The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

When 13-year-old Theo Decker loses his mother in tragic circumstances, he encounters a strange and lovely painting of a goldfinch.  Through life’s trials and tribulations, the painting offers Theo a glimpse of something wonderful, if only he could figure out what it means…

To be honest, I don’t even know where to start.   This is one of the most absorbing, ambitious, brilliantly realised novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.  Moving, unpredictable and insightful, it’s also incredibly easy to read – a hand that takes yours, and gently pulls you along.

Despite its length – more than 800 pages – this remarkable story never feels overstretched or repetitive.  Partly because of the high stakes involved.  There’s death and loss, addiction, madness, crime, enduring friendship and unrequited love.  The rich and complex characters are also captivating.  Theo himself is a flawed and engaging narrator, but everyone has a pleasing solidity to them; a sense that they all have lives we only get to see a bit of.  When even minor players like Goldie or Andy leave the story, there’s a genuine sense of absence.  For all the exciting, criminal activities of the last few chapters, I was constantly worrying about Hobie.  Would Reeve somehow get his claws into him?  Would he be okay running the shop by himself?  What did he make of Theo’s parting gifts to Pippa?  With even a small number of characters this would be impressive, but with such a big cast it’s quite astonishing.

Of course, what also compels is Theo’s growth.  His movement though depression and isolation towards something like redemption.  Or revelation.  By the end, for all his (understandable) cynicism, Theo grasps an important truth:  the only thing that makes life bearable is each other.   And beautiful things are a way to solidify and communicate the very best parts of ourselves.

It’s something Theo comes to gradually, making an unconscious distinction between preservers and users.  Hobie’s appreciation of objects is genuine, reflecting and magnifying the best aspects of his nature.  His restoration is almost a sort of time travel.  He wants to impress the person who will be restoring the piece a hundred years from now.  What Hobie does will outlast him.  His labour has an authenticity to it, a power and honourability all its own.  Users, on the other hand, only acquire beautiful things – furniture, jewellery, art.  They don’t make or preserve or even enjoy these lovely things.  They can’t think beyond their own self-aggrandisement or covetousness.   It’s all rather short sighted, juvenile.

While this understanding slowly dawns on Theo, in the face of his losses he is pulled between two possible responses.  Pippa is grounded in the present – living with her stable, pleasant boyfriend, in a stable, pleasant manner.  But she is unable to move forward in any meaningful way.  She’s always pulled back to New York, unable to make peace with the loss of her musical skill.  Boris on the other hand is not grounded at all.  Freewheeling all over the world, doing a bit of this and a bit of that.  He has no real roots, nothing solid, no plans.  If good things can go bad, and bad things can come good – why make plans at all?  Not that he lacks a moral code, it’s just relative.

As he grows, Theo seems to be thrashing out a middle way.  One of his most moving and important realisations is that he can make the people around him happy.  That his actions affect the people around him.  Against the backdrop of such loss and isolation, he grasps that every life, however small, has some significance.

Worth mentioning here how brilliantly Tartt handles the business of storytelling.  The sense of place is superb – bustling, melting-pot New York, in a constant state of decay and renewal; the strange netherworld of Las Vegas, city being reclaimed by the desert, almost desperately sprawling, fighting back against the nature that surrounds it; sleepy, ancient Amsterdam, a neat, crisp fairy-tale, quietly marred on the fringes by ugly modernity.

Characterisation is also excellent, convincing and frequently surprising: Theo’s father shows occasional flashes of paternal awareness; Mrs Barbour’s chilly composure gives way to a depth of feeling; brilliant, puckish Boris demonstrates real affection and attachment.  It’s not just that people are layered; they have each had a life up until now and they have been shaped by those experiences.  It makes you realise how fragile we all are, how buffered by the tides.

