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May 4/12

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: The Deep Blue Sea (Movie); Hand On The Shoulder (Short Fiction); Toward Balance  (Art); Damsels In Distress (Movie); Nicholas King (Concert); The Affair (Novel)

The Deep Blue Sea (Movie) from the play by Terence Rattigan; adapted and directed by Terence Davies; starring Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale, Ann Mitchell, Harry Hadden-Paton, Barbara Jefford, Sarah Kants, Karl Johnson

It’s 1950 and Hester (Rachel Weisz) is married to Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), a British judge nearly twice her age. The movie opens with her attempting to commit suicide (by pills and gas) in the dingy flat where she and Freddie, a young war hero (Tom Hiddleston) have been playing house. Hester is saved (hope that’s not giving away too much) and, as she drifts in and out of consciousness, we get glimpses of her past life and her love affair in brief flashbacks. Meanwhile, Samuel Barber’s violin concerto drones on and on to intensely lugubrious effect. There’s little dialogue. Everything moves slowly. Talk about the deep blue sea – it feels like we’re underwater. Is this going to be one of those "women’s weepies"?

But Hester’s hubby arrives, having been informed by the landlady of the flat about the attempted suicide. Now that estranged husband and wife confront one another, we find ourselves in the great tradition of British melodrama. Yes, Terence Rattigan, on whose play the movie is based, was one of Britain’s most popular playwrights of the mid-twentieth century. We’re back before the day when John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger turned theatre toward gritty, kitchen-sink realism. Here we have the kind of theatre where dignified people speak with a certain eloquence as the polished lines fly back and forth. The only smidgen of the dialogue from this scene that I can  now recall occurs when the husband’s on the point of leaving the flat. He asks: "If we had been able to have a child, would it have made a difference." Her response: "To whom?"

Eventually, lover boy shows up at the flat too. It’s a bit hard to piece together the chronology but it would appear that everything – apart from the flashbacks – is taking place in one day. What you could call, from Hester’s point of view, a really horrible, terrible, very bad day. I’d consider the movie a great success on the basis of that most fundamental dynamic: as each new development comes up, you keep asking yourself, how the hell are they going to deal with this? What prevents the movie from being fully satisfying for me, however, is that I can’t understand Freddie’s reaction when he finds out about Hester’s attempted suicide. Compassion? Sympathy? No. He flies into a rage. You keep wanting to say: hey, buddy, this isn’t all about you. Even Hester tries to tell him that. But no, he takes her desperate move as a personal affront. I just don’t get that -- which is unfortunate, because the movie would be a lot stronger if you sympathasized with each of the three people.

Would it have been possible for another actor to have made this character more undersandable to me? Hard to say. When it comes to great acting, though, Simon Russell Beale, as the estranged husband, comes across very sympathetically. He’s one of those British actors who excels at playing the stalwart, reticent, upper class gent who manages to let you know that his feelings go much deeper than it seems. As for Ms. Weisz’s acting, it wouldn’t be fair to criticize anybody for being too beautiful, but she does capture the angst of a woman caught in her difficult situation. Just now and then, as when the ice between the two of them is thawing a bit and she’s addressing her husband familiarly as "Bill," her tone doesn’t sound quite convincing. But it’s hard to know what tone would be right in the circumstances. One special treat in the acting department comes from Ann Mitchell in the role of the classic British landlady with the prune face, her hair bundled up in a bandana, who turns out to be not as inhumane as you might think.

In some respects, Terence Davies’ adaptation of the Rattigan play doesn’t transcend its theatrical origins. The comings and goings, the entrances and exits, feel a bit stagey in a way that would pass without quibble in a theatre but doesn’t have the natural flow of a movie. Still, we’re in the hands of a movie-maker who spun enchantment with something as simple as the sunlight on a carpet in The Long Day Closes. Here, too he casts spells – as when the sight of some soot and rubble falling from the ceiling of an underground tunnel launches a memory. The significance of certain motifs isn't always obvious, mind you. Take that lingering shot that closes the movie: bomb damage in a London neighbourhood. What's that say? Maybe that all human beings tend to wreck their lives in one way or another?

I loved the scenes of people in pubs singing those wartime songs: old and young having a good time together, some of the elderly women with their grey hair wound around their heads in braids. Best of all: a flashback to when Londoners sought refuge from nighttime bombing by camping out in the underground (i.e. "subway") stations. There they all are in pyjamas, hats and coats, huddled on the platforms. The voice of a young man singing "Molly Malone" echoes through the stony chamber and everybody joins in softly on the chorus. The Brits have never looked so good.

