Tag Archives: William

DVD Review: London Boulevard


The trailer for London Boulevard at the tail end of last year promised the best kind of British gangster flick; slick, stylish, smart, sexy and darkly funny. A disappointingly short run in cinemas and a lukewarm critical reception suggested that something didn’t quite click though, despite the stellar cast and seductive snippets of footage. Perhaps audiences anticipated more of the same; substitute Ray Winstone for Michael Gambon and Colin Farrell for Daniel Craig and you essentially get Layer Cake. But I was inclined to disagree with the tepid expectations because of interesting parallels between criminality and celebrity.

Farrell plays Mitchell, a cockney con straight out from serving three years for GBH. He explains he was merely involved in “an altercation” (he educated himself through hordes of books inside) and that he’s no thief. He’s trying to convince Keira Knightley’s paparazzi besieged actress to employ him as a bodyguard, after he uses his street smarts and hard as nails attitude to help a friend of hers avoid a nasty scuffle.  Mitchell eventually takes the job protecting the star from crude happy snappers, whilst simultaneously trying unsuccessfully to remove himself from friendships drawing him back into London’s underworld. Without even trying he rapidly builds a reputation for himself that Ray Winstone’s crime boss wishes to utilise.

I found the idea of a gangster tied to his life by the contracts of violent deeds and debts, compared and contrasted with a celebrity trapped by fame, an extremely interesting one. Neither can easily escape those aware of their existence and constantly keeping tabs on them. The relationship between Mitchell and his globally known actress had the potential to provide a refreshing lens through which to view a swaggering, traditional gangster story.

And at times the angle is slightly different. Some of the dialogue between Knightley and Farrell, particularly when they slip away to the countryside, is both full of black humour and believable observations about their determined destinies. But sadly most of the dialogue is ordinary and predictable and has indeed been seen countless times before. Farrell’s performance is neither fantastic nor a failure, merely passably cut off and charismatic, in keeping with the genre. He is suitably cool. Most disappointing is Knightley, who despite looking the part with a withered and thin appearance, never truly inhabits a role that must be close to the reality of her life on occasion. She ought to be capable of more than caricature with such personal experience to draw on.  

For me the main problem with London Boulevard was that it boiled down to an endless simmering. The stylish and often mildly funny build up was pleasing enough for a while, but only because it seemed to hint at the plot coming together and igniting at some point. It never really does. The climax on offer lacks intensity and urgency. With funny, vivid performances in supporting roles from David Thewlis, Ray Winstone, Ben Chaplin and Anna Friel, London Boulevard ultimately lets down an impressive cast of capable Brits. As well as the audience.

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The Art of the Short Story – Reading and Writing Challenge Month


For weeks now I’ve attempted to absorb myself in the art of the short story. Not just to read lots of new ones and re-read old ones, but to look closely at their composition, compare their merits and work out why it was that these fleeting snapshots of life seemed so much more like art than their beefier cousin, the novel.

At the end of my blitz of numerous tales I feel at once wiser and just as ignorant. The fact that my study of these stories has been so intense, the fact that it was indeed a solitary blitz, meant I had much less time than I would have liked to dissect, contrast and concoct thoughtful, satisfactory points and conclusions. This mini task within the greater, rushed whole of Reading and Writing Month has certainly not proved to be the magic pill I might have hoped for; I have not morphed into a masterful writer myself simply by consuming such a renowned, diverse range. But I am glad I was ambitious and wide ranging. I feel as if I’ve discovered intriguing examples I’ll be able to return to again and again as an inspirational template and model for my own work. Or works I’ll re-read simply to marvel at and endlessly reinterpret and enjoy.

Even prior to this challenge I found that a certain type of short story would leave me baffled. It would feel as if I’d barely read what could be called a “story” at all. Ernest Hemingway was one of the particular authors that could simultaneously make me feel cold and unmoved and fascinated. At A-Level I studied Cat in the Rain and for this challenge I read other tales from Hemingway’s “First Forty-Nine Stories” collection, including Homage to Switzerland and One Reader Writes. One Reader Writes is barely two pages long and feels as though it were lifted straight from an experiment in a creative writing class, as the narrator, clearly barely literate, attempts to write a letter about her husband’s syphilis. Homage to Switzerland presents three almost identical but also very different conversations at a railway station in Switzerland.

