Book Review: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

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Spoilers

When I spotted the book and read that this was an inspiration for the likes of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley I knew that I was going to have to give it a go. I love dystopian fiction and much of that stems from ‘Brave New World’.

The story follows a space engineer in OneState, where everyone is part of ‘We’ under the great Benefactor, and life is strictly followed according to the Table. He comes across another number (no-one has a name) who severely disrupts his life, his feelings and in his opinion his sanity. He gets diagnosed as having a soul, and reading his writings which are meant for being included on his space rocket as OneState travels out into the universe in order to bring happiness to all is very painful indeed. His world gets completely disrupted.

And I will admit while the piece is short, it is one of the most difficult books I have ever tried to read. I don’t think any of that comes from the fact it was translated from Russian, from the fact it is early Science Fiction written in the 1920s, or even that the prose is clunky in places.

I think my main problem was that by the end I had no sympathy for the rebels, and much of the dystopian literature I am familiar with you are supposed to be sympathetic with them. The book is told from the viewpoint of only one person who gets integrated into rebellion, has his feelings manipulated but only because as the builder of the space rocket which the rebels want to take over he can get them access to it. But the rebels don’t really care about him; they put him through all of this torment supposedly because they want to be free of OneState but in truth OneState is more sympathetic to him in the end.

Fine yes at the end they perform an operation on his brain to rid him of his imagination, but at the end he is happy, and the rebels never cared about the protagonist’s happiness. He is cared for by OneState in the manner that he understands and given back his life as he always knew it. And by being happy for him at the end, shows why ‘We’ is considered to be one of the greatest works of science fiction ever written. (At least according to the late and great Ursula K. le Guin and I am inclined to agree with her.)

The storyworld building and the main character’s integration into this storyworld is so perfect, that you do end up happy for him at the end because he gets to go back to life as he always knew it, even though every hour of every day is regulated for him; his sexual partners are assigned to him; he lives in a room made entirely of glass and is devoid of privacy apart from when they are allowed to put the blinds down for sexual activity. His world is horrific, but the explanation of how it makes the character feel is so normal that by the end you are happy that the abnormality of what the rebels did to him is over.

That is a mark of brilliant writing. As much as you know it is awful, because you are reading it from the perspective of the protagonist, and his voice speaks to you so well, you end up forgetting that.

Utterly brilliant book even if it is hard to read and follow in places.

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Film Review: The Final Year

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The Final Year, the HBO Documentary about Obama’s Foreign Policy team during the final year he was in office, has been on my radar to go and see ever since I had first heard the film had been made. I’m not someone whose entire life revolves around politics and what is happening, but I do keep my ear to the ground and I am interested in the processes of how political actions are carried out.

Last year I watched a BBC documentary about the House of Commons (UK Government) and found how out domestic politics operates and it was fascinating. I am someone more inclined to domestic policy than foreign policy, but I knew that I was going to find the inner workings of Obama’s Foreign Policy team just as intriguing.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

It was certainly interesting to hear from Ben Rhodes and John Kerry, and as always it was great to hear Obama’s opinion on anything, because it is always well thought through. At one point, he is talking to young leaders, and he gives them some great advice. To be a great leader you need to understand what motivates people. He says at first that you might assume that is money or power, but he’d learnt over time that you need to listen to their stories, and it is their experience that motivates them.

Let’s just say as an introvert who believes listening is one of the world’s most important (and feels as if it is the most ignored) skills, it was fantastic hearing someone like Barack Obama say that, and it was a great nugget of advice to take away from this film.

However, the focus of the film was on Samantha Power who acted as the UN Ambassador. I don’t know very much about her, but seeing a composed, professional woman carrying about her business was brilliant, and very inspiring as a young woman. It has certainly made me more interested in Foreign Policy and how organisations like the UN operate. Seeing where she travels to, and the issues she is still dealing with that the media stopped focusing on years ago is eye-opening.

The content of the film is certainly interesting, but what makes it an important film is that it shows that politics isn’t some flash in the pan action that resolves problems quickly. It is a long term dedication, and this film inspired me, and what I hope it does is inspire the next generation of leaders and diplomats to get involved.

TV Review – Blackadder

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I absolutely adore Blackadder. I’ve seen the odd episode here or there over the years, but I’ve never really sat and deliberately watched the series from start to finish.

Well not quite the start. I did watch Series One years ago and I hated it, to the point I’m not willing to try it again.

However, don’t judge Blackadder II, Blackadder the Third or Blackadder Goes Forth by the first series, as series two to four are very different, and most importantly they are absolutely hilarious.

My husband keeps asking me which is my favourite episode, and I honestly can’t pick one, as there isn’t a dud among them to help make the rest stand out as better and therefore a favourite.

