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Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

Regular readers would in theory be aware of my theories concerning the type of trailer that tends to show up in front of a movie: other than recipients of the ‘big push’ saturation technique, the trailers tend to be of a similar tenor to whatever film you’ve gone to see (for reasons which are hopefully obvious). Now, what happens if there are no other films of a similar tenor in the offing? They always seem to find something at least vaguely similar to advertise, but often there are fewer or even only one trailer. This happened the other day in front of Melina Matsoukas’ Queen & Slim – all we got was what looked very much like the trailer for a horror movie called Antebellum, not even due out for a couple of months.

This is possibly only to be expected, given we are on the verge of the changing of the cinematic seasons – it’s Oscar night on Sunday, after all, and all the worthy, serious, sophisticated movies are about to go away in favour of (mostly) mid-range genre movies, at least until the proper blockbusters get going in April and May. Certainly Queen & Slim seems to be the last of the current run of serious social dramas about racial tensions in the United States – at least, that’s how it looks in the advertising, although there is a bit more nuance in the actual movie.

Queen & Slim opens in Ohio, where a young man (Daniel Kaluuya) and a young woman (Jodie Turner-Smith), both African-American, are having a first date, having encountered each other on a popular kindling-themed relationship website. It is not quite a disaster, but neither is it a brilliant success: he is generous, laid-back, perhaps not particularly bright; she is prickly, a career woman, demanding. He drives her home; they are pulled over by a white cop for a very minor traffic offence. For some reason the cop seems to have issues with them and is unreasonably harsh. She reaches for her phone, and the cop reaches for his gun.

A few seconds later, she has been shot and wounded, but the cop has been shot dead. Tellingly, neither of the couple entertains for a moment the idea of sticking around to explain they were only acting in self defence – they know, or at least firmly believe, the system is firmly stacked against them. The course of action they find themselves forced into is to head south (they talk of escaping to Cuba), trying to evade the authorities, all the while unaware of the wider events which their actions have set in motion…

Queen & Slim starts off feeling like a particular grim drama, or perhaps a thriller, with the kind of sense of being trapped in an unfolding nightmare that you also find in some horror movies. If this is a horror story, however, it is one drawn from life, for the story’s origins in any number of sickening real-life incidents should be self-evident. The subtext of the film initially seems to be very clear: such is the inherent bias in the system that young people are effectively criminalised simply because of their ethnicity, regardless of their actions. There is perhaps some truth here, and it is certainly a potentially powerful thesis for a film to express, but without a great deal of scope for subtlety.

There is a good deal of Queen & Slim which appears to favour power over subtlety: this is on some level a morality play about contemporary America, and as a result there is a degree of broad-strokes storytelling going on. However, the film does a good job of finding nuance and sophistication as well. On a basic level, this comes from the fact that there are shades of grey in the movie – not every white character is a bigot, not every black character is a victim or saint. The fact that we don’t learn the actual names of the two lead characters until the very end of the film is not dwelt upon, only gradually dawning on the viewer (quite why the film is called Queen & Slim is a bit obscure, as they aren’t referred to by these nicknames on screen either) – as a result, the sense that they are symbols, representing the African American experience in general, is considerably muted.

The adoption of the protagonists as symbols of injustice is another of the themes of the movie, but again this is made considerably more complex by the way it is handled. They don’t want to be symbols, nor do they endorse the violent uprising against a racist establishment which some of their supporters suggest. Neither of them is strictly speaking apolitical – the movie suggests this isn’t an option for African Americans at the moment – but nor are they committed activists, either. One of the film’s more provocative choices is to juxtapose scenes from a protest in support of the couple (this goes shockingly wrong) with what they’re actually up to at the same time: it’s safe to say that politics is not on their minds, as they are pre-occupied with having sex for the first time.

The developing romance between the two leads is one of the most successful elements of the film, and again it is underpinned by irony: it seems unlikely that they would even have seen each other again, had their first date not gone horribly, horribly wrong. You can see them slowly getting past each others’ defences, discovering chemistry: the journey from near-total strangers to a couple with a deep bond is up there on the screen, as it needs to be for the ending of the film to have the impact that it does. In a wider sense, the film seems to be suggesting that in a broken, compromised world, you have to take whatever joy you can find, and the heart of the story is about the protagonists falling in love at least as much as it is about racism and institutionalised injustice. The rush and excitement of falling in love is well-handled here, providing a strong counterpoint of colour and life to the bleakness of much of the story.

There’s a sense in which this is a road movie, and some of the diversions along the way as the leads travel down from Ohio to Florida stretch credibility just a little bit; in the same way, the film is perhaps a little overlong at over two and a quarter hours in length. For the most part, however, this is an excellent mix of drama, romance, and social commentary, with two very strong performances from the leads and good support from the rest of the cast. The foundation, however, is an intelligent script which has been very well directed. Whether movies have the power to actually change the world is debatable: but this is a dignified and passionate cry of rage.