Capsule Comment (in lieu of a rating): A lot like some of the best British theatrical movies.

 

Hand On The Shoulder (Short Fiction) by Ian McEwan; The New Yorker, 30/4/12

Here we have what looks like another excerpt from a forthcoming Ian McEwan novel. This piece might not be as stunning as the one that introduced us a few years back to On Chesil Beach, the story about the blighted love life of a young couple. Still, this one's impressive enough in its own way. The narrator is looking back at her time as a student in Cambridge in the early 1970s when she was being recruited by the British security service. Mostly, though, it's about her love life.

One remarkable thing about the story is that it's so well told from a woman's point of view that, at one point, I had to look back at the first page to check the author's name, thinking maybe I'd made a mistake about its being written by a man. But the most striking thing about the story is that everything turns on a crucial misunderstanding; nothing can be done to clear it up and yet it has calamitous consequences. Makes you shudder to think that probably there are many times in people's lives when personal disasters occur for reasons that are as inexplicable as they are conclusive.

 

Toward Balance: Poetry and Art Women’s Art Association of Canada, Prince Arthur Avenue, Toronto; until May 14

In this annual show, painters from the Women’s Art Association of Canada team up with poets from the Long Dash Group. The idea is to show how painting and poetry can reflect on each other. In some case, it appears, the painting comes first, then the poetic reaction; sometimes vice versa. This year I wasn’t able to attend the festive opening event in which the poets read their work aloud. On a subsequent visit to the gallery, however, I was able to appreciate some of the highlights of the show.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that a visitor who missed the public readings would be drawn first to the paintings, rather than to the poems posted beside them. To my eye, Wendy Weaver’s "Shambles" is one of the stand-out works. An abstract, featuring some rough suggestions of human figures emerging from a complicated surround in pale blues and rust tones (among other hues), the work makes an impact largely because of its very strong composition. In an eery way, the accompanying poem by Elana Wolff echoes something of the painting’s inchoate sense of human striving in lines like: "It would have made more sense/if hue had vanished from the family room – so great was the unravelling."

All of the abstracts by Wenda Watt, whether seen up close or from across the room, offer much to a viewer. In vivid, dynamic gestures, they express great bursts of energy. "There is gold black silver in our blood. Scarlet in the belly," says the poem by Clara Blackwood that goes with Ms. Watt’s painting in those tones. I particularly like the line which seems to relate to the painting’s sense of something birthing: "Latent abilities become manifest." Another of Ms. Watt’s paintings evokes this enigmatic but intriguing comment from Mary Lou Soutar-Hynes: "that certain diffidence [space] the way she folds you in her gaze." And Sheila Stewart’s poetry, paired with another Watt painting, asks the profound: "How does a painter paint light and energy?" followed up by the delightfully simple and pragmatic request that touches a chord on a very human level: "May I look at it in another room?"

A painting by Hortensia Reyes – just a few dark scratches and blobs on an expanse of white, entitled "Blindness" – leaves much for the viewer to fill in. It’s accompanied in a very evocative way by Yaqoob Ghaznavi’s poem that talks about things like a person’s confusing sunrise and sunset, day dreams and night dreams, noting that each step is a step "into the abyss" and yet a step "closer to the divine."

Perhaps it’s the rectangular elements in Marjorie Moeser’s very geometrical abstract painting that suggest the world of athletics (courts? rinks?) as referred to in Merle Nudelman’s poem that mentions things like hockey and volleyball. In this poem that celebrates drive and action, it sounds like a cautionary note when there’s mention of leaving the "civilian self on the bench."

 

Damsels In Distress (Movie) written and directed by Whit Stillman; starring Greta Gerwig, Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echikunwcke, Analeigh Tipton, Ryan Metcalf, Jermaine Crawford, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Zach Woods, Hugo Becker, Adam Brody, Nick Blaemire, Billy Magnussen

We’ve reviewed lots of weird movies here at Dilettante’s Diary. But this one’s weird in a unique way. It looks like an ordinary movie, sounds more or less like one, but you can’t figure out what the hell you’re supposed to make of it. At least, I can’t.

