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BlogalongaBond: Thunderball


http://theincrediblesuit.blogspot.com/p/blogalongabond.html

I only discovered BlogalongaBond recently. But blimey what an excellent idea. Talking about 007 once a month for two years, and each film in turn; blogging bliss for Bondian fanatics like me.

Then I realised I had just missed the boat for writing about Goldfinger. My first contribution to BlogalongaBond would have to come hot on the heels of a month’s glowing discussion of the world’s most famous franchise’s most iconic entry. How was I going to compete with that? I couldn’t rant and rave about every single classic scene moulded into cliché by endless reference and repetition. As many bloggers said when reviewing Goldfinger, it was THE Bond film and in the eyes of many every one since has aspired to its formula and fallen short of its magical mix.

After watching Thunderball though, I remembered why it’s always been more than the shit part of the National Lottery to me. I loved Thunderball growing up as a boy, and I love it now. For me it is better than Goldfinger. Aside from From Russia With Love, Thunderball is the film that best captures the origins of the character; Ian Fleming’s James Bond transplanted onto the screen.

Thunderball the novel was a return to form for Fleming, who had taken a break after Goldfinger to produce a collection of short stories, For Your Eyes Only. The book introduces the character of Ernst Stavro Blofeld for the first time and provides Bond with an excellent enemy for two other brilliant novels, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice. Of course the films made Blofeld Bond’s ultimate nemesis from the outset, whereas prior to Thunderball, in the literary world of Bond his primary foes had been unorthodox Russian organisation SMERSH. Lampooned in the 60s by Bond spoof Casino Royale, SMERSH sounds unavoidably silly compared to the sinister SPECTRE headed by mysterious Blofeld.

Interestingly the physique of Blofeld in the novels is quite different to that presented in the films. The most memorable portrayal of Blofeld is perhaps Donald Pleasance’s scarred little bald man in You Only Live Twice. In Roger Moore’s time the character is reduced to being dropped down a chimney in a pre titles sequence. Thunderball showcases Blofeld at his best; unknown, all powerful and faceless.

Thunderball also shows off Bond at his best. In a PTS far superior to the aforementioned Roger Moore effort in For Your Eyes Only, we learn everything we need to know about 007. In my view Thunderball’s PTS is also better than Goldfinger’s despite the prevailing view being that Goldfinger’s is the most flawless of the series. As several bloggers pointed out, Bond’s ridiculous duck disguise in Goldfinger spoils the other elements somewhat and to me Thunderball’s PTS is a stronger standalone mini-story, which also ties back to the main adventure.

Steven Spielberg once said that to him, James Bond was a detective, a suave Sherlock Holmes with a gun. For the directing legend Bond was at his best when distilled to this level and he tried to replicate elements of this when creating his Bond equivalent, Indiana Jones. I certainly think that description is a simplification of Bond’s character. But the mighty Spielberg has a point. There’s plenty of sleuthing and relying on Bond’s instincts in Connery’s early films, and particularly Thunderball. It’s something the modern films lost sight of and need to get back to.

Bond is certainly knowing and observational when he unmasks the widow in Thunderball’s PTS as an enemy agent. Connery’s charm, charisma and comedy are turned up to the max and the whole sequence looks stylish. Bond quips and flirts with his female assistant. Then in a brutal, ahead of its time fight scene that the likes of Jason Bourne and the modern 007 are returning to today, Connery kicks his opponent’s ass, savagely strangling him to death with a poker.

The PTS then ends with an outrageous escape via jet pack and gadgets galore on the sleek Aston Martin. These tongue in cheek gizmos aside, the gadgets in Thunderball are at the pitch perfect level. There’s a wonderful scene with Q in which sensible but clever gadgets are introduced that will return to prove vital in the plot. Connery’s sparky dialogue with Desmond Llewelyn is the best in the entire series.

So after the PTS we know who we’re dealing with; James Bond 007, licence to kill, with girls, guns, gadgets and grisly action galore. It’s then that the film introduces the masterly plot that remains durable, relevant, captivating and even slightly plausible today. Goldfinger took Fleming’s immense imagination and made his ideas work better on film than they did in the novel. In Thunderball Fleming’s fantastical schemes once again marvel and delight, and shock and scare, this time sticking closer still to the original story. It’s a testament to the story’s selling power that a major legal tussle over the rights to a remake led to the 1983 unofficial entry starring an aged Connery, Never Say Never Again.

The legacy of the nuclear arms race remains an issue today and the power of rogue atomic weapons to frighten certainly endures. The enormous importance and scale of events adds terrific drama to the story. It’s a drama any Bond film needs and thrives off of; the global significance bearing down on 007’s shoulders as he conquers personal hurdles to unravel it all. Coming up with the perfectly judged plot remains the biggest challenge for those behind new Bond films today because they can’t compete with Fleming.

Thunderball is the first of the films to deal with Fleming’s fascination of the sea and the underwater world. Today it is increasingly difficult to find exotic locations for Bond when holidays can whisk you practically anywhere in a flash. But the colourful realm beneath the waves, glowing in a turquoise tint, remains another mostly inaccessible world. There’s something alien and yet attractive about the monstrous creatures living amongst the sand and sun rays. There’s something dark about anyone who can master this environment and exploit it for his own gain. Something secretive about the tropical depths.

Emilio Largo had a tough act to follow. Auric Goldfinger is the master villain to beat with his distinctive characteristics and fondness for a verbal duel prior to some ghastly fate waiting for our hero. Largo also struggles to impose himself when the magnificent early scene, with one of THE Ken Adam set designs, showing the SPECTRE meeting makes it clear that he is merely a puppet and drone himself. The true power lies elsewhere. This definitely makes him a different kind of villain. He doesn’t compete with Goldfinger but he doesn’t lack menace or do a bad job either.

What about the girls then? For me in Domino and Fiona Volpe we have two of the best Bond girls ever. Pussy Galore, as played by Honour Blackman, is iconic for sure but mainly because of Fleming’s outrageous name. Domino comes across as one of the most beautiful girls that even Bond himself has ever seen in the novel, and Claudine Auger doesn’t do a bad job at all of visually representing this on screen. As for Volpe, she is incredibly sexy and seductive. Her bright red hair set her out as dangerous, but also as red hot. The scene where she is waiting for Bond in the bath and he offers her merely shoes to put on, and the dancing scene at the Kiss Kiss club where she dies, are two of the most memorable in cinematic history for me personally, never mind the Bond series.

During Bond’s scenes with Volpe there are some cracking Bondian quotes from the script and Connery also delivers some of his best lines in the role sparring with Largo: “Do you know a lot about guns?”, “No but a little about women”, for example.

