We now have the new Doctor, Companions, TARDIS and showrunner up and running. Therefore the new series of Doctor Who will sink or swim going forth based on the quality of the writing. Rosa written by acclaimed author Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall was an excellent episode which expertly combined socio-political, historical and science-fiction situations.
Malorie Blackman is an experienced writer with many books published; and has written for Doctor Who before, providing one of the stories to the enjoyable Twelve Doctors: Twelve Stories audiobook I listened to this year. Rosa finds the TARDIS bringing the Doctor and pals back or forward to 1955, Alabama. There they find a nefarious character determined to change the course of history by stopping Rosa Parks’ legendary protest against segregation.
Doctor Who has always used historical figures within their narratives including: Charles Dickens, Richard the Lionheart, Vincent Van Gogh, William Shakespeare to name a few. It harks back to the remit of the first Doctor’s era of desiring to educate and entertain; Rosa most certainly did that. It was also very moving as well as informative. Not only did it successfully give the audience a history lesson, it illustrated the vital importance of peaceful protest to achieve change. Moreover, it really pulled the companions, Ryan and Yasmin especially, into the emotion of the narrative as they suffer first hand racism from the ignorant people of Montgomery.
Overall, the episode zipped along and while the plotting had some wonky moments – mobile phones and Elvis, really!? – it contained some cracking gags; one zinger about artist Banksy was especially memorable. Also, Jodie Whittaker is finally settling into the role of the Doctor. She is a seriously good dramatic actor and I was pleased there were moments when the pace slowed to allow her work to breathe. In providing educational, historical and emotional resonance, Rosa, was an archetypal Doctor Who episode full of intelligent and poignant scenes. It also contained the scary idea that racism and prejudice are still present in the future! Thankfully though, the Doctor and her companions, are here to help legends such as Rosa Parks to thwart it.
TO BOLDLY REVIEW #3 – STAR TREK THE ORIGINAL SERIES – SEASON 3
My voyages on the first Starship Enterprise came to an end after seventy-nine intelligent, crazy, moving, mind-blowing, occasionally silly but always fascinating original series Star Trek episodes. Thus, having recently written reviews on the first and second series I have now completed watching the third series. In tone, the third and final season was probably more serious and I actually found the lack of comedy or parody worked in its favour.
Often maligned by some fans and critics alike for having some of the worst episodes of Star Trek ever filmed, the third season, in my opinion, is actually very good. There are a few episodes, notably Spock’s Brain, that are just ridiculous and some, like Turnabout Intruder and Elaan of Troyius, that are rooted in regressive sexism. Plus, there’s a very familiar formula feeling too with contrived space-set situations echoing episodes from prior seasons. But to be honest I actually like that formula, which is why I still enjoy watching shows such as Quantum Leap, Doctor Who and indeed, Star Trek.
Thus, while formulaic familiarity set in, the budgets were cut and Scotty’s hair was all over the place from episode-to-episode, Season 3 still had some really memorable moments with great monsters, energetic villains, handsome actors and solid science-fiction concepts. Okay, some of the writing was at times lacking the snap, crackle and pop of say Gene L. Coon’s or D.C. Fontana’s scripts but I enjoyed the series very much. Here are six episodes which I feel still stand the test of time in terms of ideas, stories and drama.
THE ENTERPRISE INCIDENT – SEASON 3 – EPISODE 2
This terrific episode has a brilliant spy versus spy plot as Kirk and crew attempt to steal a Romulan cloaking device. Crosses, double-crosses, fake deaths and conspiracies occur as the Enterprise finds itself at the mercy of Romulan vessels. Spock shows himself adroit at firstly betraying Kirk and then “romancing” the female Romulan Commander. While it doesn’t seem appropriate for his character to act this way it is of course part of a very logical plan. Nimoy’s performance is excellent and he again proves, underneath all that Vulcan make-up, he’s able to portray an emotionless character with much verve and charisma.
