The Woman in Black

May 26, 2024 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

Adelaide Festival Theatre, Dunstan Playhouse, 24 May 2024

The Woman in Black is an adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 Gothic novel, by Stephen Mallatratt, concerning a mysterious spectre that haunts Eel Marsh House in a small, remote English town. It’s a hoary old piece, and a tad clunky, but the novel, film and TV versions, and the play, have been consistently popular – only The Mousetrap (another mediocre piece) has had a longer run on the West End.

Once more, with feeling

There’s some post-modern, story-about-a-story business, as Arthur Kipps (John Waters), a self-effacing and strangely diminished solicitor, tries to enliven his story for an actor (Daniel MacPherson) he has retained to tell it. So as fast as you can say ‘flashbacks,’ there we are, young solicitor travels to an old dark house to wind-up the estate of dowager Mrs. Alice Drablow. Shades of Jonathan Harker’s trip to the Carpathian Mountains.

Whilst the lawyer is sifting through papers, we are treated to a bunch of “effects without causes”* – the usual smorgasbord of haunted house tropes; slamming doors, screams, flashes of light and flashes of darkness, the sound of a horse and trap and fleeting appearances by a mysterious woman in black – we eventually learn about a single mother, a child, his fate and her revenge, and revenge’s lengthening shadow.

Every plot point creaks and croaks as from under a wheel; the gothic touches spill untidily as straw from a broken doll, but it survives as pleasant entertainment due to the accomplished playing of two accomplished actors, Waters and MacPherson. The woman in black does dramatic entrances and exits, although she was not disposed to answer the curtain call. This is a nice and uncerebral night’s entertainment, that could do with some tightening of the script, and perhaps be enhanced by some more pyrotechnics when it heads to its national run.

[*”Effects without causes.” Thus Wagner, commenting on an opera by Meyerbeer.] Continue Reading →

Stephen K. Amos

May 26, 2024 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

Oxymoron“, Arkaba Hotel Top Room, 23 May 2024

The Arkaba Top Room is perfect for stand-up comedy – sit where you like, and there’s a handy bar. TVC chose a high table where we could enjoy the contents of a bottle of wine, settle in, and enjoy the querulous but funny Stephen K. Amos.

Before the Show

With his show, Oxymoron, Amos is not revealing all new material, but who cares. His basic niceness allows him to get away with audience interactions – a young man named “Marcus” was awarded the unfortunate epithet “Mucus.” A lady in the front row regretted wolfing her potato crisps. Otherwise, we got a hefty serve of sneers about ‘Adelaaaaaayde’ and some experiences from his recent African sojourn in ‘I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here,’ which we have not seen but understand that, along arguably with the chap from ‘Malcolm in the Middle,’ Amos was the only celebrity.

We can’t remember any jokes, of course. You had to be there. That’s what is best, and bravest, in stand-up comedy.

“What’s with the carpet?”

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Angels in America

By Tony Kushner; University of Adelaide Theatre Guild; directed by Hayley Horton – Part 1 (‘The Millennium Approaches’) 2 May 2024; Part 2 (‘Perestroika’) on 3 May 2024

The AIDS epidemic hit New York City the worst (San Francisco came second). It emerged in the early 1980s, primarily in the gay community, and became synonymous therewith, but was in no way actually so localised. Poorly understood initially by medical science, it was first tagged as Kaposi’s Sarcoma (cancerous lesions on skin, lymph nodes, mouth and other organs). Like all plagues, it caused fear, suspicion, mistrust, prejudice and panic. Lives and relationships were destroyed: human love, warmth, and touch became anathema (which has a familiar 2019-2024 ring to it).

Tony Kushner’s monumental play first appeared in the early 1990s, and already by 1994, Harold Bloom (another NY Jewish intellectual) predicted that Angels would become part of the Western literary canon. It is a remarkable but flawed piece of drama, essentially in that Kushner makes an heroic attempt to synthesize Reagan’s America through the prism of diverse and often mythological characters; its length, tendentious Brechtian declamations on ontology, and dizzying scene changes, require a blood transfusion at conclusion (pardon the pun); and it so relentlessly (but necessarily) focuses on death that it recalls Webster’s The White Devil. Also, it has more coincidences than Lantana, but here that doesn’t grate because of Kushner’s overall design, which as the full title of his play suggests, is to construct a ‘Gay Fantasia on National Themes,’ a rip on American mores during crises, suggesting the 1980s were not “Morning in America”, but the bleak dark murk of deepest night.