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Film lead times being what they are, it’s only now that we are starting to see big studio movies that were greenlit in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and everything that followed it. As the Weinstein case itself is still sub judice, or whatever the American equivalent is, studios and producers are having to look elsewhere for material for this kind of film. It’s a no-brainer that Jay Roach’s Bombshell has settled upon some particularly promising source material, which is very resonant with Weinstein’s case as well as opening up all kinds of other areas which can be usefully exploited.

Bombshell is largely set in the offices (and concerns employees) of the Fox News network. Even over here in the UK Fox News has become a byword for a certain kind of hard-right, not exactly impartial broadcasting. It is, notoriously, Donald Trump’s news outlet of choice, and the bulk of the film is set during the last American presidential campaign. Nevertheless, Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly (Charlise Theron) is given permission by the network’s owners, the Murdoch family, to give Trump a hard time during a TV debate, to which he responds with typical restraint, thoughtfulness, and humility (i.e., none whatsoever). Kelly is hounded as a result, with the network’s founder and head, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) reluctant to fully support her.

Other plotlines run parallel to this one: Kayla (Margot Robbie), an ambitious young woman seeking preferment, attempts to get ahead at Fox, but finds that this involves making certain accommodations with Ailes that she was not expecting. Another woman broadcaster, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), is fired, with no specific reason given. She has her own suspicions about this, and proceeds to sue Ailes for sexual harassment. This is the storyline that proceeds to dominate the film. Carlson assumes that she has been far from the only recipient of Ailes’ attention, but she is reliant on other women coming forward to corroborate her story. The question is, is anyone prepared to risk their careers by taking a stand against the prevailing culture at the network?

Here’s the thing about Bombshell: it’s written by Charles Randolph, most celebrated for the sterling job he did co-scripting The Big Short, and the trailer and other publicity material for this movie suggests that it’s going to be in the same kind of vein as both The Big Short and last year’s Vice – smart, fast, angry films, unafraid to be politically engaged, but also very blackly comic and with a real willingness to be formally inventive and even subversive. Bombshell is a bit like this to begin with – there is a flashback to a profoundly awkward conversation between a woman and her boss, in which he explains he will happily promote her if she’ll sleep with him, during which we are privy to her thoughts – but certainly by the end of the first act it has settled down to become a largely serious drama about a workplace culture in which sexual harassment is virtually part of the ethos.

I mean, obviously, I don’t think sexual harassment is something to be treated lightly, by any means – it’s just that Bombshell isn’t quite the film I had been hoping for. It is still distinctive in other ways, of course, not least because it is still a surprisingly political film. Standard Hollywood procedure, certainly in the current riven times, is to affect to be studiously apolitical: when the makers of one of the new stellar conflict movies jokingly drew parallels between the Trump administration and the Empire, they were quickly slapped down by Disney and various soothing press releases issued: the red cap brigade are a volatile bunch and the studios want them to turn up to movies, for their money is as good as anyone else’s. Bombshell does feature Donald Trump in archive footage, but it is set prior to his most notoriously misogynistic comments became widely known and it is not explicitly critical of the president. On the other hand, the tune being played by the mood music is very obvious, and it will be interesting to see if other films take a similar approach over the coming year.

Todd Phillips, who rose to notice making dumb comedy films before receiving critical acclaim for Joker, has said he’s stopped doing comedies because the modern world is such a minefield of potentially contentious issues that people can’t wait to get outraged about. It seems he’s not the only one, but once you get past the considerable cognitive dissonance of the director of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me making a largely serious film about sexual harassment, there are many good things about Bombshell. Certainly one of the most noticeable things about it is the extent to which various members of the cast have been slathered in prosthetic make-up to make them look more like other people. I suspect the effect may be rather lost on audiences outside of the US, for here in the UK at least the likes of Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson are virtually unknown: Nicole Kidman just looks like Nicole Kidman with a distractingly fake chin (I think), while Charlise Theron is bemusingly difficult to recognise. That said, there is some fun to be had when Malcolm McDowell turns up as Rupert Murdoch – McDowell certainly seems to be enjoying himself, although I am not sure his ten-minute cameo warrants his prominence in the credits.

Not wearing any prosthetics at all, on the other hand, is Margot Robbie, who does give a very good performance. The issue is that she is playing a fictional character – a composite of various real people, to be sure, but still essentially, well, fictional. I am always very wary when makers of supposedly fact-based films start doing this sort of thing – it gives the impression that the true story they’ve decided to tell needs pepping up a bit, or otherwise adjusting in order to make it more commercial – ‘like giving Anne Frank a wacky best friend’, to quote someone whose name I have regrettably forgotten.  It also seems to me that there are ethical issues involved in showing a real person basically molesting a fictional character, in a movie depicting various other real people. To be fair, Bombshell takes great pains to make clear that the truth has been edited to make the movie – but it doesn’t go into much detail about exactly how.

