Dunkirk

Dunkirk, Christopher NolanIt would have been a shame if this film about one of the most inspiring episodes of World War II had fallen prey to Hollywood cheesiness, a far-fetched romance, or a surfeit of special effects. This movie, written and directed by Christopher Nolan (trailer) is really not about the fate of individuals. (In the lack of dismembered and disemboweled bodies, it’s the antithesis of, say, Hacksaw Ridge.) It’s about the fate and movements of the group, much like the Dunkirk rescue itself, and it strikes the right balance between emotion and action, with just enough special effects (well, quite a lot, really) to convey the extreme peril and disarray in which the rescue was carried out.

The backstory is familiar, and Nolan shows us no strutting Nazi officers or steely-eyed German soldiers. Nor do we need to see them. By late May 1940, the German advance had stranded some 400,000 mostly British personnel on the French coast. Especially at low tide, the water was too shallow and the docking facilities too damaged for the British Navy ships to get in to pick them up. Not to mention that those big ships were sitting ducks for bombs from land and air. Meanwhile, the soldiers lined up on the mole (the sea wall) and the sand to board ships that weren’t coming, couldn’t come. Exposed on the beaches, they were being bombed and strafed too. When a rare hospital ship became available, there was every effort to board the wounded—a compassionate but consequential choice, one stretcher case taking the place of several standing men.

England was less than 40 nautical miles away by the shortest, though not the safest, route across the Channel. As the operation commander says, “You can almost see it.” “What?” asks the Army man. “Home.”

In the words of the film’s promotion, “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.” The story is so well known, I’ll risk a spoiler here and remind you that an armada of almost a thousand vessels of the British Navy, augmented by private citizens’ fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats, motor launches, and car ferries made repeated crossings, over several days, loaded with as many men as they could carry. Overhead, British Spitfires battled German bombers and their fighter plane escorts.

Despite the lack of in-depth personal stories, Nolan uses a number of techniques to bring this complex action to life. He never lets you forget the daunting scope of what must be accomplished. He minimizes the dialog and concentrates on an accumulation of physical details, snippets of chance and courage, moments of terror and random death. He simultaneously compresses and stretches time: the aerial battle shown took place over an hour and is intercut with actions on the beach that took place over a week. And, he provides some of the most exciting air footage I’ve seen in ages. These accumulating details symbolize the whole.

With his approach, individual stories become “less interesting for their biographical details than for the roles they play in the drama of history, however large or small they may be,” said Matt Zoller Seitz for RogerEbert.com. However, some critics have complained about these very features: the lack of backstory about the war and German decision-making, only three Spitfires, the paucity of character detail. They wanted a different movie.

In choosing the actors who do play identifiable roles, Nolan selected fine ones. Kenneth Branagh, as the operation commander, marches up and down the mole in a handsome greatcoat, while the ever-appealing James D’Arcy is the Army colonel with whom he’s coordinating. Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard are two ordinary soldiers caught up in multiple attempts to devise their own escape. Tom Hardy is lead pilot of the Spitfire squadron. And one of the small rescue boats is captained by Mark Rylance, who can do more by doing less than any actor going. Tough decisions have to be made. You sense these men could make them.

Hans Zimmer’s score, which conjures the racing heartbeats of the men in peril, was effective up until the end, when he tried for a more exalted mood.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%;  Audiences: 83%.

**Love Me Not

Motorcycle

photo: Chris Jefferson, creative commons license

By M J ArlidgeThis contemporary crime thriller set in Southampton, England, pits the local police force against a pair of serial killers. It’s a multiple point-of-view novel, told mostly from the perspective of DI Helen Grace, newly returned to her job, but also from the perspective of numerous other characters, including DS Charlene (Charlie) Brooks, various witnesses, and sleazy and irritating journalist Emilia Garanita.