At first glance, it would appear to be an attempt at a campus comedy, in a satirical vein. We’ve got these four female students who traipse around campus, casting a critical eye on all and sundry. The leader of the group is Violet (Greta Gerwig), a woman around twenty-going-on-forty-five. In a flat monotone, she speaks in pompous, long sentences that make you think that she’s a spokesperson for some cult. Or the voice for some fusty textbook dishing out advice along the lines of what-the-really-smart-coed-needs-to-know. One of her followers is Rose (Megalyn Echikunwcke), a black woman who strikes aloof poses and speaks in a haughty, upper-class British way. Then there’s Heather (Carrie MacLemore). It’s hard to say whether the most notable thing about this person is her cuteness or her simple-mindedness. She insists, with great intellectual confidence, that the first letter in the name of a certain "Xavier" must be ‘Z’ because it’s pronounced the same as "Zorro." The only one of the group who seems anything like a normal young woman is Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a recent recruit who occasionally voices doubts about the quartet’s arrogant opinions and judgements.

There’s a bit of plot in terms of the girls’ on-again-off-again romances with guys. But the boyfriends are passed back and forth by these girls in ways that don’t have any meaning as far as I could tell. One really bizarre – and unnecessary? – element involves that guy named Xavier (Hugo Becker). Being from Southern France, he claims to be a member of the religious sect known as the Cathars and this entails some rather kinky sexual imposition on his girlfriend. Whether or not the actor’s thick accent is authentic or not, I don’t know, but it makes almost everything he says unintelligible and that does not add clarity to the proceedings.

Far from engaging me in a story, then, the movie raised almost nothing but questions, most of them unresolved. Like when is this taking place? Violet wears modest dresses and sweaters, as if she were back in the 1950s, but there’s talk of Internet communications. Then there’s the girls’ phobia about male body odour; it throws them into paroxysms of discomfort. Why? What is that supposed to mean? You’d think women with such tendencies would want only the finest male specimens around them, but Violet seems to see herself as launched on some kind of high-minded social reform: she preaches that it’s better to date dumb guys because you can help them.

Is this all supposed to be some sort of parody? Are the movie-makers trying to show the opposite of the way we think things should go? Is there a kind of Oscar Wilde subversion going on here, the kind of thing where people state the contrary to conventional wisdom? (As in "Ignorance is a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.") Maybe the title’s supposed to be a tip off. These damsels are anything but distressed. Supercilious, more like.

One of their major involvements is the suicide prevention centre where tap dancing programs are meant to help depressed students forget about killing themselves. The centre has a dance show coming up and some students fall into an argument about whether or not you have to qualify as "clinically depressed" in order to be in the show. Ok, I kind of get a wacky humour in that. But how far can you go making jokes about tragic stuff that’s actually happening on campuses these days? Somebody makes a sarcastic comment about the fact that the education students who are jumping off the education building are only hurting themselves, not killing themselves, because the building’s only two storeys high. Sorry, but that joke falls flat for me – if you’ll pardon the pun.

I can just barely see flashes of wit in some of the movie’s concepts. Ultimately, Violet’s going to find that the solution to everybody’s problems on campus is a special soap with a wonderful perfume. Oscar Wilde again? (An echo of his: "In matters of great importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.") One brilliant bit comes in a scene where the girls are ridiculing a dumb jock (Billy Magnussen) because he can’t name the different colours. But he responds with an impassioned speech that says: 1) yes, he may be very ignorant; but 2) he has come to university to study; 3) he’s going to read as much as he can; and 4) the next time the girls encounter him, he’s going to know a lot more than he does now. Ridiculous as the guy’s situation may seem – not knowing his colours??? – the actor makes the speech sound sincere, with the result that it’s surprisingly touching. And, speaking about emotional responses, a person couldn’t help but be buoyed up by the wonderful song-and-dance routines that end the movie.

But the thing that makes the movie pretty much impossible for me to get is the woman at the centre of it. Where is this Violet coming from and what does she intend? At one point she says very calmly that she doesn’t know what it’s like to have a guy look at her with love in his eyes. Ok, fine, you’re thinking, she’s a cold fish. But then she turns out to be the most soppy romantic of the bunch. Early on, she gets in a snit on finding her thick-headed boyfriend (Ryan Metcalf) making out with another girl. But later, when the girls find out that another ruthless cad (Adam Brody) has been lying to them, Violet says she finds that attractive. What’s going on with this person? Is there any identifiable model for this character – in real life or in fiction – that could help a person to understand her?

