July the 4th is of course a very patriotic day for one nation in particular. Us Brits like to moan about the Yanks now and again because perhaps old rivalries never quite die no matter how close the friendship. We have an even fonder tendency to exchange banter with our French friends across the channel. On Independence Day the story of one of their most fascinating monarchs arrives on DVD.
Henry of Navarre (aka Henri 4) has all the ingredients of an epic historical romp. Its visceral battle scenes, complete with frenetic handheld camerawork as well as sweeping shots, have been likened to Ridley Scott’s iconic set pieces by Variety. Its period details are meticulous and vivid, from costume to setting. Its themes of religious freedom, love and power are at once more inspiring than modern day concerns and still relevant. And of course, as addictive TV dramas such as The Tudors and Rome have proved, no story of royalty and betrayal is complete these days without plenty of nudity and animalistic sex.
Henri, played by Julien Boisselier, is a charmer from childhood. The film begins with the prince of Navarre, a small region of France, paying the girls as a mere boy for a glimpse up their skirts. He goes on to seduce, overpower and caress several other women throughout the course of the film. The first set of bedroom scenes, with a Catholic he is told to marry to secure peace, verge on the violent, fuelled by religious resentment and suspicion. They scratch and bite like tigers just released from a zoo. Henry of Navarre is not a film short on beautiful women or erotic encounters.
But Henri is still likeable despite his cavorting, which prompts his second wife to describe him as a “horny old goat”. Boisselier plays him as a man disillusioned by the role and world he was born into but determined to change things pragmatically. The film begins with Henri leading the Protestant Huguenots against the greater part of France controlled by the Catholic Medici family. Henri is encouraged into a peacemaking marriage in Paris and during this part of the film within the city walls and the Louvre palace, overwhelming tension and intrigue builds, with relationships in the court difficult to decipher. Henri is well meaning but naive and the betrayal eventually comes with the tragedy of the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre.
At this point it’s hard to understand why Henri doesn’t flee but eventually he wins the trust of the traitors and escapes successfully. He returns to his roots in Navarre and builds up the strength of his home. By the end of the film Henri is King of all of France, with the price being his religious belief and identity. But despite his growing wisdom, Henri’s childhood innocence and kindness is also preserved by Boisselier’s performance. This is a very modern film because Henri puts aside labels of religion and ancestry to cherish things that really matter in life and leadership; loyalty, friendship, love and freedom.
Henry of Navarre has its faults. It could do with being half an hour shorter but the two and a half hour runtime is more than filled with the substance of Henri’s fascinating life. Not all of the acting is assured, with Ulrich Noethen’s performance as Charles IX too over the top and caricatured regardless of the troubled nature of the monarch. The battle scenes, despite their initial impact, become repetitive. You are carried through it all though by the compelling complexity and emotion of Henri’s story and the appeal of his character. This would appear to be a diverse film faithful to history that both entertains and educates.
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In a word – yes. Certainly the chivalry of old perished long ago. I’m not saying it died with the knights, although an early form of noble gallantry may well have done. I’m talking about being a gentleman. And it’s been many years since it was normal for every single bloke to be “courteous and considerate” towards the womenfolk and indeed each other. Or at least since we were expected to be.
A certain type of classically dressed chap, who is both suave and selfless, reliable and romantic, is now nothing but a fictional character. He may have always been so, in reality. A combination of factors conspired to kill off his desirability though, many of them good things, like greater gender equality. But some of them not so good.
I think a form of chivalry, an evolved romance and respect for women, still has a place in modern life. In the past I’ve been shot down and put in my place for expressing some sort of view on chivalry by female friends and I would not dare to raise the subject with male ones. In recent days I’ve been reminded of the conflict and decided to turn to blogging to try to articulate my thoughts.
So I do think it is possible to still aspire to be a gentleman, even admirable to do so. But it’s become ridiculously taboo to hold such a good natured view. Try an act of classic chivalry and you’re liable to criticism or it’s assumed you’re a fake using it as a means to a very predictable end. Try to criticise a man for being an arse by saying he’s not living up to gentlemanly standards and duties and you’re being sexist. The last bastions of chivalrous behaviour are under attack not just from the loutish disrespect of some men, which are ever present opponents, but also from feminists who seem to view what was once common decency as a slippery slope back to women being tethered like livestock to the kitchen sink.
