Review – Red Joan, Northampton Filmhouse, 27th April 2019

Red JoanIs there nothing that Dame Judi Dench can’t do? From starring in Cabaret in those early days to being Bond’s head of MI6, now she’s accused of espionage, selling atomic bomb secrets to the Russians. What on earth would M say?!

Judi Dench as JoanRed Joan is based on the real-life story of Melita Norwood, the so-called “granny spy” who supplied information to the KGB over a period of forty years, but was never prosecuted. The film tells her story in flashbacks. In 2001, it starts with Joan’s unexpected arrest at her suburban home, and then shows her police interviews where she slowly reveals her involvement in espionage, much to the shock of her solicitor – also her son – who is hearing it all for the first time. Shown alongside the police investigations, we see undergraduate Joan starting at Cambridge, how she meets the very charismatic Stalinists Sonya and Leo, and her subsequent employment at a Government Laboratory and romantic involvement with her married boss. Whilst she’s excited to be doing such ground-breaking work, she’s horrified when the atomic bomb that she’s helped develop is used by the Americans in Japan. And that becomes her motivation for ensuring that the Russians know how to make the bomb too – working on the theory that if both sides have it, neither side will use it. And, as she says in her defence, so far, she’s been proved right.

Tom Hughes and Sophie CooksonWe’d seen that this film had generally received poor reviews, so were a little concerned at the prospect of watching it. All I can say is, those reviewers must have been watching a different film. Beautifully shot, with lovely lingering views of Cambridge; charming attention to period detail; strong performances from Tereza Srbova and Tom Hughes as the left-wing activists (and conduits to the KGB) Sony and Leo and from Sophie Cookson as young Joan; and Dame Judi on fine form, with the camera ruthlessly up close capturing those wrinkles of warmth and experience. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were completely caught up in its fascinating tale.

Sophie Cookson as Young JoanTwo additional aspects of note: firstly, the astonishment of the younger generation at the achievements and/or activities of the older generation when they were younger. One of the rules of life is that we cannot know or remember our parents when they were young; and if they don’t tell us what they got up to, it’s impossible for us to second-guess. Joan’s son is outraged when he discovers the truth about his mother; and his only question is, to what extent was his father complicit in keeping it a secret too? (Quite a lot, as it turns out.)

Sophie Cookson and Stephen Campbell MooreThe film also showed the absolute sexism of the age, with the assumption that a mere woman couldn’t possibly be a scientist, wouldn’t she much prefer to be operating the new tumble dryer? It’s only when boss Max stands up for her, and praises her brilliant brain in front of those who otherwise would patronise her, that she’s allowed to take her place at the forefront of the research. Men, eh, what are we like?

Ben Miles, Laurence Spellman and Judi DenchComing it a decent 101 minutes, it doesn’t prolong the story beyond our attention span, and, whilst it’s fair to say that you could always do with a little more Dame Judi, the balance between the concurrent stories of her arrest and the development of her spy career works very well. OK, it’s not the paciest of films, but, imho, this is an engrossing and enjoyable film. If you suspect you might enjoy it, then I think you will!

Review – Victoria and Abdul, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 25th September 2017

VAA PosterHere’s a film that combines two of my favourite things – Dame Judi Dench and India. Based on a true story – with a lot of licence I suspect – the ageing and grumpy Queen Victoria attends a banquet at which she is presented with a mohar – a ceremonial seal – by two Indian servants imported from Agra. Protocol required that no one – especially lowly Indian servants – should look the queen in the eye, but one of them, Abdul Karim, is more daring; he and the queen exchange glances, and, lo and behold, the queen rather liked it.

VAA Victoria and AbdulAn unusual friendship develops between the queen and Abdul over many years and she employs him as her teacher, or Munshi. Under his guidance, she develops her understanding of India, its culture and its languages. Her preference for him puts a lot of noses out of joint, not least that of son and heir Dirty Bertie. But Victoria reigns supreme, and despite their differences, Abdul stays with her until her dying day.

VAA VictoriaOn reflection, it’s not that unusual a friendship, given what Judi Dench got up to with Billy Connolly following the death of Prince Albert. Victoria and Abdul can very much be seen as a sequel to Mrs Brown, and the characters of Sir Henry Ponsonby, Lady Churchill, and of course Bertie appear in both films. In the earlier film, the queen took some solace in the company of her Scottish servant, John Brown. He died in 1883, and the action of Victoria and Abdul begins four years later. She obviously had a thing for hairy, non-English types.