‘That bull won’t give you wings…’

Summarising the scenes would take a long time. The play begins with a funeral and gets not much cheerier, Death appearing throughout, in the forms of various angels, ghosts and imaginary friends. However, much of the time, the piece is hilarious, crackling with wit, self-delusion, self-deprecation and commentary on the never-ending fraying of America. It is a theatrical piece that an acting entourage will die for. Kushner’s staging notes say: “The plays [sic] benefit from a pared-down style of presentation, with scenery kept to an evocative and informative minimum…I recommend rapid scene shifts (no blackouts!), employing the cast as well as stagehands in shifting the scene. This must be an actor-driven event…The moments of magic…are to be fully imagined and realized, as wonderful theatrical illusions—which means it’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do...” Here, the director has been faithful to Kushner’s admonition, with the added eerie touch of haze fx. My overall impression was that Part 1 was more effective, the resolution of various scenarios in Part 2 lacking a certain mystery.

“He said, ‘We won’t die secret deaths anymore.’ But I can keep one…’

The key figures are:

Prior Walter, young, sick, lesions showing and bleeding, difficulty walking. Scared and brave, he is magnificently played by Matthew Houston (the cast take on multiple roles);

Louis Ironson – Prior’s guilt-ridden boyfriend. Freaked-out by Prior’s disease, he flees into the arms of another and rationalises his behaviour as either courageous, or the fault of Republicans. (Beautifully played by Lee Cook);

Harper Pitt – The pill-popping Mormon housewife . She’s John on Patmos, falling back on the sharp points of her own resources after a revelation, wrestling and coming to terms with the fact that her stolid but distant husband Joe Pitt, is gay. (Standout work from Casmira Lorien);

Joe Pitt – The token conservative bloviates on ethics and faith, struggles with his sexual identity, and despite the aridity of his soul, pleads for understanding. This is a difficult character and Lindsay Prodea makes him more convincing as the story develops, when his motivations (and more) are revealed in full glory. His mixed-up world-view reminds us that New York last voted for a Republican President in 1984;

Roy Cohn – The weirdest character was in fact real, a loathsome and lethal éminence grise whose private life inverted the public one, including the concealment, bordering on denial, of his AIDS condition, which he insists is liver cancer, to preserve his reputation. His character is well drawn, albeit in grotesque caricature (and inspiringly played by Brant Eustice, showing more of Cohn’s nastiness than Nathan Lane did in the National Theatre production in London), but he feels somewhat helicoptered-in by the playwright – Cohn could fill a whole story on his own. (In mitigation of Cohn’s deserved descent to Hell, I would have had Ethel Rosenberg executed as well).

Hannah Pitt – Joe’s mother. She comes to New York after her son drunkenly comes out of the closet. She arrives to find that Joe has abandoned his wife. Kate Anolak is fine in the role and particularly good as the Rabbi, and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.

Belize – A former drag queen, Prior’s ex-boyfriend who remains a staunch friend. He later becomes Roy Cohn’s nurse, and the two have a marvellous fencing-duel of words. It is a vibrant performance by Eric McDowell, the only cast member who doesn’t have to affect an American accent, although the rest of the cast do fine in this regard. And the whole ensemble, in subordinate roles, is terrific.

“Have you no sense of decency?”

For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.” [The Gospel According to St. John, 5:4]. The play concludes with Prior’s recounting of the legend of the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem, where the sick were healed. It ends this long work on a chord of hope, which, fortunately, has turned-out for a significant majority of HIV-sufferers to be true.

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The Threepenny Opera

March 11, 2024 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | CRIME, MUSIC, THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Die Dreigroschenoper) Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, 10 March 2024

It might not be opera, more cabaret Singspiel, but it was still pretty good. Brecht’s rosy worldview, his ‘Berlinized’ take on John Gay’s balladic Beggar’s Opera, was presented with great élan and sophistication under the direction of TVC’s bête noire, Barrie Kosky, with a subtly simple staging of moving Jungle-Jims, up and over which the cast nimbly climbed and clambered, and a cabaret-style spangly curtain through which heads, and sometimes feet, would peep.

Brecht’s libretto is extremely witty but it isn’t really a Marxist social satire, rather a nihilistic view of society as a sewer in which all crimes and misdemeanours should go unpunished. (It is a grim irony that the Adelaide Festival should host this Weimar-inspired piece, a city experiencing housing shortages, a per capita recession, burgeoning under-employment, political fragmentation and distrust in institutions. Incidentally, a full house included folks displaying their virtuous keffiyehs).