Another reason for Bond’s scenes with Volpe being so memorable for me, particularly the ones at the Mardi Gras, is the film’s score. I think Thunderball is the first time Barry uses the “00 theme” and his variations on the Bond theme itself to provide tense music are catchy and complimentary to the action throughout. Even when the film has aged less well, for example the scene in the health club on the rack and the unintentionally comedic speeded up careering of the boat at the end, the music remains superb. Tom Jones’ title song is no Goldfinger, but it’s undoubtedly addictive and Bondian. And besides I hear poor old Shirley so much that her voice starts to grate.

In the end it’s for those moments in which we see what purists call the “real Bond” that I remember Thunderball. When Connery calmly kills the Professor in Dr.No after he’s had his six shots I knew that was a truly Bondian moment. It marks out the detached killer in Bond’s character so well. He is so used to living his work that he carries it off with a ruthless efficiency that looks effortless and irresistibly cool. There’s another moment like this in Thunderball. When Largo’s chief henchman Vargas is sneaking up on Domino and Bond on the beach, Domino spots him. Bond turns, almost nonchalantly rolling over, to fire a harpoon through his chest. This is the assassin in Bond. The moment’s slightly spoilt by Connery’s quip, “I think he got the point”, but even this dark humour becomes part of the character that fans can love.

Watch Thunderball and you’ve hit the 007 jackpot; never mind the riches of Goldfinger.

The Adjustment Bureau


Chance and fate are like twin sisters; biologically related but far from identical. They are concepts we all know and experience day after day. Yet their effects fluctuate so wildly that no human being can define, prove or explain what exactly they are, or indeed confirm their existence with any certainty. The best, most brilliant minds throughout history have focused their attention on these beguiling, fascinating, unknowable sisters at some point. Everybody, from genius to crack addict, ponders the cruelties of chance, the favours of fate.

Was it chance that brought the girl of your dreams out onto the street in front of you? Was it just bad luck that you were spitting out your gum at the time, so that she walked head on into a potent projectile of sugared saliva and masticated goo? Or were you doomed to failure? Manipulative Miss Fate may have singled you out as her joke of the day. Then again, perhaps she was just redressing the balance after she took out the lights in the bar that time. Your powers of attraction increased tenfold in near darkness, allowing you to raise your standards considerably. That girl, let’s say Linda, barely noticed the peculiar crook of your nose, for instance, or the irrepressible leering tint to your eyes. But then again maybe there’s no balance at all, no order. Maybe it’s just Miss Chance, a bored, daydreaming secretary at her desk, absentmindedly jabbing at her keyboard.

Often the only way we can begin to explore or talk about these sisters is through storytelling. And George Nolfi’s first feature film as a director, The Adjustment Bureau, is fairly explicitly about the human relationship between our free will, each and every choice that we make, and our fate, the possible destiny that may be already determined for us, laid out beyond our control. The Adjustment Bureau is also a film that can claim to be a “sci-fi romantic thriller”; a distinctive and intriguing description of any story.

Indeed ever since I saw the trailer for The Adjustment Bureau I have been anticipating a thoroughly different blockbuster. Several of Phillip K. Dick’s stories have been taken on and adapted by Hollywood, and several more such as The Man in the High Castle (an alternative history of the Cold War), would make excellent movies. Dick had a knack for capturing fascinating science based or philosophical questions, within a captivating narrative framework that really made you think about the issue. Apparently Nolfi has expanded considerably on Dick’s short story, Adjustment Team, for this project, and that may account for some of its failings.

Numerous reviews have pointed out the plot holes in The Adjustment Bureau and lamented its implausibility. For a film marketing itself as exciting, the lack of engaging thrills has also been highlighted. It’s certainly something that requires a greater than usual suspension of disbelief to really enjoy it. However, critics have also been quick and correct to heap praise upon the performances of the two leads.

In interviews Emily Blunt and Matt Damon have talked of how they “dicked around” on set and tried to transfer some of this interaction, this genuine banter, to the screen. It’s a technique that worked tremendously well. Much of Nolfi’s dialogue in this film is good, but inevitably when trying to encompass such grand themes and deal with an issue like love at first sight, the odd passage is clunky, cliché and cheesy. These bad moments have the potential to seriously deflate the quality of a film. But Damon and Blunt’s brilliance ensures that these dances with disaster become strengths. Whenever an emotional speech is about to over step the mark, one of the characters, usually Blunt’s, makes a jokey remark to both lighten the tone and preserve the intensity of what went before. With such sensational plot components Blunt and Damon’s incredible, immense believability and appeal makes the romantic element of the story feel constantly real and affecting.

Damon in particular is excellent as the focus of the tale and adds another impressive notch to his CV. He appears to have truly arrived as a top Hollywood leading man. Here he plays up and coming senator David Norris, who concedes a mammoth lead in the polls thanks to some revelations about his wild shenanigans in the past. It was a step too far for voters, who had been willing to back the fresh faced, young and local candidate. Damon is completely convincing as a politician passionate for change but disillusioned with the system he must embrace to achieve it.

Underneath it all, Norris just wants company and affection, and this Damon portrays well too. In the Gents after his election defeat, he bumps into Elise, a contemporary ballet dancer. After an odd (but believable!) first meeting, Norris is as infected with the chemistry between them as the audience is. He abandons his conservative losing speech in favour of a frank, electrifying exposure of behind the scenes campaigning and the nature of politics as a whole. His popularity sky rockets (one of the film’s multitude of interesting ideas and points is how the public wants honesty in politics but good men are continually stifled from being themselves).

However when Norris tries to pursue his instant infatuation with Elise, he’s warned off by mysterious looking types in 1950s style period suits, wearing silly hats. This is The Adjustment Bureau; the people that make things happen according to plan. They are not all powerful, as they appear to be governed by their own set of rules and frequently require greater levels of “authorisation”, but they can flit about New York City by teleporting through doors and predict the choices you make. John Slattery, Anthony Mackie and Terrence Stamp, all give decent performances as agents of this supernatural organisation.

The dated look of the agents has come in for considerable criticism; but I rather liked it. Whilst the film could be more thrilling, it’s refreshing to watch a blockbuster that’s still exciting and engaging without being stunt heavy. The focus is not on the action but on the plot and the romance between Elise and David. As for the plot holes, especially increasingly silly ones towards the end, these are probably due to the fact that The Adjustment Bureau is ideas heavy. Sure some of these musings on such debated subjects as the limitations of free will, determinism, God, chance and love are far from subtle. But to me that doesn’t matter, especially given the convincing chemistry at the heart of the film driving it forward as the narrative focus. It’s extremely admirable, valid and bold to make a mainstream film about any of these ideas at all. The Adjustment Bureau will get you thinking and talking about them, and hopefully exploring these fascinating areas further.