VAA Abdul and VictoriaI found this a thoroughly entertaining, surprisingly funny, charming and sensitive film. It gets a little sentimental towards the end of Victoria’s life – but that sentimentality is quickly snuffed out after her death. I’ve read two criticisms of the film; one that it’s a whitewash of the ruthless barbarism of the Raj days, and another that the character of Abdul is simply too servile and two-dimensional. I disagree with both. The film is very much seen through Victoria’s eyes and she lived a cossetted life protected by all her advisers. She had little knowledge of what was taking place in India – indeed, she never went there. Certainly there was ruthless barbarism – constantly brought to the fore by the character of Mohammed, who never misses an opportunity to criticise anything British. Bertie’s personal promise that Mohammed will die in pain proves that the barbarism went right to the top.

VAA V&AAs for Abdul being over-servile; put yourself in his place. A 24-year-old man who has already achieved a position of some responsibility (as he sees it) by writing down the names of prisoners at Agra jail, is suddenly jettisoned into close proximity with the Empress of India. He was starstruck. When Victoria asks him why should she keep going, he simply replies, “service”. Abdul is the prime exponent of the art of service. If you go to a grand hotel in India today you will be overwhelmed at the magnificence of the service. I thought the presentation of Abdul was completely believable.

VAA the household revoltsDame Judi Dench is as immaculate in the role as you would imagine – allowing us to see Victoria’s warmer side, whilst still of course holding on grimly to her supreme power. She’s hilarious in the early scenes where we observe Victoria’s table habits, and she’s delightfully bossy with her toadying officials and even more tedious family. She really conveys Victoria’s adventurous spirit and hunger for knowledge – and her kind respect for all things Indian really appeals to an Indophile like me! Ali Fazal brings huge calmness and serenity to the role of Abdul, nicely bringing out the humour of his unusual and awkward position, and totally convincing as a teacher.

VAA Sir HenryThere are some excellent supporting performances too – Eddie Izzard’s menacing Bertie is a true horror, clearly desperate for power and he doesn’t care who he treads on to get it. In his final film, Tim Pigott-Smith gives a great portrayal of the private secretary Sir Henry, assuming to know better than Her Majesty until she insists on his giving way, when he turns into a naughty schoolboy who’s been found out. Paul Higgins plays the ungracious and belligerent Dr Reid, superbly bringing out all the character’s resentment, and there’s a quietly hilarious performance by Adeel Akhtar as the vitriolic Mohammed. The subtitled scenes between Abdul and Mohammed, with all the indiscreet backchat, are a delight.

VAA BertieIf you want to see a film that shows the harsh realities of the British occupation of India, go see something else. If you want a feelgood movie about an unlikely friendship, with pompous people being taken down a peg or two, this is the one for you.

Review – The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 5th April 2015

Second Best Exotic Marigold HotelAs you may or may not know, Mrs Chrisparkle and I are great fans of anything to do with India. It’s our favourite country to visit, the people are lovely and the cacophony of sights, sounds and smells on every street are enough to stimulate the most jaded of brains; although whilst I am sure there are plenty of eclectic hotels like the Best Exotic Marigold (or indeed the Second Best Exotic Marigold) we’d prefer to stay in an Oberoi or Taj, if that’s ok with you.

Dev PatelWe saw the original film on TV last year. I thought it was charming, heart-warming, gently funny and an incredibly accurate representation of India. I also don’t know anyone who saw it who wasn’t delighted by it. The film was a relatively unexpected commercial success, grossing $138m on a $10m budget. No surprise, then, that they got their heads together to come up with a sequel. It’s been out a while now, and we missed it when it first came to the Errol Flynn; but word reached us that the new film was still delightful, but not as delightful as the original. It’s usually the case with sequels.

WeddingIt’s not vital to have seen the first film, but I think it would help, if only to understand better the characters and relationships behind the names. Sonny (who runs the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a quiet, idyllic but somewhat chaotic establishment, catering for an energetic, adventurous, and retired clientele) is now in a working partnership with Muriel, one of the original clients. They fly to San Diego to seek financial backing from a large conglomerate to buy and convert a dilapidated hotel so that Sonny’s dream of entrepreneurial empire building can become a reality; cue lots of great lines for Maggie Smith about how much she enjoyed America, (not). However, the path of true business never runs smoothly, and a combination of hotel inspectors (or are they?), rival purchasers and the usual shenanigans of the residents of the hotel get in the way. To add to the proceedings, preparations are underway for Sonny and Sunaina’s wedding. There’s an engagement party, and a family party – but with all the distractions and a jealous groom will they actually make it to the wedding day, and will Sonny’s dream of being a multi-hotelier be realised? You’ll know after 2 hours and 2 minutes.

Wedding partyFor the most part, the story is wafer thin and what little there is is overwhelmed by a few additional distracting side-plots. There’s a sequence where Norman mistakenly encourages a taxi-driver to murder his girlfriend Carol, and then spends a lot of effort trying to stop him. As a plot it goes nowhere and I found it rather tedious. The whole “which, if any, of the guests is the hotel inspector” storyline also goes on a bit long and, to be honest, we don’t really care. What we do care about, a lot, is the characters. The film is peppered with some wonderful creations, the majority of them with the first flush of youth a long way behind them, and we really want them to carpe diem and make the most of the time that’s remaining. The on –off relationship (mainly off) between Douglas and Evelyn has you tearing your hair in frustration that she won’t commit to him. The return of his ex-wife Jean demanding divorce drives it home that it’s even more important that they get on with life.