The excellent ensemble (see credits below) started with a bang and kept up a vigourous noise, although really, Kurt Weill’s music is rarely more than pedestrian. Highlights are “Mac the Knife,”  “The Cannon Song,” “Ballad of Sexual Obsession,” “The Ballad of the Insufficiency of Human Behaviour” and the closing numbers, during which, gorgeously, a neon sign blurts from the darkness above a reprieved Macheath, stating “LOVE ME.”

The Berliner cast have a splendid time, spitting and swearing and vomiting and stabbing and declaiming. In terms of bono vox, we thought Julia Berger, as the prostitute Jenny, the best. Gabriel Schneider was charismatic and kinetic as the sociopath Macheath; Cynthia Micas as his betrothed, Polly Peachum, was fine; and Tilo Nest and Constanze Becker as Mr. and Mrs. Peachum, stylishly attired, were terrific. Kathrin Wehlisch as police chief ‘Tiger’ Brown was a buffoon, a slightly-less-nasty Pozzo.

“don’t laugh when we’re taken to the gallows”

Conductor, Piano, Harmonium Adam Benzwi

Alto Saxophone, Clarinet, Flute, Piccolo James Scannell

Soprano Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone, Baritone Saxophone Doris Decker

Trumpet Nathan Plante

Trombone, Double Bass Otwin Zipp

Drums Sebastian Trimolt

Guitar, Banjo Ralf Templin

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All of Us Strangers (2024)

March 5, 2024 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Director Andrew Haigh)

Adam (Bill Paxton look-alike Andrew Scott) is a desolate would-be writer, living alone. After a fire alarm in his London tower block he meets Harry (Paul Mescal) who is, strangely, the only other inhabitant of the building.  Harry wants to party the night away, but Adam sends him home. Soon after this, for reasons which are not clear, Adam goes to a park near his childhood home (set in the house in which director Haigh was raised) and meets his father, apparently by chance. Adam starts to spend  time with his parents whom he hasn’t seen since one evening in the 1980s when he was a pre-teen. Which is unsurprising, given that they died that night.   His parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell) are no more surprised to see Adam than he is to see them. Mum and Dad look as they did 30 years ago, although Adam is now in his forties.

Back in the near-deserted tower block, Adam does let Harry into his flat and they take their clothes off almost immediately. (In real life do all gay men jump on each other within five minutes of meeting? Or is this just on screen? Asking for a friend). Their relationship develops into something, but it’s tepid. Neither of them seems to have anything else to do and neither is particularly appealing.

After the (obligatory) ketamine-fuelled LGBTQ+ dance-club scene, Adam becomes increasingly confused, as are we.  Is he drug-addled? Mentally ill?

This is a very good film.  More is going on than first appears.  It is ingenious, affecting and puzzling; but it could have been a great film. The ideas and the feels are undercut by the banality of Adam’s obsession with talking to his parents non-stop about how awful it was to grow up being homosexual. These speeches are preachy and out of date, particularly given that Adam’s parents seem quite okay with his sexuality. Really, if you met your long dead parents who were now somehow here and in their thirties, wouldn’t you have something to talk to them about other than how you used to cry in your bedroom because you were bullied at school? You might, for instance, ask them where they’ve been, is there a god and how they’ve kept their hair so nice after three decades in a box.

Do take note of the shirt Harry is wearing when he first knocks on Adam’s door.

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Menzies versus Evatt

By Anne Henderson (2023)

Robert Menzies and Herbert Evatt were both born before Australia was – in 1894 to be exact, in the colonies of Victoria and New South Wales respectively, but they would blossom under the soon-to-be-created Federal Commonwealth. Their natural intelligence and Victorian work ethic set them on the path to success, and to some degree, Australia became the better for their struggle, in that they brilliantly represented, and advocated for, different yet necessary principles and practices of the nation’s democracy.

Menzies went to the Victorian bar, and still in short pants lead in the Engineers’ Case (1920), a seminal constitutional decision for federalism, establishing, in Sir Owen Dixon’s words, that under the Federal Constitution, “a power to legislate with respect to a given subject enables the Parliament to make laws which, upon that subject, affect the operations of the States and their agencies.” It was unclear that an award on employers in a certain industry could bind employers in a State that were government instrumentalities. Menzies, opening the batting before the High Court on a case stated, ran the line that the interveners were to be regarded as trading rather than governmental corporations. Justice Starke said this was “nonsense.” With the impetuousness of youth, Menzies replied “Sir, I quite agree.” He submitted that if he was allowed to question and challenge earlier decisions of the Court, he could put a better argument. After retiring for a time, the Court returned, adjourned the case to allow intervention by all concerned States and a full argument, with explicit leave to challenge any earlier decision of the Court. Stirring stuff. Note that Evatt appeared as junior counsel for an opposing party. Later, Menzies entered politics on the conservative side, and became Prime Minister in 1939.

