Tag Archives: original

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.

Thoughts on … Never Let Me Go/The Canal/The Dice Man


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.

Africa United


Africa United has been dubbed this year’s Slumdog Millionaire and the hype around this feel-good movie set amongst third world scenery was certainly sufficient to cause me some logistical problems at my first ever press screening. A last minute venue change meant that for a while my attendance was touch and go, but given the plot of the movie this was perhaps appropriate.

Essentially a road movie, Africa United follows three Rwandan children, talented footballer Fabrice from a privileged world of exams and plasma screens, his “manager” Dudu and his sister Beatrice, who dreams of becoming a doctor and finding the cure to HIV. So far so generic. The three plucky adventurers gradually acquire friends, forming the “team for the dream” that aims to accompany Fabrice all the way to Soccer City in Johannesburg in time for the World Cup’s opening ceremony, where he was promised a place by a scout back in his village. Inevitably the journey does not run smoothly and the young friends must overcome many hurdles, some specific to the troubled continent of the title and others typical to the human condition. Despite this predictable format Africa United is far from being an ordinary film. Like Slumdog Millionaire it is distributed by Pathe and deserves recognition and success, but for different and in my view more persuasive reasons.

Unlike Slumdog Millionaire, which was based upon a successful novel, Africa United was built upon far slimmer foundations; a chance remark in January 2009. Unlike Slumdog Millionaire, which was helmed by the respected Danny Boyle and marked the culmination of that respect with global recognition, Africa United was the directorial debut of Debs Gardner- Patterson, who explained the origins of the story and the difficulties of casting with a few words before my screening of the movie began. I watched a nervous unknown make an uncertain speech but knew 90 minutes or so later that I had been in the presence of at the least an accomplished filmmaker, and at best this country’s next big thing. She has crafted, created and steered a project from the inspiration of just a few words into a must-see movie experience, talked of in the same breath as an Oscar winner. It lacks the epic scope and romantic intrigue of Slumdog and is at its heart a simple tale of friendship, but feels better formed and is much, much funnier throughout than 2008’s Indian set smash-hit.

The key to this humour and indeed the crucial factor elevating Africa United from the good to the excellent is the performance of young Eriya Ndayambaje as lead character Dudu. To use one of the many football metaphors ever present in the film, director Gardner-Patterson is an excellent manager, for acknowledging the importance of playing her star player from the start. The film opens with Dudu charmingly explaining, in almost Blue Peter style, how to construct the perfect football from condoms. It took just seconds for his infectious smile to have the audience giggling and cooing at his cuteness and in the rare moments that his sheer charm wears off, the script by Silent Witness writer Rhidian Brook provides him with killer lines. Often the gags are football based, such as when Dudu and Fabrice discuss which animals their heroes would be, with Dudu correcting Fabrice that Ronaldo is not a lively baboon but an arrogant peacock. But there are also laughs galore for the whole family, football fans or not, certainly too many for me to remember here. Although one of the more obvious, simple messages of the film is that “impossible is nothing” when people come together in teams, it is an inescapable fact that Africa United would lose much of its power without Dudu; he is the authentic magnet at the core of the story, the star striker, or perhaps kingpin playmaker pulling the strings.

That is not to say there are not other important elements to the story and the film’s authenticity. It was shot in real locations in Burundi, Rwanda and South Africa and the scenery is suitably stunning and colourful. There are actions sequences with rolling cars and firing guns as well as gags, innocence and friendship. The entertainment covers a broad range from childish humour to grand themes of dreams and emotion, often all skilfully related linked back the central idea of the power of sport. For example the scene where Dudu chooses to leave his sister at a school so she can get the education she craves is not only incredibly emotional but again links back to the idea of management, as the others praise Dudu’s skills. Africa United also perhaps understandably owes a lot to the continent of the title and paints a refreshingly honest portrait of modern African life; one in which some, like Fabrice’s family, are well off and football shirts, cars and mobile phones are the norm, as much as HIV, AIDS and child soldiers are. By showing African life realistically and making it accessible it is impossible not to root for the likeable main characters and thus Africa United becomes the perfect advert for the continent, far more effective than appeals for aid crammed with images of drought and famine. Who would not want to support this ambitious team for the dream, with ambitions not so unlike yours or mine, but smiles and charm that are a whole lot cuter?

