Tag Archives: review

TV Preview: Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling – BFI Southbank

Holliday Grainger & Tom Burke in Strike: The Cuckoo's Calling

It’s been a great year for J.K. Rowling, ok these days when is it not a great year for J.K. Rowling, but in the last 12 months she’s successfully launched the new Fantastic Beasts film franchise, opened a smash hit West End play that extends the Harry Potter series and just announced a Broadway transfer with the original cast. The Potter books are about to become the subject of a British Library retrospective exhibition and, on top of all that, Rowling is expected to publish the fourth novel in her successful detective series, written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, before the year is out. Now the first of her Cormoran Strike novels has been adapted by the BBC and a preview of the first episode was premiered at the BFI with cast and crew in attendance.

The Cuckoo’s Calling was Rowling’s first, and at the time entirely anonymous, opening novel of the Cormoran Strike stories which the BBC has adapted into a three-part series, with episode one airing over the August bank holiday weekend. While there is a crime to solve at the centre, the story is primarily an introduction to regular character Cormoran Strike, a former soldier who served in Afghanistan before stepping on an IED and lost the lower half of one leg to blast injury. He was invalided out of the service and has turned private detective, where he meets temp Robin who over the course of the three novels graduates from Office Assistant to fully-fledged sidekick.

Adapting such a well-loved series of stories was an intimidating prospect for director Michael Keillor and executive producer Ruth Kenley-Letts, but Rowling, as ever, has been involved enough in the development of this show to ensure it looks exactly as it should. Episode One is part introduction to the characters and part establishment of the whodunnit that propels the plot, and it opens with celebrity Luna Landry coming home from a glamorous party. It’s immediately clear that the tone of Keillor’s piece is unlike the crime dramas that we’re so used to; it’s not gruesome Skandi-noir or those dark British thrillers where women end up gratuitously and brutally mutilated, but neither is it in the vein of those cosy Agatha Christies on ITV, Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling is somewhere in between, faithful to its source material but doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The first thing you’ll notice is the quality of the cinematography designed by Hubert Taczanowski which has a grainy but glamourous sheen as it takes in a series of beautiful venues and snow-covered streets of a Mayfair lifestyle in mid-winter London. TV-makers have learnt a lot from Susanne Bier’s The Night Manager, recently discussed at a similar BFI event, and while the locations here are considerably less Bondian, it is none the less beautifully shot, and carefully tailored to the lifestyle of the characters in each scene – Lula’s home feels like a glossy magazine, while Strike’s office is a ramshackle bolthole, cramped, aged and uncared for.

But it also has plenty in common with the first series of Sherlock which revelled in its love of London and eagerness to show a less tourist-heavy perspective on the capital, and one of the joys of Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling is its dedication to using the locations specified by Rowling in the books as well as presenting a more realistic picture of the city. This attention to detail may only be noticed by Londoners but it adds a layer of authenticity to the show seeing Strike walk down the real Denmark Street to his office or asking to be dropped off at Greek Street and actually being dropped off at the point in Greek Street where he could walk back to his workplace. This meticulous realism, though challenging to film Keillor explained during the Q&A that accompanied the screening, was extremely important in creating the world of the books, and the same effect just couldn’t be met in the backstreets of Cardiff, that so often double for London.

Key to the success of the series, and the two subsequent adaptations of The Silkworm and Career of Evil that have also been commissioned, is casting the roles of Strike and Robin, which Kenley-Letts explained became a fairly easy decision. Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger may not be the obvious choices and given some dissimilarities with their written creations, are bound to have many advanced detractors, but on screen they both perfectly capture the essence of Rowling’s characterisation – which should be a relief to many of the book’s fans.

Tom Burke’s Strike even in Episode One is a fascinating and layered character that accords well with your vision of Rowling’s Private Detective. Without the same height and breadth that Rowling describes, somehow Burke creates Strike’s particular physical bearing on screen, while simultaneously suggesting a man often too preoccupied with work to take proper care of himself and those around him. One of the reasons that Burke is a good choice for the role is Strike’s lack of emotional awareness in the burgeoning relationship with Robin, which becomes more important as the books go on, and an inability to identify why he cares so much for her, as well as a sense of incapacity in being unable to offer more than he does. Anyone who saw last year’s The Deep Blue Sea will recognise similar characteristics in Burke’s beautiful interpretation of Freddie, a former heroic pilot eroded by peacetime who comes to realise his emotional limitations.

During the Q&A, Burke admitted that while this role comes loaded with expectation, his schedule meant there was no time to be intimidated by the role until afterwards. There are plenty of hints at Strike’s past and carefully laid strands of things to come, but one of the most interesting aspects of Burke’s performance is the concept that Strike is living in the here and now, he is created by his past and cannot conceive of any kind of future, but takes each day as it comes – as military veterans often do.