Besides, in my opinion, not all of the film’s ideas are as flat and basic as some reviews would have you think. The corporation like structure of The Adjustment Bureau for example (with God referred to as The Chairman), made an extremely relevant point about the limitations of our free will today, in supposedly completely liberated western societies. We no longer realistically worry ourselves with tyrants and dictators, but money, class and big business can substantially shape our paths through life and the hold the powerful keys to turning points in our destiny.

I applaud the abundance of ideas in The Adjustment Bureau then, even if it could have been a better film. Because of all the talking points and its compelling romance, it is still a good and worthwhile watch. Perhaps the most resonant, but also cliché, point that it makes though, and chooses to conclude with, is that love is worth fighting for. Whatever uncontrollable obstacles life throws in the way, be it distance/geography, illness/injury or rivals/opponents, love can be enough and worth holding on to. No matter what.

Oh god. Did I actually just type that? Shoot me now. Yes their performances really are that good.

Reading and Writing Challenge Month – Day 4


Today I finished The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham. I’ve also nearly finished a collection of short stories by Murakami I’ve been nibbling at for some time and begun Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog, as well as reading The Kiss, a short while ago. On the recommendation of Tomcat (see his insightful, well written blog on books here: http://tomcatintheredroom.wordpress.com/) I have ordered an additional collection of short stories and shan’t post anything on “The Art of the short story” or attempt any creations of my own until I’ve delved through it and added further variety to my depth of knowledge.

I think that short stories are something I need to seriously study if I aim to be both a better reader and writer. They are economical examples of excellent craft, as well as being sublime, symbolic and inspired in their brevity. They often better capture the essence of a single idea or emotion than a fully fledged novel, padded out with all its requirements. I need to learn how to think of original ideas, as well as be more efficient with my language. Anyway enough of that till I’ve read some more and pieced some half decent musings together.

With my plans for short stories on hold, and an unexpectedly busy weekend ahead, I’m unsure where to turn for my next read. Certainly I have a pile of books to choose from and I can continue to consume short stories but I also feel I should be choosing something else substantial and making headway with it. My audio book too is on hold as I shall be unable to listen as attentively as I would like over the next few days. At the moment I’m leaning towards Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence as my next hurdle in this marathon month.

I say hurdle but on completing Triffids today I am starting to relish the immense range of books ahead of me. I was surprised by how different the novel by Wyndham was to an adaptation by the BBC, with Eddie Izzard as a villainous figure, a couple of years ago. From what I remember of this adaptation, Izzard played a character called Coker, brimming with a lust for power and the manipulative, ruthless personality to acquire it in a fallen world.

I might have remembered the BBC version incorrectly. If it was indeed BBC; could have been ITV? Probably BBC. Anyway in the novel Coker is an enemy of the protagonist and narrator initially. He believes that the sighted should do what they can to help the blind and cunningly kidnaps some of those that can still see, who were intending to start a new community in the country. He puts them to work looking after groups of the blind in the city, a plan destined to fail. But later he and main character Bill become friends, and Coker admits the error of his well intentioned ways. Throughout the book, because of lingering notions of the adaptation coupled with his earlier behaviour, I was expecting Coker to turn nasty and reveal his own personal malice and ambition. Instead he was very likeable, an intriguing and helpful character.

Triffids seems on the surface like sensational, pulp sci-fi. My girlfriend smirked and seemed put off the novel when the summary of the plot I gave her was inevitably ludicrous. But despite how ridiculous giant plants menacing the streets and fields of Britain may seem, Triffids is good, serious science fiction. Almost every page has Bill’s first person narration grappling with the ethical dilemmas of such an uneven apocalypse; with most of the population blinded but a few spared by odd circumstance. There are well written explanations of loneliness, realistic dialogue and fascinating interactions and bonds between strangers thrown together by terror. Not to mention warnings about nuclear weapons, biological experimentation, future energy crises and unsustainable lifestyles rolled into one idea. This book is impossible to adapt well. Nothing can replicate the way the Triffids are described or the realistic realisation of the probable truth with the passing of time. Screen versions require more drama, more enemies; a conspiracy of some kind that loses the truth in the essence of the original.

Triffids, for all its doom and grand ideas, was not a heavy or taxing read. Wyndham manages to keep things remarkably light. Part of this is to do with the zippy pace, another the narrative voice of Bill. But for me it was the quirky touches of early 1950s, post-war British period detail that made me smile amongst the horrors. Characters would constantly refer to situations as “queer” and Bill would refer to his love interest in an old fashioned way with terms like “darling” and “sweet”. She would often reply with “honey” in the most grave of circumstances or idea laden conversations. None of this was derogatory for women when balanced with the overall impression and philosophy of equality evident in the book; simply a sign of the author’s times and an innocence that would not leave his characters, no matter what.

So one book down. Hopefully many more to go. And I promise some accompanying articles at some point.

Ironclad – A Soho screening


My review of Ironclad can be found here – http://flickeringmyth.blogspot.com/2011/03/movie-review-ironclad-2011.html – over at the always fabulous Flickering Myth. I’ll also post it here for my archives. Along with some photos I took in Soho, where I went to De Lane Lea studios, for the screening. It was incredibly exciting and inspiring to be sitting in their waiting room, with signed photographs from most famous actors you can think to name. That’s cliche, and I’m not bitten by the fame bug like some. But you just felt like you were somewhere talented people gathered to make things happen, for the world to see. As a Bond fan, it was exciting to see Quantum of Solace posters and know the sound for the film was mixed there. Waiting for the time of the screening allowed me to discover that Soho itself was fascinating. It’s the hub of London’s film industry, with studio HQs everywhere. Also a wide range of Bloomsbury publishers inhabited the smarter buildings, near various TV production companies, such as Tiger Aspect, which I found in a corner of Soho Square, opposite a house the black, celebrated nurse of the Crimea, Mary Seacole, used to live in. All of this upmarket, swanky, creative establishment stuff, nestled side by side with posh restaurants and seedier strip joints. A diverse place for sure.  A mini London – a place I could easily love to see everyday.

A party raged at The Soho Theatre (see above) to Rihanna music on a trendy London balcony. My camera struggled with the light to capture a shot down Dean Street of Post Office Tower.

Anyway here’s my review of Ironclad in full, it’s worth seeing:

The King’s Speech ruled at the Oscars and did so because of and despite of, three core ingredients. It’s a film that’s independently financed, based closely on historical events and proudly British. It proved that independent films could be both critically acclaimed and box office smashes. It brought to life even stuffy costumed history in a dramatic and engaging way. And it highlighted the world’s appetite for thoroughly English storytelling.

Director Jonathan English is aptly named then in the film industry at this precise moment. His latest project, Ironclad, is out on the 4th March. It shares many of The King’s Speech’s potential handicaps. It took eighteen hard months to raise the money for its ambitious scale and according to the earnest production notes, is a tale “torn from the pages” of English Medieval history. All those involved with the Ironclad team will be hoping that their film also shares some of the success enjoyed by this year’s big Academy Award winner. Producer Andrew Curtis certainly believes that like Tom Hooper’s Royal epic, English’s gritty medieval battle drama will prove that Britain is more than “this little village of filmmakers”.