Although many of the principal characters are women, they seem no more than superficially female. Grace rushes into situations on her Kawasaki without analyzing them or indicating the police department has any procedural requirements. Well along in the story, the author writes that she is now being propelled by instinct, whereas it seems that instinct is what has driven her all along. And, though the author refers to Grace’s feelings about her work, her emotions tend to be expressed in clichéd, rather than insightful, ways. There’s an unsatisfying pop psychology analysis of the killers’ motivations that does not evolve as new information is gained.

Perhaps police and school administrators’ paranoia about shooting incidents is markedly less in the U.K. than in the States, but when the serial killer invades a middle school, you have to wonder whether there should be more of a protocol or official response than having Grace calmly saying to a bunch of bemused teachers and students, “You should leave.”

Authors are constantly told “show, don’t tell,” especially when it comes to emotions. A worse pitfall is showing then telling, which suggests the author doesn’t trust the reader to understand what has taken place and needs him to explain it. Arlidge does this repeatedly. One example: A man is numb with shock about his wife’s murder until his dogs bound into the room and affectionately greet him. As he pets them, he comes near to tears. The author can’t resist explaining that the dogs’ love and devotion has penetrated the husband’s shock, revealing how devastated he is, which of course takes all the wind out of the emotional moment.

The action of the novel occurs over the course of a single jam-packed day, with flashbacks as necessary. Surprisingly, the police determine the identity of one of the killers less than a third of the way into the novel and the other, less than half-way in. This means the entire last half the book is an extended chase scenario as the police struggle to get one step ahead of the perpetrators.

This last half is fast-paced, of course, and readers attracted to entertainment rich with car chases may find it just the ticket. According to Amazon, this is Arlidge’s seventh novel featuring DI Grace, and he has been producing two of them a year since 2014, plus a pair of short stories. That’s a pretty fast pace too!

TV’s Charles III

Charles III

Tim Pigott-Smith in Charles III

Sunday night, PBS’s Masterpiece Theater will present the Tony-nominated play, Charles III (trailer). Mike Bartlett wrote both the blank verse play and the adaptation. I saw it on Broadway—see my review for more details—and if the televersion is as good as the stage one, it will be well worth seeing. “Part political thriller, part family drama, and a timely examination of contemporary Britain,” says PBS.

In a nutshell, the Prince of Wales is finally able to ascend to the throne following the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, England’s longest-serving monarch.Then the games begin, pitting the unpopular and lackluster Charles against the lively and ambitious Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton (played by Charlotte Riley). And Charles almost immediately starts making a hash of things by injecting himself in a vital policy debate.

In real life, of course, Charles’s succession is considered a dubious outcome of Elizabeth’s reign. Polls suggest that more than half of Britons actually would prefer he be skipped over entirely, putting William on the throne. William V, that would be.

In a her article “Most Likely to Succeed: Where Prince Charles Went Wrong,” New Yorker writer Zoë Heller talks about his persistent unpopularity. One source of it is that he puts his oar into waters about which he knows little, taking stances that “do not follow predictable political lines but seem perfectly calibrated to annoy everyone.”

An exceedingly promising aspect of the television presentation will be the carryover of West End and Broadway cast-members Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles (“the role of a lifetime,” London critics said), Oliver Chris as Prince William, Richard Goulding as Harry (“the ginger idiot”), and Margot Leicester, practically a body double for the galloping Camilla.

****Victoria: The Queen

Queen Victoria

detail of portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1859

By Julia Baird – This extensively researched biography landed in my “to read” pile at the same time the PBS series about Victoria was ready to begin. Naturally, differences in style and tone emerge, but the tv producers have hewn pretty close to the facts of Victoria’s early reign, as established by historian Baird.

Victoria was not the prudish, sexually repressed old lady we think of when we think “Victorian era.” That was Albert, actually. Victoria enjoyed her sex life and was disappointed when, after her ninth child was born, her doctor told her to have no more. She said something like, “What, no more fun in bed?” She became queen at eighteen and married at twenty-one. A youthful portrait, with a dash of the sultry, appears on the cover of Baird’s book. It’s the image of herself Victoria chose to bury with her husband.