SPECTRE OF THE GUN – SEASON 3 – EPISODE 6
One of the over-hang scripts from Gene L. Coon’s reign as executive producer and show-runner successfully melds sci-fi with the Western genre. Kirk, Spock, Chekov and McCoy are transplanted by darned Melkotians into a virtual reality version of the Gunfight at the OK Corral. The only problem is they are all destined to die in the gun fight and must find a way of overcoming historical fate. Despite the contrivances in the narrative, the episode has much to offer thematically on violence and guns; as Kirk must decide between using force or peaceful means with which to overcome his foes.
FOR THE WORLD IS HOLLOW AND I HAVE TOUCHED THE SKY – SEASON 3 – EPISODE 8
Season three had some wonderfully pretentious episode titles and this one was no exception. However, it is a very effective episode that finds the Enterprise attempting to prevent an asteroid from colliding with a Federation planet. However, the asteroid is not in fact a hurtling lump of space rock but a planet civilisation that provides a home to highly devout religious people. The clash of the Federation rules with the religious group’s rules provides much impetus for the drama. Moreover, the added woe of McCoy discovering he is dying and finding solace in the love for Natira of Yonada, makes this both an intriguing and moving episode.
WHOM GOD’S DESTROY – SEASON 3 – EPISODE 14
The lunatics have literally taken over as memorable villain of the piece, former Fleet Captain Garth, gains control of the insane asylum at Elba II. Using shapeshifting abilities Garth is able to hoodwink Kirk and crew and take them prisoner. It’s a fun episode which finds the seasoned TV actor Steve Ihnat revelling in his role as the maniacal egomaniac Garth. There are lots of twists and turns throughout and the final fight scene involving Kirk fighting “himself” is most memorable as Spock must decide who the real Kirk is or who is Garth in disguise. While it’s quite a theatrical episode set in one location there’s load of fun to be had.
LET THAT BE YOUR LAST BATTLEFIELD – SEASON 3 – EPISODE 15
Arguably the best episode of the season finds two battling humanoid aliens who will stop at nothing to wipe each other off the face of their war-torn planet. Frank Yorshin – who I recognised as The Riddler from the 1960s TV show Batman – portrays Commander Bele as a fanatical zealot. With his special telekinetic powers Bele takes control of the Enterprise and will stop at nothing to take his rival, Lokai, to trial and death. Indeed, Kirk is even forced to set the Enterprise in self-destruct mode to counter Bele. This is thematically a very strong episode as it critiques mindless racism and the senseless path of endless war. It’s also quite bleak at the end as a brilliant montage symbolises the potential destruction of Earth. Okay, so the message could be seen to be broad, and literally black and white, but it remains brave writing given it was released in the 1969 when civil unrest in the USA was rife.
ALL OUR YESTERDAYS – SEASON 3 – EPISODE 23
All Our Yesterdays found Kirk, Spock and McCoy dispersed back in time on endangered planet, Sarpeidon. I guess the ticking time bomb narrative of a dying world had kind of been done to death by now but it did not detract from an entertaining storyline which found Spock and Kirk in different timelines having entered a time portal by mistake. Kirk goes back to a medieval setting and is accused of being a sorcerer; while Spock and Bones are bombed five thousand years back to the ice age. Spock even finds time to fall in love as his genes regress with the age. Sounds silly but as Spock might say, I found it “fascinating.”
LONDON FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW – THE FAVOURITE (2018)
Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Produced by: Ceci Dempsey, Ed Guiney, Lee Magiday, Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Cast: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan
**SPOILER FREE REVIEW**
The London Film Festival organisers were very keen to impress we keep our phones off during the screening of The Favourite. Thus, I infer that the filmmakers are also keen that no spoilers are given away; something I will respect during this review. From the marketing blurb I have culled online, The Favourite: “sees Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster (2015), The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)) on rollicking, virtuoso form with Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz revelling in the wit of his 18th century royal court life.”
Unlike The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos is not working from an original screenplay he wrote with Efthymis Filippou; instead he’s taken an adaptation by Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis. Conversely, it is not as eccentric a premise as those previous films and structurally it is actually quite conventional. The story itself sets Rachel Weisz’ Duchess of Marlborough as advisor to Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne in the early 1700s; while Emma Stone’s fallen “Lady” enters the fray and attempts to gain the Queen’s favour while usurping Weisz’ character.