And this all feeds into Theo’s big realisation, the importance of touching that immortal part of ourselves and human experience.  In lesser hands, it could feel trite, but here it’s profound: both frightening and optimistic.  Life is just a fleeting quirk of biology, but art and beauty can be passed on through the generations.  Every piece that is loved and saved – the very act of enjoying and preserving – is a little rebuke to mortality, a wee nod to the future.   If writing the book is Theo’s contribution to this ongoing rejection of life’s impermanence, then reading the book has made us part of that process too.  It’s as if we’re being challenged to go out and do something better.  Or save something worth saving.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to book a trip to the Mauritshuis.  There’s an old painting I’d like to have a look at…

Did you enjoy The Goldfinch?  Did you find it easy to read?  Were you convinced by its conclusion?  Would you like to go and poke around an antiques shop with me?  Let me know!

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The Night Manager (BBC1)

If a great injustice happened to someone you cared about, how far would you go to make it right?

When he tries to do the decent thing, hotel manager Jonathan Pine finds his quietly ordered life turned upside down in this cracking six part adaptation of the John le Carré novel.   An encounter with a beautiful woman encourages Pine to take a risk, and he tries to prevent a tyrant acquiring the means to brutally supress a burgeoning revolution.  But actions have consequences, and as he pursues the spider at the centre of the web – brilliant, ruthless Richard Roper – Pine is drawn into the ruthless world where international politics meets the illegal arms trade.

Things started well, and kept on going, as episode one gently introduces Pine and Sophie, their coming together and her brutal demise.  Then the crash-bang as Roper reappears in Pine’s life, setting them both on a collision course.  Those last 20 minutes were astonishing, as Pine and Roper actually meet for the first time, each trying to get a read on the other while hiding who they themselves really are.

The ebb and flow of the story was brilliantly handled, with Pine trying to infiltrate Roper’s inner circle and smuggle out enough intel to bring him down.   Roper’s world slowly disintegrates as loyalties are tested and divided, and people are forced to see parts of themselves – and each other – that they had been happy to ignore. It was all fantastically tense, and enjoyably complex.  There were sharks and shadows on the outside too, as Burr and Steadman run up against powerful forces in government who are quite determined to ensure that Roper stays exactly as he is.

Bit random, but I really loved the title sequence.  Chilly and stylish, with images of weapons transforming into objects of luxury and vice versa: a china tea set became a Gatling gun, and a line of battleships morphs into the bubbles in a glass of champagne.  It hints at Ropers lifestyle and profession, but also at his skewed moral viewpoint.  The battleships and tea-set can only transform because we’re looking down at them from high above.  Nothing’s evil when you’re too far away to see the consequences.   Until it all comes crashing down of course…

I also liked how it wasn’t the law or any great act of state that brought Roper down, but a handful of people determined to do the right thing (helped along by Ropers own greed and callousness). Yet he is ultimately punished, not by the system, but by the very people he used to do business with.  It’s a pleasingly complex resolution.  We’re glad Roper will be punished, but it’s a bit worrying that the law is so powerless against such people.  I doubt his captors will be gentle – is that justice?  And what if he somehow buys his way out of it?  Or someone just as bad simply takes his place?   I suppose Pine gets what he set out for – that’ll have to do.

Nothing’s simple in this world.  People are conflicted, their motives hidden and confused.  Burr wants to make her loyal husband happy, but can’t just sit back with Roper still at large.  Roper wants to control his perfectly ordered world, yet he thrives on chaos.  Pine wants to avenge the woman he loved, but is he perhaps looking for a purpose in life?  ‘I was living half a life when you found me. I have nothing to lose.’

The story constantly draws convincing parallels between the personal and the political.  There is truth and simplicity only in moments, time makes liars of us all.  Perspective matters, and no one is entirely sure of anything.  Why has Burr so much faith in Pine?  Would Jed go back to blissful ignorance if she could?  On a grander scale, people like Roper can only operate because governments would rather not ask too many questions.  And perhaps it’s always been this way.  Roper compares himself and Pine to Churchill and Lawrence, drawing out boarders on the back of a napkin.