I do not mean to sound pompous and arrogant. Of course everyone is entitled to their view. I admit I am entranced by a nostalgia for the past and eras I was never a part of, eager to taste and preserve attributes of times that seemed more honest and honourable, with more to discover and greater purpose to existence. I can be something of a hopeless and foolish romantic at times. I don’t see what is wrong with that; indeed I think it’s refreshing, given that mostly I’m realistic and pessimistic like the world around me.
People striving to capture the essence and best intentions of aspects of the past should not be ostracised. Just because the historical balance of power between men and women has been grossly unfair, does not mean that all the elements of the way women were once treated were wrong. In fact some of the things incorrectly lumped together with the tools of male oppression ought to make a comeback.
If it seems like I am struggling to make my point it’s because I am. The problem is that I can’t really explain or argue my point of view persuasively because it’s something vague I just instinctively feel is right. I don’t have masses of evidence to call upon, just a sense of moral conviction.
I can understand why women might feel patronised by certain gentlemanly acts. I tried to rationalise this by saying to myself that I reserve most of my chivalrous compassion for those women that earn it. This is what I’d say to the feminists, I thought. I am simply considerate and caring to good friends, people I know to be nice or those that I love. That is not solely down to gender.
But then I thought, I’d still hold the door open for a female stranger. I might turn my head a little more if they were attractive but that wouldn’t be the reason. Monster or model, most of the time, if I had the opportunity, I’d hold the door. And I’ve done it for men too, more than most people, but there’s no question I’d be more aware of the ladies and they’d take priority. For example if it was busy and at some point I’d have to pass through the door myself, I’d cut in front of a man far more willingly. Why?
For those of you familiar with Friends, Phoebe’s claim that there’s no such thing as a selfless act will spring to mind, when I say that doing something needlessly kind like holding the door for a stranger, makes me feel good. Regardless of whether the pretty girl flashes me a smile or the less pretty one looks grateful, I’ll feel better about my day. To an extent though this would be true if I was holding the door for a 60 year old chap.
Perhaps that goes someway to answering the issue; being a gentleman now can mean being kind and thoughtful to anybody, not just women. The fact remains though that I still feel an inexplicable duty towards “the fairer sex“, an outdated term which could have petrol bombs and bricks flying through my windows. And I still feel passionately that I shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about that.
If I’m really scraping the barrel for reasons behind my vague, fluffy and inconsistent philosophy, I’ll resort to my ignorant grasp of science. Could it not be said that it’s simply a natural part of humanity, an evolutionary trait, for the man to be protective? We may have rightly moved beyond the idea of the man being the breadwinner but physical differences alone show he can still be a protector.
Women ought to be the equals of men in everything that matters but they’re still held back by a glass ceiling. Cracks might start appearing in that barrier if we admitted that whilst the sexes are unquestionably equal, they still have undeniable differences.
This isn’t really an aspect of the argument I’m all that convinced by though, I hate the overuse of scientific theory and the constant linking of everything to evolution. I am aware I’m treading on controversial ground and I just needed something concrete to say. I come back to the fact that I just feel strongly about this. Probably all because of misplaced and naive romanticism.
I’ve had conversations with friends about relationships, in which I said something like that the girl shouldn’t have to bother herself with extravagant gifts and presents for her chap. I was met with fierce disagreement, unanimously against me. I see the weaknesses of my position, believe me. I know relationships are two-way and as I said earlier I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone what is right for them. I feel very irrational at times holding the view that I do; but nevertheless I hold it.
I think for me it boils down to the fact that I enjoy being romantic and even in friendship I enjoy being supportive and helping out however I can. I like to actively care for people I give a shit about. Shoot me if this is wrong. I know I haven’t put forward any compelling arguments in favour of chivalrous behaviour. But if people are willing to do it and get satisfaction from it too, I don’t see what is so bad about what is essentially kindness and respect.
In an increasingly self-involved culture I think that the ideals of chivalry and the symbolic figure of the gentleman are very British and very necessary influences, that should not be destroyed by misguided taboos.
P.S. I do apologise for such preachy, waffly and poorly expressed writing. I’ll try to deliver something manly and thought through soon-ish
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Prior to watching Another Year I was not in awe of Mike Leigh’s track record, but rather shamefully ignorant. I was keen to watch the film though because of some glowing reviews last year, promising trailers and that wonderful artwork and logo. I remember seeing said tree sprawling massively across an Odeon in London’s West End way back in the halcyon days of 2010, and thinking that was the type of thoughtful British picture I wanted to see.