Historical films relating to Machiavellian scheming, sexual misadventure and political intrigue are legion. Dangerous Liaisons (1988), A Royal Affair (2012) and the recent Love and Friendship (2016) are but a few examples; however, none of them are as absurd, surprising, funny, moving and as crazy as The Favourite. But, this is not a parody of period dramas. Instead, Lanthimos brings his own directorial vision to the story with his often ludicrous switches in tone, while skilfully maintaining a strong emotional balance and intrigue throughout. His use of the fish-eye lens creates a distorted effect making the characters seem trapped by their surroundings and circumstances. Furthermore, the lighting is quite wonderful too with natural and candle light dominating the proceedings.
Lanthimos’ direction of his three stellar leading actors is superb; with Olivia Colman delivering one of the most memorable performances of the year. Her Queen Anne is both pathetic and empathetic at the same time. Anne is to be pitied, laughed at and laughed with throughout. While I genuinely have little sympathy for royal figures, Anne is humanized with great power by the performance. Preying and manipulating her are Weisz’ and Stone’s characters. Weisz’ is, in particular, quite brilliant as we never quite know if her decisions regarding the war against Spain and the increased taxes are to benefit her or the Queen. Moreover, I know Stone won an Oscar for La La Land (2016), but she is even better in this film. Her eyes light up at each devilish choice her character makes; revelling in the skulduggery as ambition fuels her desires. I must add that Nicholas Hoult is quite brilliant too in a supporting role.
Overall, The Favourite (2018) may not be appreciated by those who prefer their period dramas to be played straight, as it were. The language and behaviour of the characters is often foul and crude but while seeming anachronistic it is paradoxically authentic too. Lanthimos’ interpretation of the screenplay is rather complex. He seeks to humanize, satirize and ridicule life in the Royal Court but without us ever hating the characters. The narrative asks for understanding but also critiques their choices. You kind of wish Weisz and Stone would show some solidarity but ultimately they are narcissistic players craving power, much to the detriment of their sickly Queen — portrayed by the astounding Olivia Colman.
Starring: David Bamber, Alastair Mackenzie, James Dangerfield, Eileen Davies, Liam Gerrard, Bronwyn James, Philip Jackson, Rory Kinnear, Nico Mirallegro, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley, Tim McInnerny plus many more.
Music by: Gary Yershon
Cinematography: Dick Pope
Production company: Film4 Productions, British Film Institute, Thin Man Films
**CONTAINS HISTORICAL SPOILERS**
Peterloo (2018) is a film of voices, of speech, of reform and of freedom. It is Mike Leigh’s thirteenth feature film production and clearly a labour of love for him, his production team and the army of actors who put their hearts and souls into this powerful work of cinema. Four years in the making, this historical document, as well as paying tribute to those who campaigned for the vote in the 1800s, is also a passionate love letter to Northern England and the proud working classes of the era.
The film begins in 1815 at the battle of Waterloo and then brings us into the factories and streets of Manchester and surrounding Northern areas. As with many Mike Leigh films you can feel the palpable authenticity in the settings, accents and places the characters live. Leigh also cuts to local magistrates who hold up the draconian laws designed to keep the poor in their place; handing out savage justice such as the death penalty to one man for stealing a coat. We also visit London and experience those ruling classes who inhabit the Houses of Parliament and Royal palaces, lording over the oppressed workers.
The character strokes are broad at first before Leigh further develops their personalities. The dialogue is delivered formally initially as the characters educate the audience regarding various laws affecting them. This seems jarring but also serves the documentary and historical nature of the piece. As the narrative strands build steadily to the fateful march the editing throughout cross-cuts between the ruling, working and legal classes representing their differing perspectives. The march was intended to be a peaceful demonstration; a plea for Parliamentary reform and the desire to be heard. Surely, that’s the right of everyone in a civilised society? Well, not in 1819.
