Monthly Archives: December 2014

Review of the Year and What to See in 2015

This time last year I outlined some of 2014’s most notable cultural activities, and managed to get to almost all of them. Although it seems a very long time ago now, the year opened with Sam Mendes’s epic imagining of King Lear although Simon Russell Beale’s central performance didn’t quite fire. Then came Angela Lansbury in a marvellous revival of Blithe Spirit, a gripping Twelve Angry Men and Tom Hiddlestone’s brutal Coriolanus, not forgetting Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan’s engaging Skylight. It was the Young Vic’s year though with two stellar productions; Gillian Anderson is rightly winning every award going (with more to come) and out-performed her co-stars with her portrayal of Blanche Dubois which dominated A Streetcar Named Desire in the summer. But, it was their stunning A View from the Bridge that was my favourite production of this year headed by Mark Strong and Nicola Walker – with not a fault to find, it was breathtakingly good, and I needed to go and sit in quiet room afterwards to calm down. Can’t wait to see it again when it transfers to the Wyndhams from February.

Galleries and museums had quite a mixed year however. Whilst a lot of big shows came to London including huge and enjoyable retrospectives for David Bailey and Jean Paul Gaulthier, some of the offerings related to the Great War centenary were less than acceptable. The new First World War galleries at the Imperial War Museum were pretty disastrous and a huge missed opportunity. Likewise the Conflict-Time-Photography exhibition at the Tate Modern was critically acclaimed but essentially meaningless, and although their Matisse show was excellent their tendency to charge a small fortune for admission is getting preposterous. A better year though for the V&A who are back in my good graces with the beautiful Constable: The Making of a Master which was my favourite exhibition of this year.

It was also an excellent year for the BFI, hosting another great film festival, their regular seasons and some interesting previews – the James Dean season back in April was very welcome as were pre-screenings of Oscar-tipped scientist biopics The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. Another great London Film Festival in October mixed fantastic but little known works like The Night Bus and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, with yet to be released bigger budget offerings A Little Chaos and Testament of Youth (review to follow in a couple of weeks), but let’s not mention Serena. Although I didn’t review them my favourite mainstream films this year were American Hustle, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and this may surprise you, X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Looking ahead then, theatre in 2015 is already going to be more than a match and that’s just the things that have been announced. The theatre will be dominated by the big 5. No, not a play about African game hunting, but 5 of our biggest actors heading for the West End in the coming months – McAvoy, Strong, Fiennes, Lewis and Cumberbatch. James McAvoy opens the year at the Trafalgar Studios with The Ruling Class, a story of an unlikely Earl struggling against his new family. I missed his Macbeth but his role in Three Days of Rain a few years back was fantastic. As mentioned, from February, Mark Strong reprises his role as Eddie Carbone in the West End transfer of A View from the Bridge, which may well (and probably should) get an NT Live screening. Ralph Fiennes is heading to the National for Bernard Shaw’s philosophical comedy Man and Superman also from February while the Wyndhams chalks up another potential hit with Damien Lewis planning a heist in David Mamet’s American Buffalo from April. Come August all eyes will be on the Barbican for Benedict Cumberbatch’s long anticipated Hamlet which sold out a year in advance, although day seats will be announced nearer the time. Tickets for the others are still available and if you manage to get to all of the big 5 you’ll have done very well, and my reviews will appear here as usual.

Over in the art world it’s looking less inspiring at this point, although the V&A have Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty from March; I just hope they’ve learnt from recent fashion-exhibition disasters. The Portrait Gallery has some Audrey Hepburn portraits over the summer and you can always rely on the Barbican and Hayward galleries to put on some good shows. Otherwise, at this point, it’s distinctly underwhelming. But I expect things will come along.

In cinema so far there are only two things I’m eager to see; the latest Bond instalment, Spectre, which is currently filming and due for release on 23 October and a new film version of Macbeth with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard which ought to be stunning – a January / February release date was anticipated but not yet confirmed. In fact, if I could have one theatre wish for 2015 it would be for Fassbender to find time for a play but there’s zero chance with the number of films he’s signed up for. Perhaps as a back-up wish, I’d like David Tennant to try some Noel Coward, maybe Present Laughter, or a Terence Rattigan – it would be great to see him turn his hand to something more modern. In art, how about getting some Edward Hopper paintings back in the UK, it’s been a while! Ludicrous wish lists aside, 2015 is looking to be a fantastic year for culture in London and I can’t wait to get started.