The central idea behind the story, which Leigh scripted as well as directed, is tender, realistic and probably true to life. Happily married couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are lucky and they know it. The people in their lives, who seem far less blessed, gravitate towards them for kindness and warmth. Their son Joe (Oliver Maltman) is taking his time to find love as his friends get hitched left, right and centre, Gerri’s co-worker Mary’s (Lesley Manville) bubbly energy conceals her loneliness and Tom’s childhood friend Ken (Peter Wight) is trapped in Hull watching his precious roots wither away. The narrative plays out with a chunk from each of the year’s four seasons.
The opening scene was just what I had been hoping for and what Leigh’s reputation guaranteed. Imelda Staunton plays an insomniac pressing her GP for sleeping pills but understandably her doctor seeks out the true, underlying causes. Staunton’s character is clearly completely miserable; crestfallen at her lot in life and the realisation that this is all she’s likely to get. The scene lasts a full five minutes, uninterrupted; Leigh really lets it breathe and grow. For most of the scene we don’t see the GP’s face, helping us truly inhabit Staunton’s excellent performance. We’ve all felt like that at the doctors, like you’re just another appointment to be checked off by a faceless health drone.
The GP refers our dejected and menopausal patient to a counsellor. It turns out that Gerri is a counsellor. And this is where the problems begin with Another Year. Gerri continues to be a counsellor for the duration of the story, always behaving as though maintaining professional standards, even alone in bed with soul mate Tom. Ruth Sheen’s tone of voice never varies more than a fraction, making her seem either mildly interested or not that bothered. Whilst Broadbent’s range of reactions to the various problems of friends are different and human, Gerri deals with each situation on dull auto-pilot. Sheen’s performance genuinely seemed mechanical and totally robotic, which was a real shock after all the talk of quality acting.
The passing of the seasons is beautifully shot and there are moments of heart warming dialogue that is convincingly ordinary and recognisable from everyday life. Do I really want to watch a film with conversations startlingly similar to the small talk I run away from in reality though? It all gets rather dreary, with next to no drama in the first two seasons and not a pinch of escapism. Leigh’s script also has some awful expositional dialogue, particularly for Lesley Manville’s character Mary, Tom and Gerri’s desperately clingy friend. I cringed at the clumsy manner her myriad but dull problems were introduced and grimaced later at Manville’s caricatured portrayal of an overzealous eccentric going off the rails. Her drunkenness at BBQs is amateurish.
Or is it? I honestly don’t know if I fell into the trap of mistaking the annoying traits of a character for bad acting and storytelling. This is because the last two seasons, autumn and winter, went a long way to redeeming the failures of the first couple. As Mary reaches rock bottom her character becomes far more bearable and Manville’s performance finally makes you empathise and feel pity, sympathy, and even sadness. David Bradley puts in a fabulous performance as Tom’s grieving brother who is a man of few words. Some of his scenes with Broadbent, and an extended one with Manville, are superb.
I don’t want to mimic the idiotic readers of the X-Factor age who throw away a book they’re reading in disgust because the characters are not “likeable”. Novels and films are not about providing you with brief friendship. But Another Year is hard to get into. As I’ve said I was really surprised by how irritating I found the performances of Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville. In Manville’s case I think I judged her too quickly and her character was simply a vibrant pain in the neck, well realised. However I maintain that Sheen was simply two dimensional, which is disappointing given the importance of actors to such an ensemble piece. By the time Another Year ended I was starting to enjoy it but there’s no doubt that this is a film with the potential to frustrate as well as reward.
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I have recently enjoyed three excellent and thoroughly engaging novels. Each had me gripped in very different ways, but each shares the key ingredient of successful storytelling; a strong narrative voice. The extremely distinctive first person narrators of each of these novels draws you in and captivates you. A narrative voice that feels real and engaging is the element I most struggle with when trying to write my own creative works. I certainly therefore don’t feel qualified to dissect the successful and unsuccessful subtleties of the writing in these books in review form, but feel compelled to record what made them so readable for me as “thoughts”, for that is all they are, and to recommend them to others nonetheless. I may inadvertently let slip the odd slight spoiler, for which I apologise but place a warning here.
