There’s something dark in the woods

Goodbye Christopher Robin

***** Very Good

What’s it about? The story of the family behind the creation of the world’s most popular children’s fiction character, Winnie the Pooh.

Who directed it? Simon Curtis, who first came to attention with the excellent My Week With Marilyn (2011), and more recently directed Woman in Gold (2015).

Who is in it? Domhnall Gleeson plays author-playwright A.A.Milne, who created the character of Winnie out of bedtime stories he made up for his son, Christopher Robin. Gleeson was seen earlier this year as the cynical CIA controller in Tom Cruise vehicle American Made. Milne’s wife, Daphne, is played by the Australian actress Margot Robbie, in a big shift from her last role in 2016’s Suicide Squad. Will Tilston makes his cinema debut as the young Christopher, with Alex Lowther playing the young-adult Christopher, a role perhaps too similar to his performance as the young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014). In a role that could have been made for her, Kelly Macdonald, last seen in T2 Trainspotting, plays Christopher’s nanny, Olive.

My View: A film about Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh probably creates expectation/trepidation of honeyed sentimentality. There is sunshine and sweetness in evidence, but also plenty of dark shade and sour notes.

The whole is a bittersweet creation that covers ground a long way from the innocent pleasures of life in the Hundred Acre Wood.

The opening sequence takes us from sun-dappled countryside to Western Front trenches to 1920s posh society party, laying out the themes to be explored.

Milne is psychologically damaged by his experiences on The Somme during World War One. Daphne is a party-loving girl-about-LondonTown, for whom the ‘mechanics’ of giving birth to their only child come as a traumatic shock (how she thought it was going to happen, having presumably been conscious during the child’s conception, is a mystery the film wisely ignores).

Together, they make very selfish and neglectful parents. Their son finds affection and attention mainly from Olive.

Milne’s magical creation of Winnie and the other animals in the woods comes out of a rare period of time when father and son bond (Daphne has gone back to London for a season of parties). It could have been the start of a much closer and happier relationship.

Instead, as the Milnes rapaciously exploit the commercial opportunities arising from the Pooh books’ extraordinary popularity, their son is left more isolated and miserable than ever.

This is a child who is invited to the House of Lords, but yearns for some sign of love from his parents. He is left wanting for nothing, when all he really wants is them.

Instead, they steal his childhood and sell it in a raffle, the lucky winners having the chance to have tea with “the happiest boy in England”.

The final part of the film, with a reconciliation that did not happen to the real Milne family, is the one moment when the syrup is laid on too thick. But the dark, chewy stuff that comes before makes this forgivable.

Watch this film if: you suspect that, behind every apparently happy family, there’s a story of secret sorrows.

 

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St Nicholas, Nicholaston

AN elegantly restored church with much work undertaken by the Talbot family in the 19th Century.

It overlooks Oxwich Bay, with views across to Devon and Cornwall on a fine day.

It is a Victorian restoration of an earlier medieval church. The first church in Nicholaston was built close to the sandy cliffs that overlook the sea. The sand gradually moved in and made the site unusable, so some time in the 14th Century a new church was built inland.

It was comprehensively rebuilt in 1894 by Olive Talbot as a memorial to her father, CRM Talbot, of Margam Castle and Penrice Castle.

The church is remote from the village it serves, standing just off the main south Gower road.

Where gunmen stalk the storm-dark streets

World Crime Atlas is my retirement project to read one crime novel set in each country in The Times Atlas of the World, concentrating on the sense of place created by the author.

GAZA

The Saladin Murders, by Matt Rees.

Plot: “It is a blistering morning in Gaza, as Omar Yussef struggles along the uneven streets to carry out a school inspection. But when he learns that a fellow teacher has been accused of links to the CIA, and jailed, his suspicions are immediately aroused. And the more Yussef investigates the arrest, the more people seem to be implicated, and the murkier his search for the truth becomes. With the police force, the military and Gaza’s most powerful gang all out to silence him, Yussef must face the terrifying realisation that he is no longer fighting to save his colleague – but himself.”

