Category Archives: TV

Melbourne Noir – Jack Irish (Film Review)


Guy Pearce is an actor whose name, face, presence immediately conveys, for me,  one particular role. He is, always will be, Detective Edmund ‘Ed’ Exley in L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson 1997)  His cool, careerist counterpoint to Russell Crowe’s terrifying Officer Bud White is a thing of beauty and brought him to the attention of moviegoers everywhere.
So. How does he fare as grieving Melbourne lawyer turned gumshoe/fixer, Jack Irish, in ABC’s  telefilm adaptation of Peter Temple’s novel Bad Debts? Bloody well mate, I’d say. In Pearce’s hands, Jack’s battle with the bottle following his wife’s murder becomes a necessary rite of passage rather than just self-pitying indulgence. And when, a few years later, one of his former clients is murdered, Jack feels responsible, shakes off his lethargy and sets out to track down the killers.
I’ve read a couple of Temple’s novels, Truth and The Broken Shore, both about policemen and criminality. The central characters in those stories are men who, to some extent, live in the shadow of their fathers but eventually emerge to become their own men. Jack Irish is similarly cast. His father was a hard case Australian Rules player, fondly remembered by the old boys – characters – who Jack drinks and talks horses with at his local, The Prince of Prussia. And as Jack moves laconically around the race tracks, pubs and dark places of Melbourne’s underworld, he reveals not only an awareness of his debt to the memory of that version of Australian manliness but also a steadfast, self-deprecating attachment to principle and loyalty that evokes a different Australia. It’s entirely to Pearce’s credit that he is able to convey these complexities of his character and never allow them to get in the way of the story-telling.
I liked this movie a lot. It has a good feel for black humour, evocative locations, credible plotting and a smashing central performance. It was also great to see Roy Billing again, this time as Jack’s shady, sometime employer, Harry Strang.

There are at least 2 other Jack Irish telefilms starring Guy Pearce. Of these, I’ve seen Black Tide which is also well worth seeing.


Cromwell In Rehab – Wolf Hall (TV Review)


I recently watched the TV mini-series, Wolf Hall (BBC 2015) which is an adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. The story follows the career of Thomas Cromwell, who became Henry VIII’s chief minister, and covers the period from his service with Cardinal Wolsey (c1520) up to the time when Henry’s second wife, Ann Boleyn, was executed (1536) – although there are flashbacks to his childhood in Putney, London.

I should say straightaway that this is a high quality production and carries the full weight of the BBC tradition in presenting historical drama. The series has received many accolades and found favour with the majority of critics. It is certainly watchable and probably meets the description of ‘important’ in terms of where it sits in the pantheon of successful television dramas. Yes – you know there’s a ‘but’ coming, don’t you? And here it is; I have two caveats and I will confine what follows to a brief discussion of those concerns. I strongly suggest that you watch the series and make your own determinations as to its merits.

It does seem to me that both Mantel’s novels and this series have set out to reconstruct Cromwell’s character and therefore the motivation for his actions. In the past, biographers, historians and film makers have portrayed him as an unscrupulous, manipulative opportunist. A grasping parvenu who the king found useful to fix his personal and constitutional problems. John Colicos’ reading of Cromwell in Anne of the Thousand Days (Charles Jarrott 1969) is a good example of this treatment. But now we have a Cromwell, abused by his father when a child, who is driven to make his place in the world. A polymath adept at the law, finance, languages and diplomacy. Taken into service by Cardinal Wolsey – when his master falls from power, Cromwell is patiently determined to avenge him by destroying those who brought about that fall and then volubly abused his memory. The same process of rationalisation is evident in how Cromwell and Thomas More are brought to the screen. More is seen personally torturing a prisoner. He is unbending in his opposition to the installation of Anne Boleyn as queen, despite Cromwell’s reasoned and reasonable suggestions that he comply with the king’s wishes. Of course, both men used violence and coercion to enforce their ideas. It was the ideas that differed, not the methods. And More’s opposition to Henry’s marriage recognised that his approval of that would also signify approval of the king as the head of the Church in England.
But this rehabilitation is lubricated by a certain, currently fashionable ‘upmarket anti-Catholicism’ (George Weigel) and the subtleties and complexities of Tudor life are largely ignored in favour of this more sympathetic view of Cromwell. The need for the Reformation, for instance, is glibly explained away in a few sentences by Cromwell in a conversation with Henry.
What I believe this revisionist agenda does, is rob the narrative of a more organic flow. I didn’t get the sense of men making history and history making men. Henry was only one generation removed from the Civil War that placed his father on the throne. His overwhelming need was to secure the succession with a male heir. But Damian Lewis plays him more with a sense of libido than a sense of history. Similarly, the Reformation brought about the union of Church and State and the resultant persecution that ultimately spawned the Age of Enlightenment. But nowhere is there evidence of any historical flux or historiological context in the way the story is told. Motives are quotidian. Events are static.