Oh well. At least, as noted, Robbie is on form; so is Kate McKinnon, who plays another fictional character (the rather unlikely role of a closeted lesbian liberal who works at Fox News because she can’t get a job anywhere else). McKinnon is also prominent in the trailer, which may be another reason I was expecting the film to be funnier – she generally does comedies, after all, not least because she is one of those people who can’t help but find the humour in any character or scene. That said, she does find the more serious notes here with no difficulty at all, confirming that if you can do comedy, the more serious stuff is a comparative doddle.

But the performances are generally good all round, the script is solid, and the storytelling reasonably assured – after a discursive start, the film finds its focus and sticks to it. If I sound a bit lukewarm about Bombshell, it may be more because it’s not the film I expected, rather than a genuinely poor one. It treats its subject matter with respect, and if it sometimes feels like it’s a message movie rather than a piece of entertainment, that’s probably because it is – to some extent, anyway. Nevertheless, a worthy and watchable film.

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Lauren Greenfield’s The Kingmaker is another one of those documentaries taking advantage of the lull in mainstream releases which regularly happens around this time of year. Greenfield herself is not one of those directors who is constantly popping up in the corner of the frame or butting in on the soundtrack, on this occasion at least. She is quite content to let her subject dominate the film. Her subject is also quite content to dominate the film, for she is Imelda Trinidad Romualdez Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines and poster girl for obscene corruption and bad-taste excess.

The film first finds Mrs Marcos cruising around Manila in her usual stately fashion. When the car stops at a junction, a breathless cry of ‘It’s Imelda!’ goes up amongst the street children hanging around there, for they know they have had a stroke of luck. A forest of small open hands fills the window of Mrs Marcos’ car, and she serenely scatters money in their direction. ‘For the children! For the children!’ declares Mrs Marcos, as a number of short adults attempt to muscle in on her beneficience. ‘Those who have received money, move along!’ barks a stern voice out of frame. It is an edifying spectacle.

Mrs Marcos continues her progress, reflecting on the fact that, actually, being First Lady of the Philippines wasn’t all that much fun at the time. ‘The presidential palace, it was a very uncomfortable place to live,’ she recalls, sadly. She does not appear to notice that, even as she is speaking, the car is passing compatriots of hers who are living in bins and under bits of cardboard, which are possibly even less comfortable residences than the presidential palace (as well as presenting far fewer opportunities for lucrative graft).

She eventually arrives at a clinic for children suffering from cancer. Prior to this point, Mrs Marcos’ eyes have resembled two chips of coal shot into a side of ham, but now she wells up with emotion and responds in the empathetic and humble way that only someone with her common touch can. ‘Quick,’ she whispers to an aide, ‘give me some money to hand out.’ All across the city, poor families scrimp and save to get their youngest started on full-strength cigarettes just so they can be in the cancer ward the next time Mrs Marcos makes a visit.

The film is only a few minutes old but already questions are piling up like diamante slingbacks in Mrs Marcos’ famous shoe collection. Is all this just being staged for the camera? Has Imelda Marcos really got no idea of just how she is coming across? Is it possible for anyone to have such little grasp of reality? The director is smart enough to recognise this, but also to realise that the best response is to just let Mrs Marcos speak. All duly becomes clear.

A former beauty queen who became the wife of the Filipino president and sometime dictator Ferdinand Marcos, it is clear that Mrs Marcos took to politics like a particularly resplendent duck to water. One of her roles was to travel the world as a sort of proxy president (a slide-show of horrors ensues, showing her meetings with Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro, Colonel Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Prince Charles and a pre-politics Donald Trump), although the exact reason for this is disputed. One school of thought has it that Marcos himself was afraid that if he left the country he would instantly be overthrown, so he sent the wife instead. Another suggests that her foreign missions were basically a pretext for Ferdy to get her out of the way so he could sleep around with other women.

Nevertheless, Mrs Marcos still regards herself as mother of her nation (possibly the world), bringer of world peace, ender of the cold war, and so on. Brain-meltingly tasteless artworks scattered around the Marcos home commemorate her various achievements, although not her role in embezzling hundreds of billions of dollars from the Filipino people. In a way she is an ideal subject for this kind of film: she is perfectly happy to talk at length about her life, and seemingly almost completely oblivious to her own public image or the impression she is making. All Lauren Greenfield needs to do is occasionally intercut a contribution from another interviewee with more of a grip on reality (which is to say, any kind of grip on reality). One of the topics the film keeps returning to is Mrs Marcos’ typically unhinged scheme to start a safari park in the Philippines, complete with imported zebras and giraffes. ‘We found a place with no people and put the animals there,’ she informs the audience, solemnly. On comes a villager to relate how she and her family were forcibly uprooted to make way for this particular folie de grandeur. ‘I hate giraffes,’ adds the woman, sadly.