Ronald Pickup and Diana HardcastleAt the other end of the “dalliance” scale, Madge has been stringing along two Indian suitors mischievously simply because she can but realises that when it comes to the crunch neither of them is what she wants. The resolution to this problem, whilst telegraphed a mile off, is beautifully realised. And the character of Muriel has developed from the difficult, complaining old biddy she was into a wise Everyman figure who watches the action from the side-lines. Despite that gruff exterior, she genuinely wants people to make the best of what they’ve got, and not fritter away their time like she did. The dialogue is very well-written and brings the characters to life, and it goes without saying that the cinematography is beautiful and makes you long for India itself.

Penelope WiltonBut for me, three stand-out performances drive the film onwards, and, frankly, you’d enjoy it no matter what the script contained. Judi Dench is exquisite as Evelyn; bold and capable in the world of work but tentative (and hating herself for it) when it comes to love. You can’t imagine Dame Judi putting in a performance that wasn’t just instinctively Dame Judi. Her elegant voice can capture the full range of emotions from self-doubt to self-confidence, imbued with cheekiness or sorrow all in the same sentence. Eloquent and understanding, more than capable of defending herself in argument, but essentially fragile and needing reassurance. It’s a beautiful performance.

Judi Dench and Christy MeyerAnd it’s a fantastic juxtaposition with Dame Maggie Smith as Muriel, dismissive of waffle and impatient with incompetence, never one to pull any punches whilst talking to those who might consider themselves to be her superiors, all the while looking mortality in the face with quiet dignity. Whilst Dame Judi is always Dame Judi, Dame Maggie can be anyone. As a wonderful contrast to her Downton Abbey character, here she is a commoner, with a down at mouth accent and shabby of appearance, but never dull of wit. The third outstanding performance is by Dev Patel who, as Sonny, absolutely encapsulates that tendency of spirited and ambitious young Indian people to deliver outspoken superlatives, massively overhype any project and never let a silence go uninterrupted. His balance of being both deeply in love with Sunaina but also a useless fiancé means we can all recognise aspects of ourselves in his hopelessly ham-fisted relationship. He’s also really funny – and a convincing Bollywood dancer too.

Judi Dench and Celia ImrieBill Nighy is back, still playing Bill Nighy, playing Douglas, stumbling over himself to do the right thing and say the right words, attempting to conceal crestfallen feelings when things don’t work out right: the epitome of middle-aged male vulnerability. Penelope Wilton is spot-on as ex-wife Jean, using attack as the best form of defence in attempting to secure a divorce, giving an appearance of cheerfulness which is as hollow as their ex-marriage. Celia Imrie has her usual knowing sexual predator look on her face even when she’s been sprung, when her two suitors turn up at the same time – but she does it awfully well. Ronald Pickup as Norman and Diana Hardcastle as Carol play a couple going through a hard time but not expressing it to one another, and it’s very touching.

Judi Dench and Bill NighyThe big additions to the cast for this film are Richard Gere as Guy Chambers, whom Sonny instantly suspects is the hotel inspector and therefore stumbles over himself, Basil Fawlty-style, to over-ingratiate himself with him; and Tamsin Greig as Lavinia, ostensibly at the hotel to check if it will be suitable for her mother. For a comic actress of Ms Greig’s quality she is woefully underutilised but carries off her disappointed, shocked but far too well-behaved to complain persona with her usual aplomb. Mr Gere is excellent as Guy, the debonair traveller, rising to the challenge of asking Sonny’s mother out for a meal, dealing with all the attention he inevitably gets because of his looks with refined false modesty. Lillete Dubey (Mrs Kapoor) is slow to react to his charms at first, and a difficult conquest to make, but then goes the way of all womankind when they encounter Richard Gere.

Dev Patel againLike its original, it’s a heart-warming and charming film; it’s never going to count as one of the finest films of all time but there’s plenty of character development and universal truths to get your teeth into. Plus the thrills and beauties of India. What more could you ask?

Review – Peter and Alice, Noel Coward Theatre, 25th May 2013

Peter and AliceA bit late in the day to get round to seeing the second in the Michael Grandage season at the Noel Coward (I’m still calling it the Albery) Theatre, but travel, Eurovision and other commitments prevented our earlier attendance. Starring Dame Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, both of whom were in Skyfall, and written by John Logan, who wrote the aforementioned film and is apparently writing the next two James Bond screenplays, one might expect an evening of espionage and gadgetry, femmes fatales and martinis. No. This is a very thoughtful and imaginative exploration of what it must be like to be the real person on whom a celebrated fictitious person is based.