With the film driven by a whole host of wonderfully written speeches, it could be argued, Peterloo, lacks the warmth and humour of Leigh’s other more personal films. However, there are some formidable performances amidst the huge cast. Maxine Peake is earthy and convincing in her representation of a mother struggling to make ends meet. Rory Kinnear brings an intelligence and pride to the confident character of Henry Hunt; a wealthy landowner committed to reform and repeal of the onerous ‘Corn Laws’. As is the case with Leigh’s other films the acting is uniformly impressive because you know months of planning and rehearsal would have been committed to the production.
The film is also shot beautifully by cinematographer Dick Pope. There is a strong leaning toward a naturalistic lighting palette. Interiors are often bathed in sunlight shining through windows onto the shadowed faces of the characters. His camera is placed ideally to capture the rural and industrial locations of the era. There’s also some wonderful framing within arches and factories. Lastly, Leigh’s meticulous approach to authenticity reveals the machinery from the time, such as the looms and printing presses. Similarly, you can almost feel the reality of the epoch through the excellent costume design.
The final act brings us to the fateful day itself. Mike Leigh handles the massive crowd scenes expertly and shows the injustice and barbarism brought about by the cavalry and law enforcements attacking up to 80,000 people who are protesting for change. Having spent a few hours establishing the characters and their relevant causes the emotional impact of the attacks by the ruling classes is palpable. This is ultimately very powerful cinema which resonated with me because it reminded of the historical events down the ages where people have been murdered or injured while trying to make their voices heard.
Peterloo may not be for everyone as it is a long epic with a plethora of dialogue heavy scenes. Yet, I was enthralled as the language and passion of such discourse is very eloquent and heartfelt. The sheer scale of the filmmaking itself is also impressive even if the narrative lacks a specific personal focus throughout. Mike Leigh’s approach is very clear as it represents the working class as victims to an oppressive regime which has no regard for human suffering. Indeed, it should be every person’s basic right to have a voice and given past and current social and political events Peterloo contains a message that remains very valid today.
Mark: 9.5 out of 11
PETERLOO (2018) will be released in the UK on 2nd November 2018
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth
Music by: Michael Giacchino
Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Expectations are a fascinating thing. Based on the prior screenwriting work of Drew Goddard and his amazing debut feature film, the genre-bending horror film, Cabin in the Woods, I was really looking forward to this crime thriller. With a terrific cast of actors in place and an intriguing setting of a hotel split between the United States of Nevada and California there promised to be cinematic fireworks. There were indeed fireworks but, like fireworks, the film paints bright and pretty colours and bangs loudly in the sky yet somehow felt hollow afterwards. This comes from those darned expectations, I guess.
There are seven main characters in the film; all of whom have secrets to keep. They range from: John Hamm’s vacuum-cleaner salesman; Lewis Pullman’s hotel employee; Dakota Johnson’s mysterious femme fatale; Jeff Bridges’ shady priest; plus a couple of other devils who enliven proceedings later in the film. All the characters are seemingly unconnected but soon fate and fortune take hold as Goddard weaves his screenwriting magic. Before you know they are all at each other’s throats jousting verbally and physically; double and triple crossing, resorting often to extreme violence. What Goddard does superbly well is place these various characters in a form of narrative hell or purgatory. He looks into the heart of humanity and finds blood and darkness at every turn.
Bad Times at the El Royale main strengths are the brilliant script, skilled cast and a wondrous production design. Indeed, the rich neon colours and lighting glow amidst with the foreboding darkness surrounding the hotel. In terms of performance, Jeff Bridges is just great; in everything! Dakota Johnson and Cynthia Erivo also excel and breathe emotion into their archetypal characterisations. John Hamm is ever the solid player; but Chris Hemsworth’s grand entrance in the second act, almost steals the show with his messianic “Jim Morrison” grandstanding. All told the ensemble has a scream within the clever pyrotechnics of the screenplay.