Initially it all seems like a black comedy mixed up with a reminder of the perverse politics of the cold war period – a time when many US policy makers subscribed to the palpably foolish idea that the only way to preserve democracy was by propping up dictators. Inevitably, though, it all came crashing down, although Mrs Marcos seems assured of her innocence: ‘I was too kind to him,’ she says of Benigno Aquino, an opposition leader who was assassinated, while later, we finally get a reference to that famous shoe collection – ‘When they searched my closet, they did not find skeletons, only beautiful shoes,’ she smirks.

It’s a half-decent line, and Mrs Marcos seems quite happy to trade on her shoe-loving reputation, but it neglects the fact that there are genuine skeletons in the closet where her family is concerned. The way in which the film shifts gear and tone to incorporate testimonies from some of those who were incarcerated, tortured and abused during the eight-year period of martial law instituted by Marcos is impressively done, but is part of a more general change as the film continues.

You might consider Imelda Marcos to be a grotesque joke from history, her family irretrievably disgraced. You would be wrong. This movie is called The Kingmaker for a reason, for it increasingly concerns Mrs Marcos’ attempts to get her son Bongbong into power, not least so he can restore the family reputation. Bongbong is running for vice-president of the Philippines, but the family history seems to be causing him a few issues. If I were the president of the Philippines, this would probably be a source of relief, for I would really not want my heartbeat to be the one keeping a Marcos from genuine power. However, the actual president is a man called Duterte, another of those populist strongmen the world is currently plagued by, and it transpires some of those Marcos billions played a part in getting him elected. By the end of the film, it is clear there are forces in play who are not about to let a simple thing like democracy stand between Bongbong and his rightful place.

It is a sombre, ominous conclusion, and turns what at one point felt like a somewhat gonzo piece of historical biography, with inconvenient facts pinging off Imelda Marcos’ gargantuan self-regard like pea-shooter pellets off a zeppelin, into a genuinely disturbing cautionary tale. God knows that we in the west have no right to criticise citizens of other countries for being conned by grotesque egotists whose sense of entitlement is matched only by their flexible attitude to the truth, but if a mob like the Marcos family can make a comeback then we really are in trouble as a species. However, that’s hardly Lauren Greenfield’s fault: she has made an outstanding documentary, funny, powerful, moving, infuriating and disturbing. This is possibly a very important film: it is a shame most people will be barely aware of it.

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The world being in the state that it is, the temptation to sink into a state of stupefied despair is pretty much ever-present at the moment. One of the reasons I love the cinema is that it does provide the chance to escape into a different kind of headspace, a different way of thinking, and forget about the dismal facts of reality. Oddly enough, this still seems to apply even when the film in question brings one face-to-face with some dolorous truths from the recent past – at least, it does when the film is well-written, directed and played.

(Yes, yet another movie poster with Keira Knightley staring out against a black background while her co-stars peer over her shoulders. Knightley takes some stick for always doing the same kind of thing but the publicity people are at least as bad.)

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets is set in the early 2000s, in a Britain where huge demonstrations fill the streets, only to be entirely disregarded by the government in power, where a smirking excrescence with no regard for the truth is Prime Minister, and where a comparatively lowly whistleblower has the ability to inflict severe embarrassment on the US administration. How very different things were only a few years ago. The whistleblower in question is Katherine Gun (Keira Knightley), a translator at GCHQ, the government’s intelligence and communications hub. A keen follower of current affairs, Gun is appalled and outraged by what she sees as the lies peddled by Tony Blair in his attempts to win support for an invasion of Iraq.

Then she receives an email, sent to all GCHQ personnel from somewhere within the American NSA – in an attempt to swing a United Nations Security Council vote, an effort is being made to acquire sensitive intelligence on council members in an attempt to acquire leverage – or, to put it more plainly, they are digging dirt on allies in order to blackmail them into supporting the invasion. (Should I stress that this is a true story?) After struggling with her conscience, Gun eventually decides to leak the top-secret email.

It ends up on the desk of Observer journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith), who quickly realises just exactly what he’s come into possession of. The situation is complex, however – he doesn’t know the source of the document, and has no way of being certain it is genuine. There is also the fact that, prior to this moment, his paper has been in favour of the war. Can the leak be verified? Can the editors be persuaded of the value of the story? And what will the consequences be for Gun if they do decide to publish?

I’ve seen all of Gavin Hood’s last few films – from Wolverine: Origins onwards – and it does seem like his dalliance with superheroes was rather uncharacteristic: he generally seems to make serious films about significant real-world issues. All right, he did make the (possibly under-rated) YA sci-fi film Ender’s Game, which got tangled up in political issues of a different kind, but even there the film quietly explored the issue of using child soldiers (through an SF metaphor, of course). His last film, Eye in the Sky, was a very powerful thriller about the ethics of drone strikes as an instrument of foreign policy.

And, needless to say, Official Secrets is also concerned with international relations, the difference here being that the film is based on actual events. You might think the film already has two strikes against it as a result – firstly, does the world really want to see another film complaining about a war which is now a matter of historical record? And, secondly, the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that Gun and the Observer journalists ultimately failed in their objective, which was to stop an arguably illegal war. Wouldn’t it just be better to accept things and move on?