Strike is a very different TV detective, one who isn’t driven by a strange personality or ongoing battles with personal demons that affect every case, instead he is a man who is pleasingly meticulous about his work and a bit of shambles, but not defined by his war service or the prosthetic leg which affects his work only as far as the pain it causes him in the pursuit of evidence and suspects. It’s fascinating to see his disability normalised in this way, as just one aspect of his life, and writer Ben Richards makes the audience wait some time before we even learn about it, asking us to know the character first.

But at the same time, Strike’s amputee status is not entirely ignored and Richards restricts himself to two brief scenes where Strike is shown removing the strapped-up stump from the painful prosthesis, and seeing it in full after a shower. It is created quite seamlessly using CGI with a real amputee as Tom Burke’s leg double, and while the commercial pressures on TV are not yet ready to allow Strike to be played by a disabled actor, this feels like things are moving in the right direction with, in Episode One at least, a sensitive and honest depiction.

Holliday Grainger is an equal match as temp Robin Ellacott and although she’s still finding her feet in this first epsiode, there’s plenty of things for Robin to do. Grainger is the ideal mix of brisk efficiency as she instantly sets about reordering Strike’s chaotic office, and good-natured warmth that instantly builds a rapport with her strange new boss. Very quickly Robin is making useful fact-finding contributions and accompanying Strike to visit Lula Landry’s flat. There is an openness and ease about Robin on the page, as well as a shyness about how knowledgeable she is, which Grainger captures perfectly and, as the character develops during The Cuckoo’s Calling and the subsequent stories, Burke and Grainger ensure the relationship between Robin and Strike has plenty of room to blossom.

It was clear from the Q&A that these adaptations of Rowling’s novels have been put together with considerable care, affection for the source material and attention to detail which comes across on screen. What could have been an overly cheesy or cartoonish screen incarnation manages, so far, to avoid the pitfalls that the Casual Vacancy fell into, and Episode One has set a high bar for the rest of the series. Director Michael Keillor explained that the books and this interpretation of The Cuckoo’s Calling takes many of the tropes of traditional detective fiction that celebrate the genre and make them feel modern. If the positive reaction of the BFI audience is anything to go by, then fans of the author shouldn’t be disappointed, and J.K. Rowling will have have one more thing to smile about this year.

Episode One of The Cuckoo’s Calling will air on Sunday 27th August on BBC1 at 9pm. For more BFI preview events, visit their website. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1  


Apologia – Trafalgar Studios

Apologia - Trafalgar Studios

In the UK, we take most of our daily rights and freedoms for granted and forget the hard-won struggles that brought us the right to vote, to work, to design our lives however we choose. “Millennials” are also a generation that grew up a step removed from the experience and consequences of European warfare, the long-term effects of which were felt first-hand by our grandparents and through them our parents’ generation who took to social protests to overcome the economic and political downturn the Second World War created.

Alexei Kaye Campbell’s play Apologia is all about this generational struggle within a family divided by the external world they grew-up in which shapes their attitude to each other and the parent-child relationship. Our childhood determines the type of adult we become, but Campbell’s play argues that this has varied across the Twentieth-century and makes it considerably harder to understand each other. Someone growing up in the 1960s has a very different idea of what the world could and should be than someone raised in the 1990s.This separation of perspective casts a dark shadow over the play and defines its central relationship between an absent mother and her stolen children.

Respected art historian Kristin invites her adult sons, their girlfriends and her gay best friend to celebrate her birthday with a dinner at her tasteful country home. But relations are strained between the family as Kristin’s recent memoir “Apologia” entirely omits her children Simon and Peter from the story of her life. Frustrated by what they see as her absence, both are determined to have it out with her, while their respective partners Claire the actress and the American-Christian Trudi clash with Kristin over their own lifestyle choices. As the evening unfolds family tensions simmer and it becomes clear that the boys don’t understand their mother at all.

Jamie Lloyd’s direction tends to be love-it or hate-it and Apologia along with his previous works The Ruling Class, Faustus and The Maids has divided critical opinion. I’m in the love-it camp because risky approaches designed to entice new audiences is something London theatre needs as much as the reverent recreation of classic texts. Faustus in particular had many detractors but it’s grotty hyperrealism was a pointed comment about our obsession with transitory fame, empty celebrity and meaningless status, which for many feels like the only escape from a future of limited opportunity, unemployment and purposelessness.

Asking James McAvoy to ride around on a unicycle in his pants or Kit Harrington to take a “blood shower” are part of bigger conversation Lloyd is having with audiences about the changing nature of the modern world and how we engage with it. So, it is in this space that Lloyd meets Campbell and with a text full of skirmishes between past and present, of people born decades apart who can’t quite reach each other, Lloyd directs with considerable understatement that allows the rising and falling waves of family tensions to determine the pace of the show.