It’s very hard to find anymore comparisons between Ironclad and The King’s Speech. Yes there’s a Royal involved, but Paul Giamatti’s megalomaniac King John in 1215 is poles apart from Colin Firth’s stuttering Bertie. He’s just been forced to sign the Magna Carta, a vital document that would go on to form the foundations of common law in England. This much is well known history, but the film claims the untold story is what John did next; hire an army of Scandinavian mercenaries to kill those behind the drafting of Magna Carta. It’s a piece of paper that concedes too many of John’s powers over his citizens, a humiliation, that he’s pretty damn pissed about. In a rage John sets out to retake his kingdom, only to be blocked by a handful of opponents at strategically important Rochester castle. From the very start Giamatti plays John, a historical villain we’re all very familiar with, as a man having an endless strop with catastrophic consequences. Revealingly Giamatti comments in the production notes that “I play Hitler, basically”. 

Ironclad’s impressive cast is undoubtedly an asset for the film and most of the actors are likeably convincing in their roles. But just as there is a vast gulf between the characters of King John and King George, there is a chasm separating the performances of Firth and Giamatti. In the trailer my expectations for the film were drastically lowered by the sight of Giamatti’s unavoidably ridiculous face barking angry orders; adorned with a silly beard clogged by drool and drizzle. To my pleasant surprise he was better as John than the trailer makes him appear. This however does not change the fact that the American’s accent regularly has the odd wobble and that his scenes are generally the least enjoyable in Ironclad. There’s something about his portrayal of the King that just failed to convince me. Admittedly I do think a lot of this doubt was down to my unease at his weak, unintentionally comedic appearance, obvious from the very beginning and before he had opened his mouth.

I was astonished to read a quote from Rick Benattar, one of the film’s producers who had worked with Giamatti before on Shoot ‘Em Up, that said: “We got him (Giamatti) signed up to play King John and cast the movie around him. That’s how it really started.” Now as I’ve said, Ironclad’s cast is genuinely impressive. British heavyweights like Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi and Charles Dance, star alongside established actors Mackenzie Crook, Jason Flemyng and Jamie Foreman. One of Giamatti’s better scenes in the film is so good because he’s trading insults and witty jibes with the formidable Brian Cox, manning the ramparts of Rochester Castle with his soldiers. There’s also impressive young talent on show in the form of Kate Mara as the central love interest and Aneurin Barnard as a youthful, idealistic and inexperienced squire. I found the concept of a Medieval Magnificent Seven intriguing and those actors within the castle walls pull it off. But Giamatti’s John is Ironclad’s single biggest flaw and I find it incomprehensible that he was the starting point for such a diverse, quality cast of Brits. More than anything else, he just doesn’t look right as King John.

Enough negatives then, let’s start talking about the good Ironclad has to offer. Perhaps the main reason I was so surprised by how integral Giamatti was to the creation of the project, was that James Purefoy seemed to have the far more pivotal (and praiseworthy) role. He plays an initially mute Templar knight called Marshall, which is an interesting background for the hero of any movie to have. Marshall’s characterisation in the script may not all be remarkably subtle but it is for the most part original and Purefoy’s performance captivating. He more than capably handles the physical side to Ironclad’s action and apparently enjoyed wielding an authentic 5ft sword.

As producer Benattar says, Purefoy made his name as a “spectacular leader and lover” in HBO TV series Rome. Whilst he again plays the man that rallies those around him and falls for a woman in Ironclad, his restrained Templar knight battling a crisis of faith, is very different to arrogant, swaggering Mark Anthony and demonstrates Purefoy’s range of ability. Looking back at his career it’s a real shame that Purefoy hasn’t had more opportunities to completely inhabit a central figure in the narrative as he does here. Before Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, Purefoy was talked of as 007, and he certainly would have looked the part and had the acting chops coupled with a distinctive style. He is the heart of Ironclad and that’s saying something given the rest of the cast.

Aside from assembling such a well known, talented cast, director English was keen to make Ironclad stand out with visceral, realistic and gritty action. From the point of view of historical accuracy, Ironclad feels authentic, whatever liberties it probably took with actual events. The variety of weapons and the set all tend to convince, with the exception to the realistic feel being some dodgy CGI of the castle and surrounding area during otherwise good action set pieces. At times the desire to be hard hitting and true to the reality of Middle Ages gore also went too far, with some blatant green screen shots of limbs being cleaved off or bodies hacked in two. But again generally the filmmakers’ attempts to show “what it’s really like to kill someone with an axe” translate into gripping action.

What picking such fine actors allowed English to do was really ramp up the violence, action and drama and then count on his performers to lighten the sombre mood now and again. An interesting side plot of love between Derek Jacobi’s character’s young wife, played by Kate Mara, and Templar Marshall, is slightly different and a touch more interesting than your conventional diversionary romance, due to the knight’s vow of celibacy. There are also flashes of genuinely amusing, and very British humour, I wasn’t expecting from such a dreary looking film shot in rain battered Wales.

Vibrantly realised characters deliver one liners, which could be terribly bad, with attractive style. Asked whether the French will really come to the rescue, Charles Dance’s kindly Bishop of Canterbury, wryly quips “God knows”, glancing to the heavens. And Cox’s Baron D’Albany warns his companion as he makes him hold his sword, that “We may need protection” as they enter a brothel. Only such screen legends could deliver these lines in a way that doesn’t deflate the drama but enriches it with humanity and sprigs of light.

I cannot help but applaud Ironclad for what it proves; that British cinema can compete with the world and produce well acted, exciting action movies. It feels real and very English and director Jonathan can be proud; he deserves his film to succeed. But I can’t help but have reservations. Apart from the occasionally disappointing visual effect, Ironclad’s Achilles heel is Paul Giamatti. He is not terrible but feels out of place with the tone of the rest of the story. It’s a shame the producers felt the need to recruit an American star as an integral part of a very British project. For me his casting undermines the aim of a successful, British and independent film somewhat. That uneasy feeling I regularly got during his moments in the limelight was the only real disappointment of Ironclad; otherwise I found it a good and engaging film.

A History of Violence


(some spoilers)

I was keen to see A History of Violence, but I also sat down to watch it with trepidation. The title of this film had me envisaging a brutal compilation of some of history’s goriest moments or something similarly horrific like a serial killer’s holiday snaps. Director David Cronenberg had a reputation from what I’d heard, as he followed up the success of this film with hard-hitting gangster story Eastern Promises, containing its own controversial fight scenes. I haven’t much stomach for excessive blood and guts.