Africa United then will find it hard to escape the same old labels of “feel-good” and “family friendly” in the coming weeks before its release, but through the hype remember that this film has far more to offer beneath the surface and do your best to support it. It has been lovingly nurtured by  British debutants in the film world, shot and edited with a distinctive, fun style, suitably scored and dotted with original, heart warming and amusing African animations that add another notch to its originality. Most of all watch out for Dudu, and Eriya Ndayambaje who plays him, as his performance alone makes Africa United unmissable.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps


Let’s be clear from the start that Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is not a great or even good movie experience. It spends 133 minutes undecided as to what type of film it wants to be. As a result it’s a largely dull tale that takes time to get going and never really bursts into life as you might expect. I’ve never seen the original Wall Street and honestly couldn’t say if seeing the first film would enhance or diminish your enjoyment of this post-9/11 and banking bailout sequel. Certainly a fan would have got some of the references that left me unmoved, perhaps a cameo from Charlie Sheen’s wax work face would have made more sense, but they ultimately may have been disappointed by the nothingness of this follow-up.

The cinema was strangely empty for the first night of a film jammed with star performances and lavish shots of the Manhattan skyline, all marshalled by acclaimed director Oliver Stone. It was dotted with the odd couple who may have been young when the first movie came out. Indeed at times Stone’s direction felt dated, with nostalgic fades between scenes and a less than subtle focus on the image of bubbles throughout the film. You can spot a bubble billowing child in the background of almost every scene with a crowd. Much of what really grated about this movie, besides the ponderous plot, was the way in which motifs and messages were rammed down your throat. These ideas are never fully developed or explored, for instance the focus on renewable energy that seemed to be thrown in simply to be topical, and are far from intelligent or insightful. What really makes you shift uncomfortably in your seat is the way in which the script makes it plain, through some at times terribly clunky dialogue, that it thinks it is saying something clever and new that needs to be said. In reality it merely scratches the surface of some big themes from recent times and then quickly ties itself up in knots with another strand of the purposeless plot that rarely engages the audience.

The opening titles also felt dated and these informed me that there were original songs on the soundtrack, which also sounded distinctly 80s and not exactly in keeping with the tone throughout. However for all the film’s faults it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes it such a lifeless watch but easier to highlight the aspects that make it more bearable than expected.

The first surprise (I was tempted to say pleasant but it really wasn’t) was the way in which I could tolerate so much screen time from Shia “dollar signs” LaBeouf. Since his childhood role in Even Stevens, in which he was passably amusing, I have found his acting irritating in every major film that has catapulted him to mega-bucks star status. However in this movie, despite being given some terrible lines, he is watchable not only as the young adult trader with a conscience but also as the infatuated lover struggling to keep his relationship together. The object of his affection, Carey Mulligan, was also a strong point of a poor film, as expected. Here she demonstrates an American accent and short haired sex appeal that might see her cast in more big budget projects across the Atlantic, but I would hope she tries to stick to quality British film in the main.  

In fact if Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps gets one big review tick it is for the acting performances. Michael Douglas, despite looking drained even after his transformation at the end of the film, has an undeniable charisma in the role of Gordon Gekko and again this is despite the fact he is given some appalling dialogue to work with. The film, whilst continuously slow and plodding, feels even more so before Douglas makes his first proper appearance. The reconciliation scene with his daughter Mulligan is also the one genuinely moving and engaging moment in the entire movie, which is a real testament to both performers given how little I cared for the back-story. Josh Brolin also plays the big baddie banker extremely well.

So whilst there’s no need to rush out to see a film with an identity crisis that can feel like that annoying high minded acquaintance who doesn’t really have an opinion of their own, there are worse ways of spending two hours thanks to some quality acting and the beautiful, shiny gloss of extreme wealth present in every escapist scene.

Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman


Ned Beauman’s debut novel is a distinctive, original and confident creation that is immensely readable. It is not especially remarkable for young novelists to produce compelling fiction but it is a considerable achievement for Beauman to have pulled off a story based on some controversial ideas and subject matter that may have otherwise repulsed or offended readers if not carefully executed. It is by no means a perfect debut and its often ghastly and occasionally two dimensional themes do grate at times, but its success lies in its bold originality and playful prose.

