Regularly added bite-sized reviews about Literature, Art, Music & Film.
Voltaire said the secret of being boring is to say everything.
We do not wish to say everything or see everything; life, though long is too short for that.
We hope you take these little syntheses in the spirit of shared enthusiasm.
(Directed by Billy Wilder) (1945)
An early Wilder classic; one of the first great Drunk Films, and one that has hardly dated in its universal relevance.
A middle-aged drunk can recover an awful lot of esteem by calling himself “a writer” (as this reviewer knows). In The Lost Weekend, Don Birman (Ray Milland) is a ‘drunk-called-writer’, who gives his brother Wick (Philip Terry) and his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) the slip, so he can carve-out a few days to write that novel about his battle with the bottle. But since Don always struggles with paperwork, he decides to just hit the bottle instead, at home and in visits to his local watering hole, run by Nat (Howard Da Silva).
Weekends are short, but this one is too long: Don’s out of cash half-way in, resorting to petty larceny, and he’s hopeless at that as well. He can’t even hock his typewriter because the pawnshops are closed for Yom Kippur. (Oy! How to atone or repent without a little drinkie?) Don gets a charity tipple from Nat and then a loan from an old flame, but he crashes and burns, waking up in the Alco-Ward. There he spurns the tough love on offer and flees “Hangover Plaza” for more liquid pastures. He’s getting better at larceny; pilfering a whisky, weaving down the lazy avenues, he slinks back to his apartment and settles in: but then the walls start crawling and the bats start swirling as the DTs hit. We leave Don (in the care of Helen, returned to collect compensation for the pawn of her coat), hovering between hope and oblivion – courtesy of the Hays Office we’ll assume a positive outcome, but we have our doubts.
Beautifully scripted and structured, the movie combines stark and brutal reality with the surrealism of alcoholism (its joys and terrors), and a deep, wise compassion that somehow never lurches into classroom moralising. Dark, hip and witty, the overarching strength of the piece comes from Ray Milland’s astounding performance. From the bon vivant charm one got used to from his previous films as a “light romantic second lead,” to the snarling, desperate, crafty soak after the booze beckons, his is a Jekyll-and-Hyde characterisation both utterly credible and utterly compelling. (“I’m not a drinker, I’m a drunk!”)Continue Reading →
(Directed by David Pujol) (2018)
Mercury Cinema, Adelaide, 17 February 2020
As Dalí maintained, he was surrealism. It was probably his only constant in life. He was born 11 May 1904 in the Catalonian town of Figueres, named (‘reincarnated’) after a brother who had died a year before, aged two, doted on by his mother (who died when he was 16: “the greatest blow I had experienced in my life. I worshipped her… I could not resign myself to the loss of a being on whom I counted to make invisible the unavoidable blemishes of my soul.”) His father was a martinet, but he allowed Dalí to attend art school where he showed great drawing skills (a talent in which he exceeded all other surrealists and every abstract dauber to hold a brush ever since).
His influences ranged from the classical (Raphael) to the baroque (Vermeer) to Spanish Masters such as Zurbarán and Velázquez, thence to Picasso, Miró and Cubism. His work became increasingly vivid, detailed, and impenetrable; revealing, in Gombrich’s apt phrase, “the elusive dream of a private person to which we hold no key.”
He met and married Elena Ivanovna Diakonova (“Gala”), 10 years his elder, his muse, mother-figure, protector and agent, who seems to have suffered him through the years, in exchange for fortune and fame (there must be compensation for being wooed by a self-confessed charlatan using a love unguent comprised of goat excrement and fish glue). Repudiated by his father (they later reconciled), he and Gala decamped to a fishing hut in Port Lligat, on the Costa Brava, in 1929. His success enabled him to buy the hut, and then another, and so on, such that eventually, the additions meant, like the priest in “Father Ted,” his house was in a circle. He added to and decorated his beloved villa over the decades, including the building of a high studio with all mod cons. It eventually became Camp Dalí:
This documentary has several very good things going for it, and some drawbacks. Of the former, a wonderful array of stills and footage of Dalí and his cohort; sumptuous visual guides through his house and gardens at Port Lligat, the castle he bought and renovated for Gala in Púbol, and his Theatre and Museum in Figueres (where he ended his days on 23 January 1989, listening to Tristan und Isolde, where he is buried, across the street from the church where he was baptised, and up the street from where he was born). There are nice photographs of some of his more celebrated works, and we are given hints about the psychological stimuli behind them (his confused religious feelings, his relationships with his family, the influence of Gala, his need for comfort and succour, his striving after immortality).