At the core of the play is the idea that the post-1980s generation are self-centred, caring only about making money and protecting their own individuality and status, without a thought for the good of society, and Kristin virtually says as much as she locks horns with Simon’s girlfriend Claire. Her youth and indeed the rest of her life was spent protesting for anyone who needed help – an idea Claire finds ‘quaint’ – and we begin to see Campbell’s point that whatever road you take there is a cost. Acknowledging that ‘having it all’ is a media myth, women have long struggled with the balance between family and work, and been severely judged either way.

For the women of the 1960s being the first to really forge careers, enjoy political, social and sexual freedoms, and live in relative economic stability, some experienced a domestic cost in the proximity to their families. Stockard Channing, returning to the West End for the first time in 25 years, gives Kristin a somewhat hard surface, a testament to a life spent earning a respected position as an art historian and politicised figure. The result was having her pre-teen sons taken from her by her former husband, and although they are now back in touch, an air of resentment and abandonment persists within the family.

At the start of the play, Kristin is given a tribal mask by Peter and Trudi, and while it’s a none-too subtle dramatic device, we watch Kristin’s own mask slip during the dinner party and its aftermath. Channing makes this a compelling and skilled unwrapping of a woman who neither knows nor cares what effect she has on others. Frequently when told something about her character, her only disinterested reply is “do I,” and this Kristin is forever controlled, even in criticism she barely raises her voice, preferring to leave the room than rant and rave.

However, formidable and cutting she may be – and her barbed retorts aimed at Claire and Trudi are a well-timed comedy highlight – underneath the hard-shell Channing’s Kristin has suffered for her work. As the initial awkwardness of the reunion turns to outright enmity from her sons, Channing reveals a regret and fear for her children that elicit considerable sympathy, that this accident of history, of being a woman of her time, has led to unbreachable divisions in her family.

And while we eventually learn what really happened when the children were removed from her care, Channing ensures that Kristin is not entirely let off the hook, that her decision to pursue her work has affected her sons’ lives irreparably. The audience is left knowing that although the truth has finally emerged, no one feels any better for it, and much of this is due to the clever ambiguity of Channing’s performance that gives an apologia, a defence of herself, but not an apology for it.

Joseph Millson plays both Peter and Simon, who through another slightly unlikely dramatic device, are never seen together, and leads to a moment of confusion about the position of the interval as Millson rapidly changes costume for his one scene as Simon. Peter is given more stage time and has clearly coped better with the lack of engagement with his mother, but has built up a bitter resentment about the memoir that explodes at dinner. Millson commands the stage and fills it with a lifetime of anguish but it’s clear Peter isn’t there to find redemption but out of duty on his mother’s birthday.

Simon whose emotional problems stem entirely from childhood does come seeking answers and again Millson is impressive as the more fragile brother in what becomes a tender duologue between mother and child. Simon’s girlfriend Claire (Freema Agyeman) is never seen with him, but battles with Kristin repeatedly about the work she does and her lifestyle. Agyeman makes Claire smug, attention-seeking and unphased by the slights of her near mother-in-law, but Claire becomes the exact counterpoint to Kristin that Campbell and Lloyd want us to see, a product of her time that, despite a small monologue about her own upbringing, is interested in vacuous fame and status only for the self.

Laura Carmichael’s Trudi is initially seen as the opposite, a good natured Christian girl absolutely out of her depth intellectually and emotionally in the charged family atmosphere. And while Kristin’s attacks make her see her life differently, the two form a respect of sorts that add nuance to what could have been a slightly two-dimensional role. Carmichael delivers a cleverly ditzy performance that balances the comic timing with a sense of the innocent bystander trying to keep the peace.

The themes of the play are pronounced in Soutra Gimour’s (a long-term Lloyd collaborator) set that eschews an art strewn household for a cosy kitchen almost devoid of any paintings, save for a few postcards pinned to the fridge door. The emphasis is on the family dramas rather than Kristin’s career, but Gilmour sets the whole production on a raised proscenium arch, surrounded by a picture-frame adding to the discussion about the boundary between life and art that feeds through the production.

Apologia is not perfect, and at times overly reliant on worn scenarios and coincidences that are a little jarring, but there is an intensity to the writing that well captures the difficult balance of engagement that typify family life. And while the presence of Channing anchors the production with a pitch-perfect performance full of emotional uncertainty, the surrounding cast members are given equal opportunity to shine. More than anything, we see the problematic balance between nature and nurture at the heart of Campbell’s play that shows we are as much a product of social, political and cultural forces of the era we’re born as we are the people who raise us, making the generational divide within families much harder to breach.

Apologia is at the Trafalgar Studios until 18 November. Tickets start at £35. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Apollo Theatre

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - Apollo Theatre

You may not have enjoyed the recent heatwave, perhaps it made you more irritable, exhausted or frustrated than usual. Maybe in the soup-like humidity you found it harder to maintain your poise or to be diplomatic, and as the temperatures soared you started offering up some harsh truths or long held family secrets that could no longer be contained. This is, then, apt timing for a revival of one of Tennessee Williams’s most famous and beloved plays, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof which, like much of his work, uses the intense heat of the American South to unveil the greed, fear, loneliness and passionate rivalries in one very broken family.

