sounds like a bemusing folly, the continuing popularity of the genre notwithstanding, but Johnson is smart enough to be aware of this and deftly update the form for a modern audience. Part of his response is to ground the film firmly in the present day: there are jokes about the alt-right and snowflakes, and references to the modern political situation in the US; if you look hard enough, there is a sardonic subtext about the tension between established, entitled American citizens and the immigrant workers they are so reliant on. Of course, this may mean the film is liable to date rather quickly, but I suspect this is incidental enough to the plot for it not to be a major problem.

The other notable thing about Knives Out is how knowing it is: the film isn’t desperately ironic, but it is fully aware of how camply absurd Christie-style plotting is, and makes it work by embedding it in a film with its film firmly in its cheek. This borders on being a full-blown comedy thriller, with a lot of very funny moments mixed in with the detective work and exposition. The family are a collection of comic grotesques, while Craig turns in one of the biggest performances of his career so far. Just how much fun he is having playing Blanc is palpably clear, and one could easily imagine a post-Bond career where he swaggers his way through another film like this every few years; rumour has it that talks regarding a follow-up are already taking place. Craig pitches it just a bit too big to be credible, but big enough to be so entertaining you don’t really care; Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael J Shannon, Toni Collette, Don Johnson and Chris Evans follow his lead. That some of the other participants turn in much more naturalistic performances without the film collapsing into a mess of jarring styles is also to Johnson’s credit.

It seems that you can still make this kind of story work for a modern audience: the trick is not to try and make it terribly relevent to contemporary concerns, but to embrace the confected nature of the form and run with it, concentrating above all else on simple entertainment value. It sounds simple, but this is a ferociously clever, witty film, both in its mechanics and in terms of the sly games it plays with the audience. Fingers crossed that it connects with cinema-goers to the extent that it deserves to; the early signs are good. As noted, I am agnostic about Agatha Christie and that whole subgenre of mystery fiction, but I still had a whale of a time watching Knives Out; I imagine most people will have a similar experience.

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‘Allo everybodee! Do not paneek. Your regulair correspondent is busy writeeng ze tradeetional awfool novel as part of somezing called ze Nanowrimo, and so I, ze great Hercule Poirot, ‘ave been asked to feel in for ‘im. Ze timeeng is, ‘ow you say, fortuitous, for zees allows me to investigate ze strange case of ze new movie of one of ma most celebrated casees, Kenneth Brannair’s Murder on the Orient Express, based on ze novel by ma old choom Agathair Christie (or ‘Aggie’, as I always used to call ‘er).


Why ‘ave zey decided to do anuzzair version of zis, ‘ow you say, old chestnut? What is ze appeal? Well, I suppose zere is always ze fact that Aggie’s books steel sell by ze truckload, so zere is kind of ze built-in audience, to say nothing of ze marquee value in ze Murder on the Orient Express name. So it is ze safe bet for ze big box office, maybe.

Playing me, ze great Poirot, is M. Brannair ‘imself (we shall come back to zees). At ze start of ze movie he is sorteeng out some nonsense in Jerusalem, which I do not recall telleeng Aggie about, leadeeng me to deduce that ze scriptwriter ‘as made it all oop for some reason. I suppose it is to do wiz subtext or whatevair.

Anyhow, soon enough ze Brannair-Poirot is summoned back to Britain, which requires ‘im to travel on ze famous Orient Express. On ze train with ‘im are a right boonch of dodgy characters, ‘oo are played by what you call ze all-star cast. Zere are the much-loved acteeng veterans (Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi), ze big-name ‘Ollywood stars (Johnny Dipp and Michelle P-fiffer), and a few oop and comeeng new stars. ‘Ere, for instance, is Daisy Ridley, possibly because ze studio would like to see if she can ‘ave any kind of career beyond what I am apparently obliged to refer to as ze ‘stellair conflict franchise’ (your regular correspondent is a very odd and rathair silly fellow, n’est-ce pas?).

Well, I ‘ave to say we are quite a long way into Murder on the Orient Express before zere is actually a murder on ze Orient Express, but soon enough ze Brannair-Poirot is on the case, findeeng ‘e as to contend with a baffling multiplicity of evidence. Can ze Brannair-Poirot breeng ze killair to joostice? Or ‘as ‘e bloondered into somewhat deepair philosophical watairs?