The inside cover of Boxer, Beetle brazenly asserts that this is a clever, distinctive and entertaining novel. Despite a number of flaws including the unconvincing skin deep characterisation of one of the main protagonists Phillip Erskine and simply an over abundance of weirdness at times, I would not disagree with this confident claim on the cover having finished the book. At times the novel displays all three qualities and its brave comic handling of potentially problematic areas such as the collection of Nazi memorabilia ensures it is a distinctive experience throughout. It probably helped my enjoyment of the book that I found many of its chosen themes of eugenics, fascism and underworld boxing culture historically fascinating, but Beauman also vividly evokes the period sections with well written and sensual description that ought to engage those without a particular interest in the era.

Indeed Beauman demonstrates a gift for colourful and accurate description during the third person period sections of the novel and he also has little trouble in fleshing out believable minor characters with unique idiolects. He does struggle to make the key characters, repressed homosexual and twisted beetle collecting Fascist scientist Phillip Erskine, and rampant homosexual Jewish boxer Seth “Sinner” Roach, into rounded individuals though. It might be argued that Beauman does develop their characters enough, it is simply that I did not like them and neither was I meant to, but I can’t help thinking that Erskine in particular was a little too predictable in terms of prejudice and the attempts to make Sinner endearing in some way by introducing a regret at losing his devoted sister seemed forced.

The first person sections of the novel were always enjoyable however, seen through the quick witted and odd eyes of the impossibly smelly Kevin Broom, nicknamed “fishy” by his rich Nazi collector friend Grublock, who meets a sticky end at the hands of a sinister Welsh assassin searching for clues about the boxer and the beetles from 30s Britain. At times the present day sections felt almost like a comic novel, such was the pace and playfulness of the prose. One chapter begins with the narrator musing about what Batman would do, only to conclude that he could not imagine Batman in a Little Chef and that in general the everyday, mundane architecture of modern Britain was not conducive to a cunning, acrobatic and glamorous gothic hero. Generally the novel works superbly well, even with so many ideas flying about, providing they pass through the lens of the likeable narrator. In the third person sections too many ideas can bog the plot down and make passages with Erskine in particular almost tedious. However the novel rarely becomes an essay, despite a couple of unfocused chapters devoted to invented, short lived artificial languages and the third person chunks set in the past tend to zip along well enough despite the inferior sense of character.

Overall Boxer, Beetle is a satisfying read with a bizarre, strangely gripping narrative populated by characters we are not meant to take too seriously dealing with a cocktail of varying grand ideas and themes. Beauman’s writing style succeeds largely in pulling together a lot of seemingly unconnected subject matter into a coherent and entertaining read. It will be interesting to see how Beauman chooses to follow up such an individual first book but his writing talent is evident and Boxer, Beetle is such a mixed bag you get the impression he could and would turn his hand to anything and make a success of it.

Tamara Drewe


Consensus = broad unanimity; general or widespread agreement among all the members of a group

It probably should have occurred to me prior to seeing the new Stephen Frears film Tamara Drewe, an adaptation of the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds that used to appear regularly in the Guardian, that a critical consensus had been reached around it for good reason. However being the ambitious, aspiring writer that I am I was determined to try and look at the film from an original angle and make a startling first impression upon all of you learned readers, dazzling you with my astute, perfectly phrased observations.

The fact is though that Tamara Drewe is an entertaining, funny film set amongst an odd-ball, insular, middle class group in colourfully shot rural Dorset. It is as well acted, skilfully adapted and playfully directed as other commentators have said. It successfully fuses together a mixture of witty dialogue and slapstick comedy moments, of rounded characters and flat cartoon caricatures, to produce a cocktail of laughs, gasps, snorts and intrigue. In my experience it is rare for a cinema to be filled with the sounds of infectious, genuine laughter for more than a handful of moments in a film, and Tamara Drewe certainly achieved this. Add in the elements of sex, youthful dreams and a tragically amusing, climatic finale and Tamara Drewe is certainly the light-hearted country romp the reviews proclaim it to be.