 The opening scene was indeed chilling; brilliantly so. From the very start A History of Violence declares itself to be a film that will give its actors room to act, its story room to grow and unsettle, and yet with a runtime of 96 minutes it’s no tedious slow-burner.  The action kicks-off at detailed walking pace, with two shady but calm types loitering outside a motel. They exchange perfectly ordinary, mundane words. One of them disappears inside whilst the other moves the car a little further along. Then we see which man wears the trousers as the driver’s ordered to go and get water from the cooler in reception.

Inside he dawdles, the camera slowly following his casual, deliberate movements. Then he nonchalantly passes the bloody scene of carnage behind the counter to fill up his container with water. By this point the tension’s been skilfully raised to breaking point. A crying girl appears, clutching a soft toy. The man freezes. The gentle manner he adopts to reassure her, to stop her running or screaming, makes you wonder if he’s a reluctant pawn in a criminal world. Or at least he has enough heart to keep children out of his messy business. But then he gradually reaches for his gun.

The next scene starts with a girl waking from a bad dream, worrying about monsters. Viggo Mortensen appears to comfort his child, instantly establishing himself in the caring everyman role he played so well in The Road. He tells her: “There’s no such thing as monsters”. And yet the inhuman calculating coolness we saw in the preceding scene lingers hauntingly, encouraging the audience to feel differently.

The first twenty minutes of A History of Violence following its disturbing opening scene, caught me off guard for their ordinariness. Mortensen’s character Tom Stall is a simple country soul, running his store and looking out for his family. Far from being dull these establishing scenes are touching and add to the meaning of later events. Stall’s relationship with his wife, played by Maria Bello, is tenderly romantic and loving despite the length of the marriage. His daughter is cute, his friends and colleagues kind and his teenage son remarkably perceptive and intelligent for his age.

But then a handful of fleeting moments change everything. The thugs we saw at the start of the film turn up at Stall’s diner and proceed to terrorise his staff and customers. Reacting instinctively Stall intervenes to save everyone and inadvertently catapults himself to fame. His picture covers the town’s paper alongside the headline, “Local Hero”.

At this point A History of Violence’s title starts to make sense, as the film becomes a meditation on the consequences and ethics of violence. We’ve already seen some High School moments in which Stall’s son, played by Ashton Holmes, rose above the aggressive taunts of the sports hot-shot. Now Stall tries to deal with the accompanying trauma of killing a man, two men, in unforgettable close-up fashion. His family and the community rally round to comfort him. We never see the reasons behind the thugs’ killings. Cronenberg is careful to make most of the violence purely about how it makes a deep, repressed part of some people feel; how it satisfies them.

With the unwelcome arrival of more mobsters to Stall’s quiet town, the plot takes another unexpected twist. The story shifts from a thoughtful exploration of the nature of violence, to tense suffocation as the gangsters stalk Stall’s family, to suspicion and confusion as ghosts surface from Stall’s past. It’s all marvellously subtle, but hints from earlier in the film begin to make sense. Those establishing scenes really were good as you hope with Stall’s family that the demons go away. But of course they don’t.

The acting is superb. Mortensen and Bello are not just excellent as a couple early on in the idyllic stages, but wonderfully convincing and captivating later as destructive events unravel. There are memorable cameos from William Hurt and Ed Harris. The way the performers completely inhabit their characters ensures A History of Violence works masterfully as a gripping, suspenseful and action packed thriller, as well as an insightful film questioning ideas like the American Dream, identity, relationships, humanity and the past.

And the cherry on top of a filling, tasty and sumptuous slice of movie cake is a final scene as stylish, patient, subtle and moving as the opening one. If you haven’t seen A History of Violence, do so soon. It was not at all what I expected it to be and well worth a watch. Don’t be put off by the title or the 18 certificate because ultimately it’s a first-rate and surprising story. It won’t mentally scar you, merely make you think.

Bond’s first lady Judi to return


Judi Dench has confirmed to reporters at the South Bank Sky Arts Awards, where she bagged an award, that Daniel Craig’s James Bond will be getting his number one girl back in the forthcoming adventure. She confirmed her involvement after the film was officially announced earlier this month. Pressed for any inside news at all about the production, the chief of MI6 remained characteristically secretive. All she would say was how excited she was to be working with Daniel Craig again, and Sam Mendes, who has directed her in theatre.

This will be Dench’s seventh Bond film as his severe, disapproving boss, M. Prior to her appointment for Pierce Brosnan’s 1995 debut, Goldeneye, M had always been a man. Producers, writers and directors all grappled with the idea of M as a woman. Perhaps ultimately the decision was made because no man could live up to the figure of Bernard Lee, who simply became the embodiment of Fleming’s creation of M in the first eleven Bond movies.

Since her first moments on screen, reprimanding Bond’s bravado and warning she’ll only use the 00 section sparingly, Dench appears to have justified the filmmaker’s decision and won over fans. Producer Barbara Broccoli, daughter of Cubby, said of Dench’s casting:

“Our instinct was if we were going to cast M as a woman, we needed to find an actress who could be totally believable and not cartoonish. Our fear was that it would be laughable and the big thing was to get someone of the calibre of Judi Dench to play the role. And because M is the only authoritative figure in Bond’s life, the casting of a woman as M gave the relationship a whole new dimension.”

Dench’s opening scene with Brosnan in Goldeneye left the audience in no doubt that a female M was not laughable, at least in itself. The script was wise not to gloss over the fact as if nothing had happened, with Bond’s teasing lines humorously, but brutally knocked back by M: “If you think for one moment I don’t have the balls to send a man out to die, your instincts are dead wrong”. She also tells Bond he’s a “relic of the Cold War”.

Director Martin Campbell was aware of the pros of having Dench as M. He was told by studio head John Calley prior to Goldeneye, after floating the prospect of a female M, that “You need a star! You need someone with incredible screen presence, how about Judi Dench?” Campbell was so impressed with her performance in his first film that there was no question of dropping her, despite the complete reboot of the franchise, when he helmed Daniel Craig’s first outing Casino Royale in 2006. Costume designer for that film, Lindy Hemming, hailed Dench as a “brilliant piece of casting” and reveals in The Art of Bond by Laurent Bouzereau, that they made M’s costume “a bit more sexy” for Craig’s first film. Bond changes with the times and by this stage, not only was it modern for women to be in positions of power, but it was the norm for them to be expressive and natural in these roles.

What more can be done with Dench’s character though? Even Daniel Craig is slowly outgrowing the franchise, so surely Dench cannot stay in the role indefinitely? This could even be her last film. Glowing comments about her performances as M, like those above, make it difficult to consider replacing her though. Would M become a man again, played by an actor of similar clout? In The World is Not Enough, Pierce Brosnan, according to director Michael Apted, repeatedly asked for M’s role to be “beefed up” to give him more screen time with Judi. This led to the ambitious plot of M being kidnapped by terrorist Renard, played by Robert Carlyle. If M were to leave, she’d need a suitably huge story.

