Film review: Official Secrets.

‘Are you sure you want to watch this one?’ Ray said. ‘I mean, what about a film where we don’t know the outcome?’

I said, ‘But look at the cast list, Keira Knightly, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans, Ralph Fiennes, Tamsin Grieg… it’s a who’s who of British talent. Can they all be wrong?’

Ray shrugged, ‘It’s your choice.’

‘We can watch another, if you like. You choose.’

‘No, no,’ he said. ‘Official Secrets it is. I just can’t see how it’s going to be entertaining to watch when we know that it ends with a war. I mean where’s the story?’

‘That’s what I’m curious about,’ I said.

I turned off the light, pulled the curtains on the torrents of summer rain pouring down the window, and Ray hit ‘play’.

A courtroom, paneled in dark wood, with Kenneth Cranham high up on the bench in his wig and gowns, was the grim face of British justice. Keira Knightly walked nervously up from the cells and into the dock to be faced with that eternal question, ‘How do you plead, guilty or not guilty?’

There was a pause. The camera panned closer to her face. What did it say? Which way would she jump? All I could read was apprehension.

Then the opening titles came up.

‘Did she do it, though?’ Ray said.

I couldn’t remember much. I vaguely recalled some of the lead-up to the trial, the headlines and the furore. But there had been so much anger, back then, so much heated debate, everywhere. I’d even witnessed it surging over into classrooms where I’d had to improvise ways to divert it into something creative.

‘We’ll just have to let it all unfold,’ I said, as the story flashbacked to 2003. That’s what we did.

There was nothing lazy about the way the story was delivered. It began with some brief orientation scenes when Ray and I played do-we-recognise-that-location, because these events began not far from our own doorstep.

Soon we were inside one of the most secret buildings in the country. As we number friends and neighbours who do or have worked there, but say nothing about it, this was also fascinating, even if fictional.

Katharine Gun’s dilemma was the first email she opened. We knew that she was going to end up in court, charged with breaking the official secrets act, and yet, the film kept both of us gripped. This was not about action, it looked at motivation, and not just Katharine’s.

Equally fascinating were the discussions about her email release in the newspaper office, and amongst the legal teams. Characters argued with conviction for each side of the debates that led up to the invasion of Iraq by British and American forces, and from a variety of stand-points.

In a way, watching with the knowledge that Katharine’s actions would not achieve their intended actions, added to the tension. It was not the story Ray had dreaded, a predictable rehashing of recent events. There may not have been guns, car crashes or bloody action, but there was drama.

It was personal, and believable. Strengths and weaknesses of arguments and motives were explored. We saw, close up, how actions impacted on relationships.

At the end, I found myself thinking about the way we understand events, and wondering about the kinds of impressions we store in our memories. In retrospect, I could see how important this story had been, yet I’d remembered so little of it. Only as I watched did I realise I’d conflated a couple of similar cases with this one.

No doubt, a contra version of this story could be told. That is, after all, the way history should be written.

It may be that I liked this film so much because I it reflected my own sympathies. What this fiction of true events, this docu-drama, did for me, was to make me think about justice, and how lazily I accept the winning version of where and how it is presented.

Even if there was a clear slant to this version, back then, at the times of the document leak, and the trials, my view of Katharine had almost certainly been tainted by powerful voices on the mirror side of this story.

Official Secrets is a film I want to watch again, soon. In part, for the convincing characters, but also because it was about me. I’ve been left asking the question, ‘how would I respond to a similar test?’

Where Lorna Doone meets The Godfather, & The War of the Worlds.

Go on, admit it, my title has intrigued you, at least a little, hasn’t it?

No, this isn’t a review of a new ‘mash-up’ novel, though I’d be quite interested to see how ‘girt* Jan Ridd’ and his family would measure up to an alien invasion. I’ve not been impressed by his dealings with the Doone ‘gang’, who have been robbing, raping and pillaging the Exmoor neighbourhood for decades, while everyone shrugs and says, ‘Well, what do you expect? Poor things, loosing that rich estate in Scotland, then being banished by the King, it’s not surprising they’re bitter.’