Perhaps though I am too quick to conform to the praise. Granted it took just seconds for the audience to erupt into laughter, prompted by the frenzied internal monologue of the northern lesbian crime writer contrasted with the preceding lustful chick-lit, but I must bear in mind the bias of my fellow cinema goers and indeed myself. You see I watched Tamara Drewe from within the confines of its rural setting. My friends and I flapped as we recognised locations; a local train station dressed up as “Hadditon” Junction, Larmer Tree gardens where a music festival took place that I myself attended earlier this summer. I and the other yokels around me may have been more susceptible to the heightened version of rural reality presented here, as it mischievously sketched familiar aspects of our everyday lives. We all knew a version of the village big shot, so arrogantly portrayed by the excellent Roger Allam, the devoted door mat wife played by the always brilliant Tamsin Grieg and knew the tedium felt by the young tearaways who end up meddling catastrophically in that closed middle class world of privilege and pleasure.

Indeed the funniest moments of the film are provided by the characters that are outsiders from the interlocking middle class, English world, namely the American Glen (or was it Greg? Roger Allam’s character never knew or cared) and the pair of adolescent girls pining over a rock star and longing for events or anything at all to simply “happen” in their village nestled in the “arsehole of nowhere”. I am not familiar with the original graphic novel but my friend assured me the script captured its essence and I was impressed with Moira Buffini’s mastery of each individual character’s idiolect. From the American academic Glen to the teenage pair gossiping in the dreary bus shelter, Buffini captures an individual voice that allows the actors to deliver believable, funny performances. Only Tamara’s long term love interest Andy Cobb, played by Luke Evans, fails to come to life as a character, fulfilling the typical role of muscular, loyal, hard done by simple soul only, with a questionable accent. Dominic Cooper’s rock n roll drummer may be crudely drawn at times, but he brings an addictive charisma to the role.

Buffini’s script not only successfully creates this vivid little world of bright characters but for the most part builds well to an at once dramatic, tragic and hilarious finale. At times the plot sags so that the laughs gave way to yawns, but these moments in which the pace slackens reflect the drudgery of life the film is depicting as well as cleverly lulling you, priming you for the next wave of gags and allowing the giggles to flow all the more easily. As someone who longs to write for a living I also appreciated the themes of truth and deception in both writing and life, and the perils of compromising for your dreams, for celebrity status. The American academic is quick to correct Hallam’s character; a writer of trashy airport fiction by his own admission, that writing is about truth and not lies. But Tamara Drewe shows us that the reality of life is deception and differing perceptions and that the best stories are bundles of these lies, frankly depicted as Tamara describes her own antics in an irresistible “brutally candid” style.

Guardian Summer Short Story Special


Inspired by the Guardian’s Summer Short Story Special, showcasing established writers as well as competition winners, I have dabbled in a summer based work myself. It is influenced by general events in my life, a failed outing this weekend, as well as the short stories on the Guardian website and reading a bit of Hemingway (certainly isn’t as concisely expressed as his work). Being a fan of David Mitchell I particuarly enjoyed his offerings based on characters from Black Swan Green, with The Massive Rat from last year’s entries especially pleasing me. Booker winner Hilary Mantel also has a story entitled Comma and the competion winner’s tale, called Jellyfish, is a very well written piece simply expressed set on a beach, as mine is. Hope it isn’t too bad.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/series/summer-short-story-special

Summer’s Last Hurrah

“I’m sorry about your parents” said Frank, gazing at a darkening sky and enjoying the feeling of her warmth at the base of his neck.

“You’ve nothing to be sorry for” replied Emma, looking back towards the brightening bulbs of the promenade and twirling her fingers in the soft curls of his fringe. “Things just happen. And I think it’ll be ok”.

He smiled reassuringly and twisted to look up at her, wondering what to say next. He had raised the subject to try and steer the conversation towards them, their relationship, his head in her lap on the sand in the half-light of this August evening. The simple perfection of this moment. To voice his contentment outright would spoil things, possibly scare her off. Nevertheless he had to let her know how happy he was, living a moment sketched in his mind a thousand times.