Also, I’m not convinced by Mark Rylance as Cromwell. It’s a very mannered, dry reading and I do get that Cromwell was a thinker – probably calm under pressure and not easily rattled. But Rylance shows us his hand at the very beginning. The characterisation does have small differences of pitch and inflection, sure, but most of the time he succeeds in just looking rather like Bill Nighy biting his lip. So it all becomes a bit wearing and, well, boring – probably less so if you’re waiting a week between episodes – but as I suggested in yesterday’s blog, watching 2 or 3 episodes at a sitting does expose the flaws. I do need to give honourable mentions to both Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn and Damian Lewis as Henry. I particularly liked Foy’s Anne – ambitious and wilful but imbuing her queen with a sense of fate. It is a splendidly rich, detailed production with an excellent supporting cast and technically stunning. See it for yourself. But it didn’t really work for me.


Monty Python and The Fiery Cross – TV Review ‘Outlander’

As part of a recent streaming deal, we were given a gratis 3 month sub to Lightbox. This has allowed us to view some made-for-TV programmes which have received critical and popular acclaim. Amongst these is the first series of ‘Outlander’ (Sony/Left Bank 2014) which was released by Starz. This offering is based on Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ series of novels.
The story commences in the London of 1945 at the conclusion of WWII. Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) is reunited with her husband, Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies), both of them having served in that conflict. They drive up to Inverness, Scotland where a few sideways glances, a mysterious stranger and an ancient henge of standing stones with arcane properties soon conspire to send Claire hurtling back to 1743 – and no DeLorean or Doc Brown to be seen anywhere.
Claire arrives during a skirmish between ‘rebel’ highlanders and some redcoats commanded by, wait for it, ‘Black Jack’ Randall, Frank’s ancestor and doppelgänger who promptly tries to rape Claire, thus setting the tone for everything that follows. Claire, fairly predictably, is rescued by the highlanders and in short order finds herself attracted to buff warrior, Jamie MacKenzie Fraser (Sam Heughan).
So while Claire battles with her conflicted feelings for the men in her life who are separated by 200 years, she also has to navigate her way around the mores of 18th century clan life, a Jacobite uprising and male attitudes to women that would make Woody Allen proud. And series developer, Ronald D Moore leaves no stone standing (see what I did there?) to ensure we get all the messages in bold caps. There’s a scene where Claire is hosted in a dining room by a group of British officers that far exceeds anything that Mel Gibson could cook up for either Braveheart or The Patriot by way of agitational propaganda and stereotyping of the British colonialist attitudes. So much so, that I was strongly reminded of Monty Python’s ‘Upper Class Twit of the Year’ sketch, such was the overplaying of braying entitlement. Don’t get me wrong. Given my name and long-held convictions on such matters, I could be normally expected to applaud. But I didn’t. Maybe because most of the Scots men are forever also making crude gestures and remarks about intercourse with women, farmyard animals and ‘small beasties’.
Then there are the obligatory sex scenes. Firstly between Claire and Frank and then Claire and Jamie. Most episodes have at least one sex scene and some have several.(The shag count exceeds the body count mostly) We know that Claire is libidinous because she’s been told that her fleshy Mound of Venus indicates that her man ‘won’t stray from your bed.’ But the production protocols for this kind of soft porn dictate that the soundtrack is overdubbed with the sort of grunting and yelping ordinarily associated with the final of the women’s singles at Wimbledon.
And so it’s all a bit of a trial, I think. And probably exacerbated by being able to watch 2 or 3 episodes at a sitting, rather than having to wait a week to see who’s been raped/betrayed/ murdered by who. The formula wears thin much more rapidly.

Apparently there is a second series under way and this is set in France. I’m encouraged by that news because if the stereotypes hold to form, at least there will be more interesting sexual positions.