Well, maybe, but the film has a couple of powerful things in its favour. Firstly, it deals with what are still arguably very live issues: the opaque nature of dealings within and between governments, the issue of trust, the extent to which a government is constrained by the rule of law, and so on. For a long time I was always slightly dubious about many high-profile whistleblowing cases – there is a case to be made that governments have a responsibility to keep certain information from become general knowledge, which means there has to be a mechanism to ensure secrecy. But the film questions just what the limits of this can and should be – the British Official Secrets Act apparently operates on the principle that there are no circumstances in which the release of sensitive information can be justified, regardless of the legality of what is disclosed. From here it is just a short step to the assumption that the government is necessarily right in whatever it does, simply because it’s the government (one of the notions toyed with in Vice, earlier this year). It is surely worth exploring the consequences of this, even if only through a film.

And this is a very well-made and entertaining film: it may tackle some legal and political chewy bits, but it does so with the pace and excitement of a proper thriller, particular in the sequences where Bright and his colleagues try to verify the truth of the leak. Nor is it entirely sombre: there’s a great moment of black comedy when overzealous use of spellchecker threatens to discredit the Observer’s big scoop. There is a great ensemble performance from the actors playing the journalists – Matt Smith’s performance does a good job of reminding you what a charismatic actor he can be, but he is well-supported by Matthew Goode and (in what’s basically a cameo) Rhys Ifans. The film’s other major supporting performance comes from Ralph Fiennes as Gun’s lawyer, Ben Emmerson, and he likewise makes the most of a strong script. (Most of the characters in this film are real people, but – perhaps fortunately – none of them are especially familiar faces. The only possible exception is Shami Chakrabarti, who appears in the film played by Indira Varma, but as a relatively minor figure.)

This is, of course, a Keira Knightley film – it’s her face which is most prominent on that poster, after all. I think it is fair to say she is one of those performers I have never entirely warmed to, possibly because she seems to specialise in a certain type of tastefully inert costume drama, possibly to the extent where she seems vaguely out of place appearing in anything else (I can’t recall Knightley’s Kiwi accent from Everest without having an involuntary tremor). Here she is, well, good enough to carry most of the movie, although I think it is very possible she is slightly overcooking her performance. There are a lot of tics I seem to recall from other performances, anyway. But, as I say, good enough.

This is a film which may be hampered by a slightly boring title, the sense it is raking over yesterday’s issues, and the fact that it has a poster which is largely interchangeable with that of most other Keira Knightley movies. However, this doesn’t stop it being an intelligent, involving, and very well-made film that manages to deal with serious issues without becoming heavy or slow. Certainly one of the better films of recent months; it gets my recommendation.

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My unpublished (and, let’s face it, unpublishable) NaNoWriMo novel from 2016 has repeatedly proven to be eerily prescient in a number of ways. So here are a couple more vaguely-topical extracts.

Chapter 29

The story so far: in the face of an insurrection by political folk-hero Nigel Brittain, hapless Prime Minister April Trace has finally been driven to resignation by the sinister forces of continental superstate, the Federation of 27…

Soon to be ex-Prime Minister April Trace closed the doors of her private flat above Number Ten Downing Street, and the panicky wailing of most the cabinet outside in the vestibule was blessedly silenced. That was a relief, but it meant that for the first time she was alone with her thoughts. Had she made the right decision? It had felt like it at the time. But now, of course, it was starting to sink in. She looked around the lovely flat with its lovely curtains in front of the lovely triple-thickness armoured glass. She was giving all of this up, and for what? A point of principle. A belief in the primacy of basic human decency and kindness.

‘Maybe I was never really cut out for politics after all,’ April Trace murmured to herself.

There would be time enough for soul-searching (by which she meant searching her soul, of course, not searching to see if she actually possessed a soul, which some of her less kindly critics had occasionally suggested might not in fact be the case) later. The Buckingham Palace tech support people had indicated Her Majesty the Queen would be ready to process her resignation in about an hour, so that was her top priority.

Well, almost her top priority. From out of the kitchen came the slender, reticent figure of Mr Trace, the soon to be ex-Prime Ministerial consort. He had his apron on and had clearly been doing something domestic in the Prime Ministerial kitchenette. As ever, his face broke into a beaming smile as he saw her, and she felt something inside thaw a little.

‘Prime Minister!’ he cried with obvious delight. ‘I didn’t expect you home so soon.’

She smiled at him. ‘I’ve told you so many times,’ she said, ‘you don’t have to be so formal when we’re at home together, Mr Trace.’

‘Sorry,’ he said. Something about her mien clearly registered with him. ‘Is everything all right, my dear?’

‘Oh, Mr Trace!’ She ran into his welcoming, if slightly confused arms. ‘It’s all over. I’ve resigned as Prime Minister. The Federation forced me into it.’