This last story is more typically Hemingway. He simply paints the picture of a scene to the reader; who watches. It takes the rule of “show don’t tell” in storytelling to the extreme. It points towards any number of possible truths about the characters, just as the famous Cat in the Rain does. The reader is left to interpret, as if watching a scene from a play. Indeed the quote from The Guardian on the back of my Hemingway collection sums up, what in the end, is his subtle brilliance:

“The author’s exceptional gift of narrative quality gives the excitement of a well-told tale to what is, in fact, a simple description of a scene” (my emphasis)

Here then is the first vague, hardly groundbreaking truth I began to comprehend better about short stories; that they can show us the many, differing qualities of a specific scene, much like a play. They can have as much or little drama as the reader (or the audience) chooses them to. Their brevity and focus also means that short stories encompassing a substantial sweep in time become harder to write. They’re also more likely to succeed if they contain dialogue. I do not say light-heartedly that dialogue is easy to write, but simply that good short stories rest on their ability to show us things in flashes, like a play. This is easier to do with well written dialogue. The professional looking winners, submitted by amateurs, to last year’s writing competitions, for Summer and Halloween in The Guardian and Telegraph respectively, mostly contained convincing dialogue, from which the reader can infer.

Chekhov was of course a playwright and this might explain his aptitude for the short story. In an insightful and enlightening introduction to a collection of Chekhov stories, Richard Ford makes a number of points about the merits of Chekhov’s writing that can also be applied across the board to short stories. Firstly he highlights how teachers were always telling him it was the sheer economy of Chekhov’s writing that others tried to replicate. As he concludes though, whilst this was evidence of accomplished craftsmanship it was hardly remarkable. What Chekhov did to elevate his writing, what made them art, was to expose universal, everlasting truths of the human condition still relevant today. His stories, the most famous of which being The Lady with the Dog, went against convention by taking established forms and zooming in on their less explored aspects. Like poetry, or a well executed play, Chekhov slowly makes us accept facts of existence we knew to be true all along; he simply crafted the circumstances and phrases to express them.

And yet short stories don’t all have to be masterfully subtle scenes, open to endless interpretation. The subtlety helps and it certainly doesn’t do any harm to have the fine focus of a scene. But they can also be the seeds of future novels, as Haruki Murakami’s Firefly became Norwegian Wood or symbolic essays on ideas. If I had to categorise the stories I have read, and I don’t think it would be wise to, I would divide them between these focused scenes and explorations of a particular idea. Fiction, in this condensed form, can be a far better, fuller examination of any idea than a hard written essay. Short stories can also better express something, without all the trappings and requirements of a novel.

In a refreshingly frank and interesting introduction to the collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami talks about the difference for him, as a writer, between short stories and the novel. As always I find his distinctive Japanese symbolism captivating, even when he’s not crafting anything creative:

“To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden. The two processes complement each other…”

Certainly there is substantial crossover in style and themes from Murakami’s novels to his short stories. Like his most celebrated novels, these tales are often heavy with nostalgia, sentiment and emotion. I mentioned ideas, but Murakami is a writer more interested in feelings and moods. His short stories allow him to explore these moods in isolation, touchingly and with symbolism. Many of his stories are symbolic and for me at least, irresistibly enthused with ingredients like adolescence, love and Japan. He is also an old fashioned storyteller in the sense that his short stories are often told by a character, or have happened to a friend of the narrator. Stories are currency to be passed around and retold, often based on perplexing coincidence that cast life in light or shadow.

Among my favourites from his collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was A Poor Aunt Story, apparently one of his youthful, inexpert creations. This was a story with a symbolic idea at its heart, as opposed to someone’s emotional journey; the narrator wanted to write a story about a poor aunt, only for one to appear stuck to his back for the world to see. It seemed to me a wonderfully poetic way to make a point about the forgotten members of society, the pieces in the background.

Murakami also has the knack for the occasional, sensational and fantastical funny tale. A perfect day for Kangaroos, Dabchick and The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes were all witty and amusing. Other personal favourites from the collection included: Hanalei Bay, Where I’m Likely to Find it (wonderfully mysterious), The Seventh Man, Hunting Knife and Birthday Girl.