All the characters were brilliantly realised.  Sharp, angry Corky; brilliant, stubborn Burr; bold, crusading Steadman.  I found myself really warming to Jed.   She swoops in on private helicopter, slender and tall, swaddled in expensive fur.  Initially presented as the empty-headed mistress (‘How are you getting on with those magazines, dear?’ sneers Roper), we soon realise she has her secrets too.  A terse phone call from home reveals she has left a son behind.  She sends money, but it’s been so long since she seen him that he’s stopped asking for her.  ‘You’re a dirty whore’, sobs her mother.  She obviously enjoys the lifestyle, and even seems to genuinely like Roper, but even in Switzerland she seems listless.  The longer we spend with Jed, the more interesting she gets.  Her relationship with Pine might have seemed inevitable, but it avoided cliché.  And that sad parting after a final night together was just perfect – things had run their course, but they had been through so much together it was a wrench to see it end.    Again, no simple solutions here, just surviving another day, a little older and wiser.

But really, this was always about Roper and Pine.   Great characters, great performers.  I haven’t seen Hugh Laurie since House, and I was delighted to see him do so well here.  The way he cracked in the end, screaming in the back of the van, was the closest thing to catharsis in the entire story.  And Pine.  His victory was fittingly muted, a moment of simple, perfect calm.  All terribly English.  Fantastic stuff!

What did you think?  Were you a bit sad to see Corky go?  Were you a bit confused as to where Burghati’s second £300,000,000 went?  Have I missed anything out?  Let me know!

 

War & Peace (BBC1)

Adapting one of the longest (and least read) Russian novels for a western TV audience was always going to mean cuts and simplifications.  But has too much been lost in the translation?  Or does this 6 part series do the Tolstoy epic justice?  Having never read the book, I had no idea what to expect, but it pulled me in brilliantly.

It is 1805, and Pierre – favourite bastard son of the Count Bezukhov – returns to Russia after being educated abroad.  At the salon of Anna Pavlovna he awkwardly mingles with the highest in the land.  But as he unexpectedly inherits his father’s title and fortune, war with France is looming, and the lives of Russia’s elite look set to change forever.

The first episode did a fantastic job of establishing the setting and numerous characters.  There are a lot of players and the volley of people and names was a little disconcerting at first. But Anna’s salon succinctly displayed the luxury of life as a Russian aristocrat, and the vacuity and corruption it creates.

The show made the most of its stunning locations in Russia, Latvia and Lithuania.  The palaces were vast and opulent, and looked so solid somehow- like they had been there forever.  It quietly hinted at the hauteur of the elite, their concern with appearances and their disconnection from the rest of society.  This contrasted with the beauty and majesty of the natural landscapes, with their vibrancy and constant changing rhythms.  The use of music was excellent too, giving a sense of time and place, as well as giving the characters nuance.

Of course, the story does suffer a bit in being compressed.  I think that the multiple coincidental meetings are supposed to reflect how much fate – rather than free will – controls our lives.  But on the screen, it does feel a bit too neat.  Such as the benign peasant who pops up to share some wisdom with Pierre, only to die when he has served his purpose.   And the pace does mean that details and intentions aren’t always clear.  Did Anatole die from his wounds?  Does Helene mean to kill herself, or is she only desperate to induce a miscarriage?  Did Boris actually marry his rich heiress?

Oddly enough, while the last episode was the longest – 80 minutes, rather than 60 – events felt more compressed than ever.   It seemed that Andrei was barely laid in his grave before Pierre was proposing to Natalia.  Which may be why the cosy bucolic finale left me cold.  After all the suffering and growth of the characters, it seemed they only learned to go have some kids and sit out in the sunshine –  a bit of cop-out, if you ask me.

But in fairness to the series, I think that the things I disliked (and there weren’t that many, honest!) are actually issues with the story itself, rather than choices made by the programme makers.  I found the whole ‘destiny’ thing rather tiresome.  Sure, many things are beyond our control, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make choices and take responsibility for them.  Andrei didn’t die because of fate; he died because he refused to take cover when the shell landed.  Presenting events in this way might be consistent with Tolstoy’s vision, but it did sap tension from the tale. Characters felt like they were floating along, rather than active agents in their lives.  This was especially galling as they were so privileged.  Nikolai balking at his family’s reduced circumstances when he himself gambled away a big chunk of their fortune made me want to throw something at the screen.