Judi DenchDame Judi plays Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the 80 year old Alice of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, as she meets Ben Whishaw’s 35 year old Peter Llewelyn Davies, the inspiration for J M Barrie’s Peter Pan, at a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932. This apparently really happened. Whilst both have had their fair share of hardships and bereavements, Alice is a relatively stable character who knows that the fictitious Alice has actually been quite useful in her life; whereas Peter is tormented by his alter ego’s continual childhood happiness against the backdrop of him and his brothers being handed over by his dying father to “Uncle Jim” and his rather unorthodox guardianship. Not so much in loco parentis, more in loco mentis tortoris.

Ben WhishawPeter and Alice meet in a wholly unglamorous functional backroom at the exhibition. But once they start challenging each other on their relationships with their famous writers, the backroom is replaced with colourful abstract scenery reflecting the (allegedly) carefree days of childhood. The kindly or otherwise figures of Lewis Carroll and J M Barrie emerge in the memories of the two main characters and we see them interact and watch how the writers play very formative influences in their childhoods. Once they have come to life, they are followed by the fictitious Alice and Peter Pan who also comment on the relationships, and make a stark contrast with their older real life versions.

Nicholas FarrellWhat works so well is the development from the play being about Mr Davies and Mrs Hargreaves, and their reflections on the writers and characters, to the emergence of Peter Pan and Alice, taking over the stage, criticising their real life counterparts, revealing the sad and bad aspects of their personalities – and finally having the last words on their subjects. The real people live and die; the literary creations endure forever. The play has some interesting observations about the nature of reality and fiction, family relationships, mental stability and the fine line between care and abuse by an older friend or relative. And it’s all really beautifully written.

Derek RiddellThere is a distinctly sinister undertone throughout the play regarding the attentions of the Rev Dodgson and Uncle Jim towards their younger charges; whilst nothing is ever overtly stated or portrayed, you sense at any time something dreadful might happen to the youngsters that would merit the accusation of paedophilia. Nothing does; but it hangs in the air like a veritable sword of Damocles.

Ruby BentallRegular readers might know that I’m not a fan of the “play without an interval”; unless it is combined with another one-act play, either side of an interval. However, this is one of the cases where I can see precisely why an interval would be undesirable; there’s no obvious cliff-hanger moment halfway through that would come at an appropriate time, and the gently unsettling atmosphere that gets built up during the course of the play could get lost. At about 85 minutes it’s not so long that you desperately need the loo before it’s finished; but I do always get concerned at the revenue loss sustained by the theatre when they don’t sell drinks and ice-cream during the interval. I know, that’s not really for me to worry about.

Olly AlexanderIt’s an eloquently written play and is performed with all the skill and honesty that you would expect. I reckon 85% of the full house were there just to see Dame Judi – judging by the speed and fervour of the standing ovation when she came on for her second curtain call. They won’t have been disappointed. From the moment she appears on stage, her attention to detail, her technical ability, and her complete immersion in the character are all immaculate and astounding. When she is reunited with the Rev Dodgson (a thoroughly believable, slightly Gladstonian Nicholas Farrell), she changes instantly from old woman to little girl, and it’s a delight. She was also excellent coping with her shame when fictitious Alice, a suitably attitudinal Ruby Bentall, starts delivering a few home truths.

Stefano BraschiBen Whishaw was also compelling as the anguished Peter, with nervous mannerisms and a kicked puppy look when manipulated and subjugated by the odiously pleasant J M Barrie, played with quiet ruthlessness by Derek Riddell. It was a really thoughtful and moving performance. Also excellent was Olly Alexander as Peter Pan, encompassing all the childhood heroism of his character, expressing great excitement in contemplating his adventures, but not holding back from turning on his real life counterpart when his defences are down. The final member of the cast is Stefano Braschi who brings Peter’s tragic brother Michael to life and also does a wickedly funny silly-arse routine as Alice’s suitor Reggie. It’s a splendid production, very moving, beautifully put together and superbly well acted. You do come away from it feeling rather sad; well, we did. If it wasn’t about to close in a few days time, I’d say you should book now!

Grumpy audience update: a while ago I remarked on how often members of the audience grump at you if you need to squeeze past them to get to your seat. There was a splendid example of this at the Saturday matinee we attended. There were a few people we had to inconvenience in order to find our seats but I really didn’t appreciate it when I got told to my face “NOT AGAIN!!” by a grumpy old woman. “Can you get past if I do that”, she moaned, repositioning her leg a tiny distance from where she had previously stretched it out. “I’ll try,” I responded, a little sourly, and then made as much effort to linger and balance precariously over her lap in the process. Some people! Honestly!