Like Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer excellent at moods, and I thoroughly enjoyed his atmospheric collection “Nocturnes”. This was five stories of music, love, nightfall and heartbreak. Here we find another string to the short story bow; loosely connected stories, that are quite separate but as a whole unite to portray one emotion, one truth or experience.

So finally then, to ideas. Whether they are sci-fi musings such as the poetically described automated house, with all its rhythm and life, in There Will Come Soft Rains from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, to Thomas Mann’s more intellectual and philosophical ponderings via his protagonist in Death in Venice, the short story can properly showcase them all. Mann’s masterpiece is a superbly written meditation on obsession, love, beauty, youth, art, ageing, inspiration and everything in between. It’s also just a damn good story, with an impressive sense of place, created from very little, compared to the time devoted to beauty and reflection.

Stories need not replicate the sweep of Mann’s success to be brilliant of course; I’ve already praised the narrow focus of the genre. They can deal with aspects and ideas within a grander theme. From the collection of love stories, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera and Lovers of their Time by William Trevor, stand out. Kundera’s story for its exploration of role-play and the need for a balance between meaning and fun in a relationship; what he calls “lightheartedness and seriousness” (reminded me of his unique philosophical novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being). And Trevor’s for its portrayal of the decay of love over time.

My three favourites from my fleeting trawl through the form then: The Hitchhiking Game, Death in Venice and Murakami’s Where I’m Likely to Find it.

Thus concludes my inadequate summary of the art of the short story. But as I say, I do feel enlightened and extremely excited to have reignited the joys of reading and writing.

Egypt: Mubarak’s fall opens a new chapter in history and diplomacy


Faint columns of twisty smoke on the horizon. Dry dirt and dust whipped into clouds by the commotion in the street. Baking rooftops stretching for as far as the eye can see in the hot sunlight. Your guide ranting in impassioned Arabic, the immense weight and colour of the rich past hanging in the air around you. You can feel it stirring, something new and meaningful adding to it. Chants and songs of freedom from the crowds below, being marched into action and reality. A sense of being at the eye of a storm of change that will define generations. Then loud voices, angry noise and pounding footsteps on the stairs. Bangs as doors crash open; guns and uniforms glistening. An adrenalin fuelled fear as your face is shoved to the gritty floor.

During recent events in Egypt, articles with these sorts of ingredients and phrases were cropping up on the front pages of newspapers every day. Somehow journalists and writers managed to weave their own extraordinary experiences into some sort of comment on events and the news from the ground. Personally I can’t imagine anything more exciting and fulfilling than to be at the heart of such a historical event; effortlessly writing incredibly, simply by saying what your eyes see happening all around you. To work in such a fascinating country at a time of such dramatic upheaval and change is satisfying enough and probably would have overwhelmed me. But consider the implications of the outcome of the protests in Egypt and the ongoing rebellion in the Middle East, and the unfolding story of history becomes even more intoxicating, inspirational and important.

The opening months of 2011 are proving to be nothing short of momentous. I do not need to use hyperbole. Seemingly permanent regimes, which were unquestionably entrenched through power and fear, have crumbled and sprouted glaring weaknesses. As if this weren’t enthusing enough, the forces that have brought about such changes have been new, modern and democratic. People taking to the streets, tired with repression and the state of their economies, have brought about reform and the toppling of infamous regimes. Mass meetings were organized and propelled by tools alien to historians and political analysts, like Facebook and Twitter. Despite distrust of the West, fuelled by its support of the dictators being ousted, most demonstrators called for democratic systems similar to our own that could transform the way the world works together. The true power of politics has been restored.

Egypt is the most high profile case so far but the disruption is ongoing. At the moment it’s Libya in turmoil. We are living through a new age of productive and successful political action. The scenes in Egypt put student protests in this country from the tail end of last year in the shade, but all the demonstrations are part of a global trend. In the continuing difficulties lingering from the economic crisis, we are once again witnessing the interconnectivity of the modern world. And in a rare time of genuine history in a world which had seemingly seen everything, the need for a new form of diplomacy once again emerges.