Each series is set in a different period of British History. Blackadder II is set in Elizabethan England with Miranda Richardson doing a fabulously macabre turn as Elizabeth I. Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson also establish their roles as Blackadder and Baldrick wonderfully.

Whoever thought to team Richard Curtis and Ben Elton together to write Blackadder, it was a good plan, a cunning one even, because what they established in series two, they built upon in Blackadder the Third.

hugh laurie as the prince regent

The third series Blackadder is the man servant for Prince George, the Prince Regent during the reign of Mad Kind George III. The power dynamic has shifted for Blackadder, but that only makes his wit more sharp, and his intolerant of fools even more comical.

And Hugh Laurie, well what can I say; most people know him because of House. British folks knew him as a comedy actor first though (mainly working with Stephen Fry). His portrayal of the Prince Regent is one of the reasons why Britain already loved him before he became one of America’s sweethearts. He is a lovable fool in this series.

And he carries that on in Blackadder Goes Forth, with Stephen Fry and Tim Mcinnerny re-joining the cast from series two. Series four is a completely different set up, because rather than being set in a place of power, it is set in the trenches of World War One.

And somehow the show creators and actors made one of the most horrific periods of history side-splittingly funny.

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I said above that I can’t pick a favourite episode, but I do have a favourite series, and if you don’t see any of the others, Blackadder Goes Forth is a must-see. They refer back to jokes and characters from previous series, but you don’t need to know them to find them funny.

And if you are looking for something seasonal, at Christmas you can watch Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, which is their twist on A Christmas Carol. On New Year’s Eve there is Blackadder Back and Forth, which was a special created for the new millennium.

If you call yourself a fan of comedy and you’ve never seen the genius that is Blackadder, then are you really a fan of comedy? Try it!

Film Review: The Post

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There was quite a bit of hype surrounding this film; the times we live in and the need we have for making our governments accountable; the times we live in when women have stopped tolerating being seen as unequal; the performances by the actors, especially Meryl Streep, are being nominated for awards. The hype of it being a Steven Spielberg film with a John Williams soundtrack. There is nothing small about the expectations people have of this film.

And it delivers.

The other film which has a lot of hype at the moment is ‘Darkest Hour‘. I heavily criticised it for being a film depicting historical events and not having any tension, which just made it boring to watch. ‘The Post’ is a similar premise; it is a film that depicts historical events, except what Spielberg did was make an entertaining film, as well as a film about real-life people and the remarkable things they did.

I have no idea how historically accurate ‘The Post’ is, as while I am familiar with the events in the film, I’ve never studied post-WW2 American History in any sort of depth. However, like I said in my review of ‘Darkest Hour’, some creative license does need to be wielded when making historical films. If if isn’t accurate, and that annoys you, then please remember that the events in the film are just as relevant today and because it is an entertaining film, making people aware of it and be inspired by it is just as important as accuracy.

And it is vastly better than ‘Darkest Hour’. The plot moved forward, and each scene made you want to see the next one until you reached the conclusion. The main characters were fleshed out enough to suit the purpose of the film, and not a single speaking role was superfluous. The cinematography was understated but it suited the film, and personally I loved seeing how pages of a newspaper were constructed using moveable type. It showed just how laborious putting a newspaper together really was before digital technology made it easier.

The thing I loved the most about the film though is when Sarah Paulson’s character, Tony Bradlee, is talking about Katherine Graham making the decision to publish. I can’t find the exact quote, but it is something along the lines of ‘if people keep telling you that you have no value, then you do eventually start to believe them.’ It was one woman defending another woman at a time when women were deemed unsuitable to have and wield power. Hopefully it will surface on the internet in full at some point, but it was by far my favourite scene.

I highly recommend this film. You don’t need to know anything about the history of the events to understand the importance of the messages within it; governments need to be accountable and women have the right to be equal.

Film Review: Darkest Hour

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Spoilers

There were a few reasons I wanted to see this film. The Crown has made me more interested in this period of history and how it is portrayed on screen. And on that account I did enjoy the film; my review from here though doesn’t get much more positive. Which is a shame because based on the trailer it seemed like it was going to be a good film.

There was another reason I wanted to see it though; I’d heard good things about Gary Oldman’s performance and given I want Timothée Chalamet to win awards, I wanted to make a comparison. I don’t normally go and see a film purely because it is awards season, but I have invested a lot emotionally in Call me by your Name. I wanted to prepare myself properly for why he isn’t winning, because for a better performance I will accept him losing.

And apparently Gary Oldman is winning all these awards for mimicking someone who was real in a lacklustre film, while Chalamet did something a great deal more difficult. He brought to life a character that had only existed before in Aciman’s book, and did so in a film that matched his brilliance overall. There is no denying Oldman’s performance is very good, but the rest of the film is lacking the same sort of excellency. Of recent portrayals of Winston Churchill I’m going to say that I preferred John Lithgow’s performance in The Crown because of the simple truth; I wasn’t bored watching him.