A King’s Gotta Do What A King’s Gotta Do – Henry V – A Review


But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.’
King Henry V has these thoughts on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt in October, 1415. He leads an English army, depleted by sickness and weary from hard campaigning in France. He wants to march on to Calais and safety but the much larger, better equipped French army has been shadowing him and is shaping for a battle. Henry has told the French herald that he is in no condition for a battle and would prefer to avoid one. But he adds, that if battle is offered by the French, then he will accept the challenge.
The challenge for director, Thea Sharrock and her Henry, Tom Hiddleston, is how to play Henry. This production is the final play in the series The Hollow Crown and many of the actors, including Hiddleston, have been carried over from the two Henry IV plays. So we’ve seen Prince Hal making his bones, shedding his profligate ways and assuming the mantle of kingship. We know he’s canny, shrewd. A prince who feigned at a dissolute character in order to seem all the more appealing when he shows his true colours as king.
For many, the two most well-remembered  portrayals of Henry on film are Laurence Olivier’s war hero (1944) and Kenneth Branagh’s ruling class hooray henry on a day trip to France to see what booty may be had. (1989) Hiddleston chooses a different path. We sense a diffidence about him. His key speeches at both Harfleur and Agincourt are personal, intimate – made to small groups and individuals. Not on a white charger, splendid in golden armour. It’s almost as if this monarch is already wearying of the rhetoric he’s fated to deploy. The gestures, the costumes, the action all seem just a little jaded; ‘I’ve got to do this, you know. Reclaim my birth right. Finish the unfinished business here in France. But it is a bloody business, so it is,’ seems to me to be the sub-text.
I suppose this approach might explain the absence of so many scenes that usually appear in this play; Canterbury’s detailed explanation to Henry of how the French have employed the principles of Salic Law to deny the English claim to the French throne; The plot against Henry at Southampton before embarking for France; The French nobility bragging about their prowess and likely victories on the eve of the battle and, most perplexing of all, the slaughter, by the French, of the English boys guarding the baggage train at Agincourt – particularly as Henry still delivers his ‘I was not angry since I came to France until this instant.’ response. This omission also places a quite different interpretation on Henry’s order to kill the French prisoners, the baggage train incident usually being seen as a justification for a reprisal. But this and the other changes all serve to create the idea of a pragmatic, canny king who is all too aware of his historical obligations and perhaps just the slightest bit contemptuous of them.
I should add that adopting this, I suppose, more cerebral approach, utterly compromises the two scenes which feature Princess Katherine (Mélanie Thierry), the daughter of the French king, Charles VI, to whom Henry becomes engaged. Usually serving as light relief from the bloody business of war and a handy way to reach détente, in this production, these scenes become almost incongruous, charming not sitting easily alongside quotidian but necessary violence.
So, yes, a masculine Henry. But a Henry caught in a time of unease both at home and abroad. A Henry keenly aware of his obligations to history and his country but wary of the weight of those obligations. I liked this Henry. The portrayal is flawed. But I liked it none the less.

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Author’s Note
; The BBC have set down a tentative date of 2016 for screening of the second part of The Hollow Crown, comprising Henry VI, parts I, II and III as well as Richard III, thus completing the full cycle of the ‘history plays’ encompassing The Wars of the Roses. It’s worth noting that the Princess Katherine mentioned above was Katherine de Valois. After Henry’s death, she married Owen Tudor and it was their grandson, Henry Tudor, who defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field and was crowned Henry VII.

War and Honour – Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 – A Review


‘Tis not due yet. I would be loath to pay Him before His day. What need I be so forward with Him that calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter. Honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honor prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honour set to a leg? no. Or an arm? no. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word “honour”? What is that “honour”? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore, I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.’

These words are spoken by Sir John Falstaff at the commencement of the Battle Of Shrewsbury. The troubled king, Henry IV (Jeremy Irons), is about to take on the Percys of Northumberland and their allies in the latest rebellion against Plantagenet rule.
Director, Richard Eyre, has constructed an intimate account of the making of a king, Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston), by having him act as the pivot between two contrasting worlds; the royal court at Westminster and The Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap. And everyone we meet seems to have a point of view about honour. Falstaff, Hal’s drinking companion, sees it as a worthless label – ‘a mere scutcheon’. The king is troubled by his own lack of honour, having deposed another king who ruled by divine right. And Hotspur, the rebel, is consumed by the quest for honour – so much so that his judgement is blinded by it at a crucial time. This production has Hal weaving his way through the machinations of his father, the king, the boastful and self-serving posturings of Falstaff and the noble, but rash, actions of his adversary, Hotspur. By the conclusion of Part II, Prince Hal is ready to become Henry V, the product of his own tutorial.
A brilliant cast bring Shakespeare’s play to the screen, making the text – and therefore the ideas – accessible in a way that creates a new standard I believe. Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff brings  a rhythm, a cadence to Falstaff’s lines that open up his character, make him transparent – not only to Hal but us, the audience, as well. The argot of Eastcheap is a hip hop away from rapping in the ‘hood. Shakespeare wrote for the pit and everyone connected to this production plays it that way. I mentioned in my earlier review of Richard II, the first in this series of  The Hollow Crown, the sense of visual narrative allied to a deep knowledge of Shakespeare that had created an organic account of history in the making. This splendid production has built on that fine beginning to bring us an intriguing and satisfying account of the making of a king.