We do not get much true biographical detail (hence our little sketch above) and we have even less information about his method, his fanatical egotism, his madness, or his views. Of the latter, we concede that he was wildly inconsistent and elusive about that: much derided by his surrealist colleagues who attacked him from the left, he earned scorn for bugging out of (or returning to) war zones in Spain and France (Orwell wrote of him that “One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being.”)
The editing might have been a tad tighter – there is repetition without effect, the piece is about twenty minutes too long and the soundtrack is a little slurpy. There’s no particular argument in play; the film takes a curiously passive approach for such a controversial figure. And we could do without the wittering circle of experts…talking in endless metaphysical circles, here on the beach at Port Lligat, there on the terrace at Casa Dalí…in the rooms they come and go, not talking about Michelangelo…One can picture Dalí, the great poseur yet one of genius, delighting in all the attention but inwardly smirking at the faux exegeses on his life and art.Continue Reading →
(2019: Australian Release February 2020)
If, like us at The Varnished Culture, you’ve pictured yourself tending a lighthouse on a breezy, picturesque island away from the rat race; climbing the steps with a dainty lantern; reading by the fire at night while the rain tinkles against the windows, this film will give you something to think about. [And finishing that novel, as in Poe’s unfinished lighthouse story, or else something like an action / adventure / comedy, perhaps called “The Big Heist” – Ed.]
We saw The Lighthouse with a theatre full of excited film students who tittered and crackled popcorn until two minutes into the film, at which point they were sobered into a silence, from which they did not emerge until they stumbled from the theatre, wondering if being an accountant in daddy’s firm wasn’t so bad after all. For if watching was strenuous work, filming The Lighthouse must have been gruelling. The island off the coast of Maine on which the lighthouse is situated is freezing, blustery, eternally wet. It’s the 1890s. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), a newcomer to the trade of ‘wickie’, lugs coal, digs the frozen soil, cleans the foghorn, scrubs the floors, paints the bricks, tends the sump, hauls oil and empties the chamber pots. The senior wickie, old sea captain Thomas Wake (Willem Defoe) gleefully barks orders and tortures the sullen, almost silent Winslow. Wake alone actually tends the swooping light, which is a kind of deity.
All is black and white, rainy, rocky and oneiric. From the drawn-out, existential pensivity of the men’s arrival at the foggy island for a four-week (extended) stint, the pace changes to an eccentric, Beckett-like battle between the two miserable misfits, a dance of demented, doomed souls, watched by an evil one-eyed seagull and a ghastly mermaid (Valeriia Karaman). The beam of the lighthouse circles, the men climb the spiral staircase (an example of the golden mean, the only beauty in the movie). The fresh water source is poisoned and Winslow has to join Wake in drinking rum and ultimately, kerosene, day and night. The real, supernatural and delusional become increasingly entangled, as bad weather keeps the relief boat from landing.
The Lighthouse is un-classifiable, brilliantly acted, and unique. Reminiscent of Joseph Losey’s magnificent 1960s power-struggle film “The Servant” (also in black and white) and Eugene O’Neill’s 1912 bleak play “The Iceman Cometh” (published in 1946) and overlaid by themes from Coleridge’s “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner”, it is as dazzling and dangerous as a 1,000 watt globe.Continue Reading →
Baumbach’s second Academy-Award nominated feature begins with a to-camera monologue by Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and then the same from her husband Charlie (Adam Driver), each telling a mediator what they first liked about the other. The close-ups are inter-cut with scenes from the marriage, all undercut by sentimental music which rises to a cloying crescendo whenever we see the couple – either together, or independently- cosseting their over-indulged, bratty son Henry (who, at eight years of age is rewarded with a present each time he ‘poops’).