And for the second time this year, a production tackles a role made famous on film by Elizabeth Taylor; Imelda Staunton made the role of Martha decisively her own in James MacDonald’s very successful version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the spring, and now Sienna Miller gives her take on Maggie Pollitt in Benedict Andrews’s new production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, played by Taylor in the glorious 1958 film, which has its press night today.

Set at the Pollitt plantation villa, Big Daddy is celebrating his 65th birthday with a family party attended by his two sons, their wives and children, having just been told untruly that he’s cancer free. But his athletic son Brick, a former-sports announcer and football star, is an alcoholic living reluctantly with cheating wife Maggie who’s desperate to win back his affection, while taunted about her childlessness by her brother-in-law’s 5 cheeky offspring and grasping wife Mae. Brick has broken his leg drunkenly jumping hurdles and on the night of the party, the deep rift in the family cracks open and hard truths come pouring out.

Williams’s play is a masterpiece, revealing the layers of deception and outright lies we tell ourselves and our families about our lives, as his characters are forced to really see themselves for the first time. Apart from Brick who has entirely given up, choosing alcohol over suicide, every other character should feel like they’re fighting for their lives all the time. Gooper, the overlooked and unloved son, and his wife Mae want to secure their inheritance having delivered plentiful heirs and suffered years of being second best; Big Daddy is straining to regain control of his empire having ceded authority during his illness while his wife Big Mama struggles to keep his attention. And then there’s Maggie, scrappy and determined, almost shameless in her desire to win control of her husband, stopping at nothing to restore the future she desires for them, which of course includes their fair share of the money.

Benedict Andrews has chosen a modern-setting and you can see the cast and crew have worked hard to put considerable distance between their interpretation and the famous film. There has been a noticeable move to free classic plays from their traditional period setting in the last few years, and when done well as with Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge and Hedda Gabler, or Andrews’s own A Streetcar Named Desire, it brings the audience closer to the emotional heart of the play, and there’s nothing better than seeing something you know well in an entirely new light.

This version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof tries to do a number of things but its overall effect is only partially successful. The modern setting is fine but while Magda Willi’s design is striking, it does slightly impede the action. Maggie and Brick’s sparse bedroom on a raised central dais certainly reflects the current emptiness of their marriage, and is surrounded by 3 corridor spaces with gold floor panels and a mirrored tin back wall (see what they did there?). The idea is to present the monied but slightly tasteless lives of the Pollitt family, rich but ultimately hollow, with the tin wall distortedly reflecting the gold floor and the characters to emphasise the warped emptiness of their lives. Combined with Alice Babidge’s expensive but tacky costumes, the visual aesthetic is a sort of trashy Dallas.

But much of Williams’s play depends upon characters inopportunely interrupting meaningful conversations or heading onto the veranda to escape the stifling interior in search of a cooling breeze. Willi’s set reflects some of the play’s themes but it doesn’t create that feel of overwhelming heat, or convincingly suggest that there are other rooms beyond the one we see. Using just a neon frame as the rear wall of Maggie and Brick’s room, characters come and go from various ‘doors’ we cannot see but in the surrounding openness you don’t get the sense of covert eavesdropping and deception that is part of the fabric of the play. The vastness of the set has an echo that makes it seem more like an enclosed vault than part of a wider house wilting in the muggy climate of the South.

And there is a sense throughout that the show hasn’t quite utilised the huge potential in Williams’s story, as though you’re seeing a bit of a wider picture. The central relationship between Maggie and Brick is the most important aspect and there is a central ambiguity about their feeling for one another that runs through the play, creating a will-they won’t-they tension that keeps the audience invested. But here that ambiguity is largely swept aside and instead focuses on Brick’s instance that their marriage is over. While it does give a harder edge to the performances and in some ways a fresh insight, it also divests their relationship of much of its heat, and like the set, makes it harder to believe that they exist beyond this room with a past and a future.

It’s important to stress that these are production decisions and not necessarily down to the performances. It’s clear that they want to offer a new interpretation and there are lots of great moments and interesting approaches that make you think twice, but the joy of Williams’s plays is the complexity of human experience that they offer and the way that unfolds in moments of extreme pressure under certain climatic conditions. Take some of those layers away and it just doesn’t quite ring true.

One of the most surprising and successful choices is to make Maggie a more grasping figure than often seen. Married into money Sienna Miller’s once poor Maggie talks rapidly and shamelessly to fill the huge void between her and Brick. Words run on and stories overlap with current family observations which Miller handles well in a first Act in which she has almost all the lines. This Maggie is not a sophisticated figure, but instead has a redneck-made-good quality, constantly betraying her origins in her stance and love of gossipy one-upmanship. Miller is an actor whose performances come with considerable expectation largely based on her private life, and while her accent is initially a little thick it becomes more settled as the show progresses, turning in a thoughtful and intriguing performance.