When Plantagenets Fall Out – Richard II – A Review

The Hollow Crown


For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchise, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

These lines from Act III of Richard II have been chosen by director, Rupert Goold, to also serve as a prologue to BBC Television’s 2012 production of  William Shakespeare’s play. This production is the first of three TV films under the title, The Hollow Crown, also taking in Henry IV parts I & II as well as Henry V. Richard speaks these words on a Welsh beach as he arrives back from campaigning in Ireland to learn that his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, has returned from exile to reclaim the estates, taken from him earlier by the king.
This beginning, and the style of what follows, evidence an approach that places Richard in a historical flow. He doesn’t just materialise at the beginning of Act I. He’s been king since he was 10 years old. He has ridden out to put down The Peasants Revolt when not yet 16. He has ridden out the attempts of the Lords Appellant to take control of government. And in 1398, in his 32nd year, when the play commences, he is confident in his empowerment by the divine right of kings. Yet the prologue tells us that history, like justice, is blind. It tells us that a king’s divine right may be challenged if that right is not tempered by care and charity. Indeed, the warning is echoed by Richard’s successor, Bolingbroke, as Henry IV, when he reflects, ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.’ And he should know.
So Shakespeare understood then that what happened between Richard and Bolingbroke at the conclusion of the 14th century would reverberate on English, British and European history – not just through the ensuing Wars of the Roses –  but far beyond that. And the Bard of Avon is wonderfully well assisted in bringing this least-produced of the ‘history plays’ to the screen by director, Rupert Goold and co-producer, Sam Mendes. Goold’s knowledge and working experience of Shakespeare and Mendes’ feel for visual narrative combine to achieve a compelling, organic account of how history is made by two men – not myths – but men whose very polarity obliges them to collide. Ben Whishaw as Richard, portrays a monarch grown disinterested by his power. When his uncle, John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart) dies, Richard, already having mocked the dying man, confiscates his estates and possessions to bolster his failing exchequer. Gaunt’s son, Bolingbroke, is banished and disinherited.
What Richard does appear to be concerned with though, is developing a martyrdom complex. He appears frequently in flowing, white robes and makes extravagant gestures to the heavens. His fascination, in an early scene, with a painting of the death of Saint Sebastian, is an eerie augury for his own death. I was struck by a similarity in the way Whishaw plays these scenes and the way Peter O’Toole plays similar scenes in both Lawrence of Arabia and The Ruling Class. I suspect that may be something to do with Sam Mendes – who in turn may have been channelling Ken Russell? In any event, it’s clear that Richard is unfit for the role of king. When he hands over the crown to Henry, he does so as a peevish child.
So. What of Henry Bolingbroke? In the hands of Rory Kinnear, he is at first staunchly loyal to Richard and then incrementally more and more guilty as his quest to restore his name, his honour, transforms into his usurping the throne – almost as if by accident. One fault of the production is that we never get to see the crowds or the armies that  would support a popular uprising and that does detract from the central proposition that the two protagonists are irrevocably bound as opposites. Shakespeare then arranges Richard’s murder to echo the death of Thomas Beckett at the hands of an earlier Henry; Zealous supporters interpreting the king’s words to rid him of a troublesome burden. Probably safer in Tudor times to rationalise regicide that way, than suggest, as historians do now,  that Richard was killed by starvation and neglect, wasting in the dungeons of Pontefract Castle.
A sumptuous production then, filmed mostly on location, with excellent leads and great support from the likes of David Suchet as York and Patrick Stewart as Gaunt.(His ‘scepter’d isle’ monologue delivered as a tragic valedictory is a brilliant thing) This bodes well for the following two films which I hope to view in the next few weeks.