Bond needs a proper adventure and challenge anyway, after the gap between the disappointing Quantum of Solace and the as yet untitled, Bond 23, due to start filming later this year for a 2012 release. Casino Royale made it clear the best stories come when built upon Fleming’s original tales in a modern context. One tantalising, but difficult to execute, story never realised by filmmakers is a brainwashed Bond attempting to assassinate M. This comes from Fleming’s final Bond book, The Man with The Golden Gun, and was never used in the drastically altered film of the same name. This set-piece in the novel is the highlight of an otherwise disappointing final bow for the literary 007. It would need revamping, rooted as it is in the Cold War era of Soviet mind tricks, but you get the feeling a gritty, deluded Bond storyline would suit Daniel Craig’s hungrier acting abilities down to the ground if properly set-up. It could also be fantastic and bold on film. But the problem for the franchise would be how could Bond continue as 007 after being demoralised and duped into trying to kill his own boss?

Whatever the script writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan come up with, the trend has been more and more M in recent years. I look forward to some frosty and prickly dialogue in Bond 23.

The Queen is a bridge to our proud past


Audiences are flocking to see The King’s Speech absolutely everywhere, ultimately not because of the quality of storytelling and filmmaking but a deep rooted attachment to monarchy. Many now simultaneously resent the royal family and find something irresistibly exotic about them. In a superb article in today’s Guardian, Jonathan Freedland goes some way to explaining the popularity of the film and in particular its appeal to Americans. He also, most accurately and interestingly, points out why even the most reasoned of arguments in favour of a more modern, fairer system will fall down whilst our current Queen remains on the throne; a rare, living link to the vital foundations of our most important national memory. And despite the flaws of our monarchy it’s refreshing to witness the powerful respect for history that maintains the love for them.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jan/18/kings-speech-republican-challenge-war-queen

James Bond will (FINALLY) return…


Big news. Bond is back. Well he’s on his way. After all the financial uncertainty surrounding the fall from grace of MGM, the 23rd Bond adventure, and Daniel Craig’s third outing as the suave secret agent, will be released on the 9th of November 2012. Yup it’s still quite the wait for 007 fanatics, myself included. But on the plus side a larger gap between films in the past tends to produce more satisfying results.

The recent road has undoubtedly been rocky for the seemingly unsinkable franchise. Few ever seriously feared it was the end of Bond forever, but it was looking a real possibility that Daniel Craig might not get the chance to make amends for the disappointments of Quantum of Solace in the famed tuxedo. The actor who kicked 007 back into shape with a leaner, moodier spy in 2006’s Casino Royale reboot, following Pierce Brosnan’s dismal, ludicrously fantastical final straw Die Another Day in 2002 (complete with invisible car), has been in great demand and taking on heaps of work. This year Cowboys vs Aliens is an anticipated release and Craig is also due to play a key role in David Fincher’s reworking of Scandinavian hit The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  He’s now finally confirmed to reprise his role as Bond to the relief of most fans.

Elsewhere production problems have also hit the most important ingredient; the script. Peter Morgan, writer of Frost/Nixon and The Queen, was signed to work on the 23rd adventure last year, only for his involvement to end before it really began due to the MGM crisis. Now attached to the project are regular scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, as well as new addition American John Logan. Logan was responsible for the script for Edward Zwick’s Tom Cruise epic The Last Samurai and also helped with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator screenplay. He’ll replace Paul Haggis, who’s been the third contributor for the first two Craig movies. The fan community will have mixed reactions to the departure of Haggis. On the one hand he seemed to make a real difference for getting back Bond’s Ian Fleming roots in Casino Royale. But recently he’s only masterminded turkeys as a director in Hollywood and has sought to take his new emotional additions to Bond too far, with rumours of his preference for a plot involving a baby and lost son in 2008’s Quantum of Solace, which were rejected.

Most of the blame for Quantum of Solace is now pinned on director Marc Forster. He talked a good game about the importance of story prior to the film’s release, only for the 22nd film to look great and start well, but to ultimately lead to a disappointing villain and rushed plot. The criticisms aimed at him are probably too harsh and a recent article in The Telegraph makes a good point that Bond is not a director’s franchise; the producers, the writers and the cast are more influential to a film’s success. However considerable interest and opinion was still inevitably generated by the eventual confirmation of Sam Mendes as director for Daniel Craig’s third Bond picture. Mendes too was in doubt after initially agreeing to direct the picture, due to other work commitments, with an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach starring Carey Mulligan rumoured in the press and fuelled by comments from the author. Many Bond fans view Mendes as too arty like Forster and would rather see the film in the hands of a seasoned action director like Martin Campbell, who helmed Goldeneye and Casino Royale.

Having said this most fans recognise the franchise needs to continue along the new path set by Craig’s Casino Royale, whilst being considerably better than Quantum of Solace. The problem now is the lack of original Ian Fleming source material to work from, which leads to weaker, predictable plots. There’s a difference of opinion as to the best way of overcoming the weaknesses of Quantum: does the franchise return to a more classic format with a dastardly villain hatching world domination, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of first Dr No in 2012, or do something new again? Whatever the answer, with a release date now firmly set in stone, the rumour mill will once again start churning at full speed. So far the only concrete casting rumour is that of Simon Russell Beale in a “good guy” role. But these shall only multiply until every attractive actress around is linked to the untitled film. And of course that’s the biggest question of all; what will the latest 007 adventure be called? Only a handful of Fleming story titles remain unused; The Property of a Lady? Risico? My money’s on the former. Bring on 2012!

The Disappearance of Alice Creed


The Disappearance of Alice Creed is the sort of film that it’s almost impossible to talk about or review without puncturing and spoiling the drama for those yet to experience it. And an experience is what the film provides; even if some berk lets slip a key plot detail there are more than enough twists, turns and unforeseen, sudden plunges on this tense rollercoaster ride to keep you entertained and constantly clueless. It’s the sort of film that has you on the edge of your seat, scanning every scene for minute details that might seem insignificant but will later prove to be vital hinges around which the hyper plot will pivot. Just when you reckon you’ve cracked where things are heading, something totally unexpected will grab you by the lapels and catapult you back to square one. Here you’ll lie briefly, dazed in the dust, before picking yourself up eager for more.

That’s not to say that every swerve woven into the script is a surprise, as in most films some will loom obviously in the distance, with the audience merely asking themselves “when” and “how” as opposed to “what” will happen next. This is a largely original thriller that also loses much of its unique edge at the end as all the indecipherable good work that has gone before must somehow be wrapped up. But on the whole this is an accomplished directorial debut from J.Blakeson, who also wrote the ambitious and resourcefully realised script. Not only is this a movie that delivers as a thriller but working with limited possibilities and an enclosed space it also develops fascinating characters that are for the most part captivating enigmas impossible to unravel.