The mediator to whom the couple are talking (Robert Smigel) is helping them adjust to the end of their marriage, so it is no surprise to find that the things that attracted them to each other, have deteriorated to the things that drive them apart. The apparent bone of contention is Charlie’s adamantine refusal to consider life any place but New York, where he is the owner of a dinky avant-garde New York theatre and, like Baumbach himself, is too involved as writer, director and producer to see the flaws in his creation. Nicole is tired of acting in Charlie’s theatre and wants to return her hometown and the place where she found some fame of her own long ago – Los Angeles. Beneath this of course simmer the real issues which explode in the best scene of the movie, set in an almost empty room, when the couple’s resentful attempt at negotiation escalates to a brutal excoriation of each other.
Charlie and Nicole flounder about for a while, mistakenly thinking that they can “sort things out for themselves”, but Charlie is too self-absorbed and Nicole too spoiled. So lawyers become involved. Good lawyers, who give wise advice in their individual ways. Papa Bear Jay Moratta (Ray Liotta) is too aggressive, Mama Bear Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) is too cuddly, and Baby Bear Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), although just right, is ignored. The husband and wife hide their respective nastiness behind their lawyers, each acting surprised at a judge-mediated meeting when his or her own version of the truth comes out. Even the judge says he can’t handle it and walks out.
The performances are all over the top: Baumbach lets his cast off the leash. The Grand Prize for most ridiculously flappy and hysterical performance of the year goes to Julie Hagerty as Nicole’s mother, Sandra. The best of the scenery-chewers are Johansson (mainly seen with swollen eyes and dowdy clothes), Liotta as the $950-an-hour attorney (to paraphrase – “If you have any stupid questions, ring my associate”) and Martha Kelly as an awkward, wooden social worker who evaluates and reports on each household to the court – an invasive and unhelpful process.
One of the few engaging and real moments belongs to Merritt Wever as Nicole’s sister, Cassie. Unhappily tasked with serving the Divorce Application on the unsuspecting Charlie at Nicole’s family home, Cassie wavers nervously toward him, hiding the envelope by carrying a pie on top. Bemused, Charlie asks what kind of pie it is. “Pecan” shouts Cassie. At a loss, Charlie asks, “did you bake it?” Cassie responds in confusion, “I don’t know”.
The movie is rife with the kind of scenes beloved of American screenwriters to show us the passage of time in the homey suburban lives of their anything-but-homey-suburban characters – Halloweens feature, heavy on the hearty kitsch. The handsome, overwrought couple own a New York apartment, which we suspect they couldn’t possibly afford, and mooch about in a sanctimonious, privileged gloom. Are we in a Woody Allen movie? It’s hard to care. Like Nora Fanshaw, A Marriage Story is thin and long, competent but not at all original and overdressed.[ED.: Sounds more Kramer vs Kramer than Scenes From a Marriage – too bad. Julie Hagerty has been bad in lots of films – her cameo in Reversal of Fortune comes to mind. Also, Laura Dern just picked up a Best Supporting Oscar, if anyone cares. TVC recommends you read Married Life instead.]
Well, all my friends are now uncoupled,
Yes, they’re all growin’ cold,
Out on work days and on every weekend,
No longer doin’ what they’re told.
Well I looked up from my beer the other night
And I saw an old familiar face,
He said “How are you doin’ Pete my boy?”
“Are you still scribbling at the same old pace?”
I asked him why he looked so smug,
He told me he had left his wife at last,
Held his phone up so I could more easily see
His crop of contacts till I was aghast.