Bewildering as this movie may be, I have to salute director/writer Whit Stillman for trying something very different and unconventional in the way of humour. For humour to work, though, you’ve got to give your audience some sort of hook to hang onto, some sort of clue as to why you’re doing what you’re doing and saying what you’re saying. Most of the time, I can’t find that hook here. Maybe that’s just a demonstration of the fact that somebody’s quirky sense of humour may not click with somebody else’s. Which could mean that it’s time for your humble reviewer to look up some other reviews in the hopes of discovering what other people may have found in a movie that completely eludes him.

Capsule comment: Go figger!!

 

Nicholas King (Piano Concert) Mazzoleni Hall, Royal Conservatory, Toronto; April 23

People are funny. They’ll turn out in droves and pay major bucks to hear some big name artist – Lang Lang, say. Yet, only a smattering of them will show up to hear a free concert by a young musician who can give them just as big a thrill as any of the more famous stars can. Granted, this concert may not have been as well publicized as some of the ones on the larger stages. And maybe the threat of snow in late April induced a kind of stay-at-home-chill in some Torontonians who might otherwise have turned up. But the rest of us got to enjoy some extraordinary piano playing.

Nicholas King, a Los Angeles native who’s now in his early twenties, has been studying in Toronto with Marc Durand at the Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory. The recipient of many prestigious awards, Mr. King is the youngest person ever to have won the Royal Conservatory’s Music Concerto Competition. His concert at Walt Disney Hall in July of 2010 ended with a standing ovation. (If you Google his name, you’ll find a U-tube video of his performance on Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show when he was eight years old. The occasion for that appearance was that he’d raised a lot of money for charity by playing the piano in a shopping mall.) This recent Toronto concert was in preparation for his departure to play in the famous Dublin International Piano Competition in the first week of May. In August, he’ll be participating – by invitation – in the International Piano Festival at Gijon, Spain.

In Mr. King’s opening piece, J.S. Bach’s Chorale Prelude in F Minor, BWV 639 (arrangement by Ferruccio Busoni), what impressed me most was the soulful effect of the long, singing line – something that’s not easy to achieve on a piano, which is, after all, a percussion instrument. In F.J. Haydn’s Sonata No. 52 in E-flat Major, we got very effective contrasts between the sprightly and the tender moments but what I particularly appreciated was the way the left hand always produced interesting voices, not just routine accompaniment. Franz Liszt’s paraphrase on Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto functioned something like a drug administered directly into the veins to produce pure pleasure. And Mr. King showed that he was fully capable of handling any virtuosic challenges Franz Liszt could throw at him.

The second half of the program opened with one of Franz Schubert’s Impromptus (Op 90. No 1 in C minor). These pieces might not rank among the most inspired of Schubert’s compositions, but Mr. King managed to wring about as much drama out of this one as anybody could. For Maurice Ravel’s "Un barque sur l’ocean" Mr. King produced, with great finesse, all the swirls and flourishes to create the shimmering, watery effects but I couldn’t help thinking that his artistry would have shone to better advantage with a more sensitive piano. (The middle register of the one in the hall struck me as a bit dull.) In Frederic Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Mr. King communicated the infinite subtlety of the shifting moods so characteristic of that most pianistic of composers.

But it was in the final piece of the evening, Mily Balakriev’s "Islamey: Oriental Fantasy" that Mr. King gave the most astounding display of his mastery of the instrument at his disposal. Surely one of the most difficult in all piano repertoire, this piece sweeps on and on in ever-building waves of more and more passion. It leaves the listeners exhausted.But Mr. King maintained throughout – as he did for the whole concert – a dignified, poised presence without any distracting theatrics, focusing our attention on the music rather than on the performer. www.nicholaskingpiano.com

 

The Affair (Thriller) by Lee Child, 2011

Good news for Lee Child fans: as of last year, he was still churning out Jack Reacher thrillers at the top of his form.

Reacher, as first-person narrator in this case, takes us back to 1997 when he was still in the Military Police. (And if I read the ending correctly, this tale explains why he left the army.) A woman has been brutally murdered in a small town in Mississippi. There’s a military base nearby and Reacher has been sent to town to try to make sure that the army isn’t implicated in the murder. Another MP has been assigned to check things out on the military base and Reacher’s supposed to keep an eye on the workings of the local law enforcement.

