Film of the week: Traffic



Recently I have been spending a few nights re-acquainting myself with some of the most popular films from the first decade of this century. This is in part due to my lack of broadband in the house and also my apathy in maintaining the newness of my DVD collection. So I’m stuck with a big case of ten to fifteen year old films. But that’s okay.
Traffic is a Steven Soderbergh film which gained both audience appreciation and a shedload of awards. It charts the movement of drugs across the Mexican and US border and the efforts of both administration’s efforts to halt said movement. In between the two plus hours of the film the documentary style cinematography is broken up with a melodramatic subplot or two which endeavors to show the human cost of drug taking.
At the time Traffic looked like very little else. We were in the midst of the uncomfortable crossover of textbook 1990s filmmaking being taken over by the digital age. Soderbergh himself had plans to rework the Ocean’s Eleven crime caper, a vacuous but entertaining exercise in 3D camerawork, lighting and cgi. Here he displays his passion for cinema verite, differentiating the changes in location by generously grading each one with either yellow tints for Mexico and blue for Washington. I later learned that he operated the camera himself a large number of the handheld shots. Bet the unions didn’t like that.
Traffic is a template for almost everything which has followed since in terms of raw indie filmmaking. Shaky cameras, jump cuts, the aforementioned grading. This could mean that you feel some kind of anger towards the film merely for the imitation it has spawned. But that would do Soderbergh little credit.
It is a sweeping epic kind of quality. In a similar vein to maybe Heat or indeed the TV series Miami Vice though with a far different aesthetic. The script while often verging on the side of lecture is informative and gives a good grounding in the basics of drug warfare in the US.
Really though the film might be best remembered as an exercise in having Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones in a film together, though in separate strands. Douglas plays a middle aged judge who gets promoted to DC to take on the tricky assignment of winning the war on drugs. He soon is to find out that he is part of an never ending industry and the war is keeping a lot of people in high paying jobs. He also learns first hand the effects of drugs on his family, as his private schooled daughter becomes beholden to crack.
For her part Jones is the heavily pregnant wife of a drug lord who is arrested and almost certain to face a lengthy jail term. As she pursued by the buddy cop team of Soderbergh regulars Don Cheadle and Luiz Guzman, we see her trying to unravel the spools of her husband’s enterprise and how she is going to survive without him.
Of course the film is anchored by Benecio Del Toro, a hugely popular actor who won an Oscar for his portrayal of the unbreakable Mexican cop. He is in fine form here, understated and proud with few ambitions beyond installing lights at the local baseball park so kids have something to do at night.
It is a fine film. The multiple strands of story move the action on at a good pace, wisely not dwelling too much on any character’s arc, instead giving them just about enough shade that we can make out their m.o. Many of the scenes too seem to be improvised which certainly add a sense of authenticity to the proceedings.
Ultimately though many will say it’s safe, a project designed to make some mainly white Hollywood A-listers feel good about themselves, all the while exploiting the rich and fertile ground of crime that Mexico always seems to provide in movieland.
But I still like it.




FILM OF THE WEEK Aguirre: The wrath of god



Spanish conquistadors speaking German going down the Amazon on rickety wooden barges, built by their slaves. Filmed on a stolen camera. It should be a mess but it’s far from it.

Klaus Kinski has gained much infamy in the years that have passed. One would assume it had plenty to do with his determination to stay in malevolent character all the way through the film’s production.

Here he plays Aguirre, who in a mission led by Pizarro want to get downstream. After struggling through some troubled waters Pizarro thinks better of it and wants to turn back and go in a different, easier direction. Aguirre believing his destiny is to find some mythical city of gold, declares a mutiny and in turn his support for a new de-facto Emperor.

As the local tribes battle both each other and Aguirre’s arrivals, long arrows fly towards them. Meanwhile everything happens on the barge. The animals they carry begin to get restless on the water, as do the people. As various people take sides and figure out where best to butter their bread, Aguirre stands not quite tall, but slightly bent over, seemingly impervious to the attacks coming from the shore.

I would have to watch this again to fully appreciate it and indeed get everything right. The first viewing was such a curiosity. I simply couldn’t figure out how they managed it. How they got through that amazing opening scene. How the equipment managed to stay safe. How they got the master tapes back to the editing room in Germany. How they didn’t all kill each other beforehand.

This is not a wanton bloodfest like say Cannibal Holocaust. But one must wonder how much was made up on the spot and again what was put upon the performers after they’d surely agreed to lesser demands of them.

It certainly doesn’t compare to the grandeur of Fitzcarraldo( another Werner/Klaus collaboration) in my opinion. With Aguirre, we are talking about a film with a similar ambition but a far inferior budget. But when you look at the facts and what they achieved, Aguirre wins out on force of will.

There are two main reasons this works. Herzog and Kinski. This was the first time they worked together despite a long term ‘friendship’. The former’s determination to see it through and refuse to be cowed by the challenges of the terrain. And of course Kinski and that deathly stare of his. His performance is so convincing. This other worldly presence determined to bend the will of the other characters to do his bidding.

I guarantee you, you’ll not see many like this.


Film of the week: The Eiger Sanction



When it comes to 1970s Clint Eastwood movies you can usually have a good idea of what’s in store before you go in.

While the genres and surroundings might change and horses and orangutans are swapped freely with prisons and views of San Francisco, Clint’s act rarely changes. He’ll either talk tough or not talk much at all. And it usually works great.

In the Eiger Sanction, the formula is altered with very mixed results. While Harry Callahan’s racist bigotry can be indulged to a point considering the times it’s set in and the ultimate payoff of taking scumbags off the streets, here we see Eastwood play an unrepentant asshole and none of us are in on the joke.

The film opens with a mysterious spy in Zurich, getting killed over microfilm. So far, so seen it before. Soon John Hemlock(Eastwood) is summoned by a secret organisation to carry out a killing[Sanction) on the killer in exchange for cash and further improvements on his art collection. You see he’s been retired and is now a professor at the local university, teaching horny uninterested students about fine art.

He carries out the bidding of the strange albino Dragon, his de facto boss, but is double-crossed by air stewardess he met earlier.

Jesus, it’s a mess. By now he’s already chewed through five films worth of smart ass and unnecessarily angry remarks and made a bizarre joke about rape that surely wasn’t funny in 1975 either.

The stakes are raised and he’s told he has another Sanction to carry out. This time on a large dangerous Swiss mountain. This mountain holds particular resonance for John as he failed to climb it during a past life as a climber.

John heads to Utah to get some training in. George Kennedy comes in and does his George Kennedy act from Cool Hand Luke, though not really as good. More women appear, either get fucked or get their asses slapped. John gets trained by a mute girl who entices him to train harder by stripping off her top. Meanwhile, an old enemy turns up at the resort. He’s gay and he calls his dog Faggot.

I’m exhausted. We’re only an hour in.

Anyway, in between this horror, we get some amazing cinematography. Beautiful wide angles of mountain climbing, some death-defying sequences too. Very often nowadays you might take for granted such mastery of the camera. But here, with the technology available so limited, huge credit must be given. Indeed it is the saving grace of the film.

The standard of camera work only improves when they get to the snowy mountains of Switzerland. By now John is up the Eiger and we’re still none the wiser as to his enemy. I was very indifferent at this point too.

I watched the new Wonder Woman during the week and while I was moderately charmed by a good performance by the lead, ultimately I became restless as the CGI began to dominate. After watching Eiger I could plainly see that Clint did all the mountain climbing himself. That’s impressive.

Ultimately though, the script would have lost nothing by cutting the first thirty pages and advising Eastwood that he was never the debonair playboy type.

I really can’t recall a more uneven film. Frank Stanley, the man behind the lens deserves all the acclaim. Sadly, the film cost him his friendship with Eastwood and they never worked together again.

The film had three screenwriters none of which were the author of the original novel though one, did end up writing Lethal Weapon 2.

Those with a low tolerance for chauvinism should give this a wide berth. 




film of the week: Unstoppable



I always had a bit of a liking for trains. A certain nobility about a big engine traversing the land, carrying cargo, people or both. It has also been a great provider of employment down the years, or at least it used to be. In this, Tony Scott’s last feature film, we are treated to a high-octane but plausible critique on the state of freight train commerce in recession-hit America. Once again it’s a dark day for the white collar shills.

Denzel Washington plays Frank, a widowed locomotive driver coming up on nearly thirty years of duty, soon to be made redundant as a new company merger forces out older staff. His sidekick here, conductor Will Coulson played by Chris Pine is a more recent recruit, having joined an ailing company at the wrong time, hoping that he can make a good impression and survive the cull.

The setting is in Pennsylvania, by way of Scranton and other cities that keep the engine room of America glowing.

In a well-flagged move, a burly dope by the name of Dewey takes his eye off his linesman duties and a train carrying a large payload of toxic fuel gets away from him and his bumbling partner. They are unable to rectify their error and the train gets away on full power. We now have the title of the film.

As it gathers speed, the man in the editing suite tries to keep pace, jumping manically from engine room to operations room, to boardroom. There are multiple local news channels documenting the event as helicopters fly just above the train, none of which are able to offer any assistance but are still well able to photograph the impending tragedy. Such is life.

There is a chief welder, Ned Oldham who pops in the B-team role. He and his ill-advised ponytail will eventually make a vital intervention but in the interim, we are treated to some classic male bonding between Washington and Pine as they lament lost women and soon to be lost jobs. They are occasionally interrupted by Rosario Dawson, who plays the earnest, open-minded yardmaster. She is never too far away to remind them of how close they are getting to catching the runaway train, offering words of encouragement without sounding totally helpless.

This all could fall on its ass rather easily in the wrong hands, or indeed with a budget normally associated with True Movies type fare. Here, however, we are well covered, there is an impressive scope to the entire production. Notably too, Tony Scott, he of Top Gun, he of Crimson Tide, knows exactly how to draft an action movie graph. All the peaks are in the right place.

It is very sad that he is no longer with us. Rumours persisted for a while about his death. In time, brother Ridley disclosed that his sibling had been fighting a long and frustrating battle with cancer and wanted to go out on his own terms.

What he left behind, apart of course from a broken hearted family, was a body of work that is hugely impressive in retrospect. Compared again to his brother, he might easily be dismissed as a reliable but uninspired filmmaker. Top Gun was undoubtedly the big one. Among others, we had Days of Thunder, True Romance, Enemy of the State, Spy Game, Domino, Deja Vu. Very few of his films were disappointments. So perhaps the reliable tag is fair.

With this film, the last one released before his death( others followed posthumously) I believe he went out on a high. Definitely recommended.


Film of the week: Octopussy


There comes a time in every person’s life when they are faced with the unwanted reality of mortality.  Never enough hours to make up for your regrets. The sands of time drifting away before you accomplish everything you desired. But perhaps Roger Moore came closer than most.

Born in London in 1927, Moore was the only child of a policeman and a mother born in India, where his youth was often spent sick in the confines of a modest but respectable apartment in Stockwell, in the south of the city.

During World War 2 and the terrifying blitz he was one of many youths to be ferried out of the nation’s capital. Around this time he was beginning to cultivate that slightly roguish but ultimately very charming personality we would all fall in love with.

He didn’t know quite what he wanted yet but after a short unsuccessful spell at an animation studio he ended up as an extra on a feature film. This came about by pure chance, a favour owed to his father.

So began a journey in cinema that would last until well into the turn of the new Millennium. Initially, he was booked in the old system as a studio star. A supposedly comfortable but often uncertain existence where there might be guarantees of work but only on the say so of some executive.

While this was occurring Moore seemed happy just to be happy. His affability just as important as them matinee idol looks. Before the household fame, Moore would serve in the Army as an entertainment officer, which seems so quaint when you say it. He modelled woollen cardigans and in time lost the cockney twang for something altogether more silken.

There was a youthful engagement and marriage by the age of 25. There followed more marriages and more high society evenings in a 1950s London that arguably has never been bettered for its galaxy of stars and starlets.

After that came famous TV programmes such as Ivanhoe, The Saint and The Persuaders. And what would follow that, would change this scribe’s life.

I first encountered Roger on a 14” portable colour Samsung television in Beechdale, Dunboyne, possibly late 1987. Ulster Television was to me, just a place where Liverpool perennially broke my United father’s heart every weekend on The Match. Where I could watch cartoons like Trap Door and Mask, as well as more adult, themed fare like Bullseye, Corrie and if the schedules were consistent, The A-team and Knight Rider. At this point in my life, I had not developed any real taste in anything except what my friends and parents liked.

James Bond was the first thing on TV that I had sole ownership of in my little world…or at least I thought.

The first 007 film I saw was Octopussy. Of that, I have no doubt. I know this because all I wanted to do that Christmas was buy a ridiculously expensive Lego train set and recreate the epic chase between the black Mercedes and the speeding locomotive.

I had no reason to think that adults would scoff at the title of the film or that Moore, himself now into his sixth Bond film and his fifty-sixth year was being sniggered at by critics for committing the cardinal sin of getting old. I had no frame of reference. Octopussy to me was just brilliant.

The opening scenes, shot most probably in Nottingham but doubling for some communist republic in South America, sees Bond unsuccessfully try to plant a bomb in the opposition army base. His cunning moustache disguise is soon detected and he is taken away in the direction of a military prison. Before you can say ‘look at that horse’s tail’ 007s earlier seen female ally has reappeared, just in time to distract the driver of the paddy wagon. Soon Bond has made good his escape, via an eight-foot long mini aeroplane. Not content with simply regaining his freedom, he engages in a short round of cat and mouse with some opposition missiles, returning to the enemy base for just a moment long enough to see the opposition blow their own base up. With his fuel tank inexplicably empty and no time to gloat on this fortunate turn of events Bond aims his craft downward and finds a local filling station and a befuddled attendant.

Bond opens up his plexiglass and says

‘fill her up please’

And with that, I was in love.

It would be a very indulgent waste of time for me to review the rest of the film in such detail. Except to say with this alongside Die Hard, The Warriors and probably all the other Bond films, I could pretty much do so without having to watch the film ever again.

If you want my 2011 review though, it’s here. And it’s pretty good proof that this positive spin has nothing to do with the week that’s in it or that my opinion has been formed on a whim.

But I guess if I don’t win the doubters over with this piece that’s okay. The more hardened fan might prefer Live and Let Die or of course, The Spy Who Loved Me( which is peak Roger, no doubt). I myself must admit a preference for 1973 Moore wardrobe over its rival ten years on.

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And they called it turtleneck love…..

But in the context of Octopussy being his penultimate adventure and the important note that he had in fact quietly half retired after For Your Eyes Only in ‘81, even now I always thought Roge had a bit more spring in his step on this film.

For a number of reasons. After flirting with the idea of the first American cinematic Bond(James Brolin did a screen test and was days away) producers decided to go back to the ever dependable Moore. With Connery returning in an opposition Bond movie the same year, Broccoli perhaps felt it dangerous to put a new guy up against the Scotsman. This decision was vindicated at the box office.

Reason number two, in my opinion, is the chemistry he enjoyed with his co-stars. Maude Adams always seemed to look the ideal fit for Moore. Two strikingly handsome but understated souls. Though she kind of cheated by coming back from the dead(also starring in The Man With the Golden Gun) I would venture that her second go around is the most successful second go around in the series…and Joe Don Baker fans are just going to have to deal with it.

The film also stars a flawless Louis Jordan and a fantastically over the top Steven Berkoff but I digress.

The third and perhaps most poignant reason was Moore falling in love with India and the people of India, the birthplace of his mother. Particularly the poverty stricken youths of the streets. It was around this time that Unicef ambassador Audrey Hepburn had been encouraging him to use his profile more in the field of charity. Moore was reluctant to do so, preferring to make his donations privately. But Audrey quite correctly managed to explain that his profile would do wonders for the organisation and easily dwarf his previous efforts in terms of the bottom line.

So began a new legacy just as this old one was reaching the end. Roger would do one more Bond, A View To a Kill in 1985.

But in the years that have followed it has been somewhat irrelevant what James Bond will return in. A little bittersweet to acknowledge its silliness as your adult mind struggles to retain the innocence of youth. I still love the character and love whoever plays the character, but you never forget your first.

Thank you Roger Moore.




Film of the week: Edge of Darkness


I always approach remakes of iconic TV series’ with caution. Even the likes of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, as good as the film was, had to make a lot of concessions to suit the film format. Here with Edge of Darkness, the challenge of conveying the tension and drama of the central character’s quest for his daughter’s justice has to be condensed. Does it work? Well, we’ll get to that.

I suppose the big question at the time was the casting of that central character. After a few false starts and scheduling conflicts, it fell into the lap of Mel Gibson. Even the most occasional of film fans will appreciate that Gibson’s stock isn’t what it was. Unlike many of his peers who simply succumbed to old age, Mel expedited his downfall with an arrest for spousal abuse and subsequent controversy over his thoughts on the Jewish community. For director Martin Campbell, this was a big risk.

Aside from that, how does Gibson fair? I never thought of him as one of the all-time greats. His early promise shown in the likes of Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously and even to a certain extent the first Lethal Weapon film was, during the 1990s gradually watered down to a collection of facial gestures and grandstanding. The subtle was all but gone.

In this film, he is faced with the challenge of fitting an enormous amount of backstory into the first twenty-five minutes of the film. Those who remember the television series will recall how well this played out over the episodes, as Tom Craven’s daughter offers him helpful clues and inspiration in his quest. In both series and film, Craven is an experienced policeman. However while in the original, we have a determined but grounded Yorkshire bobby, this time around the action has been moved to Boston.

Whether this was to serve the plot or a device to provide the script with a typical stock macho American protagonist, for me, it just about gets away with it. Gibson is a believable senior policeman, with a respectable gravelly Mass accent. Unfortunately neither Gibson or any other actor could convey what needs to be conveyed here so we are often treated to default Gibson; quick-witted verbal put downs, nerveless accuracy with a weapon and of course silly, ‘he’s almost dead but not quite’ walks.

Really the performance is intertwined with a story that has far too much ground to cover in a short space of time. Ray Winstone also shows up early enough in the proceedings as a high level fixer. How an Englishman has risen to the ranks of American national security to reach this vaunted position is anyone’s guess but he likes cigars and expensive brandy so maybe that’s enough. In any case, he decides to channel F Scott Fitzgerald and do nothing for a while, until he decides who’s in the right. It’s not an ideal character to have in an already very busy story.

Danny Huston plays the evil megalomaniac would be nuclear arms dealer who happily flouts the laws of megalomania by wantonly looking for trouble and bringing far too much to his own front door. It is a bizarrely written character.

As well as these issues, there is, of course, the change in setting and time. While easy comparisons can be made between the unpopularity of American nuclear policy and Thatcher’s new Britain of the 1980s, there is little here to persuade me that the new location for this story is any better.

For all that however I didn’t hate it. I was reasonably engaged and it was good to see Gibson and his shtick do its thing for a few hours. There is a sense of him second guessing himself at times but that might be just me.

Martin Campbell, who also directed the original series and is in held in very high regard by 007 fans, never seems to get the credit due to him. Here he makes the best of the situation by pushing things along at a steady pace. I imagine that there would have been a great deal of mutual respect between both him and Gibson, himself an indisputably successful director.

But if all the film does is to remind or inform audiences of the excellent original BBC series then it just about justifies its existence.


Book of the month: How to be a woman by Caitlin Moran

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I have been meaning to read some of this lady’s work for some time. My only prior knowledge of her was seeing both her and her magnificent barnet of silver streaked hair on the Late Late show, albeit in a pub with the sound muted. But she had me curious to find out more. And so I finally did.

This is Moran’s first foray into writing a full non fiction title. I learned that she was once an intern at Melody Maker who rose up the food chain to become a permanent and well respected part of the publication. If I could offer one criticism it would be that this book did not tell me how she got the job in the first place. Perhaps though, the evidence is all there on the page. Moran is an excellent writer.

The acid test, if there such a thing anymore, is to see if as a man, you can survive the opening horrors of her teenage years. The chapter titles hint at this: I start Bleeding, I become furry, I am a feminist, I need a bra. It’s the kind of territory most men would avoid given the chance but it’s all handled so deftly here, you can’t help but go along with it.

It becomes clear throughout the book that Moran has had a tough upbringing. A small council house at bursting point trying to contain a large family. A frankly tragic situation with hand me down underwear and a curious habit of getting changed in the sitting room because the rest of the house is too cold. (actually I used to do this too after my bath, the 80s was a bit poxy kids)

What also becomes clear is Moran’s total coolness. The best kind of coolness, not realising it. She wears ridiculous T-shirts with no sense of irony and starts reading Germaine Greer long before the suggested age bracket.

As she grows up she meets a boy who plays in a band and it doesn’t work out. But all the way through this I can’t find any fault in her. He sounds like a right pillock and she definitely dodged a bullet.

Adulthood comes and with it the possibilities of a slightly more disposable income and perhaps a chance to broaden her sartorial horizons.

The self deprecation she brings here is often hilarious, but with some very valid points. After all surely designers don’t design clothes for normal people to wear. It’s all just pot luck. Her advice on owning at least one pair of yellow shoes went a little over my head but I guess it makes sense.

There are some excellent points raised about men and the arts and the opportunities they have received through the whole of civilisation. She rightly points out that women have achieved so little in comparison but only because their role has only been defined elsewhere. Notably this comes across in a very matter of fact fashion, rather than some tantrum. It is this kind of logic which pervades the book, with only the occasional slip or purchase of a £500 purse sneaking through.

Just as you think she might turn into one of them irritating name dropping music journalist types, she is onto marriage and having babies. This might be some of the most well constructed and even handed commentary I’ve ever heard on either subject. I share common ground with her on the silliness of the modern wedding extravaganza but the more heartfelt and poignant detail comes with her memories of childbirth; of what worked out and what didn’t, the tough choices she made and how she justified them.

I don’t know if I can fully do this book justice without sounding overly sycophantic to the feminist cause. Only to say that if there are any broad minded teachers out there looking to add something worthwhile to the transition year syllabus they could do a lot worse than buying a few copies of this and making sure the boys read it.


Film of the week: Rob Roy

Source: Film of the week: Rob Roy


Film of the week: Rob Roy



Liam Neeson. Jessica Lange. John Hurt. Brian Cox. Tim Roth. Eric Stoltz!

At least three of those are among my all time favourite actors. How did I let Rob Roy slip through my grasp for so long?

It is a film that doesn’t get many television appearances these days. The channels usually go for the louder Scottish rebel. You know, the one with the blue face paint and who can blow lightning bolts out of his arse? Anyway back to this.

Rob Roy tells the story of Robert McGregor(played here by a very fit and fresh-faced Neeson) a farmer, who retains the favour of the local landlords by keeping peasant thieves away from their valuable herds of cattle.

It is the year of our lord 1713 : Both he and some other loyal subjects enjoy a fairly peaceful and idyllic life amongst the Scottish Highlands, with morning dips in the lake and sing songs at a campfire by night. So far, so good.

MacGregor and his beautiful wife Mary(played by Jessica Lange with a very respectable accent) are generally seen as the leaders of the group, with future plans and business arrangements usually coming from their home.

MacGregor’s earlier fracas with the peasants is noted by the local landlords, with his fine judgement and cool head given due praise. Around this time MacGregor begins to see the value of a business focused mind. He wants his clan to pool their resources together and buy a herd of their own cattle, with a sizeable loan taken from Montrose(John Hurt)

Accompanying Montrose is a southern vagabond in the shape of Archibald ‘Archie’ Cunningham(Tim Roth)who has returned from a faraway land. His clothes indicate a man well travelled but his behaviour is anything but gentlemanly. Roth is perfect here as a diminutive but malevolent swordsman, seemingly willing to ravage his way around Scotland til something better comes along. He is a little like Redmond Barry, except far more vicious. It is his alliance with Killearn(Brian Cox) which suddenly brings disharmony to the province. Two men with barely a scruple between them. One violent, one more cerebral.

The plot here unfolds nicely. It is easy to transport this story from early 18th century Scotland to a more modern setting if needed. The idea of the little man with notions of self-improvement getting screwed by figures higher up the societal ladder is one that never goes out of fashion.

Something I get with these period dramas. A problem I suppose, are the character names. I don’t always remember them during or afterwards. These names in many cases have long since died out. Generations and the lineage of a strong moniker lost over time. Anyway the point is that when one character is on screen discussing another one who is off screen it is vital that name is different enough to make the character stand out but maybe easy enough to recall quickly. It is particularly important in a feature film where you don’t have the settling in period of a TV series, for example.

Another important thing that any budding screenwriter must do (and I feel I should follow my own lesson here) is that in a tightly knit machiavellian plot like this you must make sure all the main players have enough to do.

All the names listed initially have their moments. Perhaps Stoltz gets the dirtier end of the stick but it’s not a Marty McFly situation by any stretch. Montrose’s interplay with his rival, the Duke of Argyll is excellent. In a film where commerce is at the forefront it is important to always note that other great measure of the time; religious persuasion. In this case it is the Duke of Argyll who carries his Jacobite beliefs in silence.

Anyway getting back to the review. I really enjoyed this film. I was swept up in it. Immersed in the ‘bastardry’ of all the bastards involved. Killearn, in particular, is a horrid little man. As comfortable in feeling up chamber maids as he is gambling on a sword fight, it is clear that while he might not have travelled as far as many, he is frighteningly familiar with the local politics. Who is broke? Who is hoping to leave? Who wants to stay and improve their lot. It is a remarkably well-rounded character for what is a supporting role.

Of course then my beloved Jessica Lange. No way was she going to travel all the way to Scotland for a jolly up. Like so often in her career she pulls at threads and suddenly the light comes in every time she’s on screen. Her role here as den mother to Rob Roy’s household would probably not be described as stand-out. But it’s certainly memorable.

And then the big fella himself. Neeson. This film was released in 1995 remember. At this time Liam was three years past Schindler’s List, with the likes of Taken and the rest not even in his wildest dreams. We are talking a Neeson here in his absolute physical prime, with Bond and Bruce Wayne rumours circling the dirt sheets daily. This is arguably the best of him in a 1990s action role. Though to categorise it as such would be unjust.

Which maybe brings me to the real unsung star of this piece. Alan Sharp, a Scottish novelist is listed as screenwriter. His bibliography is well worth exploring. And for my money, it is pretty sad that all those juicy lines weren’t worthy of least a BAFTA or Oscar nomination.

Anyway, I implore you to watch it. You might be best not to wait for Film Four or ITV2 to screen it, maybe TV3 will come through at some point. But you are all resourceful people, you will find a way.


book of the month: The Nightcomers by Eric Ambler



I have long threatened to engage with this man’s work. He had been writing since the mid 1930s but this particular novel was published in ’56; just before Spymania was beginning to dominate the paperback shelves. I had led myself to believe that this is where Ambler’s work would reside. But from what I read here, his genre would have to be considered more political.

We begin after the Second World War with Steve Fraser, an English engineer working in one of the Dutch East Indies many provinces alongside a group of Westerners. Prior to this point in history, Indonesia was like a hot potato. It changed hands from the Dutch to the Portuguese to the Japanese and was now barely getting to grip with independence.

Fraser and his team are finishing up the construction a dam that will no doubt line their pockets.

He has a few days to waste before his flight home and accepts the offer an apartment, given to him by an Australian acquaintance who also recommends a good tailor to visit during his stay.

Added into the mix is a Eurasian woman named Rosalie who agrees to keep him company for the last days of his stay. Such was the style of the time.

Everything seems to be fine until explosions begin to be heard around the city. There is rebellion under way as the rebels of the North plan their attack on the Nasjah government. The pair has now become hostages of the uprising, held in a half captive/half protective situation by Suparto, a representative of rebel General Sanusi, who may or may not be happy with the direction of the rebels leadership.

What really impressed me here was the relaxed, matter of fact nature of Fraser. He does occasionally judge the locals very quickly but often his instincts are quite accurate.

Some really good insight, for example, is the importance of saving face. Fraser who has a good grasp of the local dialect knows it’s better not to use this and instead lets local officials speak their poor version of English, despite everything taking twice as long to do.

The commentary on the bribe culture of the area is deft in tone and something many travelers still warn about to this day, as well as the ridiculous nature of promotion within any organisation.

Another aspect of Ambler’s writing is that he moves things along very quickly. A siege or hostage plot can drag quite easily if not handled well.

Here the writer provides just about enough detail regarding the layout of the apartment as well as the simple pleasures of having enough food and water to sustain themselves. He also renders Rosalie’s sarong very well, that most durable of item of apparel. It is these themes that really make the story work. Fraser is for now no better off than the locals, and plans his life hour by hour instead of more long term.

Having lived in Jakarta a decade ago, I could easily picture the scene around the old Dutch quarter, back then. An area long since dilapidated, with its few narrow bridges to remind the settlers of home.

As I recall it was a massive sprawl of a city and when I think of the intense sewerage and water treatment difficulties even in my time there, it made me laugh when they put Fraser’s character in charge of fixing a complex generator in the basement of the apartment block.

All in all, it works quite well as a brief historical document. Those who might be offended by the way westerners take advantage of local young women might steer clear. Does it help that Fraser remains a gentleman throughout? That he is constantly looking out for Rosalie’s safety? Maybe not.

But I think it captures the state of confusion that must have been felt in this time. How after six hundred odd years of colonialism the end was in sight for the local people and the potential for different factions to start fighting amongst themselves the closer they were coming to independence.

I must say too that my knowledge of South East Asian geography did not really affect my enjoyment. During the reading of the story, I had assumed the place names and names of the factions he was using to be apocryphal.

A political thriller with a light touch, I would read more from Eric Ambler quite happily.