‘What!’ Mr Trace clearly couldn’t believe his ears. Bafflement danced about behind his big round glasses. ‘But the Federation needs you! Who’s going to run the country now?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. Some compliant ovine, I expect,’ said April Trace. ‘Bronson, maybe. Or… the Blaine creature. He’d be the perfect choice for them.’

‘But the country would be up in arms! They’d never accept Toby Blaine as Prime Minister again – he’s not even an MP -‘

‘Another emergency decree,’ she shrugged. ‘And a major uprising now – it wouldn’t make a lot of difference, would it?’

‘I suppose you’re right,’ her husband said. He forced a smile onto his dear little face. ‘So, what’s the plan?’

‘I have to go to the palace and formally resign to Her Majesty the Queen,’ said April Trace. ‘Then I suppose we have to get the removals people in.’

‘Hmmm,’ said Mr Trace, with the expression unique to a man considering the problem of how to relocate three large roomfuls of unique and extravagant footwear at very short notice.

‘We’ll manage,’ April Trace assured him. ‘There’s always your business to fall back on if times get hard.’

‘Let’s hope the market for professional Charles Hawtrey lookalikes stays buoyant,’ said Mr Trace earnestly.

‘I need to change,’ April Trace said. ‘The car will be here soon -‘

‘Mrs Trace, open the door please.’ The voice boomed from out in the corridor. The Traces looked at each other in surprise, then she went to the door and unlatched it.

A squad of large men in dark jumpsuits and blue body armour and helmets stood there, the gold stars of the Federation prominent amongst their insignia. They were carrying an alarming range of weaponry and other gear.

‘April Trace? We’re here to take you into protective custody,’ said the squad leader.

‘I – I don’t need protective custody,’ said April Trace in alarm, glancing at her husband.

‘The Acting Prime Minister has decreed otherwise.’

‘Acting Prime Minister? But I haven’t even resigned yet -‘

‘We don’t have time for this. Get her, lads!’ the squad leader barked, hefting his pump-action shotgun threateningly in Mr Trace’s direction.

‘Stay strong, my dear! Take care of my shoes!’ cried the ex-Prime Minister as she was grabbed by the Federation enforcement squad and bundled out of the flat.

‘Mrs Trace! Mrs Trace!’ shouted the former Prime Ministerial consort forlornly, running to the door. But April Trace had already been swept away. He heard the front door of Number Ten Downing Street slam heavily, then there was only silence.

‘It’s the end of an era,’ Mr Trace murmured sadly, then went back into the flat to start packing up all the footwear.

european-union-eu-flag-missing-star-brexit

From Chapter 40:

Nigel Brittain has triumphed and England is free again. Heroic young soldier Billy Sharples roams the streets as the celebrations continue…

Everyone seemed to be relaxing, finding warmth and fellowship. Well – almost everyone – he spied two stooped, thin figures, weighted down with heavy bags, keeping well away from the bonfires and the singing as they crept out of the city. Curious, he followed after them, until he was sure his first response to seeing them had been correct.

‘Mrs Trace,’ Billy said.

The former Prime Minister and her husband both started and looked at him, clearly on the verge of panic. Both were dressed in battered, shabby old clothes, and were carrying heavy suitcases and rucksacks. What appeared to be a tiger-striped kitten heel was poking out of one of the bags.

‘I thought it was you,’ Billy said.

A nervous glance between the couple. Then – ‘Please, we just want to get out of the city. Find a quiet place to live now,’ Mr Trace said. There was pleading in his eyes, behind the big round glasses.

‘I – I don’t know,’ Billy said. Surely these two were complicit in so many of the crimes inflicted on the English people? Didn’t justice need to be done?

‘I – I just meant it all for the best,’ April Trace said, tears starting to trickle down her cheeks, voice cracking and splintering. ‘I thought there was no other way…’

‘Well, you know better now,’ Billy said. In that moment he could no longer find any hatred in his heart for this pathetic couple. If they couldn’t find it in their hearts to be merciful in victory, Billy thought, then it was no victory worth mentioning. He nodded. ‘Go on, then. On your way.’

‘Thank you. Thank you!’ The Traces scuttled on their way.

And let that last vestige of the old regime disappear, Billy thought. It was a time for new faces and new ideas – well, no, he corrected himself, old faces and old ideas. He allowed himself a thrill of excitement at the thought of the country making this unprecedented journey back to the way things had been forty or fifty years before.

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Normally the Easter weekend, long and relaxed as it is, is an opportunity for a major studio to put out one of their big blockbusters and hoover up a lot of the audience’s money. Last year it was Ready Player One, the year before that it was Fast and Furious 8. But this year? Nothing of that ilk, really: the odd promising genre movie, perhaps, but the looming juggernaut of Avengers: Endgame has everyone running scared: nobody wants their film to have an effective window of only about six days before the majority of audiences are lured elsewhere. As I often observe, this does provide possibilities for inventive counter-programming, which may be why the highest profile release in the UK at the moment is probably Trevor Nunn’s Red Joan.