Christmas at Kew – Kew Gardens

Christmas PresentsLondoners do like to climb stuff, as I mentioned here before, but in the winter there’s so little daylight that by the time you get to the top of whatever monument – the Shard, the London Eye, the O2 – it’s too dark to see anything. So at this time of year we have to resort to our second favourite activity, if we can’t climb it, we light it up! All around the city you’ll see bridges, tourist attractions and famous buildings covered in pretty coloured lights. For the best view of all, stand on Waterloo Bridge and on one side you’ll see Parliament and on the other St Paul’s and the city, all reflected in the river – it’s stunning.

So given our love of lighting effects, it’s no surprise that this Christmas a number of London’s green spaces have created special installations to allow you to walk around after dark, drink mulled wine and generally feel very festive. The most impressive of these is Christmas at Kew, a 75 minute walk around a darkened Kew Gardens (and thanks to fellow blogger The Four Kids One Mom Guide to London for recommending this). I know what you’re thinking, that doesn’t sound very safe; it’s a big park, few lights what if there are crazy people hiding in the bushes? Well there is an official trail to follow which only covers about a mile of the park space which is well staffed and doesn’t let you deviate into other areas, so there’s no chance you’ll be scrambling in the undergrowth till dawn.

This is quite a well organised activity and even with timed entry from 5pm-10pm (last entry is 8.15pm) to control the numbers, it was quite busy on a Saturday night. It’s a big loop so you start off near the entrance with some stalls SAM_0300selling mulled wine and food should you need it before you make your way to the back of the Palm House which has various shapes, including snowflakes projected around while a looped piece of music controls the pattern of lights, and water sprays shoot on cue from the lake.

Then, you’re guided through the Winter Garden where you’ll see some of the more interesting trees lit in a variety of colours and giant snowflakes projected onto the pathway. The most spectacular part is the giant light installations that look like a garden with flowers, trees and grass including one tree hung with Christmas presents. It’s like being in the flower garden from Alice in Wonderland, except they don’t talk to you – maybe next year! These amazing and beautiful light sculptures are incredible to wander through, from giant green grasses to enormous fruit trees and delicate flowers all made entirely of light.

At this point you can divert to the White Peaks café for some hot doughnuts and mulled wine, while the children can make use of the mini Victorian Fairground with helter skelter and gorgeous old merry-go-round. It was -2c when we were there, so a midway break was very necessary to defrost your fingers. You get to walk through the flower garden again and on through a tunnel covered in small gold LEDs which looks amazing; it’s like walking through a Shirley Bassey dress. You pass a tree containing a few chandeliers before heading back towards the front of the Palm House for more coordinated lights and music from the Nutcracker, but this time there are shots of fire!

SAM_0311If you’re looking for an alternative Christmas or New Year activity then this light trail at Kew is a great family outing with fairground stuff for the children and some art and mulled wine for the adults. Seeing as we are in almost perpetual darkness at this time of year, then any time from 5pm when it opens and you’ll be able to see the sculptures and installations to best advantage. It’s fairly standard London prices as well £15 for adults and £10 for children aged 4-16, with family tickets available, but make sure you book in advance. There are plenty of tickets available until 3 January but they tend to sell out before the day you go. It may be a bit on the expensive side but it’s an unusual activity and one that gives a renewed purpose to an area of London that’s synonymous with spring and summer. Since it is Christmas, it’s nice to see something with a bit of wow-factor which this certainly has. Maybe next year someone will combine London’s two favourite activities and light something you can climb up!

Christmas at Kew runs from 5pm-10pm (last entry 8.15pm) until 3rd January, tickets are £15 for adults and £10 for children.

Film Review: The Theory of Everything

It’s round two in the battle of the scientist biopics and much anticipation has surrounded The Theory of Everything, released on New Year’s Day and telling the story of 30 years in Stephen Hawking’s life, from his early days at Cambridge to the onset of his motor neurone disease, and covering the publication of A Brief History of Time. Where this departs from the usual science movie is a love-story focus on Hawking’s relationship with his wife Jane from the moment they met at Cambridge to their divorce in the 1990s.