It was frankly embarrassing for Britain and the US to have such an ever shifting, vague stance on the Egyptian crisis as it unfolded. Of course the dangers and difficulties were plain. We could not tolerate another radical Islamic country, another Iran in a volatile region, particularly in the place of a moderate tourist destination with a stable relationship with Israel. But it was rapidly clear that President Mubarak’s situation was untenable. As soon as this became obvious it became self-defeating to continue to offer even the slightest veil of support for him. Especially when even before the crisis, particularly with Liberals in government, Britain should have been adopting a more comprehensible, pro-democracy/anti-dictatorship stance. Eventually Nick Clegg refreshingly admitted that events in Egypt were “exciting”. Of course they were, this was a whole new kind of revolution; 21st century and democratic, not 20th and Communist.

Britain may no longer be a big player on the world stage, but it once was. As a result of the actions of the British Empire in the past, British governments shall always have a strong duty to nations it has had a considerable hand in shaping. William Hague therefore, as Foreign Secretary, should always have been supportive of the wishes of the Egyptian people. For too long democracies in the West, cajoled by America, have tolerated regimes that abuse civil rights in favour of “stability”. The events of early 2011 have proved that perfect stability is a myth. Any leadership is prone to volatility and violence. Therefore it’s time governments started to stand truly by the philosophies and politics they claim to espouse, and have faith in the people of other nations to make the right choices. There’s a long way to go in Egypt, but so far the people have proved they want democracy, not just a new controlling leadership in the shape of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Debate continues to rage about the best way to deploy the foreign office in the 21st century; what is Britain’s global role? In the past I’ve argued it should be combating climate change and this remains important. But now, given the changing tides, it’s time we started ending support for corrupt governments and supporting the spread of democratic values in a hands-off way. With influence shifting east to China and India, a process of democratisation in the Middle East could prove crucial to the direction of the next century, given the treasure trove of natural resources and energy stored there. A spirit of cooperation, empathy and understanding is needed to face the numerous oncoming challenges and hurdles. Democracy and the UN can help with this.

Other developments in diplomacy mean that we in the West do not merely have to talk the talk of peace either. There are new methods of direct action to punish inflammatory behaviour and enforce calm. Recently details emerged of the Stuxnet computer virus attack on Iran’s nuclear programme, which set it back years. It was a major boost for President Obama’s approach, which has come under fire for its lack of action. Obama can continue to seem reasonable, as he’s always offered the chance of negotiation to Iran. But despite the attack not being officially linked to any government, it’s obvious certain governments sanctioned it. This sort of non-deadly cyber warfare could be the far preferable stick in future diplomatic disputes, as opposed to the nuclear weapons of the Cold War era. Of course not all cyber warfare is so harmless; certain attacks on infrastructure have the potential to reduce societies to chaos and cause scores of deaths. But that’s just a further reason to develop our capabilities, both defensively and offensively, and deploy them in conjunction with our diplomatic aims. Trashing each other’s technical hardware is a far nicer scenario than devastating our cities and if nothing else it will give the West a genuine moral high ground for a change.

As Egypt and other countries begin a transition to fairer governance, it’s innovative methods like these we should use as a last resort to hinder and halt dangerous elements plotting to seize control, as opposed to rash deployments of armed forces. In this new era of history and diplomacy it’s vital we respect the people of other nations and keep them onside. For they now know where the real power lies; with themselves.

A History of Contradictions: Freedom, Servitude and Niall Ferguson


Last week I rekindled my love for History and looked forward excitedly to the day I would begin my own studies of the subject. Attending a friend’s lecture on Freedom and Servitude at York University, I was reminded of the myriad of issues and possibilities that arise studying the subject, and the endless opportunities for arguing varied points of view. The lecturer did an admirable job, without a PowerPoint presentation, of skimming through an incredibly contentious theme of history in a thought provoking way. He never became boring or grating, alleviating heavy philosophy and figure based sections of his speech with lighter links to an interview with Kate Moss in Grazia about her idea of freedom and an amusing, scandalous Bible story used as bewildering justification for the slave trade for centuries.

