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Friday, 25 April 2014

Book Review: The Aspern Papers by Henry James

This novella follows an unnamed narrator as he travels to Venice to obtain some papers left with Juliana Bordereau by her lover, poet Jeffrey Aspern. Knowing that honesty will result in instant rejection, the narrator enters the house as a lodger and sets about working on the spinster niece of Juliana, Miss Tita. She eventually learns the truth but there's no guarantee that the papers will be handed over.

I said I wanted to read this after watching The Lost Moment (1947, review here) and I was relieved that most of what made the film melodramatic was not drawn from the original story by James. This novella is tight and, really, frustratingly short. It left me wanting more which is, I suppose, quite a good way to be left by an author of exceptional talent.

The crumbling, lethargic atmosphere of Venice and the house itself is possibly the most captivating aspect of the story. The plot itself is rather thin - man sets about to retrieve papers by duplicity - but the setting is everything. The narrator's motivation is, of course, important and brings up questions of the professional and the private and what rights we, the public, have to know all about the personal life of a 'famous' person, a debate we have daily now. Locating these papers in a dilapidated house under the guardianship of an ailing woman and her unworldly niece only adds to the sensation that some things should be left unearthed.

For me, The Aspern Papers was tantalisingly short but it covered what needed to be covered in the story. Economical with words, James nevertheless created a potent portrait of Venice that threatens to stay with me for a while.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Classic Film Review: I Confess (1953)

I Confess stars Montgomery Clift as Father Michael Logan, a priest who hears a confession of murder from employee Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse) and is morally unable to act on it. When the police, headed by Karl Malden as Inspector Larrue, discover that Father Logan has links to the dead man, he quickly becomes a suspect himself. Unable to break Keller's confession, Father Logan faces the ultimate penalty for holding his silence.

With a cast that also includes Brian Aherne as Willy Robertson and Anne Baxter as Father Logan's past love Ruth (now married to Pierre Grandfort (Roger Dann)), I Confess certainly holds a lot of promise. And, for the most part, it lives up to it. The atmospheric introductions to Quebec City at the beginning set up a tense film, a feeling only enhanced by the confession in the opening minutes. From then on, the film is carried by Clift and he is truly excellent as Father Logan. His faith and stoicism could portray him as a silly figure but Clift manages to convey this as a deep sense of belief in something more important than the prospect of being hanged for a crime he didn't commit. The rest of the cast works well, especially O.E. Hasse who has a difficult role to play in convincing the audience he would rather a priest hang for a murder he committed than risk himself.

I had one major niggle. The short flashback sequence which depicts Father Logan's relationship with Ruth before and after the war is superfluous, nothing that couldn't have been explained more briefly in words alone. At that point, music overtook the film in something of an irritating manner, when it was used so well at other moments. However, other than this, the film slots together very well and creates and sustains tension until the very end. I honestly wasn't sure what the final half an hour would bring. An underrated Hitchcock - in fact, one I hadn't even heard of - and one definitely worth dusting off for the central performance alone.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Book Review: The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet by Burton E. Stevenson

Although one in a series about a New York lawyer, The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet can stand alone. I haven't read the earlier stories yet the characterisation was fine and any references to other mysteries were brief and not crucial to the plot. Lester, the lawyer, is visiting the home of his client and friend, Philip Vantine, discussing the new cabinet Vantine has just bought but which has been accidentally switched for another one. The cabinet that has been delivered is worth much more and has a rich history. However, a visitor arrives and, after waiting in the room containing the cabinet, is struck down dead. An investigation starts up but then Philip Vantine himself becomes the next victim. Both seemed to have been killed by poison administered via two marks on the hand but it would be a very deadly poison. Who has killed the men and what role does the cabinet have in the case? The police try to investigate but it is Lester's friend, Godfrey, who is more open-minded and willing to put himself at risk to unearth the mystery.

As I said, this book can easily stand alone, though the references to earlier book made me want to read them. The friendship between Lester and Godfrey is a pleasant one, contributing to the case but also adding a focal point that I suspect runs through the books. As for the mystery itself, there are plenty of twists and turns and a few red herrings that make it interesting enough to hold attention. Perhaps the final twist was one too far but it did lead naturally from the rest of the book so I suppose it's difficult to complain on that point. There were a few twists that I saw coming but sometimes that's part of the fun of reading mystery stories.

However, for all the intricacies of the plot, The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet is laxly written in parts. There are careless repetitions which draw attention from the central mystery, at least for somebody paying as close attention as I was. Still, they don't impede the book as a whole, just create a little irritation. The mystery is enjoyable and the characterisation of Godfrey is a delight. I'll read the other books in this series, I'm sure.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Classic Film Review: The Captive Heart (1946)

The Captive Heart tells the story of a Czech man (Michael Redgrave) who escapes from a concentration camp only to be captured again by the Nazis. Having stolen a British officer's uniform, he takes on the identity of Captain Geoffrey Mitchell. Once a prisoner-of-war, though, he is forced to keep up appearances by writing home to Mitchell's wife, Celia (Rachel Kempson). Through their correspondence, Celia believes she's fallen in love with her estranged husband again and 'Geoffrey' begins to fantasise about a life with her. However, the threat of recognition from a senior German officer is imminent and the rest of the men in camp must risk their lives to get the wanted man to safety.