It is their personalities, experiences and struggles which are centre-stage rather than either the science or Hawking’s growing disability which is an interesting and effective approach. It means that the film is less a chart of the physical effects of motor neurone disease and more an intimate examination of the domestic consequences of living with and caring for someone who was once told he only had two years to live. It also takes quite a light touch with the science, which may disappoint some, but for the majority will be a relief. In fact the approach is the same – the science is there and integral to his life but the perspective taken is more human and seen primarily through the prism of his home life. So we see the couple debating the existence of God so that Jane’s belief is mirrored by Stephen’s faith in science.

As a whole the film works pretty well; it manages to be not quite a biopic, not quite a science-film and not quite a film about disability and is all the better for navigating between these potential pitfalls, instead creating something that feels as though it is about real people. It is difficult to take a famous name and look behind their public persona, and in stripping away that surface appearance creates a film character that seems credible. A reflection and not an impersonation of who they are, with more depth than a media profile may allow, showing that however eminent or respect the subject is, they are still influenced by the same emotional effects as everyone else, shaping their decision-making. This is a real success of The Theory of Everything, giving the viewer a sense that Hawking is not entirely defined by his job, he’s not just a famous scientist, and his life is far more than his intellectual output. The domestic approach may not be to everyone’s taste but I think it’s wielded here with great effect.

The performances of course are key to this and Eddie Redmayne, playing Hawking, is astonishingly good. This is not much of a surprise, he’s an actor I like a lot and consistent in both the quality of performance and fairly trustworthy in his selection of films. He always creates great depth and pathos in his roles, but combining that emotional complexity with the physicality of this character is so impressive. In My Week with Marilyn, Michelle Williams may have got all the attention for her Monroe, but it was Redmayne who was the emotional heart, effortlessly carrying the film with his tender portrayal of a heartbroken assistant director. Similarly as Stephen in the televised adaptation of Birdsong, he got it spot on. Now Birdsong is my favourite modern novel and although BBC sold out on Stephen’s eventual motivation -using the clichéd child as a reason to live, rather than that war somehow restoring his faith in others – Redmayne’s performance captured the detached complexity of Faulk’s character exactly.  Here as Hawking you get to see the full result of the condition using all of Redmayne’s subtly to show the internal frustration and external bodily effects, as well as the warmth and humour of his personality.

The film is equally focused on Jane Hawking played by Felicity Jones, and her increasing difficulty in managing their three children, running the household and Stephen’s worsening condition. There’s an interesting moment late in the film where she says the doctors had only given him two years to live and it’s ambiguous whether she means ‘and you’ve done so well’ or ‘I only thought this would be for two years.’ Jane is also a fully rounded character in her own right, not merely a reflection of Hawking and it was fascinating to see the sacrifices she makes in caring for her husband particularly in her chaste attachment to local choir master Jonathan (Charlie Cox).

Antony McCarten’s script is engaging and restrained, resisting the urge to make sweeping generalisation about motor neurone disease or hammering home a faux-emotional impact which a more Hollywood version would have attempted. It also looks beautiful and in the Q&A that followed this BFI preview, the director James Marsh discussed the light effects designed to give it a slight sense of heightened reality and reflect Hawking’s interest in cosmology in the colour scheme. The 1963 scenes at the Cambridge May Ball in particular are beautiful and certainly capture the ‘magical’ quality of those occasions.

But this really is Redmayne’s film. Marsh also explained that as scenes are never filmed in sequence, different periods of Hawking’s life were being shot simultaneously, meaning Redmayne had to switch between several different degrees of disability, often on the same day. This is an interesting insight into the technical accomplishment he needed to both manage it and make it convincing. So, having seen both The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything the big question seems to be who will win the Oscar. The Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes have nominated both actors, and these are seen as likely indicators of BAFTA and Oscar choices. Well, it may be neither of them seeing as the Academy tends to reward American actors most often. They’re similar kinds of actor and both give excellent performances so it is quite hard to choose between them, but if I have to predict, I think Redmayne’s just got this one.

The Theory of Everything was shown at a BFI Southbank preview. It opens nationwide on 1 January 2015.