I made my own notes and learnt that Harvard scholar Orlando Patterson described freedom as an under theorized concept; something which made a lot of sense. Like love or beauty, freedom is something easier to understand through experience and hard to articulate. Its vagueness adds to its allure though. Equally interesting is that some cultures, particularly in Asia, attach much less importance to what we in the West might term “freedom” or liberty. In Japan they have no word for freedom. Our guilt and direct experience of slavery has led to a freedom fetish in our culture, stemming particularly from the American fascination with it.

The lecture rose numerous other interesting points, which it is not my intention to delve into here. It highlighted aspects of history, such as Greek and Roman dependence on slaves, and the cultural slavery instigated by some tribes, never so much as touched on at school. But crucially its conclusion threw up a controversy, a set of conflicting views about the overall interpretation of slavery.

Traditionally it’s assumed that after the Declaration of Independence in America, the North phased out slavery, and the South didn’t, which led to Civil War and the North imposed the right way on the South. But the North continued to condone slavery in several ways and the push for freedom was far from strong and complete. Inequality would remain even as slavery faded, as any minor knowledge of the civil rights movement will reinforce. The challenge to conventional history then, was did Americans, be it the establishment or the majority or whoever, realise in some way that their considerable freedom depended upon the servitude of others? Just as Sparta’s mechanised and elitist form of society in Ancient Greece depended on the labour of enslaved Helots, did the blossoming prosperity of white Americans depend on the comparable hardships of their black workers?

I relish the considerable crossover with other subjects in History; be it politics, literature or philosophy. And in philosophical terms the conclusion of the lecture could be boiled down to: can freedom exist without slavery, or vice versa? Something that’s always appealed to both the realist and idealist in me is that things can simultaneously be their opposites. By this I mean, as Orwell notoriously wrote in 1984, “Freedom is Slavery”. Perhaps one really cannot exist without the other. I think that when studying History it helps to remember that there will always be a contradictory view and that just because it might completely oppose the more sensible option, does not mean it does not have value or truth or validity. I’m not expressing myself very well, but hopefully my point will become clearer.

I’ve always admired the historian Niall Ferguson. I discovered him through extremely engaging programmes on Channel 4, about Empire, America and War. His ideas and theories challenge traditional views, and this is something the historian should always be looking to do. His interpretations of the past connect and enlighten our immediate future. Often his focus will be economic but he rarely alienates with too many figures. He simply selects the right ones to back the thrust of his story. For me he achieves all the things an historian ought to. This doesn’t mean his conclusions have to be full-proof. Indeed it’s because he recognises History is not straightforward and that it’s constantly evolving and full of contradictions, that I admire him.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/20/niall-ferguson-interview-civilization

In yesterday’s Observer Ferguson gives an insightful interview. The writer, William Skidelsky, does a superb job of marrying the probing of Ferguson’s personal journey with his world view. There is some interesting background to Ferguson’s works, which shed light on them. Overall it’s a fantastic article about the man as well as the ideas. He is truly a remarkable human being and looking suave at 46 I would go as far as to pop him in my exclusive idol drawer.

His latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, is closely linked to an idea Ferguson has been espousing about History teaching in schools. The curriculum, most accept, is too narrow and sporadic. Students leave having studied Hitler countless times but with no clue of History’s broader sweep and its overarching connections. It’s something that puts the comprehensive school pupils at a disadvantage against more traditionally educated, public school types. I can personally vouch for this and as a keen History student would welcome the subject being both better taught and more attractive for future generations.

Ferguson’s new work is targeted at 17 year olds, he says, and it charts the ascendancy of the West over the East since Early Modern times. Ferguson’s recent back catalogue of works have focused on Empire and his views, particularly on the British and American systems, have been controversial. His fusion of idealism and realism is tremendously inspiring. What I tried to express earlier is brilliantly summed up in the conclusions to his work: for example, the British Empire did bad but also a great deal of good or Americanisation can be a force for immorality but also if applied more earnestly and thoughtfully, bring immense prosperity and freedom. I am generalising and simplifying, but as I said he is the best of historians; accessible but scholarly supreme, dynamic and revisionist but pragmatic.

I look forward to his latest work, both in TV and book form and wish him the best of luck with his crusade to evolve the teaching of his subject; just as history itself and his views have done.

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.