“I just can’t imagine letting things get to that stage with anyone, like what’s the point in arguing and how could you with someone you felt like that for, someone you loved? I’d like to think I’d stop things before they were that bad. Life’s for moments as amazing this”, he squeezed her fingers between his and ran his hand gently over the flank of her leg in that way he knew she liked, “no point in being miserable when things can be this great, when I can get this lucky.”

That might have overdone it. He knew one of the things she liked about him was his laidback, carefree attitude. She could be sure he wouldn’t get too emotional or demanding like boyfriends of her friends had done in the past. Recently he’d been struggling to hold back this sort of outburst, to tone down his obvious ecstasy in her company. But he needn’t have worried.

Emma bent down to kiss him. First lightly and affectionately on the forehead, a stamp of her gratitude and care, and then a longer, lingering stay on the lips, charged with a lust that grew each day as her confidence increased. She too had been pondering how to express her happiness at the way things were turning out, the way they were right now. Like Frank she tiptoed round the reflection of this moment, careful not to shatter it with hollow, stumbled over words and packaged phrases. Beyond the untameable ripple of her smile whenever she saw him, she was wary of articulating her feelings for him when she did not know what they were. Besides this shared chapter of their lives was closing and to him she might just be a pretty girl, long coveted but quickly ticked off as a summer fling.

Now though as kiss followed kiss and their scents mingled with the sea air lapping in off the waves, Emma felt satisfied that Frank shared the significance of the present, the distance of the past and non-existence of the future. Frank too knew that she understood his contentment and shared it on some level. Happy to be a source of her happiness he lay back and a let a guilty smile detonate an ooze of smugness across his face. Amused by the particular lines and craters left by the aftermath of the explosion in his features, a snorted giggle escaped from her mouth.

“What?” he said, sitting up and grinning cheekily at her embarrassment.

“You” she teased, pushing him back down only for him to snatch a kiss from the tips of her lips.

“I’m happy. Think I’ve lost the knack of sadness.”

“S’pose that’s got something to do with me, has it?”

Emma blushed as Frank parted unruly strands of her hair with his fingers, so his eyes had a clear, brisk march to hers. Frank felt unusually bold, spurred on by the stirring of desire below the belt and cleared his throat to reply bluntly.

“Yeah. Everything. Nothing could make me sad with you.”

Emma felt the tell-tale redness spill across her cheeks, accompanied by a warm glow somewhere inside. At first she tried to check for clues in the lush browns and bright whites of his eyes, signs of mocking or deception. All she found there was light, a light that added to her awkwardness as well as her certainty. She would let Frank be her first by the end of the summer. But all that could come later. For now this sudden glimpse of emotion and her automated response of cynicism made her regret the shy, downbeat reply, inspired by thoughts of her parents.

“Time. Time makes you sad and bitter.”

To his credit he knowingly laughed away her evasion, pulling her to him.

“Good job we don’t have much left then.”

The two of them collapsed in a bundle of kisses and squeezes. Sand painted a dull grey by the frowning sky squirmed beneath their writhing feet and toes. A plodding jogger glanced their way from the squelch of the wet sand at the water’s edge and a family group executed a wide arc to pass the shameless lovers respectfully. Thoughts and memories of lost loves drifted in the minds of the parents like dying waves.

*

Lawrence wasn’t so sure it was time. Sure you needed some, a brief window in which a seed could be planted, germinate and grow and then rapidly rot and fester. But in the grand scheme of things, in the spins and rotations of planets, the rise and fall of governments, the birth and death of ideas, on any meaningful scale, the time it had taken him to succumb to bitterness was a mere blink. In fact emerging from the line of lights of the shorefront, from the flashing and pulsing of colour by the fair to the gentle gloom of the beach, it had taken him just seconds of recognition to be overwhelmed by dark resentment and every negative feeling he had been hiding from.

There was no doubt it was them, immersed in an intimate moment of romance, the sky itself bending into a dome of soft privacy. Away to the right the last embers of the setting sun shone orange behind wispy clouds but here, suspended above them on the beach, the clouds were a deep veil of purple enclosing the space for them and them alone. Or so it seemed to him. The sound of his own rushed, shallow breaths reminded of the present and prompted him to locate little Katie, just now dashing onto the sand, floating with joy, excitement and mischief in her white dress.