Confident Bob

Evatt was no less distinguished. After honourable service to the NSW Bar and State Government, he was appointed (by the financially and intellectually bankrupt Scullin government, but let that pass) to the High Court (aged 36!). A man who, to borrow Gore Vidal’s phrase, lived in a rarified world of theory, he was neither popular on the Court nor a ‘team player,’ and in 1940, he resigned his commission and stood for federal parliament in 1940, in the seat of Barton, winning by a handsome margin.

Confident Bert

There had been some previous desultory exchanges between them, but from the time of Evatt’s election, the pair found themselves in the political sphere, destined to become mortal enemies. In this compelling book, the author traverses the events whereby these two brilliant, dedicated and proud men came into war with each other, creating firestorms that sucked much oxygen out of public discourse for at least twenty years. In the final analysis, Evatt, whilst perhaps the genuine genius of the pair, lost the war because he bit-off more than he could chew, he was chronically disorganised and lacked the trust to delegate, he pursued an ideology already proved as far too altruistic for humans, and his unique talent for personal relationships made adversaries of those that could have been friends. He was also, near the end, probably certifiable, surely paranoid at the very least.

Overconfident Bert (moonlighting as President of the UN General Assembly)

Henderson concentrates on the Big Issues where battlelines were drawn. First, the election of John Curtin in 1941 (when Evatt became both Attorney-General and External Affairs Minister: a staggeringly burdensome remit – think of Mark Dreyfus and Penny Wong in the one person – or wait, forget that – bad example). Then, Evatt’s conduct of Prime Minster Chifley’s idiotic push to nationalise Australia’s banks. WWII having concluded, undeclared WWIII started, and the Cold War covered Menzies, and especially Evatt, with its umbra. In a sense, Evatt was a man out of time by 1949: his sterling but sterile work with the United Nations, where he created a path to Universal Rights deemed essential post-Hitler, was rendered otiose by the Soviet Union’s invention of Universal Misery. His last, great, and stylish act, to lead the charge to defeat Menzies’ cynical attempt to dissolve the Australian Communist Party by legislation, turned out to be a good intention leading him down to political Hell.

The Australian people tend to be suspicious of government overreach. They turfed-out Chifley’s government over bank nationalisation, a national coal strike, post-war rationing and an ambiguous approach to the iron curtain. But then Menzies arguably stepped over the line himself. He sought to banish the Australian Communist Party, by legislation, and if this failed, by Constitutional change. One suspects that, like the Abba song, he felt he would win if he lost. For though Evatt opposed the bill, Menzies was re-elected in 1951; though Menzies lost the 1951 referendum to ban the ACP, the result was to tar Evatt as ‘soft on communism,’ split the Labor Party and consign it to the wilderness for 23 years.

Let’s take some samples from Anne Henderson’s book as to these issues:

Once in the position of prime minister a second time. lessons learned over decades saw Menzies become a careful strategist…believing in a style of delegation that left his minsters free to deal with their departments without interference. By contrast, Evatt was a chaotic manager…He expected to be central to all business.”

While recognising Evatt’s achievements and the energy he expended in this, Hasluck found Evatt to be “emotionally simple and intellectually complex”…”

In the heat of battle, so to speak, Menzies and his colleagues had not considered the extent of the (CPA ban) bill’s assault on, possibly, ordinary Australians…Menzies was forced to advise the House of Representatives on 9 May that among the list of 53 communist union officials he had given names for in a speech to parliament on 28 April there were five persons who were not communists.” (Reversing the onus of proof is always attractive to the persecutor, but likely to cause injustice).

When Evatt appeared before the High Court in the Bank Nationalisation case, he started off by asking two of the judges to recuse themselves because their relatives had bank shares. And though he then addressed the Court, ponderously and in his usual shrill voice, for 18 days, as David Marr observed, quoted in the book, “He was returning to the High Court which had been happy to see him go seven years before and the animosities had not subsided with time.” (The following year, 1949, Evatt bent the ear of the Privy Council for 22 days – to no effect).

Menzies told a journalist, ahead of the 1954 election: “I would leave politics this 1954 but for Dr Evatt. He’s a menace to Australia and he must be kept out of office by hook or by crook.”

Evatt’s promises to anti-communist Catholic power-broker B.A. Santamaria “…was a shopping list to die for among Movement supporters but it did not fool Santamaria who felt it rather disgusting and went home and told his wife he had met a man without a soul.”