Well sometimes I feel like I’m left behind
And sometimes I feel like I just left school,
But then again I’m smiling, fine, and grown-up,
Maybe: it’s not me that feels the fool…Continue Reading →
In 1922, at the age of 33, the urbane Count Rostov is exiled by the People’s Comissariat for Internal Affairs to the Hotel Metropol, Moscow for life upon pain of death. He is spared immediate execution only because he is known as the author of a poem in praise of the pre-revolutionary cause:-
“Alexander Ilyich Rostov, taking into full account your own testimony, we can only assume that the clear-eyed spirit who wrote the poem Where Is It Now? has succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class – and now poses a threat to the very ideals he once espoused.”
Rather unlikely, you say. Yes, as are the in-house adventures in which the Count engages over a number of years with the unchaperoned daughter of a Ukrainian bureaucrat. Nina approaches the Count’s table in the hotel dining room when she is nine-years old and blessed with a governess who should be sacked. Nina is a girl of preternatural coolness and curiosity. This sequence is most reminiscent of Salinger‘s “For Esme – with Love and Squalor“. The difference is that the Count and Nina remain friends, meeting when Nina is resident at the hotel, the two of them running wild upstairs and downstairs, breaking into suites, investigating the cellars, setting geese free, that sort of thing.
The generally unruffled Count is offended by the decline in the standards of the Metropol resulting from the war and Bolshevism:
“Today, the dining room was nearly empty and the Count was being served by someone who appeared not only new to the Piazza, but new to the art of waiting. Tall and thin, with a narrow head and superior demeanor, he looked rather like a bishop that had been plucked from a chessboard. When the Count took his seat with a newspaper in hand – the international symbol of dining alone – the chap didn’t bother to clear the second setting; when the Count closed his menu and placed it beside his plate – the international symbol of readiness to order – the chap needed to be beckoned with a wave of the hand; and when the Count ordered the okroshka and filet of sole, the chap asked if he might like a glass of Sauterne. A perfect suggestion, no doubt, if only the Count had ordered foie gras!
‘Perhaps a bottle of the Château de Baudelaire,’ the Count corrected politely.
‘Of course,’ the Bishop replied with an ecclesiastical smile.”
The Count (who is suffered to retain his title but not the honorific “Your Excellency”) acquires the Master Key to the Metropol from Nina – yes, unlikely, we agree. And so, even when she is not present, he is free to roam the hotel at will. The intricacies of his life in the hotel as honoured guest, then insouciant captive and finally, expert waiter are entertainingly described in clear and uncluttered prose.
The novel was a best-seller. Such is its readership’s interest in the elegant suites, the servant’s room with hidden study in which the Count lives for decades, the Shalyapin bar, the Boyarsky restaurant, the behind-the-scenes rooms and even the stairs of the Metropol that the hotel now offers ‘Gentleman in Moscow’ packages, advertised on its website as follows:-
“The Metropol invites its guests to follow the footsteps of Count Rostov, the main character of the Gentleman in Moscow novel by the American writer Amor Towles…Feel yourself in the middle of the novel by staying in one of the Metropol rooms.The offer includes: accommodation in a room of the chosen category…” (“Of the chosen category” – thank goodness that Russia has been cleansed of the corruptions of class.)
The set pieces – the Count’s liaison with a ‘willowy’ actress, meetings with his friend Mikhail Fyodorovich Mindich, sessions tutoring a party official and chance meetings with foreign hotel guests, allow Towles to digress on aspects of Soviet politics and repression.
It would be giving too much away to mention a special (and unlikely) relationship which changes the Count’s life, or to hint at the skillful manner in which Chekov’s guns all come together at the end, providing a satisfying surprise or two. This is a witty and elegant novel, flawed but so are all fairy tales.Continue Reading →
(Directed by Martin Scorsese) (2019)
We watched Marty’s film, “The Irishman,”
We watched it long into the Morn,
And all we can say, regrettably,
Is that it was One Big Yawn.
He takes lots of bits from other films,
Some of which were made by him,
Wedding, baptism from “The Godfather“,
He much from “Goodfellas” doth limn.
There’s some nonsense baked-in from “JFK“,
(Dave Ferrie’s eyebrows are absurd),
There’s a heap of expository dialogue
But we now can’t remember a word.