Hmmm. Ze first thing I ‘ave to say about M. Brannair’s movie is zat I was not at first terribly impressed by his performance as me. ‘E ‘as given ‘imself a moostash which makes it look like some minkeys are ‘ideeng oop ‘is nuzz, and ‘e plays me as if I ‘ave ze OCD. It almost makes me zink M. Brannair is takeeng ze mickey out of ze great Poirot. It is ze very big and broad performance.

Zen again, zis is ze fairly big and broad movie, made on ze laveesh scale wiz plenty of ze CGI, which if nuzzink else means it does not look like ze Sunday night telly, a trap into which many of zese period movies fall. On ze othair ‘and, it does ze tradeetional period movie zing where all ze production value and set designs are carefully stook oop on ze screen. Zere are many shots of people foldeeng ze napkins and so on; it often looks more like a big commaircial for ze train ‘oliday zan ze actual murdair-mystery.

Ze sense that M. Brannair is once again playeeng it all rathair safe as a director is confirmed as ze movie goes on, for zis seems very much like ze Christie movie done by ze numbairs. Zere is, as I ‘ave mentioned, ze all-star cast; later on zere is ze bit where I, ze great Poirot, assemble all ze suspects and reveal ‘oo it was that actually dunnit. Of course zees is modern ‘Ollywood and so there is some fisticuffs and shooteng which I do not recall actually ‘appening at ze time, but c’est la vie, especially if you are a fictional detective.

Zis is of course ze very famoos story, and I am willeeng to bet that many people who ‘ave nevair read Aggie’s book already know this story and ze somewhat unusual tweest in ze tale. ‘Owever, ze actual mechanics of ze mystery seem to get a leetle bit lost beneath all ze gloss and ze big performances (I ‘ave to say I did warm oop to ze Brannair-Poirot once I ‘ad got used to ze ridiculous moostash). Certainly I get ze sense that the actual ‘oodunnit is fighteeng for prominence alongside everything else in ze movie.

I did ask your regular correspondent what ‘e thought of ze story, which ‘e apparently read in one sitting on a dull day in Bishkek some years ago. ‘E said ‘e thought it was okay, but was left a little morally queasy by ze conclusion of ze tale (I cannot say more wizzout it being a spoiler alert). Well, if zere is one thing to be said for M. Brannair’s take on ze movie it is that it does not shy away from the moral ambiguity at ze ‘eart of ze story, and indeed elevates it to a rathair central position in proceedeengs. Maybe zees makes me, ze great Poirot, look a bit lackeeng in moral authority, but frankly this is less worrying for me than zat stupid moostash which M. Brannair ‘as insisted on wearing.

Well, in ze end, I suppose zees movie will do okay: it looks nice, it ‘as ze good cast giving ze crowd-pleaseeng performances, and ze ‘ole zing works very ‘ard to give off ze touch of class in every department. All I will say is zat ze studio seem to think zey are making a jolly, cosy, tradeetional murdair-mystery film, while M. Brannair sometimes appears to be under ze impression he is making ze very serious film about ze absence of ze moral absolutes and ze wounding of ze soul which can be caused by guilt and grief. Wiz a very big moostash. If zese two things do not go together perfectly, zen that explain why ze new version of Murder on the Orient Express sometimes feels like a train with an engine at each end, pulleeng it in more than one direction at a time. Maybe as a result it doesn’t really end up goeeng anywhere much, but at least ze scenery is nice dureeng ze trip.

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There is surely something slightly ironic about the fact that the main film released as counter-programming to the new version of The Mummy, in the UK at least, was Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel, with Rachel Weisz in the title role – because for some of us it doesn’t seem like all that many years since Weisz herself was starring as the female lead in The Mummy, and launching her career in the process. It’s turned out to be a pretty good career, too, all things considered, and she’s continuing to churn out the movies, although this may be because her significant other always seems to be on the verge of retiring, if I understand the newspapers correctly.