She’s determined to lure Brick back into her bed but it’s not clear whether this is for love or a possessiveness that will lead to her share of Big Daddy’s money. Miller’s Maggie certainly puts up a good fight, but in steering clear of Taylor, the show sacrifices Maggie’s sensuality and romance which dilutes the relationship with Brick and prevents any proper sympathy for her. It’s a rather cold seduction. Jack O’Connell initially gives little back as the detached Brick, worthy of his name. He is an oblique presence, purposefully excised from those around him with no desire for anything but drink.

O’Connell has some excellent moments in conversation with Colm Meaney’s Big Daddy in Act Two where Brick’s resolve is finally broken releasing a torrent of anger and self-abasement that hints at the impact this performance could have had elsewhere in the production,  but the decision to make him impassive in the face of Maggie’s various attempts to provoke and allure him make it so much harder to really understand his purpose, and while O’Connell delivers a kind of nothingness, shutting down every avenue of reconciliation also leaves him nowhere to go in the rest of the production.

If Brick has no interest in Maggie then the psychology of their continued co-existence makes no sense, why wouldn’t he just leave her – a problem this production cannot resolve – and it prevents the growth of any sexual charge between them. A mistake this production makes repeatedly is in presenting both actors fully nude in several scenes (mostly O’Connell but occasionally Miller) in order to imply an eroticism that just doesn’t exist and O’Connell, hobbling on one crutch, is hampered by a towel he constantly has to re-tie during Act One, which could be easily resolved with some discrete Velcro. While fans may be delighted at the chance to see their idols in the raw, theatrically it serves no purpose without the character intent to support it – nudity is no substitute for chemistry.

There are great performances from the supporting cast which more successfully escape their screen incarnations. Colm Meaney’s Big Daddy is a cruel and wearied figure, worn down by the constant disappointments of his family and frustration with the pointlessness of his wife. There’s genuine heartache for Lisa Palfrey’s tarty Big Mama whose natural bubbliness is deflated by the abusive bitterness of her husband. Hayley Squires gives Mae a protective family instinct with a tendency to catty competition with Maggie which is often quite funny, while Brian Gleeson’s Gooper makes the most of his one attempt to take control.

This is by no means a terrible production, there are plenty of good ideas, an attempt to present a new version of the play, and some genuinely insightful moments, but it’s not as good as it could be. This focus on the brash hardness that the lack of love creates in people rides roughshod over the moments of tenderness and intimacy in Williams’s writing that make his work so powerful. A large West End stage feels wrong for it and perhaps in the Young Vic’s more intimate space this could work a little better – especially where £35 will buy you one of the best views rather than a Grand Circle seat where you have to crane round people’s heads to see properly.

It needs that sense of a family living too close to each other, of a heatwave that drives its characters to extremes and a central couple whose passion for one another teeters constantly on the edge of love and hate. Benedict Andrews’s almost clinical production needs fire, and although it wants to distance you from the famous film, Newman and Taylor hang heavy over this production. That Tin Roof needs to be much hotter.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is at the Apollo Theatre until 7 October. Tickets start at £35. Follow this blog on Twitter @cultralcap1


Film Preview: Dunkirk – BFI Southbank

Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan

The miracle of Dunkirk is one of Britain’s most memorable war stories, and is one that combines all the key characteristics that ensure its place in history; it’s a display of ordinary heroism and stoic endurance, the triumph of the survival instinct, the combination of different groups working together, of individual and collective bravery, and most importantly, it is the story of victory against overwhelming odds – with ‘victory’ meaning the successful evacuation of hundreds of thousands of men cornered by the advancing German army. It is this more than anything else that inflames the popular imagination.

The way Britain records and memorialises its military history is almost unique, not in outright wins and numbers of enemy forces crushed, but in specific acts of bravery against apparently insurmountable obstacles. From the precision of Henry V’s paltry archers against a French army reportedly 4-6 times the size of the English at Agincourt, to the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War, the defence of Rourke’s Drift in the Anglo-Zulu War and the Battle of Britain, whatever the outcome, the courage of men fighting for King and Country is celebrated and revered. And it’s no coincidence that major war films have been made of each these incidents.

It is somewhat surprising then that the events of Dunkirk have rarely troubled filmmakers in the 77 years since a combined force of Royal Navy, RAF and “little boats” ensured Britain’s soldiers got home from the beaches of Northern France. In 1958 Leslie Norman produced a respected movie of the same name for which he is still best remembered, while the one-shot beach scene in Joe Wright’s Atonement remains one of the most technically impressive and cinematic depictions of war to date, but it was just one scene.