This is a wide-ranging film, not solely focused on the Mitchell saga. The opening highlights the important characters: Private Evans (Mervyn Johns) and his wife (Rachel Thomas) who were desperate for children but it never happened, Corporal Horsfall (Jack Warner) and his wife (Gladys Henson), blinded Scottish soldier Lieutenant Lennox (Gordon Jackson) and his sweetheart, Elspeth (Margot Fitzsimons) and Lieutenant Stephen Harley (Derek Bond) who married Caroline (Jane Barrett) just before leaving but now suspects infidelity. Joining them are a couple of other officers but these don't have any corresponding home life to speak of.

The purpose of all this is to show both sides of the coin, the camp life and the way people dealt with it at home. However, it does come across as too crowded at times with too many characters to recall and not enough time to do their individual stories justice. It also saps a little from the 'main' story which is ostensibly 'Geoffrey's' wooing of Celia. Their letters, narrated over scenes occasionally, do create a good backdrop to the film but this is much more an ensemble piece than anything else. That's why the more notable reunions at the end are of one solider with the daughter he has never met and the blinded solider's reunion with the woman he wanted to give up as a point of honour. The 'Geoffrey'/Celia ending is a little tame in comparison, not done in person which dilutes the effect somewhat.

The Captive Heart is a powerful film with some solid performances. There are stories of loss, redemption and rejuvenation within in and, although careful to show a spectrum of life, it becomes a film that represents the prisoner-of-war experience.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Book Review: Die a Dry Death by Greta van der Rol

Die a Dry Death is a retelling of the true story of the shipwreck of the Batavia in 1629 and the horrors that occurred afterwards. On a journey to the Dutch East Indies the ship hit a reef. Most of the passengers managed to get ashore to some small yet barren islands nearby. The commandeur Pelsaert and Ariaen Jacobsz, the captain, after checking two other nearby islands, made the decision to take a small group towards their destination in the longboat, with the intention of returning to help the rest. However, once they'd left,  Jeronimus Cornelisz took charge and began a reign of terror on the islands, determined to cull the numbers and get rid of rivals in anticipation of high-jacking the rescue ship.

What Greta van der Rol does in this book is bring a terrible story to life deftly and without melodrama. It's a different tale to tell, especially giving life to what are, for the most part, names. Getting into the mind of Cornelisz is interesting, providing a plausible take on his thought processes after the wreck. With this being fiction, the author also puts forward an interesting theory about Jacobsz involvement in a plot with Cornelisz, prior to the wreck, to steal the Batavia and the goods on board. For the most part this book is dark, realistic and genuinely horrific.

Aside from the three characters already mentioned, some of the other important ones include Wiebbe Hayes, a soldier who is banished to another island and left to starve, Lucretia, a high-ranking passenger who Cornelisz wants as his mistress, and the Predikant and his family, including his daughter, Judyk. These are the people who shine brightest in this novel though, due to the number of names who pass though, it is easy to get a little disorientated at times.

Incredibly dark and very well written, Die a Dry Death brings to life the events of 1629 vividly. It's an unsettling one to say the least and I had to read it all in one day because I didn't want to leave it overnight. The haunting tale of the Batavia is ably communicated via these pages.

This book was read as part of the TBR Challenge 2014, details here.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Classic Film Review: Notorious (1946)

Notorious stars Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a Nazi sympathiser who has been convicted of treason. Alicia is convinced by the government, spearheaded by Devlin (Cary Grant), to infiltrate a group of her father's friends in Rio. While waiting for her assignment, Alicia vows to change her ways and begins a relationship with Devlin. However, her fake relationship with Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) quickly becomes serious - from his point of view - and he proposes to her, despite the misgivings of his mother (Leopoldine Konstantin). What follows is a game of cat and mouse that leaves Alicia's life in danger.

This is an excellent film. Cary Grant is at his suave best as Devlin, masking everything wherever possible, and Bergman's bad-girl-turned-good act is very appealing. There is definite chemistry between the pair, only really quantifiable when you compare the Alicia/Devlin relationship with that of Alicia/Sebastian. However, Rains is excellent in the film as a whole, particularly the last few scenes where his panic shines through. The supporting players add to the tension but, really, this film belongs to Grant and Bergman.

There are genuine moments of tension and mystery, and with it being a Hitchcock film you're never quite sure where it will go. Some of the camera angles, particularly at the beginning after Alicia's drunken stupor, add to the effect and the scene of her 'realisation' later on is both perfectly shot and perfectly acted. You have to pay attention to the sharp dialogue at times and I did rewind to catch full meanings on occasion but it all conspires to create a riveting finale.