Production values are uneven,
The aging just doesn’t ring true,
It all seems to play by the numbers,
The ladies have nothing to do.
Robert De Niro looks tired,
Especially as a young man;
He should admonish his ‘Posture Coach’
And start acting his age, if he can.
Joe Pesci is daftly muted;
Al Pacino thick-slicing the ham,
The copious cast are of undoubted class
But accessories to a flimflam.Continue Reading →
A surreal representation of pre-World War 2 Mitteleuropa (specifically Germany), Nobel Prize winner’s novel Auto de Fé is an intense and disturbing stew of poverty, insanity and brutality. Dr Peter Kien, who is (at least in his opinion), the world’s greatest Sinologist, leads a strictly structured, hermetic life of study and paper-writing. He subsists on an inheritance, treating offers of professorial chairs with contempt. Although his housekeeper Therese has shown no attention at all to Kien’s 4-room library during the eight years she has lived in his apartment – other than in assiduously dusting it, Kien is enchanted when she pretends interest in a book (“The Trousers of Herr von Bredow”) and marries her. In fact, Therese is virtually illiterate and assuredly insane.
“Her favourite letter was O. From her schooldays she had retained some practice in writing Os. (You must close up your Os as nicely as Therese, teacher used to say. Therese makes the best Os. Three years she stuck in the same class, but that was no fault of hers. It was teacher’s fault. She never could stand her, because in the end she made her Os better even than her. All the children had to copy her Os. Not one of them wanted to copy teacher’s Os anymore).”
When Therese (whose chief components are “skirt, ears and sweat”) excludes Kien from all but one room of his library he marshals his 25,000 volumes with a rousing speech delivered from his library ladder. The Buddhist texts flinch from battle. The war does not go well for the Sinologist.
” Later, despite violent shooting pains, he managed to bend the upper part of his body so far forward that he could see a part of the opposite wall in the adjoining room. Not very much seemed to have altered in that direction. Once he dragged himself out of bed and tottered to the threshold. Full of joyful anticipation, he hit his head against the edge of the door frame even before he had looked through it. He collapsed and fainted away. Therese found him soon after and to punish him for his disobedience let him lie there for another two hours. Then she shoved him back towards the bed, lifted him onto it and tied his legs firmly together with a strong cord.”
Kien is finally driven out into the world, willingly assisted by a red-fisted caretaker whose greatest joy is beating women to death, and a hunchback cripple who aims to become world chess champion. Everyone robs Kien blind. (Perhaps this is why the German name of the book is “Die Blendung” meaning, “The Blinding”? Although of course during an earlier period Kien trained himself to get around most of his apartment with his eyes shut in order not to see the furniture bought by Therese). This middle section of the book – a long mess of extreme violence, fury and weird, dark ambling – is hard to read (leavened only by the humour of Kien’s attempts to save books from being pawned.) The ending comes as a relief to all.
Aside from being too long in parts, this is a superb, absurd, sometimes funny and always fascinating novel of the ilk of (the more accessible) The Melancholy of Resistance by Krasznahorkai or Moravagine by Cendrars. The first section in particular, is magnificent Throughout, Canetti’s prose is crisp and his vision profound; deftly translated in the Picador issue by C V Wedgwood.Continue Reading →
(Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide 18 January 2020)
The Varnished Culture initially knew David Sedaris as the brother of Amy Sedaris, the author of the most sublimely hilarious hospitality book of all time, I Like You. David has shot ahead of his precocious siblings through sheer output, and a rather endearing sensibility. Open one of his books at random – Calypso, say, or the funny-sad Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk (we’ll never try to be rude about Jazz again), and you can see a humour that is gentle and yet sharp, generous and yet angry. (In Calypso, he recounts how his partner and he like to have guests stay – at one of his many houses – but it’s an act, where they pose as the ideal couple. When a lady friend stays and witnesses David losing his rag, he recalls: “after she left I considered having her killed. “She knows too much,” I said to Hugh. “The woman’s a liability now and we need to contain her.”‘)
On last Saturday evening, this small and modest man wandered onto the empty stage before a full house, stood behind an old-fashioned lectern, and read from notes for two hours. Sounds banal, right? Particularly when he comes across as part Woody Allen, part Truman Capote, in a gruesome coat and clown culottes. But the wisdom of his words, the humour in his observations, and the humanity in his voice, won everyone over. He began with a think piece of the type he presents on a US news opinion programme (self-censored) in which he deconstructs the new world of forbidden words – “R”, “N”, “T” etc., and shared two embarrassing examples of misunderstanding – one where a lesbian carried-on with a man for some hetero-action, which guilt-free affair crashed when he used the “L” word – (“Love”), the other where a lady at a signing told Sedaris her partner shied away from the “C” word. “C**t?” inquired David, reactively. “No….Commitment” came the appalled response.