That puts him in close contact with the Sheriff, a woman who happens to have been a member of the US Marine Corps. She and Reacher have a lot in common, then. You could say that she functions as the "Watson" character here – the person with whom the main detective discusses everything. Except that, in this case, the two of them have competing agendas: she wants the murderer to be found on the military base; Reacher wants the murderer not to be a soldier. As you might expect in a Reacher yarn, things get very complicated between the two of them. One of the best-ever "red herring" situations evolves.

I thought it might be a setback for Reacher to be reduced to the level of more or less an ordinary detective. It seems to me that he’s at his best after he’s left the army and he’s the soldier of fortune out there on his own – just him against the world. But Mr. Child manages to work in plenty of the stuff that makes us love Reacher. Some of the violence struck me as somewhat gratuitous, though. For no reason, other than that he doesn’t like their attitude, Reacher takes on a bunch of local goons early in the novel; these episodes look as though, for lack of any other opportunities for Reacher’s tough-guy tactics, Mr. Child is trying to stir things up a bit.

But once the murder investigation gathers speed, there are plenty of vintage Reacher traits to make the book well worthwhile. I particularly like the flashes of his humour. As when he warns one of the hooligans who’s threatening him: "You’ll get hit harder than you’ve ever been hit before. I’m talking broken bones. I can’t promise brain damage. Looks like someone already beat me to that." Reacher’s trademark, in-your-face insolence – or what you might call his antipathy to pomposity – is well displayed in an incident where a lieutenant comes up to Reacher and says a colonel wants a word with him. Reacher says fine, tell the colonel to step right up. The lieutenant says the colonel would prefer Reacher to come to him. Reacher’s response: "You must be confusing me with someone who gives a shit what he prefers." In somewhat the same spirit, Reacher has this to say about how some soldiers feel about a visiting politician: "I was pretty sure no one from Bravo Company would have pissed on the guy if he was on fire...." But Mr. Child doesn’t save all the sardonic lines for Reacher. Other people get some too, as in this instance when Reacher, trying to inspire his fellow MP to go beyond the call of duty, quotes Martin Luther King's statement that the day we see the truth and cease to speak is the day we begin to die. The other guy answers: "That stuff is way above my pay grade."

By this point in the Reacher series, we know that he's something of a Houdini when it comes to staging great escapes and he pulls off some terrific ones here. His street-smarts are demonstrated in this note about an encounter with one of the thugs: "Then he paused, and his gaze suddenly shifted and focused into the far distance over my shoulder. The oldest trick in the book." In a more sensitive vein, Reacher develops an interesting relationship with a black boy; the development of both their characters in this respect strikes me as somewhat more nuanced than any other relationship I can remember from a Reacher novel.

And speaking of relationships, this book has more sex scenes than most Reacher novels. And, they’re more detailed. Usually Mr. Child closes the door on Reacher and his partner of the moment as they’re getting into bed. But here we get some dynamic couplings, which may have something to do with the book’s title. In terms of Reacher’s attitude to sex, you have to admire the candour in this comment about a woman he’s invited to dinner. He says he doesn’t want her "to feel that dinner was supposed to be more than just dinner. Or in reality I did want her to feel dinner could be more than just dinner, but I didn’t want her to see me wanting it."

Several other instances of writing above the quality of the typical thriller come to light. For instance, this observation in a crowded bar with two busy barmen: "One of them saw me and did the busy-barman thing with his chin and his eyes and the angle of his head...." This about a street scene in a small town: "On my left two old guys were on a bench outside the pharmacy, four hands piled on two canes between two sets of knees." Here are one bad guy’s last moments at Reacher’s hands: "The old guy made a small sound in his throat, the kind of thing I had heard once or twice before, when jokes turned out not to be jokes, when dire situations turned from bad to worse, when nightmares were revealed to be waking realities."

Unexpectedly, however, that sort of incident – of which you find lots in Reacher novels – leaves me with some unsettling questions. This business of Reacher’s sorting things out his own way – his vigilante justice, his summary executions of bad guys. Mr. Child wants us to believe that there’s no question that the world is better off without these guys. But is this disregard for law, for due process, what we really want from our heroes? Call me a wuss, but I’m not sure than an impressionable youngster like me should be learning that it's ok for one maverick to dispense justice in his own way, even if I really do like him.

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