The reason that the characters hold our attention so intensely and for so long is the steadily racked up tension, combined with only a meagre drip of information about who they might be. Crucially there are also only three characters in the entire film. The first five minutes are completely dialogue and mostly noise free, with only the soundtrack beginning to wind up the intrigue. We watch as two men methodically and meticulously transform a dilapidated flat into a prison, with some slow and beautifully shot scenes at a DIY store and car park contrasting impressively with more frenetic scenes later on. Then the near silence explodes into noise, with the Alice Creed of the title bundled into the back of a van, squirming and screaming. She is then stripped naked, still screaming, on a bed back at the newly fortified containment cell. The sound of her tearing clothes and panicked breathing dominates.

Gemma Arterton, as the title character, gets considerable opportunities to show off her acting chops, despite most of the dialogue going to her kidnappers, Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston. Marsan is often called upon for minor roles in big Hollywood productions, such as his recent Inspector Lestrade in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, and it’s refreshing to see his full impressive range on show here as the key kidnapper Vic. Arterton too has been confined to generic female roles in big budget movies, with a brief and comic turn in Bond movie Quantum of Solace perhaps her most famous appearance so far. In the BBC’s latest adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles she took the lead role and had the space to prove her ability but in many ways her performance here is more convincing, as we watch her do so much with so little. With only three characters for the complex story to work with none is really more important than the other, but if anything Compston’s Danny is the most central figure, and like his fellow cast members he produces a superb and powerful performance.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a reassuring tribute to the raw power of narrative when all the luxurious additions of blockbusters are peeled away, leaving the bare essentials of storytelling: character and plot. These are the only ingredients talented directors and writers like J.Blakeson really need.

On London/Birdsong at the Comedy Theatre


I have fallen in love again. How refreshing though that it’s not a woman that is the focus of my affection, but a city. Like a woman, this city is indifferent to me, but unlike with women this vast, inexpressible indifference merely adds to the irresistible charm of the place. I like feeling insignificant and anonymous within its boundaries, in fact I positively relish the sense of oblivion. The hustle and bustle, the noise, the possibilities; it all submerges every little, trivial concern I might have. I drown in the ocean of seemingly limitless fuel for my imagination and oh how good it feels. To feel simultaneously satisfied that I am gradually gaining a geography of the place, whilst barely scratching the surface of what is really there, of all that’s on offer. Gorgeous girls galore, lines and lines of landmarks, tearaway taxis, bulging buses, teeming theatres, pulsing pavements and many marvellous museums; it’s all there. If variety is the spice of life then London has a hot twang I am acquiring a ravenous taste for.

But now I am worried, I do not have my next trip lined up, pencilled in the diary. I am hungry for the city and fear the withdrawal symptoms. Having only recently discovered the joys of walking the capital I crave the stroll crammed with sights and sounds. How can anything else compare? Things simply happen in London. And on such a majestic scale that it still feels like the centre of a world empire, still feels like a great, churning engine of commerce that could achieve so much. There’s so much to discover. I’m not one for shopping, unless it’s an awe inspiring jaunt through the grandeur of Harrods, not buying anything but soaking up my surroundings. And yet this weekend the scale of the shops in London surprised my senses and seduced me. Why I don’t know, I’ve always known they were there, been there before. But this time I found myself thinking how wonderful it would be to able to pop out from home, my own base, to these places, perhaps with one item in mind, only to leave with others you forgot you wanted or didn’t know you did. I could have spent hours and hours trawling through books, it seemed impossible that they would not have what you wanted and even if they didn’t there was bound to be at least three or four alternatives you’d never have thought of. You’d feel nervous about the state of your bank balance and a little guilty, but in an exciting way; how could life ever be boring? And in some places things were cheaper anyway! What am I still doing out in the dead limbs of the countryside, when everything gathers there at the heart of everything?

Of course I know this is naive and not everything about London is great. I felt pursued by Cafe Neros the whole weekend for example, to such an extent that my train even passed one of their out of town storage facilities. They seem to have an outpost on every street. It’s either them or Pret A Manger, or often both. And I know perhaps a prolonged stay might have me cursing the dirty grime and toil and danger of city life. But increasingly now, in what I would like to think of as my clearer moments, I am realising that “life is islands of ecstasy in an ocean of ennui”, as The Dice Man puts it, and London is the sort of place that the islands are more frequent. I mean for me at the moment simply a glimpse of the skyline is thrilling and I can’t imagine that thrill ever dying out completely. So I think I’ve decided as one of my life’s few certainties that I want to live in our glorious capital city, even if I must wait a few years: London is the goal.

Anyway onto the main event then, after the distracting diversion of my musings. I was in London yet again to see a stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ successful novel Birdsong. It seemed appropriate that I would see this acclaimed First World War story dramatised a day before Remembrance Sunday, but insensitively inappropriate, if only in a trivial way, that the home of the production was the Comedy Theatre on Panton Street, just around the corner from Trafalgar Square. Whilst there were moments of comedy in Birdsong this was hardly stand-up and the key overarching themes were mainly grim and immensely serious. Nevertheless I swallowed my grievances about the suitability of the theatre and purchased a programme.

Perusing it prior to the start of the play I was intrigued by the sensitive artwork and pleasantly surprised to recognise a number of the performers. I knew Ben Barnes, of Prince Caspian fame, was playing central character Stephen Wraysford but couldn’t really care less about his previous body of work. However Nicholas Farrell has an impressive stage, film and TV CV. I think it was predominantly Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet that I recognised him from, in which he played Horatio. But he’d also been in Torchwood and Spooks. Spooks is one of my favourite series, not least because of its endless vistas of a glamorous London, and I was delighted to find that Isabelle Azaire, the main female love interest of Stephen, would be played by Genevieve O’Reilly, who played a double crossing CIA agent in the last series, working for a shadowy secret organisation and seducing MI5 officers with sultry American tones. The other most recognisable face was that of Lee Ross, playing the role of vital sapper character Jack Firebrace, whose credits included Eastenders and The Catherine Tate Show.

I did have slight misgivings about the fact that Farrell would play both cruel, unloving French husband Rene Azaire in the early scenes and Captain Gray later on, just as Iain Mitchell would play both the insufferable French oath Berard and then the insufferable English oath Colonel Barclay. But both actors produced such accomplished performances that I was willing to overlook this choice of economy. In fact in my view Farrell’s experience clearly showed and he was the highlight of the play in terms of quality acting. I had wondered if the performers would adopt French accents for the French scenes but was relieved they did not, with Farrell differentiating between his two characters sufficiently with a well executed Scottish accent for Captain Gray. The fact that everyone was speaking English in France was dealt with as matter-of-factly and skilfully as in the novel, with one of the characters remarking at some point that Stephen’s French was excellent, for which he thanked them.