Sedaris delved into his bulging folder of material and pulled out gems at random. All were funny and thoughtful. You don’t need to sign-up to his Lib-Lab, anti-Trump weltanschauung (he’s brilliantly referred to Conservative bow-ties as ‘the pierced eyebrow of the Republican Party’) to love his act; his act would be lovable, one feels, if he were an unrepentant Stalinist or friend of Harvey Weinstein. (As we continually remind ourselves, having read The Righteous Mind, opinion does not = character. And we are none of us, as a former Australian Prime Minister so wisely yet wrongly said, the Suppository of all Wisdom.)
Sedaris took some questions at the end of his performance, but first he selected some poignant and riotous extracts from his 2003-to-date diaries, which will form the sequel to his ‘Theft By Finding; Diaries 1977-2002.‘ He gets a lot of material from book signings; the rest from the world on-line and at large (he likes to visit two countries he’s not seen each year, and recently has shown a predilection for the former eastern bloc). We liked his take on people presenting at hospitals with an object wedged up their bottom, due to some weird ‘accident’: he posited that if he soaked his naked body in oil and held 2 greased pepper-shakers in his hands as he tumbled down the complete stairwell of the Empire State Building, he’d still arrive in the lobby with an empty rectum. And we also liked his ex post facto mea culpas – he genuinely regrets his occasional offhand rudeness, when frazzled or tired, in response to bland cheesy inquiries such as “How’s Your Day Going?” – and he had some pretty devastating accounts to offer as to why we should not forget that we’re all members of the human race and that each of us has our own crosses to bear.Continue Reading →
(aka The Morning Show) (Various Directors Apple TV+, 2019)
As Bert Newton once said, “Morning TV? Surely Death is next.” The Varnished Culture staff are owls, not sparrows, so we’ll take word of mouth that morning news shows offer relentless cheer, soft items, group-think and bonhomie – but deep nastiness off screen. “Morning Wars” starts and ends as conventional soap opera, but of certain high standard. The proven anchor team – Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) and Alex Levy (Jennifer Anniston) is rent asunder when Kessler – playing every philanderer confused by the #MeToo paradigm, or perhaps just Matt Lauer – is told to hit the bricks for his octopodal sexual shenanigans, and Levy, in a fit of pique disguised as a power play, plucks plucky Bradley Jackson (Reece Witherspoon) – a hack redneck from the sticks who ‘tells it like it is’ and leads with her determined and capacious chin – to be her co-host in the ratings juggernaut that daily awakens the Big Apple.
But Kessler is not going quietly, and the show develops into a kind of glib thriller as to who knew of his harassing and who else will take the fall. Naturally, Mitch’s journey is also becoming self-revelatory; He’s gaining insight, slowly and unevenly, evidenced by his tête-à-tête with old buddy Dick Lundy (a creepily good Martin Short). Mitch fulminates: “This whole #MeToo thing is so fucking puritanical and myopic, and no one is addressing it! A woman can say one thing about you — doesn’t matter what her motivation is — and everything you’ve done in your life, gone. Your career, erased.” But as the two men drink and chat, it seems clear that Lundy is unrepentant. “You are actually a predator, and people are going to want you to own that.” “As opposed to — what are you exactly, Mitch?” Well, at this point at least, we and Mitch don’t know.