Labor was tipped to win the 1954 election but Menzies, it was claimed, pulled ‘2 rabbits out of the hat’: first, he hosted the newly crowned Elizabeth in February and March 1954. And then, there was the Petrov affair. Vladimir Petrov, Consul at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, had defected and Menzies took the opportunity, while Evatt was out of town, to announce an espionage Royal Commission: two classic ‘wedges”, even though it seems Menzies may not have planned it so neatly. Henderson writes: “…after three days of strongly supporting the government’s stand on Petrov and the commission…Evatt launched an attack on Menzies…which accused the PM of “sly insinuations” and “making a crude attempt” to disparage the previous administration’s Security service handling.” The economy had picked up and that played to the Liberal’s strength. But it would be hard to discount the effect of the photo, prominently published, of a distraught Mrs. Petrov (one shoe missing), being hustled to a plane at Mascot airport by Soviet goons.

Evatt made things much worse in the wake of the Petrov affair. When the Royal Commission gathered speed, it was revealed that several of his staff had been involved in Soviet shenanigans. And then Evatt decided, in August 1954, to appear before the Commission as counsel. He should have kept a 1,000 miles away. His splenetic, paranoid and bizarre performance was seen as evidence that he was having a nervous breakdown, “shouting his conviction that the documents in the case [were] concoctions.” The Commission removed him as an advocate. Henderson cites Ligertwood J stating: “I have read all the documents, the Moscow letters and any other relevant material and, I repeat, every one shows how fantastic is the allegation that they were forged for the purpose of injuring the Labor Party of Australia.” “The other justices immediately concurred.” Then Evatt ‘doubled-down’ and spoke at length in the Parliament, again ventilating his conspiracy theory. Menzies played him on the break, replying mildly (but lethally) that the House had just witnessed a “very uncommon privilege…[to having] heard counsel who has unsuccessfully advanced certain arguments before a tribunal have the opportunity to advance them for a second time before a tribunal which has not heard the witnesses and has not read the detailed evidence…That is something I cannot remember in my fairly long experience of public affairs.”

Then Evatt, seeking evidence relevant papers had been fabricated, wrote in 1955 to what he thought an impeccable source as to their dubious provenance: Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. Enough said.

It would have been an appropriate ‘Beria Moment’ for the Labor Party to have had Evatt metaphorically executed, especially when he called for the expulsion of a subversive element – Victorian Catholics, treacherous anti-communists or ‘traitors’ as he called them. A dumb, fascistic move, revealing an authoritarian streak that had previously broken from cover only occasionally. Henderson speculates on whether Deputy Arthur Calwell could have calmed matters, or knocked Evatt off. Fred Daly, that classic insider, was scornful of Calwell: “pathetic…hesitant, uncertain and waiting for Evatt’s job”. The Victorian branch of the party was purged, a fatal schism was created, which in the author’s view, was brought about because Evatt was at base, “an intense secularist,” anti-Catholic more than anti-communist, a naive internationalist who forgot, or never learned, that politics is above all local.

After more election defeats, where the party still could not bring itself to defenestrate its “brilliant boy,” Evatt was offered a slot as Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court by State Labor, whereupon he left the political stage in 1960. But Menzies, perhaps remembering his undertaking to keep Evatt out of power ‘by hook or by crook,’ may not have relaxed his vigil totally until Evatt died in November 1965. Menzies retired as PM in January 1966.

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The Zone of Interest

March 4, 2024 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, HISTORY, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Jonathan Glazer, based on the book by Martin Amis) (2023)

Poland is one beautiful country; with a plethora of mountains, verdant meadows, sea-coast, and more lakes than most. Which explains why so many imperialists wanted their grubby hands on it. In 1939, for example, as a result of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, Poland was neatly sliced into two zones. One zone, the Russian one, executed an unknown number of Poles, sometimes with organisation, at other times in a haphazard panic. The German zone, where Poles (and others) were dealt with under typical Teutonic efficiency, is the ‘Zone of Interest’ in this film. That’s where Auschwitz was built, a complex of over 40 concentration and extermination camps which, over the period 1940 to early 1945, killed well over two million people.

Cue Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin) and his take on Martin Amis’ 2014 novel, that channels Hannah Arendt, Schindler’s List, and all the rest. Many folks will think a film riffing on the well-worn trope of ‘banality of evil’ to be silly, or, worse, boring. For this reviewer, it is neither: rather, a riveting, edge-of-the-seat, domestic thriller, with amazing sounds, surreal touches (a phosphorescent Polish girl secretes apples behind the slave-worker shovels at night) and a dash of Wannsee Conference pathology. But it fails nevertheless, as all Shoah films must, for reasons we will attempt to explain.