Overall, Drew Goddard deserves praise for delivering a very sharp script. Structurally, we cleverly move back in time to fill in back-stories. Events are also from multiple perspectives heightening the twisting nature of the narrative. While mainly style over substance the film still manages to critique the racism of the late 1960s setting; satirises celebrity scandals, and also has a dig at religious cults. So, ultimately this is a satisfying B-movie-pulp-fiction-violent-extravaganza with twists and turns galore, that provides an entertaining blast in the noir night sky.
Produced by: Nina Bisgaard, Peter Gustafsson, Petra Jonsson
Screenplay by: Ali Abbasi, Isabella Eklöf, John Ajvide Lindqvist
Based on: Border by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Starring: Eva Melander, Jorgen Thorsson, Ann Petrén, Sten Ljunggren
Music by: Christoffer Berg, Martin Derkov
Cinematography: Nadim Carlsen
**SPOILER FREE REVIEW**
If you go down to the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise. Indeed, one of Border’s many strengths is the constant way co-writer and director Ali Abbasi invokes the strangeness of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s original short story to constantly shock and move us. Because while linear in structure and reliant on structural beats from the rites of passage, romance, fantasy and crime genres, Border, is one of the most original and interesting films you could see all year.
We open with the lead protagonist, Tina, working for the Swedish Border Agency. She is a seemingly sad and isolated individual with, what she believes is, a chromosome deficiency in her genetics. Her features leave her open to cruel ridicule from members of the public. However, she is excellent at her job. In fact, her hook is the ability to literally smell fear or guilt on the people coming through customs. Subsequently, Tina’s superiors start to use her to investigate more serious crimes.
As this is occurring Tina meets Vore, a man with a similar “condition” to her and this is when her life really begins to spiral into very dark and exciting places. Similar to another film I saw called Beast (2017) the film is, at its heart, about sexual awakening and breaking free of the constrictions of society and family. Eva Melander, beneath the very convincing prosthetics, gives an outstanding performance of a woman finding out an incredible truth about herself and her past.
As a character study this film is very powerful. Tina’s world is turned upside down and she is faced with some horrific choices at the end. Arguably, the crime element of the story doesn’t quite meld with her rites of passage journey. Moreover, some of the fantasy elements from Scandinavian folklore required further research after the fade out. Yet, this remains very brave filmmaking with fascinating themes relating to: ritual and child abuse; nature versus nurture; good versus evil; and how those humanity believes to be outsiders should not be treated as monsters but instead with respect and love.
Executive producer(s): BBC Productions, Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens, Sam Hoyle
Cast: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Susan Lynch, Art Malik, Shaun Dooley
Composer: Segun Akinola
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Continuing my weekly review of the new Doctor Who season we found our heroes and heroines rather worryingly floating in space at the end of the last episode, The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Such concern and drama was quickly dispensed with immediately as the Doctor and companions soon found themselves out of the frying pan and into the fiery threat of a space-ship crashing on a seemingly deserted wasteland planet called Desolation. We also got a first look at the opening credit sequence with full blast of the updated, yet very retro feeling, theme tune. Both were, like the first episode of this new season, very familiar yet quite alluring.
The opening action set-piece of The Ghost Monument was pretty suspenseful as a space shuttle hurtled to the planet surface rather dangerously. It also introduced us to two working class space travellers called Angstrom and Epso, portrayed by quality character actors Shaun Dooley and Susan Lynch. They were final two contestants competing for the grand prize in an Intergalactic Space race run by dodgy bookie/gangster/oligarch, Illin (Art Malik). Unsurprisingly the Doctor, and crew, got caught up in the frantic chase to the ‘Ghost Monument’ finishing line.
Like the previous week the episode was dominated by strong visuals, decent effects and a breakneck pace which, while being slightly thin on emotional depth, was extremely fun. The South African vistas, representing Desolation, were absolutely stunning and gave the episode a very cinematic feel. Essentially a road-chase movie narrative we found the characters on space-ships, boats and doing lots and lots of running about. The race itself added a bonus sub-plot of suspense but the main dramatic question remained: was the Doctor going to find the Tardis? Well, what do you think?