But the quality of the performances pulled me back in.  Everyone in this massive cast did well, but Jessie Buckley was outstanding as long-suffering Marya.  Her reaction when her father died, and later when Nikolai ‘proposed’ felt so genuine.  She was glowing with happiness by the end, and it was wonderful to watch.   Paul Dano was also great in a difficult role, making ingenuous, hopeless Pierre believable.

There was also some brilliant story-telling here.  I was never once lost as to who or where or when, which is no mean feat in a story this complex and a cast this big. There were some lovely visual touches, and the costumes were excellent (if a little anachronistic at times).  Helene was pretty irredeemable, but the sight of her pregnant in that wholly-misjudged frock showed both her lack of self-awareness and her vulnerability.   The war scenes were impressive, and strangely beautiful.  Used sparingly, they conveyed the devastation and wastefulness of war, but also the strength of humanity that such horror can throw into relief.  The scene where Pierre goes to retrieve some shot from the munition dump was brilliantly handled.  I also loved the image of the retreating French army; a great line stretched across the landscape, tiny figures dwarfed by the vast, white landscape.

As events drew to a close we got a more philosophical feel, our leads grew and leaned the value of love and forgiveness.  Andrei at peace with the word on his deathbed; Natalia beside him sounding much more grown up, and much more Russian: ‘To suffer with you would be the greatest happiness for me.’  Even Pierre starts to develop, learning to savour life’s simple pleasures, rather than barrelling through looking for an answer that doesn’t exist.  ‘Where there is life, there is happiness.’

All in all, a compelling, brilliantly made series that really brought Tolstoy’s epic to life. I’m even tempted to give the book a go.  Have you read the novel?  How does it compare?  Some have argued that this is the definitive adaptation- do you agree?  What will you watch on your Sunday nights now? Let me know!

River, S1 (BBC1)

‘There should be more than one word for love.’

So, I’ve finally stopped sobbing long enough to cobble this together, after watching the most brilliantly heart breaking bit of telly I’ve seen all year.

Detective River (Stellan Skarsgård) is an odd bloke, but he gets on well with his partner, Stevie (Nicola Walker).  Even when a mishandled pursuit ends in the death of a suspect, Stevie is there for him with a smile and a quip.

But then – shocking reveal – Stevie is dead, and River is actually talking to a figment of his own imagination.  Yet these strange imaginings – his manifests – may be the key to finding out who killed her.  As River slowly digs away and the truth about Stevie’s death emerges, River not only gets to the truth, but starts to connect with the world around him after a lifetime on his own.

I liked the way that River’s condition was treated as genuinely debilitating, rather than just some personality quirk.  It can help him get to the truth of things, but really limits him socially, leaving him painfully isolated.  And it’s always been this way.  He was abandoned by his mother, and raised by his gran, who called him ‘The Mumbler’.

While River (understandably) lacks emotional expression, there is a great sense of down to earth humanity and warmth.  Mostly from Stevie: ‘You donut!’ Frequent references to Weight Watchers.  Ira’s missus berating River for leaving him alone.   These small, often awkward moments keep everything nicely grounded.  And painfully believable.  I was so invested in these characters, desperate to get to the truth but afraid of what the fallout might be.

The music is part of this, big emotional disco tunes filling in for all the things that River can’t say.  It’s definitely striking – I imagine some could find it jarring – but I absolutely loved it.  It works because only the pure, uncomplicated joy of music can counterpoint so much sadness, so many utterly awful people.  I always suspected twinkly-eyed Michael would be a wrong ‘un, but I didn’t see just how irredeemable the entire Stevenson clan would turn out to be.  Even poor Frankie.