Dunkirk has, perhaps, been overshadowed by other later events in World War Two that capture another idea of heroism – D-Day, the Battle of Britain, Japanese Prisoner of War Camps and the African campaign – which have given filmmakers a more straight-forwardly heroic model and clear victory set-up to warm the nation in the years immediately after the conflict ended. Dunkirk may be a popular landmark but a retreat, even a noble one, is not necessarily the basis for a great film. That is until Christopher Nolan decided to direct it.

At this point it’s best to warn you that what follows will assume you know the history and the outcome of this story, but won’t reveal what happens to individual characters. Nolan’s approach is in many ways atypical of war films, and during a brief introduction at the BFI Southbank screening (having come directly from the premiere), Nolan explained that he wanted to create a semi-immersive experience that felt more like a thriller than a gung-ho tale of derring-do, a template that traditional war films tend to follow. If you imagine that most people seeing this film will know the outcome then the only way to create tension is to ask the audience to invest in the individual fates of a set of characters, and make the action as realistic as possible to create and prolong the suspense, which is something Nolan does masterfully.

Unusually, there is relatively little exposition at the start, the film begins with a one of the protagonists the aptly-named soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) escaping snipers on the streets of Dunkirk where he emerges onto a beach full of men in lines waiting for the Navy to come for them. From this point, Nolan’s film is a full-on experience as tensions escalate, the clock ticks as the German Army approaches and four core narratives overlap. In the 105-minute run time, at least 95-minutes of this are unmissably tense so try not to take any breaks because you will miss something.

As we’ve seen from his previous work, Nolan is so accomplished at managing the multinarrative perspective, especially in Inception where the characters were situated in several layers of dream state, and he utilises this approach to considerable effect in Dunkirk. First, we follow Tommy who spends the film trying to jump the queue of men waiting for rescue, forced into short-term alliances with those prepared to push others aside to guarantee their own survival, including a role for Harry Styles that led to much conjecture. This perspective on muddied heroism is really fascinating, and while the audience is repelled by the greed of the men he meets, at the same time you can’t help but appreciate the desperation and fear that drove them to it.

The second strand is on “the mole”, a stretch of pier or jetty that extended far enough into the English Channel that the Navy’s ships could dock one at a time to take men home. Here we meet Naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Army Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) who represent the wider war strategy, trying to save the men, but well aware that a harder war is on its way if Germany attempts invasion for which their ships must be protected.

Flying above them is a single RAF formation with three spitfires led by Farrier (Tom Hardy) and his fighter ace colleague Collins (Jack Lowden) who must keep the Luftwaffe from bombing the ships and men on the beach, engaging in dogfights and ensuring they don’t run out of fuel before they too can get home. Finally, we follow Mark Rylance’s “little boat” sent to help with the evacuation but picking up a stray soldier en route (Cillian Murphy) who survived an earlier sinking, but is so shell-shocked he tries to prevent them heading to Dunkirk.

Nolan’s approach feels more like real conflict than almost any war film you’ve ever seen, not just in the technical brilliance of the effects, but in the way the story is managed to show both the unremitting pace of combat, and importantly how the conduct of war is essentially a large system of interconnected elements, the removal of any one part of which would entirely change what happens to the rest of it. Aspects of these four stories do overlap in various ways as entirely separate characters come together momentarily, but what comes across most clearly is the sense that these men were all an important part of the same event, each contributing to the success of the rescue from different angles and with different outcomes.

The technical approach to this film is one its most impressive aspects, and with very little dialogue, it is the action that is the focus. Using real 35mm film was important Nolan explained for creating the right effect. Some of the most startling moments are in the aerial shots, with an Imax camera strapped to various parts of the substitute Spitfire, the actors were taken into the air to film Nolan explained, rather than compromise with imperfect green screening. The result is astounding, giving a kind of first-person perspective across the film that means the audience feels as though they’re sitting right next to Tom Hardy as he spirals through the clouds in pursuit of the dangerous enemy machines, standing should-to-shoulder with Kenneth Branagh on the pier or cowering during a snipper attack with Fionn Whitehead.

Two weeks ago, I suggested that Sam Mendes conducted rather than directed The Ferryman, and Nolan achieves the same effect here controlling the various elements, allowing them their moment but creating a sense of harmony across the film. It is compelling stuff right from the start, and even when you finally realise Nolan is playing with the timeline as well as the perspectives, it’s done in such an understated way that you’re instantly drawn back into the action. This is so redolent of the way men describe real warfare, with no time to linger on what happened and what it means, but having to just carry on. And Nolan’s approach to death and destruction is exactly the same, it happens but during the main thrust of the film it’s portrayal it unsentimental and unfussy, part of what’s happening but so much else is occurring simultaneously that, as with real warfare, there is only time to reflect much later when it’s all over.

And much of this down to Nolan’s faith in his cast, who, with very little dialogue, must carry much of the impact of events merely in expression. Kenneth Branagh is actually sensational as the weary naval officer carrying the weight of the war on his shoulders, feeling every bit of his powerlessness. Yet the moment the little boats appear, Nolan focuses entirely on Branagh’s face as the joy, pride and incalculable relief pass across it. When the tears fill his eyes, don’t be surprised if they also fill yours.