Monarch of all he surveys

The film’s intent is clear, and on its own terms, works well enough. Rudolf and Hedwig Höss (Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller) and their five winsome children are living the dream in an idyllic country manor, with attentive servants, food on fine china, abundance and a lovely large walled garden, including a massive greenhouse. The film opens on a picnic by the river, a walk through the woods, home in two splendid motor cars, and then packing the children off to sleep. But, hang on…peeping above that garden wall next morning is what looks like a death camp – and here’s Rudolf in uniform, riding though the camp gate – to carry out his basically administrative tasks (logistics of rubbish disposal cycles, energy supply, fertilizing the greenery, the selection of work force (including the Joy Division), chastising staff for picking the flowers in an unruly manner, having supply-trains met, etc.)

At Casa Höss, hand-me-down clothes, a fine fur coat and jewellry, and teeth, are wheeled in from next door. ‘Cars’ keep ‘backfiring’ in the distance, preceded by yelling and barking. Rudolf and eldest son go horse-riding, commenting on the fauna while men in striped pyjamas are marched through the sward. Some agreeable fishing and swimming is disrupted by unidentified river impurities. Hedwig’s mother (Imogen Kogge), from modest circumstances (she lost her bid for a deportee’s curtains) marvels at how well things are with her daughter, until she sees what goes on at night over the bad-neighbour fence (about the only peep we get, until the film’s end).

After Mother leaves her breakfast, and a note the next morning, Hedwig lashes out at one of her Polish servants, observing tartly that she could have her husband scatter her ashes. The juxtaposition, of interior scenes of quiet and occasionally noisy domestic life, with the heavy-hints of genocide next door, will pall with many while it will resonate with many.

“It’s a logistical challenge. They gave us lunch at Wannsee.”

After some bureaucratic shuffling, Rudolf is to return home to assume charge of the final solution as it goes into even higher gear. From a palace reception in Hungary, imminent target for deportations, he ambles among the guests in a distant manner, oddly reminiscent of the finale to The Leopard, has a desultory conversation with his wife, and then prepares to leave to assume his important new role, attacked by nausea as he descends the dark stairs. And that is about it. Interspersed throughout are some blank, coloured screens, dread musical tweaks that combine yawps, groans and burps from hell, and enough static, often silent, set pieces to fill an Ingmar Bergman festival.

From the river to the sea

It is difficult to know what to make of this. Certainly the film is watchable; certainly it is not for all tastes. The acting and production are first class. But what does it achieve, exactly, since it poses as much more than art or entertainment? The discretion in not showing us directly how the Final Solution is playing out, yet the continual coy hints at it, begin to look like a hollow cabaret-turn. The madness of crowds is a phenomenon that continues to baffle the best minds and give succour to the worst souls. As we see, the view of fellow humans as filth, or rodents, goes on and on, and is probably endogenous, such that peace for all time becomes unimaginable. But how do you film that?

We can do no better than quote Clive James, in a slightly different context, here: “As with Stalin’s Great Terror, only a madman could guess what was on the way. Even the perpetrators had to go one step at a time, completing each step before they realised that the next one was possible. The German Jews were the most assimilated in Europe. They were vital to Germany’s culture – which, indeed, has never recovered from their extinction…The whole Nazi reality was a caricature. The more precisely you evoke it, the less probable it looks…There is no hope that the boundless horror of Nazi Germany can be transmitted entire to the generations that will succeed us. There is a limit to what we can absorb of other people’s experience. There is also a limit to how guilty we should feel about being unable to remember…Santayana…said that those who forget the past are condemned to relive it. Those who remember are condemned to relive it too. Besides, freedoms are not guaranteed by historians and philosophers, but by a broad consent among common people about what constitutes decent behaviour. Decency means nothing if it is not vulgarised. Nor can the truth be passed on without being simplified. The most we can hope for is that it shall not be travestied.“*

[*”The Observer”, 10/9/1978, reviewing Holocaust.] Continue Reading →

One Day (Netflix 2024 British television series.)

February 20, 2024 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Drama, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, TV SERIES |

If you can be bothered starting this listless series, we recommend that you binge watch all 14 (!) episodes because once you switch off, you’ll never bother going back.

To start with, the plot is suspense-free. Rich golden rich boy Dexter meets socialist Emma (a girl from the wrong side of the tracks and of another race) at a posh university. They go their separate ways until..! Whatever could happen?!