And the breakdown of Chrissie’s marriage was horribly believable.  I loved the scene in the supermarket where she rails against the unfairness of it all: a lifetime’s work undermined, the gnawing fear that pursuing a career means that she let her family down.  ‘I hate you’ she spits at River, but she follows him back to the station anyway.  Down but not out, I’d like to think.

The performances were all faultless.  Adeel Akhtar had tricky job as the decent, unshowy Ira, bemused by his peculiar partner, but also determined to get the job done.  Sorcha Cusack was marvellous as Bridie.  Initially just a stereotypical Irish mammy, but by the end she made your skin crawl. Amazing job, particularly in that interrogation scene.  The way she just shut down.  Wordlessly showing that she knew exactly what was going on, and made the choice to protect the family.  Nicola Walker was also wonderful.  Warm and cocky, River’s perfect foil, then slowly becoming less matey, more flawed and vulnerable.  And that final dance with River … *sniff*

Stellan Skarsgård was marvellous.  Not an easy role, but he does so much with so little.  The aura of sadness around him was palpable.  I liked how, even though he could lash out, you felt that he was far more a victim than a (potential) perpetrator.  There is a lot of talk about ‘the mentally ill’ and how society should ‘deal’ with them.  But River’s strangeness helps him understand people.  He sees things no one else would, and his isolation means he understands the value of kindness.  There’s no big finale here, he just has a quiet word with Frankie.

The concept of manifests showed how much we just don’t know about mental health, or about how the mind works in general.  When does being a bit different become mental illness?  If someone can cope on their own, are they sane?  In fact, doesn’t everyone have manifests?  Aren’t we all building up images of the people we encounter inside our heads?  We all know bits and pieces about each other, but there will always be a side to people that we never see.

And River isn’t the only one that’s isolated. London has never looked so full of life and yet so uninviting.  Concrete jungle, artificial light, junk food, barely a tree in sight (except the one a teenager hangs herself from).  The whole story is full of failed or stunted relationships. Maybe we could all stand to reach out a bit more?  Be a bit kinder?  It’s so difficult to talk about the way we connect to each other without being maudlin or crass.  Yet this story manages to do that in a way that is not only intelligent, but beautiful.

Much as I loved this, I sort of hope it will be left as a one-off.  The story feels finished.  We got our resolution  and are left with the quietly hopeful sight of River saying hello to little Hank. And, honestly, I’m not sure I could survive another series…

Were you as broken as I was by the end?  Would you like to see more of River?  I must admit, I wasn’t fully convinced by the identity of the killer – what did you think?  Let me know!

Unforgotten, S1, ITV1

*Big plot spoilers below!*

A skeleton is unearthed on a building site in London, landing DCI Cassie Stuart and DS Sunil Khan with the unenviable task of trying to solve a murder that took place almost 40 years ago.

The opening episode was a genuinely brilliant bit of telly, illustrating the difficulties of investigating events that took place decades ago.  There are doubts as to whether there should be an investigation at all – very time consuming and expensive, key details may have been forgotten, evidence lost.  Is it solvable? Is it worth the effort?  When does a case become ‘historical’?  Cassie reasons that if there is someone still alive who suffered because of that crime, then the police have a duty to investigate.

Through some very nifty forensic work, we discover the identity of the deceased: 17 year old Jimmy Sullivan, a Liverpool lad who came to London in hope of a better life.  The show does a very fine job establishing all the major players, showing their disparate lives before pulling them all together as potential suspects in Jimmy’s murder.  It’s a lot to cram into an hour, but it was very deftly handled and left me desperate to discover how it would all pan out…

The script is excellent, but the quality of the cast just takes it up a level.  There’s an amazing scene of Claire (Gemma Jones) being interviewed by Cassie (Nicola Walker), pushing a photo a Jimmy back and forth as Cassie tries to coax a confession, while Claire gives nothing away.  Is she lying, or has she genuinely forgotten?  My money’s on the latter, but the tension is breath-taking.