Conflict-Time-Photography – Tate Modern

Wars and battles leave long-lasting impressions not just on the people involved but also on the land in which they take place. And that effect varies from conflict to conflict or from country to country. Go back to northern France now and those inhuman trench systems and up-churned piles of earth that were ‘visions of hell’ for servicemen in the First World War, are now ordinary fields, as though nothing ever happened. This broad-ranging exhibition at the Tate Modern takes you on a walk through the effects of conflict from moments after events occur to the weeks, months and decades that follow.  The concept is a very interesting and unusual one which could give interesting insight into the process of recovery and reconstruction, but sadly this exhibition’s lack of focus falls short on meaning.

Let’s start with the positives. The idea is a good one, showing how the effect of war continues, dissipates and / or becomes fundamentally bound-up with subsequent conflicts is an important tool to understand why countries look the way they do today. And to use photography as a way to document that process, making it social commentary, political insight and a form of artistic expression, can really bring these effects to life for the viewer. A lot of the pictures are also very beautiful, which somehow seems quite wrong given their subject matter. Simon Norfolk’s images of Afghanistan, also on show at the Barbican’s Constructing World’s, are truly beautiful capturing a light and sky reminiscent of Constable. A few rooms in, and Sophie Ristelhueber’s pictures fill the room from floor to ceiling with images of the debris of war months later. It’s overwhelming in one sense, yet the display balances perspectives and scale placing long aerial shots of ramparts next to close-ups of broken machinery scattered across the desert. She also mixes the military with the personal with touching shots of civilian blankets, long abandoned, dangling into craters and covered in dust – a stark reminder of the displacement of war.

The diversity of this collection is interesting in one sense, encouraging you to think about the enormous number of wars in the past hundred years as well as the experience of those living with the varied long-term consequences of conflict afterwards. But the down-side is that diversity loosens the focus. Most people won’t know enough about all the conflicts represented here to find the odd picture of them at all insightful, and it’s impossible to draw meaningful allusions between the various conflicts on offer. 9 months after Hiroshima, 9 months after the American Civil War and 9 months after Afghanistan are not the same thing. Partly that’s because the context is so different in both these cases and partly because the nature of warfare today is not the same as it was even 70 years ago. Technology has played a huge role in disrupting traditional forms of warfare and in some cases actually removing the individual from the combat moment. These photos don’t tell you anything about that changing nature of warfare, except that it has long-lasting effects, which we know. It’s rather disingenuous of the Tate to even suggest that any of these conflicts are the same, have the same effects or heal at the same rate – just looking at the images all herded together as ‘9 months later’ or ‘10 years later’ shows that they clearly don’t. Perhaps they should have offset this by adding information boards explaining why these conflicts were chosen for each section and what they’re supposed to have in common (if anything) x-number of years later.

One other point of caution here is that almost all of these photos are taken by people not involved in the conflict, giving it a more documentary feel. Had it included more images taken by combatants or civilians caught up in these events, then at least the Tate could make some interesting points about the lasting effects of conflict and how some people spend the rest of their lives searching for meaning. There is a considerable difference between the social effects of conflict on individuals which can last generations, and political expediency which sees formally warring nations trading again within a very short time-frame, which this exhibition makes no account for.

And, I’ve made this point before, but where were the depictions of the UK’s experience of war; there may not have been recent land warfare here but the effects of aerial bombardment have had a considerable effect on the social and geographical make-up of the ensuing years. The creation of social housing projects and the great glass skyscrapers that dominate the London skyline are arguable an enormous part of the regeneration process since the two World Wars.  There are more than 10 rooms of photographs here, with one entirely devoted to Berlin, so surely a couple of snaps of the capital could have been squeezed in for local relevance.

It would have given the exhibition greater focus had it confined itself to covering a smaller number of conflicts and then attempting to show their change over time. Then you would be able to draw a clear developmental line from moments to years later, while simultaneously comparing that with the rate of progress / effects of other wars. The Tate, given its hefty ticket prices this year, could also have commissioned some original photography and sent someone to all those battle sites now. How powerful would a shot of the Last Post played at Ypres on 4 August 2014 have been as an ending to this? The art critics may have loved this but as it stands, and despite the beautiful pictures, all this exhibition has to say is that wars are messy and their consequences last a long time. For anyone growing up in Britain alone, the effect of conflict is all around us, and most of it is far older than the 100 year glance back offered here. Look at the Roman roads, the people with Anglo Saxon genetic heritage, and the castles that have stood for almost a thousand years, that’s over two millennia of conflict history, still standing. So yes the effects of war last a long time, and you don’t have to pay £14.50 to find that out.