For much of the film Tom Hardy has only experienced determination in his eyes to rely on while his face is covered by the mask of a fighter pilot but he still manages to convey the fear, concern, relief and almost total self-reliance that are the mark of aerial warfare. Mark Rylance meanwhile as civilian boatman Mr Dawson does that humble determined thing he does so well while nursing his own private heartache, and Cillian Murphy is excellent as a broken soldier who brings the tragedy of war to Dawson’s boat, unable to contain his trauma – arguably the consequences of this subplot is one of the few missteps in the film but doesn’t detract from Murphy’s performance.   

There are also a host of rising stars who add to this solid work from more established actors. First Fionn Whitehead as Tommy is the audience’s way into the film. With less dialogue than some of the supporting cast, Whitehead carries most of the soldier-journey conveying both the youth of the men fighting with the jaded weariness of the experienced fighter, seeing death and barely responding to it.

Harry Styles doesn’t disgrace himself or pull focus as a soldier prepared to clamber over anyone to be first in line for rescue, and the film frequently plays with the hero-villain divide, letting individual actions repel you while still appreciating the wider fighting hell they’ve gone through – it’s not all plucky good natured-heroism but something much more complex and human. There’s also excellent work from Jack Lowden as Tom Hardy’s fellow fighter pilot who finds himself frustratedly watching the action from another story while dealing with accusations of abandonment from the army.

The much-anticipated Dunkirk absolutely lives up to the hype and is a film that subverts the established war-movie model and makes it a thrilling but unsentimental experience until the very end, where it’s gets a little cheesy for 5 minutes. But Nolan’s skill is in reminding us that Dunkirk may have been a ‘victory of survival’ but it was far from the end of the war, and in a way, the fate of all the characters is a reminder that there was so much more to do. Dunkirk is an extraordinary war film that aptly celebrates an extraordinary moment in British military history where systematised war and the courage of fighting men met with the bravery of civilian little boats – there is certainly some kind of miracle in that.

Dunkirk is on general release from Friday 21 July in cinemas nationwide. For more information on BFI previews, visit their website. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion – V&A

Balenciaga -Shaping Fashion, V&A

Making the case for fashion as a recognised and skilled art form has never been easy, and until recently exhibitions in museums and galleries haven’t helped, offering a series of pretty outfits on mannequins with very little focus on the intricacy of construction and the inventiveness of design studios. Showing the finished product isn’t enough on its own, and many a show has fallen foul of the clothes-horse approach that just show a series of lovely frocks with no real explanation of why they’re important and influential, reinforcing the idea that fashion is all about surface frippery. The Alexander McQueen show changed all that with its combination of design, story-telling and careful curation, and it’s clear from the V&A’s new exhibition focusing on another fashion icon that they’ve learnt some important lessons.

The V&A’s impressive Balenciaga exhibition is a slightly different beast from the touring Alexander McQueen show from 2015, and where there is less show-stopping glamour in the room as well as in the arrangement of the garments, the Balenciaga show has deeper academic and historical depth of content that should please the fashion-lovers as well as the expert seamstresses or designers. Emerging on the other side, the visitor can genuinely say they’ve seen beautiful outfits but, crucially, that they have also learnt about the detailed construction and engineering process that sits behind the creation of every garment, helping you to understand why designer clothing is so special.

Fed through the exhibition is Balenciaga’s experience as a tailor – an important contributory factor in his success. What the V&A does so cleverly is clearly demonstrate this at every point in their argument about his influence on contemporary and modern designers. It is a tell and show exhibition in which the detailed signs explain the skill in each themed section – be it a type of cut or particular means of construction – and then shows you two types of evidence.

Balenciaga Tulip Dress, V&AFirst, the finished garment often with x-ray images demonstrating the hidden engineering or weighting within to main shape, but also – and this is the clever bit – a recreation of that technique made by the V&A now to demonstrate its current applicability. In many cases, this is accompanied by a video of the creation process so you can see how these styles were made. It’s such a smart idea, giving the visitor a proper insight into the importance of the techniques Balenciaga pioneered, which also showcases the talent of the fashion gallery staff at the V&A who are undoubtedly experts in their field.

Famously aloof, the V&A attempt to break open Balenciaga’s process with a series of early cases looking at design beginning with fabrics which, unlike most approaches in female fashion, came before the sketch as Balenciaga, with his tailor training, found that the choice of material would determine how it could be cut and shaped. These decisions early on would then affect every subsequent aspect of the creative process, moving, as the exhibition then does, from cutting to sewing and construction.