First up then is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which I admit I was only inspired to read due to the hype surrounding a forthcoming film adaptation and the allure and beauty of the trailer for it. What’s noticeable and striking even in that brief snippet of film is the overwhelming Britishness of the story and it’s a very British novel too. That sense of place comes not just from the boarding school setting, the childhood themes, the nostalgic reminisces and stunning countryside, but from the voice of the novel, Kathy H. Whilst it appears she is candidly telling her life story, with little reason or desire to embellish and hold back, you soon notice her strong focus on others, on those immediately close to her. If she criticises a friend she will qualify what she means and spend pages delving into another random memory of them to share their alternative, better side. In many ways this is a novel of memories, about the ones that slip away and the ones you never let go of. Given that she focuses on those most important to her, it’s enlightening, revealing and intriguing that she never actually says in the novel, as far as I can see or recall, that she loves the man events make clear to be her soul mate. Indeed Kathy does not spell things out about herself often and retells everything, overpowering emotions and all, with a simplicity and undertone of British restraint. It’s this restraint and modesty that is the most chokingly moving at times too. It’s clearly to Ishiguro’s immense credit that he simultaneously creates a strong, rounded character in Kathy, whilst also letting events, and things Kathy omits, paint a picture of their own. Kathy has confidence that, from what she has retold to us, she need not say explicitly “I loved him”.
I’m glad I read the original story as a novel before the release of the film in January. Despite the promise that attracted me in the trailer, Carey Mulligan will do well to play Kathy H as quite as compellingly as Ishiguro writes her. The film is also set to cut large chunks of Kathy’s childhood memories of Hailsham, in favour of the adolescent portion of the story. I hope this omission does not detract from events later on and make them less meaningful. The one fault I found with the book, and one the film will also struggle to overcome, is the sense that there is never a satisfying big conspiracy revealed, as is hinted at. The one that does emerge seemed fairly clear early on and whilst Ishiguro seems to hint that there is more to it (I had visions of some sort of apocalyptic Britain or a more interesting and dramatic disintegration of ethics) there really isn’t. Mostly though Never Let Me go is a terribly moving story because of the way it feels so real. Kathy’s language is simple but beautiful at times, like many of her memories. Her friendships and loves are not obsessively described with clichés and extravagant imagery, and are consequently all the more like our own. The way things turn out is so tragic because you can place yourself in her shoes.
I have also recently read Lee Rourke’s debut novel, The Canal, joint winner of the Guardian’s alternative award Not The Booker Prize. As the review on the Guardian website points out, this is a debut crammed with ideas. This might have been a problem if the ideas weren’t original or didn’t resonate with me, but I found most of them to be insightful and well expressed musings on a realistic truth. The novel begins as an engaging meditation on the nature of boredom and how it is a fundamental part of existence to be embraced, rather than feared and avoided. It eventually evolves into a touching love story, which becomes an obsession and climaxes with an eventful ending. Most of the novel aims accurately for realism; its ideas, its dialogue, its images. Only at the end do feelings and events become sensational.
The title of the book makes it clear that it will have a strong sense of setting and the surroundings of The Canal are ever present throughout the narrative, the backdrop to almost all the action. Its features are described with some wonderful imagery and symbolism. Even the book itself, the physical design of the novel, is pleasing to look at and hold. If I were Rourke I’d be delighted with the tasteful design of my first fictional foray. He ought to be proud too of the dialogue in his work, which really stands out as exceptionally believable and realistic, becoming almost a script at times before reverting back to the narrator’s thoughts. The dialogue is rightly praised on the back of the book.
Like Never Let Me Go, much of The Canal’s success comes down to the convincing narrative voice. However if Kathy H was restrained, the nameless narrator of The Canal is mysterious. The woman he meets on The Canal is also mysterious, until he slowly uncovers her secrets. She is for the most part a rounded character and their relationship believable, but at times it succumbs to cliché. There are other clichés too such as the stereotypical gang of youths and the unstoppable march of building work that eventually swallows his patch of The Canal. These unimaginative elements let down the originality and realism of the rest of the book, but The Canal was an engaging, un-put-down-able read.
If The Canal mused about boredom then The Dice Man is a full on exploration of its depths and connections to the meaning of existence. The main reason I was reluctant to be bold enough to call these thoughts of mine a review was that The Dice Man is simply too mammoth, sprawling and impressive a work for me to digest, let alone analyse adequately. It’s jam packed with ideas and full of such variety that it touches on more areas in one chapter than most novels. It has spawned a cult and resembles a bible in weight and heft. It’s immensely controversial, challenging long established truths in religion and philosophy, outraging those with a strong moral compass. It contains scenes that are graphically violent and sexual. It is regularly and consistently funny. However as with The Canal, it is the quality of composition and writing that truly impresses me with The Dice Man.