Lawrence darted after her, dusting himself down to weave between the crowds, suddenly conscious of a collision he must avoid. A group of pensioners gawped at him as he bobbed by on tip toes, surely marvelling at the relentless boom of his heart that he could feel galloping away in his chest, frightened into overdrive by the horrific hypothetical scenarios conjured in his mind’s eye. Soon there would be enough room to burst into a sprint but Lawrence was mindful of how far the sounds of his beckoning pleas might carry, how self-involved were they during such blissful embraces? Would Emma, or even Frank, recognise his voice as he breathlessly moaned at Katie’s innocent impulses? She was tottering towards the water but then to Lawrence’s alarm veered suddenly away, propelled by a tiny splash of chilly froth, up the beach at an angle towards the canoodling couple. In a panic Lawrence launched himself at full throttle down the last stretch of sloping descent to the beach and did not slow his pace on the sand despite the vast plumes left in his wake and the difficulties of staying balanced on two feet. In seconds that seemed stretched into hours Lawrence was at Katie’s side and firmly guiding her by the hand away from an unbearable impact towards the safety of the sand strewn steps.

“Lawrence! Lawrence! The water’s cold and you can see it’s muddy in the dark. Muddy like Mummy said even when it’s dark.”

Lawrence grimaced as Katie began her chirping flow, flinching in particular every time she brightly announced his name to the entire coastline. In this state he could not tell if she was being especially loud or not, let alone whether Frank and Emma might’ve heard. He could feel his pulse gradually calming as the two of them climbed the steps and set off back in the direction of the hotel, but he was also still clearly transmitting a panic to Katie.

“What’s wrong Lawrence? You said you’d take me, sorry I ran. You like to chase me, don’t be upset.”

Was he upset? Lawrence knew that little shake in Katie’s voice well by now, knew she was on the verge of tears without proper intervention. He steered her to a quiet bench and sat down in readiness to console, only to notice the streaks on his own face, brimming uncontrollably.

“Don’t cry Lawrence” mumbled Katie, the sight of his tears bringing her own closer and closer. She didn’t understand, she’d never seen him like this for the whole summer. He’d only ever been a calm, smiley presence, good at reading to her and helping her learn and she was always angry when she caught Mummy telling Daddy he could be “useless” at looking after her. Lawrence was Katie’s friend.

Lawrence turned his face away from Katie. This wasn’t good, he’d have to minimise the damage now if he were to keep his job with the family. He’d grown attached to Katie and even Ben when he wasn’t trying to drop him in it, and he could think of no better paid way of keeping busy and away from everything. And yet everything had followed him here, everything was curled on the beach beneath the stars oblivious of the depressing ripples caused by their happiness. Lawrence was going to wait till Emma and Frank had parted for university before sending his confession letter, penned over an agonising three nights. He planned to be travelling Europe filling his head with the future whilst she digested the news. He didn’t want to hear her shock or disgust or whatever she would feel, just jettison the feeling and leave it with his old life. Now he had seen her again and his long absence (nearly two months now?) had done nothing to dilute the pain of seeing them together, nothing to convince him of a future without her. Of all he had left behind and had to learn the hardest thing was not hearing from her, sharing their perfectly balanced conversation, even if she was always, forever ignorant of his feeling for her. He had left because he could no longer take the unknowing blows struck each and every day by her as she grew closer and closer to Frank. He had allowed their friendship to become so precious to him that it was toxic.

“I’m fine Katie, I’ll be fine, and it’s nothing honest. Beautiful night isn’t it? All those lights stretching on and on.”

This didn’t help. Painting a picture of a beautiful evening merely reminded him of the romance in progress on the beach, a romance he had never experienced and more painfully never would with Emma. Lawrence stifled a giant sob and spasm of tears, spinning Katie round to look along the front as a distraction.

“Yeah it is nice.” The poor girl rightly wasn’t convinced. Lawrence took a deep breath and kept Katie transfixed by the twinkling lights and a reminder of what fun they’d had that day, whilst he composed himself. Then he scooped her up back to the hotel, sought out the envelope addressed to Emma and left it out ready to post. Before bed Katie had checked Lawrence was definitely alright and she had seemed reassured by his answer.

“I’ll be fine Katie like I said. In time I’ll be okay, time will heal me.”