Overall, I really enjoyed this episode. Like last week Chris Chibnall is still finding his feet with the characters and the Doctor’s persona too. My gut feeling is there’s one too many companions needed but Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill remain very watchable. Moreover, Whittaker’s performance is excellent as she is so talented and energetic. But there were times when her Doctor seemed too uncertain; for me the Doctor is always decisive, even when under pressure. Generic Soldier-Bots aside, the new villains ‘The Remnants’ were quite chilling and I hope they come back. As our space explorers battled them they dropped in a little sub-plot thread that could develop further over this promising start to the season. Indeed, who is the Timeless Child: just another enigmatic narrative Macguffin or something deep and meaningful? Only time will tell.
If you were the Italian Tourist Board you would certainly NOT direct potential visitors to view Matteo Garrone’s films about contemporary Italian life. His brutal depiction of Neapolitan gangsters in Gomorrah (2008) was violent and unforgiving. Similarly, his grim snap-shot of Roman contemporary life, in Dogman (2018), is again a hopeless, violent and nihilistic experience. While there are glimmers of kindness and some possibility of escape, Dogman offers its characters little more than gut-wrenching pain and emptiness. It’s genuinely high quality filmmaking but up there with, Lean of Pete (2018), as one of the most depressing films I have seen all year.
Dogman starts in positive enough fashion with Marcello Forte as an Italian everyman making a living as a dog sitter, walker and groomer. His interaction with the animals he looks after is both humorous and touching. In order to make ends meet though and provide for the young daughter he worships, Marcello deals small quantities of cocaine. This inevitably opens the door for possible trouble. Forte is incredibly well cast. He has a kind but haunting face. It is dominated by big eyes, a crooked smile and wonky teeth. He loves his job, his animals, his friends and family. Like a dog in character, he tries so hard to be loyal and liked but every one of his decisions seems to lead to tragedy. His loyalty to the local thug, Simoncino is illogical and the main cause of Marcello’s downfall.
Now, I enjoy a decent villain. Often the villain in a movie can be thrilling to watch and sometimes the best aspect of a movie. But Edoardo Pesce’s nemesis Simoncino is the epitome of evil; he is TOO real. He is a drug-addled-ex-boxer-bruiser who has absolutely no sense of loyalty or honour. He terrorises the local businesses and bullies Marcello mercilessly. Marcello tries his hardest to keep his head above water but the likes of Simoncino and his continued poor choices combine to drown his soul. The scariest thing is that Simoncino feels real in his animalistic tendenicies. He is genuinely frightening like some rabid beast, unleashed and out of control.
Overall, this film made me feel really sad. Marcello looks like a clown without the make-up and his pained expression plagues the film especially in the latter stages of the drama. You just want Marcello to get some luck but life just won’t cut him a break. This is a haunting character study of the outsider; a man who is literally like a dog himself. He is faithful, loyal and eager to please but ultimately let down by the human cruelty of those who bully and exploit him.
LONDON FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW – THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018)
Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Produced by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, Megan Ellison, Sue Naegle, Robert Graf
Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Starring: Tyne Daly, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Heck, Zoe Kazan, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Tom Waits and many more.
Music by: Carter Burwell
Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel
**SPOILER FREE REVIEW**
Soon to be appearing on the streaming behemoth Netflix, the Coen Brothers latest film is a difficult one to recommend to those not familiar with their quirky vision of humanity and existence. Set within the Western genre the film presents six stories seemingly unconnected but those which resonate resoundingly on the theme of death. The stories are called: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Near Algodones; Meal Ticket; All Gold Canyon; The Gal Who Got Rattled; and The Mortal Remains respectively.
The closest film this anthology resembles from recent times is the riotous black comedy Wild Tales (2014). Moreover, if you ever saw the Coens’ eccentric mid-life crisis comedy A Serious Man (2009), you may recall the prologue which depicted a short stand-alone piece about a ghostly dybbuk visiting a woman at night. Indeed, that story was seemingly unconnected to the film which followed, however, the Coens’ are such skilled storytellers you sense there is a link be it symbolically or thematically.