When and where: The book was first published in 2008. Gaza is a narrow strip of land on the southeast corner of the Mediterranean, between Egypt and Israel. A Palestinian territory, it has limited autonomy from Israel, but hostilities between the indigenous Arab population and Israel continue.

Sense of place: The book very quickly presents Gaza as a dysfunctional place; in the first chapter, we are told “the place was so broken that it ought to be pulled out into the Mediterranean and sunk, along with the gunmen and corrupt ministers who ran it.”

The compromises required to survive in this corrupted society are explicit: “To live here, you would have to accept the shadows, swelter in airless rooms, choke on your resentment.

The story unfolds over a few days; throughout it, Gaza is enveloped in a dust storm. There are frequent references to the heat and the dust. The darkened streets are patrolled by militias, and infiltrated by Israeli patrols.

We learn something of Gaza’s troubled history, subdued by successive invaders and occupiers.

The physical and historical hardships are brought together strikingly: “Feuding emirs, unnameable fear you can taste in every particle of dust in this storm, and death. Death even for those….accustomed to wielding it….That’s not history. That’s the present.”

On the lighter side, however, there are appetising descriptions of local culinary specialities.

Verdict: The book does give the reader a sense of the extreme difficulties experienced by Gaza’s long-suffering population. It is also a very satisfying crime story, with vividly described characters (Rees is especially good at eyes); Omar Yussef is an engaging and unusual creation.

About the author: Matt Rees was born in South Wales. He covered the Middle East as a journalist for a decade. There are three more Omar Yussef novels.

Nice suits: shame about the film

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

* Awful

What’s it about? Kingsman, the British secret service operating from a Saville’s Row tailor’s shop, teams up with Statesman, its American whiskey-brewing counterpart, to fight the insane boss of the world’s biggest drugs cartel.

Who directed it? Matthew Vaughan. He produced Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), before moving into directing. Films include Layer Cake (2004), Kick-Ass (2010), X-Men: First Class (2011), and Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014).

Who is in it? Taron Egerton, Colin Firth and Mark Strong reprise their roles from the first Kingsman film (despite Firth’s character, Harry Hart, being very obviously dead after being shot in the head; apparently, he was saved by a magic gel and revived by microbots which rebuilt his brain; whatever). This time around, they are joined by Juliette Moore, as Poppy, the drugs mastermind; Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, and Halle Berry are members of Statesman.

My view: The first Kingsman film was a surprise box-office hit. I missed it in the cinema, but saw it recently on television; I thought it was edgy, energetic and funny. It was described as a punk-style James Bond, though I thought its immaculately-dressed and umbrella-wielding agents owed a debt to Patrick Magee’s character John Steed in The Avengers 1960s tv series.

I enjoyed it, despite the ending being partly spoiled by a spectacularly misjudged sex joke. The trouble with the sequel is that it expands and elaborates on the inappropriate and distasteful stuff (apart from the smuttiness, there are two gross scenes involving a giant meat mincer, and a truly gobsmacking sequence where a tracker is inserted into a certain part of a female festival-goer’s anatomy ), while at the same time forfeiting all of the style and fizz that made the first film such fun.

We are left with a ludicrous plot, pointless characters (including repeated cameo appearances by Elton John, simply to allow the film to reprise the original tasteless sex joke), and very leaden performances all round.

It is all very disappointing. It appears that Kingsman is being viewed as a franchise vehicle, but it’s already crashed.

Watch this film if: you are a barely-pubescent schoolboy with a bespoke-tailoring fetish.

St John the Baptist, Penmaen

THE neighbouring villages of Penmaen and Nicholaston nestle at the foot of Cefn Bryn, the gently sloping hill that runs along the spine of the peninsula.

They are surrounded by a diverse landscape, including grassy fields and rivers that run south through woodlands and dunes to sandy beaches.