Conflict-Time-Photography is at the Tate Modern until 15 March 2015. Tickets start at £14.50 (£13.10 without donation) and a concession price is available.

Film Review: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

It’s great to see films that experiment with their material and this  last minute, but very welcome addition to the London Film Festival programme, focuses on the breakdown of a marriage following the unseen death of a couple’s baby son a few months before. Essentially this is 3 films, one from Eleanor’s perspective (Jessica Chastain), one from Conor’s perspective (James McAvoy) and this third version subtitled ‘Them’ which unites elements of their individual streams into one two hour film. The ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ versions were shown at Cannes last year although have yet to be released in the UK, so like many others ‘Them’ is the only version of this story I had seen, and it is an engaging  film.

It begins some months after the death of their baby son and Eleanor has disappeared. At no point do we find out what happened to the child or see the couple with him which is a very sensible move from director and writer Ned Benson. It means this carefully constructed and contained film focuses on the aftermath of a tragic event and the consequences for both the individuals and their relationship. It runs on two parallel tracks as Eleanor tries to fill her time with classes at a local university where she finds a friendship of sorts with her lecturer. Meanwhile Conor is running a failing restaurant-bar with his best friend and stalling while he tries to accept his attempt at independence has been unsuccessful. Eventually he knows he’ll have to give in and join forces with his father’s trendy restaurant.

It also has some things to say about parental relationships and it’s interesting to see an American film that doesn’t entirely portray this big all-loving close family idea. Eleanor’s mother is quite distant and not entirely sympathetic to her daughter’s plight, although they clearly care about each other it’s not a close and confiding relationship. Conor likewise seems to resent his father’s success (Ciaran Hinds) and inability to match-up to it, so like a moody teenager he spends much of his time rolling his eyes or avoiding all but a surface engagement. In some ways it’s a far more realistic picture of family interaction than usually seen, and you start to wonder, with such influences, what sort of parents Conor and Eleanor would have made.

Chastain’s gives a complex and emotional performance as Eleanor; she is frustrated by her husband’s ‘put it all in a cupboard and move on’ approach, but she also decides to cut and run, creating a new emotionally unengaged life far away from the wife and mother role she used to have. Although she has a close friendship with her sister and begins to develop a bond with her caustic university lecturer, Eleanor is an isolated figure somewhat separated from her family and with no other friends which in Chastain’s performance feels partially like a deliberate severing and partly a consequence of the person she must have been before the tragedy.

By contrast Conor is far  warmer, with a group of friends at his bar and his father with whom he develops a respect as the film progresses. MacAvoy is also excellent (as ever) as the pained Conor, who cannot quite admit his marriage and business are over. Yet his approach is a more practical one, dealing with the consequences of their tragedy affects him differently but no less intensely. McAvoy’s performance is very sensitive and feels believable, but there’s no judgement about Conor, or even Eleanor, being wrong in their response. Conor is very likeable while it is actually harder for the audience to get close to Eleanor because she actively distances herself.

Interestingly Benson uses different colours to light their screen presence; Eleanor has a lighter tone, while Conor is often in tints of blue or black, which the director explained is also used in the ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ versions as a reflection of their character. What makes this project different is its focus on how people deal with tragedy and chooses, quite rightly, not to show you the actual events. Instead fragments of their early relationship are occasionally seen as the characters recall memories of their happier past, but again these are kept to a minimum and used to demonstrate both how optimistic their expectations were then, and the nature of the bond between them. We may not see the past and the future but there is an indication that these two will always be in each other’s lives.

There are a few occasions where Eleanor and Conor cross paths and these scenes are both intense and engaging, showing the awkwardness of a couple breaking up dealing with someone who feels both incredibly familiar and like a stranger. I loved the concept of this three version film and hope that ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ are given a UK release. At least the director hopes to have them all on the DVD together. Nonetheless, ‘Them’ stands alone as sensitive insight into the way people handle difficult events and how it affects their view of themselves, as well as being a successful experiment for Ned Benson, using the same material to make 3 different films. If you get a chance to see it, I would highly recommend you do.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby was shown at the London Film Festival. No wider UK release date for any of the 3 versions of the film is yet available but look out for them on DVD.

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