“Well we’ve got lots of that.”

Sum: Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman


This is a truly fantastic book full of profound, witty, clever and exciting musings. Each tale lasts around a couple of pages and every one offers an incredibly concise exploration of huge questions and ideas that have always concerned humanity and some raised specifically by the modern age. The brilliance of some of the ideas here warrant novels and series of films in themselves but Eagleman deftly crafts them in so few words that the debate will continue in your mind for hours afterward, filling in the gaps. I need say little else except buy this book, it’s the sort of writing that feels so true that it must have been said before, but here is said originally and skilfully in a way that can really affect your life. It’s also possible to read again and again and turn to any page and it will simultaneously be comprehensible and unfathomable. Stephen Fry’s endorsement is on the cover if mine is rightly doubted! But needless to say it’s the best thing I’ve read so far this summer. Below is my own attempt at an interpretation of a possible afterlife, in the style of Sum, but written with less enthralling and concise expression. Enjoy, but do not let it put you off the book!

Islands

When we die there is a Heaven. There is also a Hell, but you’ll be glad to know God is understanding and compassionate enough to hand out the punishments and rewards based upon a morality close to our own. Therefore the odd impure thought and vindictive act are overlooked and the ultimate punishment, refined over eternity, is reserved for the murderers and rapists. All of this is gently explained to you in the soft tones of a wise old sailor, moments after you are plucked from a perfectly calm indigo sea.

You felt many pairs of hands on you as you were rescued from the depths but now only you and he sit on deck, quite alone. All around vast swathes of blue reach in every direction, interrupted only by what must be distant land masses. You listen as an invisible sun’s tropical gaze warms, boils and snatches the beads of water from your skin. The Almighty, he says, feels He made a mistake during creation. Humanity was crafted in God’s image but His decision to encase us in physical bodies without adequate means of interaction was effectively torture for minds of divine form. The process could not be undone but a means of satisfactory compensation was devised and placed here in the afterlife in the space between death and paradise.

In mortal life, the sailor concludes, you may have felt isolated and distant, even from those you loved and who professed love in return. Trapped in their tombs of bone and flesh people were islands and could never truly touch. Before passing on through the gates of Heaven the sailor may grant you the opportunity to explore one island representing a person you knew; containing everything they ever were or could have been.

The vast majority of the recently deceased think this a marvellous idea and believer or not in their mortal lives, praise the empathy and wisdom of God. Most people also know exactly whose island they wish to explore, although some change their mind several times during the course of the journey. Some spend a great deal of time, there is no limit set, wondering whether to discover the truths of their wife, their friend, their father or their teenage love. The wise however react less positively, recoiling in fear, trembling, shedding tears fuelled by dangerous unknowns not happy, grateful emotional release. None choose to proceed directly to the gates of paradise though, even those that fear the worst. No one makes them pick an island but to enter eternity with regrets, paradise or not, would be to unleash demons upon the bliss.

So the sailor drops you at your chosen destination and you dash ashore free to explore, while the boat waits patiently to transport you to eternal happiness. Much of what you find you may already know but there are also surprises, good and bad. You may weep at their unfulfilled dreams at the foot of a palm tree, smile at memories too hazy for them to share with you glimpsed in a rock pool and bawl in betrayal as their true, unblemished view of you is uncovered in the sand. You might glow inside as you see the essence of them carried away by a monkey in the shape of a banana or feel totally alive and wanted as you wade in the stream of their passions. You’ll hack your way through thick undergrowths of superficial details only to stop now and then, caught off guard by an obvious one you overlooked or temporarily forgot. You’ll come to know each and every track and memorise vividly each detail of the clearing dedicated to you; its light, shadow, flowers and mud. There is no rush, eternity will always be there.

And yet no matter how complete the exploration no one leaves their chosen island. The gates of Heaven are glued shut and behind them God despairs in lonely squalor. His creations, not content with the total truth granted them, seek again and again the truth they wanted to find. The Angels, unemployed and wasting away, urge the Lord to erase the ocean of islands, to simply take souls as He used to and still does so for Hell. But the chorus of voices reaching Him daily convince Him that to undo the islands would be pointless, as without them He cannot claim to provide paradise.