Even this hackneyed story could be worth watching – Leo Woodall (previously seen in White lotus 2) is terrific as the languid upper-class Dexter – although he could do with some concealer around the eyes. He is desperately and steadfastly in love with feisty Emma (Ambika Mod) for reasons best known to bad casting agents. Mod has a perpetually miserable long sad face. She barely smiles for the first twelve (!) episodes. Dex becomes a tv presenter. Emma becomes a socially aware teacher (of course). They remain best friends, which is difficult to accept, given that Emma meets everything that Dexter says or does with a contemptuous sneer and insults – he’s a privileged hedonist, his tv career is a measure of how shallow he is, he is not politically aware.

When he takes her to a swish restaurant and demonstrates a development of sophisticated tastes, Emma throws a public tantie. When the selfish, cruel, boring and smug Emma calls him these names (and others) the audience wonders why he bothers with her at all. Leo’s Dex is vulnerable, unanchored and has the patience of a saint. Emma is a nasty, self-obsessed sad sack.

After some years of taunting and deriding Dex, Emma decides that she might as well give him a go. It’s not clear why, because, after all, it’s not like she has to settle – she is also inexplicably irresistible to all men – not just poor Dexter,

The support actors are very good and do what they can with the standard roles of faithless spouse, jealous spouse, aristocratic parent and supportive friend. Add the clichés of the genre – unhappy separate marriages, humiliation at a baronial pile, a friend’s hilarious wedding, Paris, a surprise return to the turgid plot – stir with a misery stick and you’ve got One Day. The last episode is, admittedly, quite affecting but that is entirely due to Leo Woodall and it is not worth the long journey.

“Wow! This is as good as Dostoevsky must be!”

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Dinner at Antoine’s (Frances Parkinson Keyes)

(1949).

“Keyes” rhymes with “skies” not “keys”.  Being privy to arcane pronunciations is the sort of marker which separates those who are in New Orleans Society from those who are not. Only the former know that the sidewalk in 1940’s-50’s New Orleans is called the “banquette”. Only the former are admitted to Antoine’s Restaurant on St Louis Street without a long wait on the banquette, if at all. Orson Foxworth is certainly one of the former and, on a warm afternoon, is immediately lead into the special lunch room when he entertains his niece and several intimate friends.

The layout and history of the restaurant are expanded upon in great detail, as are Foxworth’s equally ridiculously named guests –  Leonce St Amant, Caresse LaLande, Sabin Duplessis. Foxworth’s guests are beautiful and fabulously dressed. Meet Amelie – a youthful and soigne widow. “Her corn-coloured hair lay in great coils above the soft ringlets which framed her radiant face. Her big blue eyes snapped and sparkled. Her delicately rouged lips parted over tiny white teeth. Her svelte figure triumphed over the exacting cut of her dress“.  Keyes never met an adjective or adverb she didn’t want to work to death, sometimes to unintended effect. “Snapping eyes” and “tiny teeth”? Don’t feed Amelie after midnight. Foxworth’s Washington niece, Ruth Avery, “attractive and intelligent and well poised and pleasant and dependable and sincere” is the only one with the name and hair (natural chestnut curls) of a real human. Ruth is visiting her suave Louisianan uncle in louche New Orleans and looking to get hitched.

Nor are we spared descriptions of the the food at Antoine’s – presumably on the real menu of the real restaurant in the immediate post-war period. It sounds revolting. Take huitres Foch, “So he spread toast with pate de fois gras, and heaped fried Louisiana oysters on top of that, and poured Madeira sauce over the whole thing“.  If you don’t like the sound of that, you can have “glistening, ruby-coloured” globules of shrimp in aspic.*

The clothes of past beauties are given a similar close study, including annual pageant winners from 1900. The present belles are described  too. We already know that Clarinda has dreamy eyes, a slow, charming smile, slow grace, tapering white fingers and exquisite oval nails. Now we see her….  “evidently on the point of starting to a large afternoon party, for she was dressed as if for some festive occasion. Emerald green plumes swept gracefully across her glossy hair from the crown of her small sable hat; her close-fitting jacket and full, ankle-length skirt were make of emerald green velvet, sable trimmed, and she was carrying a large sable muff. Framed as she was by the white columns, she might have stepped straight from a canvas by Goya; yet this exquisite picture seemed to have been mysteriously modernised by the hand of some still greater master.” The sort of great master who imagines Sherwood Forest/Gone with the Wind themed afternoon parties.