Notorious richly deserves its reputation as one of Hitchcock's best. I doubt the tension will diminish on second viewing or many viewings after that.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Opening a Bag

Funny the things you forget. As I was rooting through some family documents the other day, I found a bag I remembered getting free as part of the Blog North event I attended in May 2012. I wondered why it was there but also why it was so heavy. When I opened it up I found a book in there - Yorkshire in Watercolour by Les Packham, a collection of his local artwork. I remembered buying it. I even remembered lending it to my grandmother. But, to my knowledge, I forgot to look through it myself to the extent that I forgot it existed. That's rather bad, isn't it?

The stupid thing is, of course, that I bought this book because I was interested in it. Glancing through the pages, it's easy to see the particular views that attracted me - his paintings of Haworth Moor and Hardcastle Craggs are wonderful, along with the view of the cliffs from Staithes and a gorgeous painting of Fountains Abbey. Flicking through, it's easy to get engrossed and I'm disappointed in myself for forgetting about such a gorgeous collection of pictures. Then again, at least I can enjoy them now.

To see some of Packham's work take a look at his website. There are some stunning examples of his work that aren't in the book including some of York, more of Haworth and a couple of gorgeous seaside watercolours. Well worth a few moments of your time - and mine, now I've rediscovered him.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Classic Film Review: The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958)

Based on a true story, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness tells the tale of Gladys Aylward (Ingrid Bergman), an Englishwoman who has known all her life that she belongs in China. Rejected as a missionary, she makes the arduous journey herself and finds herself in a foreign land trying to build an inn with Jeannie Lawson (Athene Seyler). However, when Jeannie dies she finds herself alone with her faithful cook Yang (Peter Chong) and penniless. She is given the job of foot inspector by the Mandarin (Robert Donat) and, against the odds, makes friends in the villages. By the time Captain Lin Nan (Curd Jurgens), one of the people who believes she should go home, returns to the province a few years later, she is well-established and beloved in the area. But then the Japanese declare war and Gladys vows to rescue the children of the province by leading them over the mountains to safety.

This is a very powerful film which relies on an excellent central performance from Bergman with Donat brilliantly underplaying the Mandarin. If you can suspend your disbelief to accept Bergman as an Englishwoman then you can ignore the fact that the main Chinese characters are played by foreigners also. It's unfortunate, perhaps, but typical of the period. Bergman's casting, despite her accent, is perfect. She captures the heart of Gladys Aylward and brings her story to life. The developing romance between Gladys and Captain Lin Nan is perhaps the weakest element of the plot but it's also, I believe, one of the more fabricated elements. The real romance at the centre of this film is the relationship Gladys has with China and China's children.

The hardships Gladys goes through to get to China are truncated, justifiably so given the length of the film, but give a reasonable flavour of her determination to make her journey. The London montage at the beginning contrasts well with the openness of the Chinese landscape depicted later on and there are some humorous moments to offset what becomes a very dark film. The planes shooting at the fields where women and children are farming signals a fresh direction and the bombing of the town is portrayed very sympathetically, though it would have been more engaging had we encountered some more of the characters who were mercilessly killed earlier on. However, there are several characters introduced early in the film who come back to play their parts later on - I found this surprisingly coherent. I know there are some inconsistencies, particularly in regard to Chinese names and meanings but these changes are small to the average viewer.

Overall, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness deserves its good reputation. It doesn't sensationalise Alyward's story too much and is packed full of tension in the last half an hour or so. It also has an added poignancy as Robert Donat's last film, in some scenes towards the end he looks brittle but still maintains that spark that made him such a good actor. However, the soul of this film is Ingrid Bergman. It was a dicey bit of casting but it ultimately paid off in spades.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

A Writing Break

Well, I did call 2014 the 'year of the thesis'. Three months in and I'm struggling to even work on that. As I tweeted last night, I feel like I'm waging a battle by wading through thesis mud. I'm not getting very far and, honestly, I would prefer to just let the mud sweep me away. I think it's actually in danger of doing that.

I made a decent effort to juggle in January, as this post details, but since then it's all gone very wrong. I was writing the odd thousand words on novel drafts, that became hundreds and now I've just stopped opening the documents. I can't focus on a project because there's so much I need to do with them. It's overwhelming and I can't deal with novel-overwhelming on top of thesis-overwhelming.

I suppose it wouldn't be as bad if I felt like I was getting somewhere. But I'm not. Rejection follows rejection and, really, I haven't got the mental reserves to keep putting myself in that situation. I already feel like hell for various reasons. I'm not doing myself any favours by setting myself up for further rejection. Maybe I'm listening to that little devil that whispers 'just give it up' or maybe I'm being sensible - who knows?

The thing is, if I stop then I might not start again. I might listen to the devil. Hell, maybe the devil's right. I'm too far gone to be able to look at this objectively. All I know at the moment is that I don't want to write. I think that's the first time in ten years I've said that and meant it. I've still got things out at submission and maybe something will come of them but if it doesn't... I don't know. I really don't.

But 2014 is the year of the thesis. Let's focus on that because it damn well needs the concentration.