When she became Queen, she initially relied heavily on the counsel of Her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, to whom she was greatly attached. He was a good mentor for Victoria, except in three areas, says Baird. He should have persuaded her to deal even-handedly with Britain’s political parties, not favoring one over another; he could have encouraged more concern for the poor; and he should have helped her repair relations with her mother.

By the time of her marriage, this headstrong young woman was accustomed to being queen. Yet she was deeply attached to Albert, who chafed under his limited role in British affairs of state, and they struggled to find a useful place for him. Ultimately, he worked tirelessly for the benefit of her country and its evolution into a modern society. Had he not died young, the 1800s would have been called “the Albertine era,” Baird says. But Albert did die when he and the queen were in their early 40s, and she wore black for the rest of her life. Her template became, Baird says, “weep with the women and dictate to the men, all while cushioning herself with a dramatic large grief.”

Victoria, too, worked hard. She wrote some 2,500 words a day—about 60 million words in her lifetime—letters, memoranda, diaries. Unfortunately, her voluminous papers were carefully “edited” by her family after her death. Daughter Beatrice, Victoria’s youngest child, who lived until 1944, took on the job of rewriting her mother’s diaries, turning the Queen’s interesting, quirky observations into dry prose, then burning the originals. Baird terms this “one of the greatest acts of historical censorship of the century.”

Victoria is great-great-great-great-great grandmother to the children of England’s Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton. It’s hard to believe so many generations have passed when Victoria remains so vivid in our cultural memory, for reasons this book amply justifies.

****Foundation

bayeux-tapestryBy Peter Ackroyd, narrated by Clive Chafer – Is it anxiety about the future that’s propelling me to spend much time lately thinking about the past? I’ve pulled out the family genealogy to work on a new (updated and improved!) version. And I read award-winning British biographer and novelist Peter Ackroyd’s 2013 Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors: The History of England Book 1. Several subsequent volumes are planned, four of which have been published..

Foundation takes you from England’s earliest pre-history and the building of Stonehenge, through its occupation by the Romans, the Norman Conquest, the revolt of the barons, and up to the reign of Henry VIII. That’s a lot of history to cover, and to cover it takes more than 18 hours (or almost 500 pages in the print edition).

If one thing is clear from those often difficult and violent early centuries, history doesn’t move forward in a straight line. It’s full of contingencies. There are setbacks, and unexpected jogs in the path. Yet, the habits and customs of the English people, the rights they accumulated, their preoccupations, and, especially, the development of the common law and a vigorous language are part of the patrimony of Americans today. In that sense, this volume is well-named.

Starting with William the Conqueror (1066), I already knew a bit about English monarchy (enough anyway to recite the succession of  kings and queens over the past millennium, an especially lively rendition after a g&t). What fascinated me about Ackroyd’s approach is not so much the parade of often-bloody regime changes, but his parallel descriptions of the lives of everyday people. What was life actually like for those masses we don’t see much of in a BBC costume drama? Makes you glad to live in the 21st century, I can tell you.

Scholars have quibbled with bits of Ackroyd’s research and speculations and lament the lack of footnotes, maps, and documentation—a problem irrelevant in the audio version—but can’t fault him for readability. Foundation isn’t written for them.

Chafer is a fine narrator, a little stiff, but his presentation matches well with his subject matter. This is another one of those books that I wish I’d read in paper and had a physical copy to flag and refer back to. Much in it is worth rereading and remembering. In an interview with Euan Ferguson in The Guardian, Ackroyd said, “what underlines that random happenstance (of history) are the deep continuities of national life that survive, uninfluenced by surface events.” One can hope.