From the very first page The Dice Man makes it clear it will not follow the conventions of an ordinary novel, but mimic several at once. It flits from the brilliantly cynical and scathing first person voice of Dr Lucius Rhinehart, to describing events in his life in the third person. It also chucks in various articles about events in the Dr’s life, along with other methods of storytelling such as transcripts of interviews and television shows. With all the talk of ideas, philosophy and sex surrounding The Dice Man, it can be forgotten that it is an exemplary exercise in creative writing, full of tremendous variety. The dialogue is always funny and realistic and the characters well realised, albeit obviously through the lens of Dr Rhinehart’s own entertaining, intelligent opinions. There are narrative twists and turns, violent thrills and sexual ones. The careful craft and exciting breadth of this novel ensures that a novel of over 500 pages remains gripping throughout. It consumed me for a whole week.
Then of course there are the ideas themselves, the philosophy behind The Dice Man. The reason this book has become so notorious and actually converted readers to the “religion” detailed within its pages, is that many of the ideas make sense, that and the alluring mystery to it all. The mystery blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. Luke Rhinehart is of course a pseudonym, but a quick Wikipedia search on The Dice Man and you discover the real author, George Cockroft, also genuinely experimented with the “dicelife”. So there is some truth to the claims that this a factual account and that may account for its vivid detail. However it is also undoubtedly a sensational work of fiction, at times taking swipes at the profession of psychology and the state of society in general. I have already said that as a novel it should be praised and not revered simply for its bold ideas, but it is true that the seductiveness of the ideas help sweep you along in the story.
The basic principle of The Dice Man is to abandon free will, at least to a great extent. Every decision in your life you are unsure about should be decided by the throw of a dice, and in fact later on, even those you do feel sure of. You may create options for the various numbers of the dice or die, but whichever they choose you must blindly follow. The options must try to embrace all aspects of your multiple existence, so for example if you have idly fantasised about masturbating over your pot plant, even for a second, this ought to be considered and given to the die to decide. The aforementioned variety and randomness of the novel thus mimics the theory at its heart, with one section actually printed twice immediately after you have read it, presumably at the will of the die.
The philosophical implications of handing over control of a human life to chance are vast and fascinating and I shall not even scratch the surface of their interest here. But Rhinehart comes to believe in the novel that by following the dice and developing his theory he can become a kind of superman, the ultimate human that abandons the misery imposed on us by clinging to a sense of “self”. We often feel completely contradictory desires each day, none more true than the other. What is truly haunting and bewildering about The Dice Man is that by listening to Rhinehart’s distinctive, cynical, hilarious voice, we come to see the sense to his arguments and then when he commits an unspeakable sin at the will of the dice, we feel implicated too. Does a truly liberated human existence require immorality? Rhinehart becomes obsessed by the potential of his simple idea to elevate him intellectually, to truly free him from boredom and obligation. He says that he resembles Clark Kent and by pursuing “dice theory” Rhinehart aims for a permanent transformation into Superman, The Dice Man, on another level to the ordinary human drone.
I’m not saying The Dice Man is the perfect novel, do not misunderstand my awe and praise. At times it left me baffled in completely the wrong way, and despite its championing of the random and new experiences, it can become repetitive, particularly the frequent bouts of sex. And whilst it is sometimes credibly intellectual and inspiring, such as the scene when Rhinehart defends his new theory to a panel of his influential peers, at others it does appear to be simply sick and shocking for shocking’s sake. The thing is that The Dice Man knows it is not the perfect novel, in fact its cynicism screams and mocks the idea of a perfect novel being possible. Even the repetitive sex scenes are always evocatively described or hilariously painted and the idea that a man striving for complete liberty is constantly tied down by sexual desire is ironic and mocking in itself. The Dice Man really is often laugh out loud funny. It is also scandalous, entertaining and everything else it has been described as. Most of all it is an original creation, a unique fusion of cultural influences, which perfectly encapsulates the America of its time and remains powerfully relevant today.
These three novels perhaps demonstrate the importance of two ingredients in particular amongst the many needed for a success: interesting ideas and an individual narrative voice.
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