Churchill came to power the first time during one of the most interesting times in British history, when we were facing the odds and potentially facing annihilation, and the film they decided to make about it contained absolutely no tension what so ever. It is a film about political manoeuvring and it doesn’t work. I’m reminded of what many people say about Titanic; well you know it’s going to sink at the end so what’s the point in seeing the film. Cameron though made it about the characters and with ‘will they won’t they’ tension. Darkest Hour though just felt like a waste of my time because I knew how it was going to end.

There are certainly some very good scenes; the one near the end of the film when Churchill is conversing with some people on the Underground is by far the very best in the entire film, but there were moments when my mind was wandering because I just wasn’t gripped enough to pay attention. Kristen Scott Thomas is certainly to be commended for putting up with portraying a character that brought nothing to the plot, and existed only because Clementine Spencer-Churchill did exist in real life, but she was completely unnecessary for the film.

I always try and give constructive criticism; I always try and say how I think it could have been done better, but in this case the problem is entirely to do with the fact they decided to tell the wrong story. I am very much with Viscount Halifax by the end; Churchill mobilised the English Language, without having yet achieved anything to justify the support he is demanding. There were no stakes, because Dunkirk was a success and I knew it was going to be, and annoyingly the film ended before it succeeded, meaning all the praise Churchill is getting at the end is purely based on his ability as an orator.

Even more annoyingly several prominent characters in the film just suddenly decide to support him without any development as to why they change their minds, when they had been pretty vocal beforehand as to why they were so against him. Chamberlain to an extend was there for the ‘We will fight on the beaches’ speech in parliament, but why did King George suddenly change his mind?

All I can suggest is that they needed more tension, and they needed better character development then it might have worked better. I know that it is based on real life events, but some creative license would have made it a better film. And it is the historian within me saying that, not the writer, because as a historian I have to defend myself against the ‘history is boring’ argument a lot, and boring historical films don’t help.

And this is all disappointing really, because I had been looking forward to seeing this film and unless I’ve missed something, I just don’t understand the hype. All I can hope is that Chalamet gets the chance in the future to win awards, because in my opinion he deserves one this year, but I’m thinking it is less and less likely he’s going to get one for portraying Elio. *sighs*

Film Review- Molly’s Game

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I am a massive fan of Aaron Sorkin, at least as the creator of West Wing and Newsroom. I’m not a big fan of The Social Network, even though it is technically a great film with a wonderful script.

I wanted to see Molly’s Game though not just because Sorkin penned it, but because the protagonist was a strong female who navigated in very powerful male circles. She also fought to keep her integrity intact, even though she was the first to admit she was not squeaky clean.

Jessica Chastain is just brilliant as Molly Bloom, and did real justice in portraying the real Molly. And Idris Elba, as always, was wonderful as her lawyer, giving a very impassioned speech near the end in her defense.

I absolutely loved the film. Admittedly at first I wasn’t all that keen on the heavy use of voiceover, but Sorkin always has a lot of story to tell. While at times I struggled to see the relevance of what was being said, it does all become relevant in the end.

You have to concentrate to keep up though as the speech is fast paced, and very typical of Sorkin. However thankfully but you don’t need to understand poker to enjoy it and all the characters have a satisfying resolution at the end, so even though you have to absorb a lot of information it is worth it as there are no loose ends.

Highly recommended if you are a Sorkin fan, or just looking for a smart film to watch.

Film Review: Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

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I will admit I am really not sure what made me want to see this film so badly, but I have been looking forward to seeing it ever since I first heard about it, and even more so when I saw a trailer.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

The idea is pretty simple; a mother whose daughter was murdered uses billboards at the side of the road to ask the police why they haven’t solved her daughter’s case yet. Simple yet brilliant.

This is a film about what anger does to people. It is raw and unrestrained, and touching because it is real. It is about a film where extraordinary circumstances either bring out the best or the worse in people.

The majority of the characters show their best side, and over the course of the film they help the protagonist Mildred, and the antagonist Dixon reach a point where they are able to accept their feelings. You can sympathise with all the characters; I don’t even like Mildred all that much, but I do understand her, and that level of realism in her character and all the others makes this film stand out.

This isn’t the sort of film I normally go to see, but I’m really glad I did because it highlights just how awful life is for those left behind after crimes go unsolved. Martin McDonagh’s script is brilliant; there are twists you don’t see coming and resolution even if it isn’t the resolution you might want.

Everyone does a great turn but Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are especially brilliant. It has already won awards as it came out in the US a lot earlier than here in the UK, and they are totally deserved.