The mansions are equally lovely and outdated. “The regalia which Odile had worn as Queen of the Pacifi completely filled a glass-walled cabinet and several similar cabinets were crowded with Dresden china, Dutch silver, snuff boxes, and other miscellaneous bric-a-brac.  A series of antique fans, encased in frames which followed their shape, and a set of bisque figurines, representing amorous shepherds and coy shepherdesses, added to the general effect of artificiality and uselessness.”

The staff and servants do not have beautiful visages, figures or minds. They are not quite human. “The maid’s prompt appearance suggested that she might have been lurking nearby hoping for just such a summons. At all events, when she entered her expression was one of eager anticipation. And this became even more marked as she rolled her large velvety eyes from one pile of clothing to another. ‘You may have all the things on the bed, Lop,’ Caresse told her. ‘That is, you may take them away and divide them with Ona. Mind you don’t try to play any tricks though. I’ll check with Ona later and find out whether you’ve been fair.’ ‘Ain’t gwine play no tricks, Miss Caresse. Ah don tol’ Ona already you was a-fixin’ to give us some of yo’ pretty clo’es. Us’n mightly proud to git ’em, Ah kin tell you.’ Lop reached over the bed and swept the clothing that lay there into her covetous arms….She laid down the others and bent to pick up the straying garments, gasping with incredulous delight.”

An international merger and a murder mystery scaffold all of this. A pistol appears in the first act. There’s a faithless husband, a saintly doctor, a missing note, a purloined key, a fake alibi, a roving reporter, shadows on a blind, inscrutable foreigners and long discussions about opportunity and motive. These shenanigans do not convince. Nor does the rather odd incident in which a lifelong playboy bachelor suddenly ditches the chaste object of his many years of adoration when she says the wrong thing; spurns her utterly, and almost immediately thereafter, falls instantly in love with the perfect (much younger) woman who has admired him from afar and is only in the book for that plot point.

So, this book and its characters are vapid, generally pretty, overrated and rather amusing. We feel that at times Keyes is as contemptuous of her characters as she is adoring. She knows that they are all rather silly and tasteless. If you like that kind of society, now and then, then this will amuse you.

[* Sounds like the kind of Louisianan fare described by A.J. Liebling – ed.]

Ezekiel 25:17. “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.”

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A Poor Thing Indeed

February 3, 2024 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

Poor Things (Directed by “Yorgos” Lanthimos – 2023)

What do Lanthimos’ “Poor Things” and M. Night Shamalayan’s “The Village” films have in common? They are the latter works of erstwhile promising directors. Lanthimos’s “The Lobster” is fabulous. As is the rightfully feted Night Shamalayan’s “The Sixth Sense”. Original, surprising and engaging works. After that, Shamalayan made the hold-your nose “The Village.” Lanthimos took a step down to the so-so “Killing of a Sacred Deer” and then nosedived. “Poor Things” is twaddle. Sadly, it looks like it’s all over for these two.

“Poor Things” has beguiled critics with its steampunk, big-sleeved art direction. But that’s all there is. The task of the aesthetic is to distract the poor viewer from the tired plot, the thin characters and heavy-handed message. Dr. Godwin “God” Baxter (Willem Dafoe) is a mad scientist of the old kind. (Yes, like Frankenstein, yawn). He creates “Bella”, a monstrous meld of an adult suicide and the brain of her baby. Bella lurches about à la Elsa Lanchester and refers to herself in the third person. There’s no sense to the rate at which, or how, she develops. We are enjoined to see the uninhibited toddler in a woman’s body, which seems counterproductive, given this film’s alleged “feminist” purpose.

Bella wants to be independent, so she goes off with seedy adventurer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffulo). Ruffulo is too old and soft-centred for this role. Dashing and irresistible he is not. Bella enjoys her independence – being locked in a chest, abducted, dancing like a maniac, working in a brothel – all the great feminist desires. She has already decided that when the fun is over she will go home and marry weedy needy Max (Ramy Youssef). As all good feminists do.

By the time Bella gets home, the viewer is sick and tired of seeing Emma Stone in every kind of see-through outfit, writhing away joylessly. Hitched to a sadist who caused her inner adult to suicide, she escapes and takes over God’s conceit of playing Dr. Moreau.

Stone does well enough with the clumsy script. The viewer cannot, however, say how Willem Dafoe performed because his entire performance is a mass of gruesome facial scar makeup and stomach tubes.  Like Bella herself, “Poor Things” is a ghastly, humourless hybrid, with no sense of timing and no soul.

OK, she dances better than Florence Foster Jenkins

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