As I say, this film arguably qualifies as counter-programming, as it has all the hallmarks of being primarily aimed at, shall we say, an audience of a somewhat more seasoned vintage. Your older cinemagoer, as a rule, is not that fussed about the doings of Captain America or Thanos, but they do like gently-paced films hearkening back to the days of yore, with reassuringly solid British production values when it comes to things like sets and costumes, good looking young people, and ideally a Genuine British National Treasure they are comfortably familiar with. No-one meets a violent on-camera death, if there are any amatory goings-on they are handled tastefully, for the most part, and everything wraps up in more or less the manner you would expect. I tend to refer to this subgenre of the British costume drama as hats-and-fags movies, as the setting of the mid-20th century is betokened by virtually no-one going bareheaded and always having a cigarette or two on the go.

Despite all of that, Red Joan opens in the present day – or something roughly akin to it, assuming we can agree that things haven’t changed too much since 2000, which is when the frame story of this movie opens. Harmless old granny Joan (Judi Dench) is getting on with her innocuous life, occasionally sighing over an old friend’s obituary in the papers, when Special Branch come round and arrest her. Judi Dench under arrest? Outrageous! What can this all be about?

Well, Dench is slapped into an interrogation suite and told she has been implicated in an espionage case in which atom bomb secrets were given to the KGB. The police demand that she tell them everything, which is probably a regrettable choice of words: without going into too much detail, Joan doesn’t start leaking to the Russkies until 1945, but the flashbacks comprising most of the film commence a good seven years before that. I suppose this is an acceptable convention allowing some context to be established for everything going on. Basically, young Joan (Sophie Cookson) arrives in Cambridge to study science, falls into the orbit of a pair of glamorous mittel-European refugees (Tom Hughes and Tereza Skrbova), goes to screenings of Battleship Potemkin, and is generally swayed to the ways of socialism. One of the Europeans becomes her best friend, the other becomes her first real boyfriend and tastefully defoliates her just before scooting off to Russia to join the Comintern.

Then the Second World War starts and Joan is recruited into the British end of the project to develop a working atom bomb. As this is still the 1940s, she is only allowed to be quietly brilliant, and has to spend most of her time typing, filing, and making the tea, but her boss (Stephen Campbell Moore) is still much taken with her. Her old friends are well aware of her role in the project, of course, and soon begin to press her to help them: the western Allies are not sharing their research on the new weapon with the USSR, which is surely horribly unfair. For the good of everyone, is it not her duty to help maintain equality by giving the Russians the secret of the Bomb?

When you have a film which centres on the protagonist – a generally sympathetic character – doing something apparently unconscionable like betraying Blighty to Stalin, the thing you really have to do – your number one priority, no exceptions – is to take the viewer on a journey to the point where they understand just why the character behaves the way that they do. Red Joan is a movie which is not short on flaws, but one of the main ones is that it’s never really clear exactly what motivates Joan to make the key choices that she does. Is it a desire to preserve the balance of power? Is it out of a deep-seated attachment to justice? Is she so engaged with the cause of socialism, or is it just that she has a bit of a pash for the fellow who asks her? Is she even sure herself? Obfuscation reigns.

This may well be because, having been handed a lot of little-known and potentially fascinating material – the race to develop the atomic bomb, the Cambridge spy rings, the whole issue of links between left-leaning British intellectuals and Stalinist Russia – the film instead decides to concentrate primarily on Joan’s love life. There is the mysterious and enigmatic young foreigner, who is passionately drawn to her! There is her unhappily-married boss, who is also passionately drawn to her! It’s remarkable how alluring a young woman in a selection of berets and sensible knitwear can be (although, to be fair to her, Cookson is more than averagely pretty).

The decision to go with the romantic tosh would be less objectionable if it was better written romantic tosh – but the script for Red Joan is turgid and poorly constructed, with too much to-ing and fro-ing between heated moments in the 1940s and Judi Dench sitting with her head in her hands in the sequences set in 2000. Obviously the film wants Dench on screen as much as possible, but she really doesn’t get material that’s worthy of her – lots of general purpose being-distraught and some painfully hackneyed stuff with her son, who spends much of the film complaining that she never told him she was a KGB spy.

The film even cops out of a proper sense of closure, ending instead with a set of captions revealing the film is based (seemingly rather loosely) on the story of Melita Norwood, a communist sympathiser who was a highly-valued KGB asset for 35 years, yet never prosecuted by the authorities on account of her advanced age when she was exposed. Presumably the decision was made to make a work of fiction rather than a biographical drama about Norwood herself, on the grounds it wouldn’t be shackled by the facts of the case and could be more exciting and engaging. Which is fine in theory, but this film squanders the potential of its real-world source material and also the potential of the fact it is primarily fictitious. The moral decisions at the centre of the story are never really brought to life, and the human relationships never convince either. The result is a film which is pleasant to look at but inescapably dull.