The identity of the murderer may sound silly on paper, but was wholly convincing on the screen.  The entire cast has been excellent, but Gemma Jones and Tom Courtney (Eric) have been particularly marvellous.  They showed a lifetimes worth of bitterness and regret; two people who have caused each other so much pain, yet remain bound together.   Claire’s visible deterioration was pitiful – so much fear in her eyes – and Eric was by turns loathsomely deceitful and pathetic.

The link between Claire’s dementia and Jimmy’s murder – the past lurching forward and dominating the present, eating away at her self-control and peace of mind – could have been clumsy, but I thought it was gracefully done.  And it emphasised the way everything gets blurred by the passing of time.  There are no neat resolutions for Claire and Eric. Or for Maureen.  She gets to lay her son to rest, but no trial.

The resolutions were mostly satisfying.  Sir Phillip finally gives up when his shady past catches up with him.  It fitted his character to try and control the manner of his departure, avoiding the shame of a murder conviction, and denying his many enemies the chance to finish him off.

But Father Greaves got off far too easily in my book.  He was the biggest hypocrite in the story, and never showed any remorse.  He was sorry he got caught, but I was never convinced that he regretted what he’d done.  Maybe the family just found it easier to forget and move on, but it did feel a bit contrived.

I enjoyed the Lizzie strand the most.  The idea that you can move beyond past mistakes, even if you can’t undo them.   She had done awful things, but you got the sense that she truly felt guilty.  That she had developed a moral centre, and her actions became repulsive to her.  She lied because she was ashamed, because that was not who she wanted to be.  So, Beth became Lizzie.  Powerful image of her getting ready in the morning, benign face in the mirror, putting on rings to cover the Skinhead tattoos on her fingers.   I liked the idea that it was Curtis and Ray that brought her back into the world, that love was stronger than hate.   Yeah, bit neat, but it was heart-warming all the same.

This was a real strength throughout the story – the way you can’t help but pity people, even while you know that they have done terrible things.  Motives are complex, and sometimes people really do change.   Don’t they?  Sir Phillip was arrogant and violent, still happy to order a hit if it got him out of trouble.  But he maintained that he did what was necessary to escape a world of poverty and coercion.  He wanted his children to have a better life than him, and he succeeded.  That says a lot about him, but it says a lot about the world we live in too.

The story was also great at showing the way events ripple out, effecting people even years afterwards.  And how lies stack up.  In most murder mysteries/police dramas, only the killer has secrets.  But here (like in the also excellent Broadchurch), everyone has something to hide, and uncovering the ‘truth’ can be devastating even for those who haven’t done anything wrong.

It makes you realise what a slippery concept justice can be.  Is it trying to undo the wrong that has been done?  Reducing the damage?  Preventing further harm? Does punishment always contain an element of vengeance? Is Claire’s ‘situation’ punishment enough?

Both thought provoking and satisfying, then.  What more could you ask for?  But what did you think of Unforgotten? Did you enjoy the performances?  Did you like the neat endings, or feel short-changed? Let me know!

Crimson Peak (2015)

*Mild spoilers below!*

At the turn of the last century, in Buffalo, New York, heiress Edith Cushing aspires to be an author.  But instead she falls in love, and is whisked away to a crumbling pile in the chilly north of England.  She starts to realise that there is much about this strange place she doesn’t understand – and if she doesn’t make sense of it soon, she might not make it out at all.    Guillermo Del Toro gives us his own particular take on the gothic romance with this tale of ghosts and violence and passionate, monstrous love.

This definitely is a gothic romance, by the way, not a horror or a fairy story as others have described it.  Initially a literary genre of the late 18th century, gothic romances are basically coming of age stories, where an innocent and vulnerable young woman is thrust into a world of sex and death.  While appalling dangers beset her, her good heart and good sense ensure her survival, and she emerges battered but enlightened. Well, that’s the plan, anyway.