Richard III – at STNJ

richard-iii, Gretchen Hall, Derek Wilson

Gretchen Hall & Derek Wilson; photo: Jerry Dalia

Shakespeare’s quintessential villain erupts into being in this Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey production directed by Paul Mullins (on view through November 6). The cast is huge—16 actors playing 22 parts—but all depends on the sly malice and believability of the title character, a role Derek Wilson fulfills admirably.

Shakespeare’s Richard is more duplicitous than history supports, since in the Elizabethan era, theater was required to explain and justify the monarchy, but the play’s machinations seem perfectly plausible in Wilson’s hands. Fawning here, back-stabbing there, and slyly engaging the audience in his treachery.

The story describes the culmination of the War of the Roses, and it’s a familiar one, as most theater goers have seen one or more productions of this classic. In (very) short, Richard murders his way to the throne of England, but getting the crown isn’t keeping it. The play’s most famous lines come at the beginning  and end, but like all Shakespeare’s plays, it is filled with juicy bits. Here’s one for this political season: “And thus I clothe my naked villainy with old odd ends stolen out of holy writ; and seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”

STNJ has provided a helpful Plantagenet family tree in the program, which, abbreviated though it is, is at first glance a stumper. I studied it before the show and had a few relationships sorted out, and at the intermission I gave it another go, putting everyone in place.

In addition to Wilson’s Richard, the many fine performances include those of the three principal women: Gretchen Hall (Queen Elizabeth, wife of Richard’s brother, King Edward IV), Carol Halstead (Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s “warrior queen,” who lives up to her sobriquet), and Amaia Arana (Lady Anne, widow of Margaret and Henry’s son, Edward, and later wife of Richard). In Shakespeare’s story, Richard instigated the murder of both Henry VI and Edward. For these crimes, Margaret and Anne hate him. The widowed Queen Elizabeth has reasons to both hate and fear him when her two sons “the little princes in the tower” are believed murdered at Richard’s behest.

Though lots of murder is talked about, most of it occurs off-stage. In keeping with the production’s modern dress, there is gunfire as well as swordplay. Richard III is a long play, but the energy of the cast and the direction (as well as some judicious trimming) make the story move apace.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train), and until October 30 you can also see there an exhibit of Shakespeare’s First Folio, on tour from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

STNJ has prepared an excellent “Know the Show Guide.” For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org.

****The Birdwatcher

birds

photo: Alan Schmierer, public domain

By William Shaw – “There were two reasons why William South did not want to be on the murder team. The first was that it was October. The migrating birds had begun arriving on the coast.The second was that, though nobody knew, he was a murderer himself.”

Birdwatching is an avocation that instills in its practitioners the virtues of patience, keen observation, and meticulous attention to detail, traits that police sergeant South brings to his work as well. He’s a Local District lead based in Kent and generally works with neighborhood groups, drug busts, traffic accidents. A good, solid copper. Murder, by contrast, is something a person can be driven to in a moment of panic and loss of control. The murder South committed took place when he was only 13 years old, and you soon understand whom he killed—his own father—and eventually you learn why.

South was born in Northern Ireland, son of a brutal enforcer in the Ulster Volunteer Force during the Troubles, and his father’s death was blamed on internecine rivalries within the UVF. To escape the violence all around them and with the intervention of a police sergeant sweet on his mum, mother and son were safely transplanted to Kent. Though he has become a policeman, South avoids any more contact with killing.

However, a new murder case changes all that, and South has been assigned to it, like it or not. The victim is South’s neighbor, retired school teacher Robert Rayner, a nice man living in a quiet place who’s been viciously beaten to death. The two bachelors have spent many hours together birding along the coast where they live. Despite the many hours spent and the friendship South thought they shared, it soon emerges that he actually knew very little about Rayner, and what he knows is faulty.

The rage that would produce a death such as Rayner’s is terrifyingly familiar to South, and in this well constructed plot, you understand it is destined to reverberate in unexpected ways. Overall, Shaw’s writing is clean and unlabored. The banter among members of the police team also are good, and much of it is funny. The characters are ones you come to care about, too.