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(Yes, I know that’s a reference to a film by a different director. Stand down.)

I have to confess that I can perhaps be a bit oversensitive about some things: in other words, it occasionally doesn’t take much to put me off a movie, and this can even extend to (what looks like) excessively affected titling. I’ve never been a huge fan of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and I do wonder if that isn’t just because there’s a plus sign in the title where a more conventional conjunction would have done the job just as well.

I suppose the same may partly explain why I didn’t rush to see Spike Lee’s (deep breath, gritted teeth) BlacKkKlansman when it was originally released last autumn. (I think you can see where the issue lies.) Of course, I also had the (reasonably good) excuse of being in the Kyrgyz Republic during most of its UK run, but even so it wasn’t on the list of films I hoovered up as part of my catch-up regimen when I eventually returned.

In the end it turned out that this was the only film on this year’s Best Picture nomination list that I hadn’t actually seen, and this sat even less well with me than the weird styling in the title. So I was quite pleased when it popped up on the in-flight entertainment menu on my flight back from the States the other day. (There were a couple of other films I had meant to see but ended up missing, and so I abandoned my plan of trying to get some sleep on the overnight flight and buckled down to watching three movies back-to-back, which the schedule looked like it would just about accommodate assuming there were no pesky tail-winds or anything like that.)

Lee’s film opens by assuring the audience (using somewhat idiosyncratic language) that it really is based on a true story; ‘based’ being the operative word, of course – the implication throughout is that the film is set in the early 1970s, when the real life events took place some years later, and some elements of the story have been heavily fictionalised too.

John David Washington plays Ron Stallworth, the first African American to join the Colorado Springs Police Department after a diversity-based recruitment drive. (He is even allowed to keep his beard and Afro.) However, he initially finds himself consigned to the records department and exposed to the casual racism of various fellow cops.

Even when he is allowed out of the filing section, it is to go undercover at a rally being held by ex-Black Panther and civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael (who at this point in time has adopted the name Kwame Tura) and record any especially provocative or inflammatory rhetoric that he may hear. Perhaps inevitably, he finds himself torn between his duty and the way that Tura’s message of black liberation resonates with him.

Shortly afterwards Stallworth is reassigned again, and it is now that he embarks upon the deeply unlikely exploit at the heart of the film: he answers an ad placed by the head of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and declares himself to be an angry white racist, keen on joining the organisation. Obviously, there is one small barrier to the success of this operation, which is that he can’t actually meet up with his new associates face-to-face. Step forward fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who will handle all the face-to-face contact with other KKK members, while Stallworth continues to talk on the phone to them. Soon enough they have managed to reach the upper echelons of the Klan leadership, particularly Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), and come across worrying signs of serious plots being put into motion…

Most of the publicity for BlacKkKlansman has focused on the absurd comedy inherent in the premise of the film: various scenes of Washington on the phone, earnestly making profoundly racist declarations to his KKK contacts (there is, needless to say, a lot of strongly discriminatory language throughout this film). There is also a sense in which some of the KKK members are presented as comic stooges and played for laughs.

However, watching the film makes it clear that for Lee this is a very serious project, shining a light into an important and perhaps too-obscure area of American history and particularly the struggle for civil rights. Ultimately, the threat of the Klan is treated very seriously and the consequences of the philosophy they espouse are addressed head on – one sequence intercuts a clan ritual with personal testimony of a racist lynching (a cameo from Harry Belafonte) to disturbing effect. Questions of just how black Americans should respond to racist social institutions – through active resistance, or trying to change the system from within? – are articulated and seriously considered. It is, and this is not meant to denigrate this year’s Best Picture winner, all considerably more hard-edged and politically sophisticated than anything in Green Book.

That said, the film never completely loses touch with its identity as a thriller, and functions quite well as such – though you are never in doubt that these are just the bones of a different kind of film. It takes a while before the whole infiltrating-the-Klan element of the story gets going; at least as important is the section with Kwame Tura’s speech, which introduces a number of significant themes and characters (not least Laura Harrier as a young activist who becomes Stallworth’s love interest). And while the story seems about to conclude relatively straightforwardly, it – well, it doesn’t, Lee choosing to become openly political in the closing moments.

It is clear that this film is meant to be about America today as much as in the 1970s, and there are moments throughout which reinforce this – the first person on screen is Alec Baldwin, playing a cartoonish Klan mouthpiece, and most people will be aware of Baldwin’s most famous satirical performance of recent years and make the appropriate connection. It doesn’t even stay that subtle – Klan leader Duke speaks of ‘America first’ and ‘making America great again’, while the film concludes with footage from the Charlottesville riots and Donald Trump’s repugnant equivocal non-repudiation of the racist groups involved in them. Perhaps it’s the case that in its closing moments the film sacrifices finesse for raw power, but that doesn’t make this any less effective as an attack on its chosen targets. In the end it manages to be palpably angry and political while still remaining an engaging piece of entertainment, and that’s no small feat.

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