Naturally, Crimson Peak looks amazing, with an astonishing attention to detail and brilliant lighting.  Buffalo is bright and clean, a dynamic and modern place that looks to the future.   The waltz scene is sumptuous, bathed in soft golden light and a glorious, gliding score.  Many a heart set a flutter, I’m sure, as roguish Thomas wins Edith’s heart with a dance.  Yet not everything is rosy: when they share their first, passionate kiss, Edith is beautifully illuminated, but Thomas is all in shadow.

The costumes are also wonderfully evocative.  Lucille is all chilly composure and unruffled elegance in black lace gloves and an elaborate crimson gown.  But as she starts to lose her grip she becomes visibly disordered, rattling about the house in loose chiffon and billowing velvet.  Edith’s clothes start off with a delicately feminine, virginal silhouette, which becomes more structured as she grows in confidence.  With capes and hats and padded shoulders, she literally takes up more space.  Yet as her vulnerability emerges, she starts wandering the halls in her nightgown, loose blonde hair down to her waist.  She looks like a child.  Or a hospital patient.

Colour plays into this too.  We initially see Thomas in black and Lucille in red, while Edith wears shades of white.  So far, so obvious.  But as the story progresses, Edith wears increasingly vivid shades of yellow and gold, suggesting blossoming love and self-assurance.  Everyone’s outfit usually contains a subtle trace of black – we’re all sinners, after all.  And Lucille may start off a scarlet woman, but at home dons a dark blue outfit that makes her look rather like her mother…

‘The house breathes’, Thomas tells Edith, and Allerdale Hall really does feel like a character in its own right.  Crumbling and isolated, the weather comes in through a hole in the roof, and blood red clay seeps up through the floor boards, staining the ladies dresses.  It has an otherworldly quality, as though it wasn’t really built to be lived in at all.  It belongs more to the dead than the living, yet it dominates proceedings – very little action takes place outside.  The house dominates the siblings as well.  While Thomas looks to the future by restoring the house and mine, Lucille seems more concerned with the past, thumbing her nose at her long dead parents: ‘I image mother seeing everything we do here.’ *shudder*

With most ghost stories – especially haunted house-style ones – you’re not always sure if the ghosts are real, or just a product of a fevered imagination.  Not here.  Five minutes in, and we are shown in no uncertain terms that the supernatural is very real.  But while ghosts have a strong presence in the world, it’s the other humans you need to look out for.

The hint of threat is ever present and while we don’t see much violence, when we do it’s brutal.  You can almost feel the crunch of bone and parting of flesh.  At one shocking death, I actually heard the audience gasp.   In this heightened, opulent world, the violence feels very real – and the consequences of it are devastating.  Death and loss ripple out. Everyone in this story has buried a loved one.  History looms over them all, but will they try to ignore the past, brood on it, or learn from it?

The main performances are all excellent. Tom Hiddleston is great as Thomas – definitely a wrong ‘un, but surprisingly sympathetic as he starts to fall for Edith.  Jessica Chastain is on hair-raising form as the increasingly unstable Lucille, her every word brimming with pent up fury.  Yet this is Edith’s story and Mia Wasikowska does a fine job.  In lesser hands she could come across as insipid, but she combines innocence with a blazing intelligence and relatable curiosity.  And it’s always fun to see women play such an active role in their own salvation.

At heart, though, this is a love story.  Love drives all the characters, for better or worse.  Yet even at the end of the tale, none of them can really understand it.  Perhaps that’s the point.  Dark and rich and intriguing, Crimson Peak completely pulls you in.  Any fan of Del Toro or of romances with a bit of bite will have a great time here.  I know I did.

What did you think?  Were you swept along with the story, or left out in the cold?  Was the violence too much for you? Let me know!