Several of my reading groups have seen parallels with Francis Ford Coppola’s, The Godfather. Sir Ensor, the patriarch of the Doones, like Vito Corleone, is a traditionalist who demands respect and is supported by a crooked lawyer, in this case, his son, ‘The Councillor’.

The Councillor’s son, Carver, is evil. He’s the distillation of all the bitterness in Sir Ensor and The Councillor. Of course, we only see any of these characters through the eyes of our narrator, John (aka Jan) Ridd, who is competing with Carver for Lorna. Despite John’s repeated assurances about his own honesty, I can’t help feeling that there may be some bias in the story he’s telling.

Carver, as his nickname might suggest, lacks the subtlety or charm of Michael Corleone. What he has in spades, is muscle and ambition, oh, and wives. Yes, your read me right, it turns out that Carver has so far strayed from the path of respectability that when the den of thieves finally is challenged, he is discovered to be keeping ‘ten or a dozen‘ wives – so many in fact, John can’t be exact. As for the children, there’s no attempt to count them!

In suggesting these parallels I’m not claiming that Mario Puzo once read Lorna Doone, though I wish I could have asked him. These are outlaw stories, and it could be argued that both rely on stereotypes. I do, however, wonder if Puzo ever saw one of the film versions. His novel, The Godfather, was published in 1969. Four of the six Lorna Doone films had been made by then, and one of the two series for the BBC.

I’ve seen extracts of all except the 1912 and 1963 versions, which don’t seem to exist any more. The rest seem, to me, to say as much about the decade they have been produced in as they do about the original they draw from. That’s not so surprising. To convey all of the events and nuances of this hefty novel would take more hours than have yet been given to it.

Lorna Doone has also been adapted for stage and radio. As has, HG Wells’ novel, The War of The Worlds.

I’ve been watching the latest screen version of that, on the BBC (it finished last night), for the last three weeks. The selling point, for yet another remake, was the claim that it kept closer to the book than others had.

I’m not so sure that’s true, but I’ve enjoyed it. As I have every other version I’ve watched, despite (or maybe because of) the liberties taken.

Wikipedia lists 10 direct screen adaptations, and 14 for radio (including the famous 1938 Orson Welles version). Add to that the musical interpretations (Jeff Wayne’s was not the only one), plus numerous comic books and sequels, that’s a lot of inspiring.

There was no implied criticism in wondering why the story was getting another incarnation, only curiosity. I was reminded that someone funded the 2000 Lorna Doone film only ten years after the previous version had been made. Even in these fast moving times, that surely counts as being within living memory. So,why?

Well, I have a theory. I think both novels foreground plot rather than character. Maybe those kinds of stories leave more room for the adapter, or even the well-known actors.

* Girt: dialect version of great – meaning ‘large’ or ‘very big’.

Fisherman’s Friends

Okay, so I need to start by saying I’m about to discuss a film, not the famous cold cure lozenges, made up of liquorice, menthol and eucalyptus oil, and connected with a selection of risque jokes and puns.

The film, in case you’ve missed the publicity, was released in March. I missed it then, but there’s a lovely independent cinema just down the road, who cater for slow-off-the-mark viewers like me, and last week they put on two more showings. So mum and I finally caught up.

I hadn’t read any reviews, but I’d seen a trailer. It promised humour, sea, romance, broken promises and an underdog. The setting was Cornwall. I love Cornwall; listening to people harmonising, and rags to riches story-lines. Besides, there were some good actors in it.

Photo by Theroadislong –

I didn’t know anything about the Port Isaac singers. Every six months or so I re-tune my car radio and catch up on what’s happening with music. The Cornish choir must have happened while I was in a drama and current affairs mode. I’m catching up fast now, though, thanks to You Tube.

‘What I don’t understand,‘ says Jim, the leader of the group, ‘is why anyone would buy a record sung by ten hairy-arsed fishermen.’ Long before the end of the film, we’ve worked it out, and so have they.

This isn’t a tough film. There’s no blood, or car chases. It has highs, lows, lulls and squalls, but the plot isn’t twisty or challenging.

There were about forty of us in the audience. Most of us lingered to watch the end credits, and enjoy the singing, rather than rush for the exit. I think we were all grinning as we left the building.