Anyway, My Cousin Rachel is based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, a romantic mystery set in Cornwall (not that you’d particularly notice from anyone’s accent). Sam Claflin plays Philip, an orphaned young man taken in by his elder cousin Ambrose, a country gentleman of sorts. Ambrose leads a rough and ready lifestyle and has little time for women, and so Philip is a little surprised when Ambrose, while on a trip to Italy on doctor’s orders, reports that he is very much enjoying the company of his cousin Rachel (Weisz), who is of course Philip’s cousin too. Word reaches them that Ambrose and Rachel have married, quickly followed by some rather disturbing but vaguely-worded messages from Ambrose indicating Rachel may have sinister designs upon him. Eventually, they learn that Ambrose has died.

Philip naturally places the blame for this entirely on Rachel, despite the doctor’s report that Ambrose died of a brain tumour. He is the sole heir to Ambrose’s estate, the will not having been updated, although he will not inherit until his twenty-fifth birthday, still a short while away. Then he learns that Rachel has returned to England and will be coming to visit the estate. His plans to be thoroughly brusque and unpleasant to her do not survive his realisation that she seems to be a thoroughly pleasant, thoughtful, and appealing woman, and he finds himself increasingly thinking of her in a manner not normally associated with a cousin (well, except in some remote parts of Norfolk and Alabama, anyway). But others in the community have heard ominous rumours about Rachel’s Italian past – could Philip have been right in the first place, and now be on the verge of making a potentially lethal mistake…?

Yeah, so, another Daphne du Maurier adaptation – and therefore a film with some expectations upon it, when you consider that we’re talking about a lineage containing the likes of Rebecca, The Birds, and Don’t Look Now. Based on those, you’d expect taut suspense, simmering passion, an involving mystery – the makings of a superior movie in most departments, really.

Unfortunately what you get in My Cousin Rachel is really none of those things, as it feels like a pretty bog-standard costume drama somewhat lifted by a very engaging performance from Rachel Weisz. I can’t fault the production values or the cinematography of the film, for these are very impressive – many lovely shots of the countryside of Cornwall and Italy – but in other respects, this doesn’t feel much different to your average Sunday night costume show, and you wouldn’t lose much by waiting to watch it on TV.

Watching it, I couldn’t help but compare it to Lady Macbeth, another costume drama I caught recently. The two films have quite a bit in common, being set in remote and windy spots, and being concerned with dangerous, out of control infatuations, and the place of a woman in 19th century society. For one thing, My Cousin Rachel is always a bit too demure to let its infatuation spring to life – there’s a spot of alfresco nookie but you never really feel the fire, with the result that Philip seems foolish, instead of a man letting his feelings run away with him. Less concentration on good manners and a little more oomph would have made things a bit less BBC1 and potentially rather more engaging and cinematic.

It’s also inevitably the case that central to My Cousin Rachel is the idea that the main female character is mysterious, ambivalent, potentially untrustworthy, possibly a murderous predator on the male protagonist. She is always seen through the eyes of others (mainly Philip’s) rather than as a character in her own right. Our perception of her is partly shaped by rumours of her ‘uncontrollable appetites’ (of which there is no on-screen corroboration, by the way). Needless to say none of the men in the film are subject to the same kind of treatment, and it’s not actually made clear why Rachel is followed around by this swirl of faint scandal, other than simply to stir the pot and keep the story interesting: there’s more than a faint whiff of melodrama about My Cousin Rachel as it progresses.

I’m not saying that all of this makes My Cousin Rachel a necessarily bad film, but it is one which functions in quite traditional terms in some of its gender politics. This is true of the book, too, for all that it was written by a woman, so it’s not like it’s all down to Michell. And it may be the case that a lot of the target audience for this film won’t have a problem with any of this – but I couldn’t help thinking that there might be different ways of telling this kind of story now.

In any case, for all the decent performances and strong supporting cast (Iain Glen is Philip’s legal guardian, Holliday Grainger the girl he initially has an understanding with, Simon Russell Beale the family lawyer), the story never quite convinces – Philip is just bit too earnest and dim, and the conclusion is somewhat abrupt and underpowered, not quite striking the note of resonant ambiguity which it is clearly aiming for. The result is a film which constantly feels like it’s playing things very safe in every department, and is, as a result, just a tiny bit boring.


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