I had always liked the novel by Faulks. In fact at the time I had first read it I was enthralled by it. A friend of mine remarked the other day that it had felt too much like a novel and I know what she means. It feels terribly contrived at times and is riddled with cliché and the play does not get away with them so well. I really should have re-read the book in order to properly critique the play and also in order to recall whether or not it was truly as good as I remember. Perhaps I was simply seduced by the period as the war fascinates me, as well as the romance, I’m a hopeless romantic. But from memory I know that the narrative sucked you into Stephen’s predicament so you felt strong ties with him. What I liked was the way the powerful and passionate love scenes early on gave Stephen a back-story and purpose that differentiated him from the usual heroes of the trenches. The book is rich with incident and historical detail but is not overloaded with it; here I disagree with my friend. I have read historical fiction that makes a fetish of research, David Mitchell’s latest The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did it for long periods, but Birdsong did not. In Birdsong the focus was the emotional and timeless themes of humanity.

Some of the most affecting and accurate of these themes are difficult to express in words on a page, let alone dramatically on stage. There’s no doubt that a lot of what is good from the novel does not successfully transfer and the shame for the play is that Rachel Wagstaff tries to convey Stephen’s motivations and musings poorly. Neither Wagstaff’s writing nor Ben Barnes’ acting is up to the long passages in which Stephen is supposedly composing thoughts for his diary, alone at the front of the stage. Much of the first act, in which Stephen falls for the married Isabelle, is driven by his private reflections. Of course it was always going to be impossible to transform the explicit, erotic sex scenes of the novel to the stage without creating a very different type of production altogether, but for the entire first act you can sense Wagstaff wrestling with the dilemma of how to convey the intensity of Stephen’s love adequately, knowing how vital it is to the events that follow. Somehow in the novel you get caught up and follow Stephen along, not questioning whether this is just seedy, passionate lust or misguided youthful emotions. In the play though when Barnes says “I love you and I always will”, each time it sounds childish and clichéd and I would find myself agreeing with my friend more and more. Barnes just seemed far too smitten in a sickening sense, rather than a stirring, moving one.

In the programme I found that Wagstaff’s first play had been called The Soldier and was set in 1915. So she was on more familiar ground in act two when the action jumps forward to The Somme in 1916 and a wartime setting. It’s disappointing that someone could not have done a better job of act one though as I know how riveted and gripped by it I was in the book and genuinely despondent to find the action skip so far ahead. And caring about the love story becomes so crucial later on. Nevertheless I am making it sound worse than it was. Despite the clunky awkwardness of Barnes’ soliloquy like sections at times, the actual scenes were passable to good, if lacking the emotional  power (and erotic excitement) of the novel. And act two was a considerable improvement, despite the tedious diary format continuing, only this time with working class lad Jack Firebrace’s toned down, simpler reflections on things and letters back home. Generally though the camaraderie of the front Wagstaff captures well, with the humour of jolly idiot Berard in act one replaced by male banter and the idiocy of officers.

Another friend of mine, this one a fellow fan of Birdsong, was eager to hear how the tunnels were reproduced on stage. For this was another unique feature of Birdsong’s take on the war: action in the competing tunnels both sides dug out beneath no man’s land for various reasons. There were communication tunnels, fighting tunnels and explosive tunnels for blowing up the enemy from below. Birdsong has nearly been made into a film several times and I always thought that the claustrophobic, atmospheric scenes in tunnels, particularly the shoot-out, would make dramatic action set pieces. And so they did on stage too. Much of the effect of being underground was created through lighting, with blackness enveloping the stage besides gentle amber glows at the front. The rest was done by a low overhanging wall that came about half-way down the stage. The actors would then crawl beneath this, before emerging into the front of the stage, further along the tunnel where you could stand. Then for the fight with German soldiers, when two tunnels found each other, dust poured out along with sounds of an explosion. The Germans emerged stunned and surprised, brandishing pistols at the elevated rear of the stage, looking down on the Brit characters at the front. Shots that smash your ear drums were fired and an even louder, brighter grenade thrown. I had never seen such exciting scenes on stage.

But then I’m still a relative newcomer to theatre. I now have the inclination to discover more of it (particularly the charm and sophistication of Shakespeare) but it’s a world that was mostly cut off to me whilst growing up. Edging my way to my seat was still an act of deft, death defying balance as far I’m concerned. This is not me moaning though; I absolutely love the look and feel of the theatre. Just to know the building oozed history compared to the local multiplex was so interesting and fascinating to me. And even my balcony seat, when suitably armed with £1 binoculars, was the best of both worlds; broad overview of everything coupled with close-ups.

In the final act Birdsong came into its own. Even Barnes, who had struggled to convince me he had the required acting heft to play Wraysford, upped his game a gear. It was now that I remembered how this portion of the novel was the most moving and the play benefitted considerably from ditching the unnecessary modern day section of the novel, which seemed to be there simply to reflect Faulks’ own experiences in researching the book. Faulks and Wagstaff had both been heavily dependent on the diaries of soldiers in their writing process, but the difference was Faulks had interweaved his research in a different, rich style, whereas Wagstaff had actually simply used the diary device in her drama; it seemed unimaginative and unable to truly engage the audience. In this final chunk of the play the lonely speeches at the front of the stage were ditched almost completely and when they were used they worked much better. There was also more time on stage for both Jeanne and Stephen, who had a connection I did not recall from the novels but was intriguing. Jeanne was wonderfully played by Zoe Waites. She seemed strongly drawn to Stephen, desperate to share her sister’s secret with him to ease his gloomy woe but too loyal to break her promise.

Then there were the big climatic scenes: a reunion between Stephen and Isabelle and a claustrophobic collapse that imprisons Jack and Stephen in the tunnels. I wish I could remember the novel better, as I have a feeling there were changes, particularly as I remember a bird being used in the tunnel and Stephen’s phobia manifesting itself down there. Generally though this theme was dealt with well, with some nice dialogue between Stephen and Jeanne when she tries to lift him from depression and they debate the merits and evils of Birdsong. The scene in which Stephen sees Isabelle again was so moving, far more so than the joyous larking about of the early affair by the river and despite these scenes not completely convincing me. I was so affected by the speeches about love, even with some corny, cheesy lines, that I had to rush to the toilet when the play had finished and dispatch a rash text to the one I love in vain; my equivalent of a drunken splurge of affection, so intoxicated was I by the drama that I simply had to tell her I loved her, it was all that mattered. The effect this scene had on me somewhat overshadowed the final scenes with Jack in the tunnel and the rescue and the end of the war. But these were also well done. I was so relieved the play ended on a high and overall there’s no doubt that it was a quality production, if a little flawed at times. From my recollections of the novel though it was never going to surpass its brilliance, merely echo it and be good in different ways.