The Victorian church of St John stands at the heart of the village of Penmaen. It is very simply decorated.

The original church was on the burrows above Three Cliffs Bay. It was besanded in the early 14th Century, and probably was directly replaced by the current one.

From 1230 to 1540 it was owned by the Knights of St John. It was largely restored in the 19th Century.

Today, the building sits alongside the main south Gower road, and is wedged in between modern housing.

St Illtyd’s, Ilston

THE village of Ilston lies in the heart of the Gower AONB. It stands at the head of an attractive wooded valley, Ilston Cwm, through which a stream runs south. Ilston is not much more than a row of houses along a country lane.

A 6th Century monastic cell was one of the first Baptist places of worship in Britain. The 13th Century church incorporates the remains of the 6th Century cell.

The first written record of the church was in 1119; in 1221, it was granted to the Knights Hospitallers. The patronage passed to the English crown at the Reformation.

A yew tree opposite the church entrance is probably as old as the building itself.

 

The lonely helplessness of the world’s most powerful woman

Victoria & Abdul ****

What’s it about? A bored and melancholy Queen Victoria befriends an Indian Muslim clerk after he is sent to England to present her with a Jubilee gift from the sub-continent that she rules but has never visited. As she advances his position, making him her “munshi” (teacher) and then her personal secretary, concern and anger grow among her aristocratic courtiers, led by her son Bertie, the future Edward VII.

Who directed it? Stephen Frears. It is not his first film about the British monarchy; he directed The Queen (2006). He has also worked previously with Dame Judi Dench, in Mrs Henderson Presents (2005) and Philomena (2013).

Who is in it? Dench plays Queen Victoria, returning to a role she has played before, in Mrs Brown (1997). More recently, she has enjoyed success as M in seven James Bond movies. Her performances in two Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films have also helped propel her into ‘national treasure’ status. By contrast, the role of Abdul Karim is played by a newcomer to Western cinema; Ali Fazal appeared in Furious 7 (2015), but has a strong pedigree in Bollywood movies. Bertie is played by the comedian Eddie Izzard, building on a cinema career that includes Whisky Galore! (2016) and the Ocean’s 12 and 13 films.

My view. Dench may be revisiting the role, but this is much more than a reprise. This time, Victoria is more than 20 years older than she was in Mrs Brown, and Dench’s portrayal of her is even deeper and richer. What has not changed is her unpredictable choice for male companionship.

In one early scene, Abdul tells Victoria the story of the Mogul emperor who built the Taj Mahal as a shrine to his dead wife, and how he was eventually deposed by his own son. “The cruelty of children,” she says, and one of the film’s themes is how Victoria used Abdul (and John Brown before him) as substitute for her own children, whose behaviour and character had added to her sense of isolation after the early death of her beloved Prince Albert.

Her loneliness is apparent, as is her sense of helplessness; she is the most powerful woman in the world, but all she can do is wait for death to reunite her with “all of the people I have cared for.”

Wishing she would hurry up with this is her eldest son and heir, played with a tremendous mixture of impatience, frustration and malevolence by Izzard. Surrounding him and his mother is the royal court, a pit of intrigue and social climbing – which is mirrored, to the courtiers’ increasing fury, by Abdul’s swift elevation from servant to the Queen’s right-hand man.

The part of Abdul is much less defined. I’d like to think this is deliberate on Frears’s part. Abdul is a blank canvas, on which the other players project their own desires and prejudices. Victoria sees a loyal and trustworthy friend. Bertie and the courtiers see a charlatan and a threat to the established order (he is both “common” and – horrors! – coloured).

Fazal does as much as can be expected with the role, but make no mistake, this is Dench’s film. I wouldn’t be surprised if it earned her yet another Best Actress Oscar nomination.

Watch this film if: you have a passing interest in the British monarchy or the British Empire, enjoy historical drama, or want to see one of Britain’s great actresses turning in an outstanding performance at the age of 82.