I don’t want to call it a ‘warm’ film, because that suggests flimsy, but I’m finding it tricky to sum it up with another word. There were clear themes, particularly about community and values. But I think also, although none of us burst into song, by the end, I felt that I too had been part of something.

There is a scene, set in a pub in London, where the ‘ten hairy-arsed fishermen‘ demonstrate what a sea-shanty is. I’ve been humming Drunken Sailor ever since.

Photo by Rarb

Thoughts on Blade Runner 2049

Blade runner 2049‘Anyway, I’m glad I saw it on the big screen, rather than the tv,’ Ray said.

‘Me too,’ I said.  ‘The special effects were spectacular.  But I don’t think I’d want to see it again.’

There was a pause, then Ray said, ‘The acting was good.’

‘Oh yes.  Very good.’

‘So what was wrong with it?’

‘Too similar to the original?’ I said. ‘I suppose it had to be, if it was going to pick up those threads of ending and take them further.’

‘Is that what you think it did, then?’ said Ray. ‘Take them further?’

‘I liked the game of spotting references to the original.’

‘But what about the story?  Was it too contrived?’

‘Maybe we’re so loyal to that original that nothing could possibly follow it.’

‘No,’ Ray said,  ‘there was a problem somewhere.  They missed the mark. I think it was the time-frame.  We’ve got colonies on other worlds in thirty-two years time?  That just doesn’t work.’

‘Well that’s not their fault, though.  They had to stick with the dates, or the story wouldn’t work.  The problem was that the first film set the date as 2019, and we’re trying to impose fact onto something that is meant to be a warning.  It’s an alternative reality.’

blade runner 2049 3Three days later, and I’m still getting flashbacks from those film visuals.  That landscape in shades of grey; the dark city extending into an even darker infinity, and the swirling, dust laden acres of waste-dumps feel close as I take Rusty for his morning walk across the fields.

These mornings the birds are too busy gathering autumn breakfasts to sing.  Is that why I think I hear that haunting, and rather beautiful, Blade Runner theme tune?

It seems, after all, that I may need to watch this film again.

Hidden Figures

Hidden figuresThis is a catch-up film review, because you, like me, may have missed this when it was released.  In case that’s so, let me give you a gentle nudge towards it now.  Although it came out last December, there are still showings happening in Britain, especially in some of the smaller cinemas.  It’s worth a visit, on so many levels.

First, because it’s a great piece of entertainment.  I watched this at our local church, where the sound quality was ropey, to say the least.  We had subtitles, and at times I needed them.  But I forgot that church pews are not comfy (even when you take along a big cushion) until the credits began to role, because I was carried along by the characters and their story.

Some of the reviewers in the British press haven’t liked this film, comparing it unfavourably with the book it was drawn from.  I haven’t read the book, but after this, I will be looking out for it, so you may hear more.

I’m not sure I agree with criticism that the film foregrounds Kevin Costner.  Yes, he’s the (entirely fictional) character who runs the project, and so he confronts a couple of racial inequalities (that never happened), but I never thought he did it for heroic reasons.  My reading of his character was that he was so driven by the need to get to space that anything obstructing that route was going to be removed on those grounds.  The only white male I saw take on racial inequalities was John Glenn, and he was, in this film, a secondary character.

Marie Hicks, in The Guardian, called the film limited.  She says it, ‘straddles the line between allowing these women to be the protagonists of their story and crowding them out of the spotlight.‘  Not for me.  Katherine, Dorothy and Mary were the centre of this film.  To the extent that I forgot they were being portrayed by Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.  I spent the few scenes they weren’t in wondering where they were and what they were doing, that’s how far I was involved in their stories.

I don’t care if some of the film detail is historically inaccurate.  I think Theodore Melfi and Allison Shroeder have created a good drama.  These were ground breaking black women who did achieve what is portrayed, but over somewhat different time-scales.  I didn’t go to see a documentary,  I went to watch a drama, and that’s what I got.

There was a great soundtrack, an unexpected amount of humour, and a lot of warmth.  I felt the contradictions of that moment when at the same time as making scientific break-throughs, much of America was enforcing a shameful, often barbarically implemented social system of segregation.

To look back and see how recently this was happening is chilling.  So, a few anomalies to make a point are acceptable in my book.  I’d be glad to watch it again, tomorrow.  Now how often can you say that?