Looper (2012)

In the not-too-distant future, it has become effectively impossible to get away with murder.   Alas, time travel has been invented, and in order to get rid of troublesome people, criminal gangs simply zap them back through time, where they are immediately executed by hired killers called Loopers.   In order to remove all trace of these crimes, the gangs will eventually send the Loopers themselves back in time to be murdered by their younger versions.  This is termed ‘closing the loop’ and means our young killer gets 30 years of the high life before the inevitable happens.  Of course, one day something goes wrong and our protagonist – a Looper called Joe – is left trying to hunt down his future self.  Older Joe, however, has plans of his own…

I like that this film doesn’t mess about, diving straight in with an explanation of the Loopers and the emergence of mild telekinetic abilities in a suitably bleak, urbanised dystopia.  Clocking in at just under 2 hours it’s not a short film, but it zips along brilliantly.  It is disorientating at first, a lot of information is offered up very quickly, but the threads all come together eventually and the conclusion is satisfying and wonderfully finessed.

Looper is a very moral film, but also a very heartfelt one.  You understand why everyone behaves the way they do, what they are trying to achieve. They suffer because of an absence of love and guidance.  We need to matter to someone, we need each other.   And our actions have consequences.  Selfishness and loss mar the lives they touch.  Older Joe is willing to go to terrible lengths to protect the woman he loves, but he ends up creating the very person who took her from him.  Younger Joe just wants to close his loop, and return to his normal life.  Sara is trying to make amends for abandoning her child, trying to take responsibility for their lives.  And it all revolves around little Sid. We’ve seen how it could all turn out, but does it have to be that way?

Every action ripples out, and violence begets violence, but the film’s never preachy or smug.  There are no goodies and baddies here, no mention of good or evil.  It’s both universal and intimate.  The cast is really quite small – cause and effect is pretty clearly established.  But at the same time, this could be any group of people anywhere.  Big ideas are examined on a pleasingly small scale.

While the film ponders big themes, it could simply be seen as one man choosing to grow up.  Joe is a man, a professional killer, who drives and drinks and parties.  But for all this adult activity, he is an immature character, craving the comfort and security he never had as a child.  While no means stupid, he’s governed by his appetites and unwilling to embrace the possibly of a fully realised adult life.  He thinks ahead, stashing his silver for his 30 years of retirement, but only so he can keep on partying.  But by the end of the film, Joe is willing to sacrifice himself to spare the world the future horror of the Rainmaker.  It’s a beautifully crafted moment; Joe’s choice makes perfect sense, but is still selfless and poignant.

If there is a weakness, I suppose the way in which the time travel was handled will annoy some viewers.  It’s not something that is explained or considered too deeply.  It is a little bit cheeky, asking an audience to accept everything they’re told, and not ponder any potential pitfalls.  But when both Jeff Daniels and Bruce Willis tell you not to worry about it, why argue?  Especially when it’s handled so stylishly.   I was mesmerised, if a little appalled, by the idea of giving someone unnecessary amputations simply to incapacitate their future self.  The image of older Seth trying to climb a fence, only to realise in horror that vital appendages are disappearing must be one of the most inventive and visually striking uses of time travel I’ve ever seen.

Such images, however, are not just for show.  It all feeds back into how characters are affected by past choices.  Sid gets shot in the face in the finale – only a graze, but nasty if it got infected.  In the ‘bad’ future, we see him tiny and alone, angrily clutching a rag to his face.  The Rainmaker has prosthetic jaw, a grisly physical consequence of this violence and loss inflicted on him as a child, neatly mirroring the psychological damage he suffers.  But with his Mum still alive to take care of him, there is the chance for things to turn out differently.

Both the performances and the writing are excellent.  Emily Blunt is great as Sara, full of guilt and barely repressed fear.  Joseph Gordon Levitt does well to make us care for a not entirely likable character, quietly reminding us that the man has been shaped by his own losses.  I also loved Jeff Daniels’ world weary Abe ‘Do something new!’ he barks at Joe.  Biggest praise has to go to Pierce Gagnon as Sid.  Genuinely unsettling, it’s remarkable how quickly you believe that this little boy could grow up to be a monster, while still being aware that he is just a child.

All in all a clever, well balanced film with an eye for stylish details and an appetite for big ideas.  The saying goes that you should do something today that your future self will thank you for.  A cult classic in the making, if you didn’t catch Looper at the cinema, I recommend you give it a go.  Future you will be glad you did.