Overall, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a genuine mixed bag, in a good way. Their mischievous alchemy combines genres – within the Western setting – such as: musical, comedy, horror, crime, thriller and even romance. Moreover, the filmmakers have reached into their decades of film experience and cinematic bag of tricks to deliver an entertaining and memorable collection of: characters, songs, bloody deaths, jokes, landscapes, snappy dialogue, dark humour and spitfire action.
The cast are uniformly brilliant and as well as some familiar faces there are some newer actors added to the Coens’ stable of performers. Bill Heck, especially, in the story The Gal Who Got Rattled, impressed in his role as a likable cowboy. Overall, and in a similar vein to Hail Caesar (2016), this feels like Coens-lite, without the existential depth of say No Country for Old Men (2007) or humanity of Fargo (1996). However, the Coen’s films often improve with each viewing as their work is so full of stylish depth. Quite often, you’re laughing so much you miss the philosophical happenstance which is occurring between the lines.
Starring: Richard Madden, Keeley Hawes, Gina McKee, Sophie Rundle, Paul Ready, Vincent Franklin, Stuart Bowman, Nina Toussaint-White, Stephanie Hyam
Composer(s): Ruth Barrett, Ruskin Williamson
Cinematography: John Lee
Jed Mercurio has written and show-run some seriously good television over the years. I remember watching the acerbic medical comedy-drama Cardiac Arrest in the 1990s and enjoying greatly the honest, bleak and black humour of the show. So much so it made hospital soap Casualty look like a kids’ birthday party. Being from a medical background Mercurio would later revisit the NHS for the critically acclaimed programme Bodies (2004 – 2006); a show that contained graphic depictions of surgical operations amidst the cut-throat administrative and medical drama. Subsequently he would have, arguably, his biggest hit with the show Line of Duty. Gaining massive viewing figures Line of Duty concerns a crack team of police officers who investigate corruption within the force.
Mercurio created a solid genre premise with each officer under examination being played by a formidable lead actor. These included: Lennie James, Keeley Hawes, Daniel Mays and in Season 4, Thandie Newton. His strengths as a writer are to use realistic settings, scenarios and characters and twist them for every ounce of suspense possible. His work also contains brilliant narrative twists that often go against genre expectation. Indeed, he has no qualms casting a famous actor and killing them off when you least expect.
With his latest show Bodyguard, Mercurio has again looked within the police force as a starting point. His main protagonist David Budd (Richard Madden) is part of the Royalty and Specialist Protection Branch tasked with protecting the ambitious Home Secretary, Julia Montague; portrayed by the always brilliant Keeley Hawes. Over six episodes Budd has dangerous encounters with: his own force, MI5, Counter Terrorism Command, terrorist cells, organised crime and in-fighting Government officials too. Safe to say Montague becomes a target and very soon Budd is fighting not just for her life but his own.
Opening with an incredibly tense scene involving an Islamic suicide bomber on a train, the show raises the pulse with incredible consistency. Another stunning set-piece involving a terrorist attack on a school plus a vicious sniper assault on the Home Secretary in a later episode demonstrates that Mercurio wants us in the heart of the action. In terms of the politics of the series they are incredibly murky and confusing, in a good way. What I mean is we live in a confusing world of fake news, terrorism, racism, suspicion, paranoia, violence and corruption. It’s difficult to know what to believe and who to trust. Mercurio doesn’t offer any easy answers and everyone is a suspect. Even Richard Madden’s Budd is a tortured soul showing skill at his job but a heart and mind riddled with post-traumatic stress. He deals with the separation from his wife by drinking and burying his angst in his dangerous work.
Bodyguard had me hooked from the beginning and really turns the screw dramatically throughout. The ensemble cast are uniformly excellent but Richard Madden and Keeley Hawes are particularly memorable. One could argue the representation of the terrorists’ borders on the stereotypical, but it’s a tough call because Mercurio is effectively reflecting events which have occurred within the U.K. in recent years. Whether such violent situations should be turned into primetime entertainment is a question for a whole different essay, but the writer and creator has shown once again he can take serious issues and produce exhilarating genre television.