The whole melange is very watchable, like a train wreck or slow-moving floodwaters, but at times it seems like refugees from “The Newsroom” sat amid too many pots of coffee and wrote too many scenarios that they later focus-tested. The sub-plots are endless, the ‘Burning Issues’ too numerous (and casually turfed as soon as one inevitably comes into conflict with another). The production is superb and the acting generally very good. Anniston seems to have always been a good actress working with abysmal material. Here she shines as paranoid, damaged, devious, and guilt-ridden, an intelligence stultified by years of early-morning inanity. She huffs and puffs a tad excessively though. Witherspoon is parachuted-in as a sort of cross between Eliza Dolittle and Vicky Lester, and that renders her character not so much unbelievable as chaotically unformed. Billy Crudup is good as the Svengali-like director of news and really, from victims to villains to in-betweens, the whole cast play very well.
But the fundamental flaw in the piece is that it is in a civil war with itself.(‘Sic semper tyrannis‘ says fired Director Chip Black for emphasis.) Morning Wars can’t seem to settle on what it is about, or whose side it’s on (which could reflect a balanced approach, but that doesn’t ring true either). The females are almost all vaguely hysterical (”Help me: I’m bi-polar, it’s awesome!”). All the black characters seem token. The reportage seems to ignore the golden rule that opinions are free but facts are sacred. And the anger of white people paid millions of dollars a year to read cue-cards, whether they come from the Upper East side or out of the crackerbarrel, is not the stuff of which truly great drama is made.
(Directed by Edward Berger) (Showtime, 2018)
Patrick Melrose is a poor little rich boy with issues. Why does he abuse substances so spectacularly? Why such a jaundiced eye towards Mummy and Daddy? Why the failed relationships, the ferocious anger, the lurch at self-destruction?
Well, we do find out. Edward St. Aubyn’s five novel-trajectory of Patrick’s story is compressed into 5 hour-long episodes, starting with a catastrophic journey to New York to collect father’s corpse and get on the junk. Benedict Cumberbatch has a lovely time as Patrick: he’s flip, witty, manic, and sad. As we whizz, so very briskly, through his redemptive journey, the whole piece seems agreeably patchy and incomplete, like the story of a valued but doomed friend who you see mainly from afar and up-close only now and then.
The lives of the leisured and treasured upper class twits, juxtaposed with Patrick’s alternate cohort of down-and-outs, are jumbled in a myriad vivid scenes. Most of the cast and settings are just backdrop, however: marriages and affairs come and go; people die or disappear – there is little sense that we are delving substantially into anything apart from the interior life of one abusive nuclear family. As to that, the key figures in the series are Patrick and his parents. The Varnished Culture thought Jennifer Jason Leigh was just right as Eleanor Melrose, the wealthy but worthless soak of an American, who finances and fears her husband, the latter being qualified as a doctor, talented as a musician, but entirely occupied as a wastrel. Mum is the key role in this Freudian saga, and her wretched decline, while unlikely to be to everyone’s taste, is beautifully done.
Which brings us to Hugo Weaving as David Melrose. We’ve seldom seen a more satisfying portrayal of a truly, madly, deeply, wicked man. In the second episode, when we get to meet David in all his odious glory, Weaving manages to scare (and scarify?) with a mere glance, turn-of-phrase, or sneer. Golden moments (such as when, from his French provincial balcony, he gazes ceaselessly, interminably, at the terrified French maid holding a shaking tray, perversely declining to dismiss her from his clutches and her misery; or he chides Patrick for a confected misdemeanour – squishing a fallen fig; or regales his equally atrocious friends with stories from his gruesome past) are here in wondrous array, and then there’s of course worse to come. We can’t recall having a better time seeing an actor have a great time. The Melrose saga might be greater in parts than the whole, but on the whole, we’ll savour those parts.Continue Reading →