It is here in the ‘Workrooms’ section that we learn about the creation of the famous 1965 tulip dress that sought to flatter the figure while actively offering a new shape – contrary to the popular fitted jacket and full skirts of Dior’s New Look. But while this high-neck peach silk evening gown looks loose and comfortable, constructed from an entire sheet of fabric at the front, and with a fitted bow at the back, Nick Veasey’s accompanying X-ray shows an inbuilt corset structure around the torso which is entirely invisible from any angle.

And these revelatory images appear again and again throughout this exhibition, unveiling the hidden expertise within the dresses in which Balenciaga determined how the finished item should fit and look even when it appeared on a live woman. Equally fascinating is the 1954 reddy-pink gown with ties under the full skirt that fit around the knees to keep the lower half of the dress in place as you walk. It’s one of the more stunning pieces in this collection both for its striking colour and, using the X-rays, you see a combination of corsetry, hoops and padding that created what feels like a modern gown but with nods to a more glamorous age of bustles and Embassy Balls.

Balenciaga Green Dress, V&AThis taps into one of the V&A’s core arguments, that Balenciaga’s approach has left a lasting fashion legacy, and in these carefully chosen pieces, you can see how his designs combined a sense of past, present and future that give them a timeless appeal. Even now a semi-voluminous green dress near the start of the exhibition that uses ballooning to create three layered sections down the body, with a puff sleeved cape in the same hue, looks slightly futuristic, and could be something one of the more Avant Garde starlets might wear on the red carpet. But at the same time, it all feels like the 1960s and, further back, references the empire-line fashions of Regency England.

Balenciaga’s interest in architecture also becomes increasingly clear, whether it manifests in the ruched sleeve of a tan coat with one single piece of ribbon holding the sculpted layers of material in place so they drape the arm, or in the lasting design of the babydoll dress introduced in 1958 that subverted the idea of designing specifically for the female-shape. By adding volume all over the body and not just in the full skirts of contemporaries, Balenciaga actively moved away from ideas of traditional feminine allure to demonstrate different ways to look good, which had little to do with uncomfortable figure-hugging styles, giving the body more freedom and, importantly, better comfort.

But Balenciaga also offered glamour, so the next step was to add embellishments to the clothes themselves and there are several examples of dresses cut in quite a simple style with jewels, feathers or embroidered patterns to make them special. Highlights include a cream hour-glass shaped shift dress sewn with a classic floral pattern, mixing garden flowers connected by green vines. Nearby is a silver and pink evening coat made of dyed feathers, while behind it is a red coat combining encrusted 3-D ‘jewels’ and embroidery. It’s clear Balenciaga was a designer who knew his customers and created items for all the occasions she might attend.

Balenciaga Embroidered Dress, V&AOne of the other things you may notice here, unlike most designer exhibitions, is that Balenciaga’s outfits look as though they could fit a modern-sized woman, with a realistic sense of the female figure rather than the impossibly-tiny items you usually see in these shows. Many of these designs are deceptively simple and the minimalistic ethic is one that has been much imitated.

The second section of the exhibition looks at the showroom and the Balenciaga salons in which customers were given an opportunity to see the clothes on live models employed by the fashion house to sell direct to customs – quite different to a runway fashion show. There are videos as well as examples of the outfits showing the sale process in which customers sat with pads noting the number of the item they wished to order.

In the middle cases that form the inner circle of the show, there are examples of clothes that made it into everyday wear, all with simple and practical approaches to design that challenge the traditional silhouette. Whether it’s the long-sleeved loose-fitting shift dresses that now look so elegant, but at the time were practically scandalous, to the classic floral day dress and tailored suit, practicality, comfort and style typify Balenciaga’s design that simultaneously reflect the changing role of women in the post-war era.

Once the garment is sold, and it becomes the property of the customer, it might be interesting to note that alterations were made that actively subverted the designer’s original intentions. Among the star pieces here are contributions from Ava Gardner’s collection, herself a lover of the Spanish style that infuses Balenciaga’s work, including a pink dress discovered to have a separate corset inside and a 1964 lace evening coat that she added feathers to after she bought it.

The final part of the exhibition upstairs in the lovely mezzanine gallery considers the Balenciaga legacy in other designers’ work, so expect lots of red carpet-esque dresses and crazy pieces that espouse the values or style principles of Balenciaga. Although this is in some ways the core of the argument about how Balenciaga ‘shaped fashion’, for me, this was the least interesting part of the show, moving away from the main work and showcasing a series of less interesting and tenuously connected items -several of which have done the rounds at numerous fashion exhibitions, including the red and white puff dress that looks like a ball of feathers.

Nonetheless, this exhibition helps the V&A to establish its position as the leading curator of fashion history, that doesn’t just rely on the pretty clothes but takes a more rounded approach to presenting material. With a strong central argument and the careful presentation of evidence including video and recreated gowns, the V&A easily prove the case that Balenciaga shaped fashion, and that they are shaping the fashion exhibition.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is at the V&A until 18 February and tickets are £12 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


%d bloggers like this: