To Dad With Love

A Tribute to a Beloved Father

Theatre review: Humpty Dumpty Daddy

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JC Person is no different from your usual idea of a dynamic millennial. In Joel Clapham’s unflinching performance at the centre of Humpty Dumpty Daddy, drawn from his true-life story, he is an intelligent, eloquent 34-year-old with an iPhone and a suave, captivating smile.

His mind, though, is somewhat more sombre. Newly separated from his wife, with three young children, plus the drudgery of a corporate identity, JC has been battling the black grip of mental depression, which, when one considers that his father had taken his own life at 35, is especially poignant.

Written and produced solely by Clapham the play gives us a theatrical version of the inside of JC’s head. We are invited into the cosy space at The Dock in Courthouse Hotel to be intimate witnesses of uncompromising pathos and a candour that startles and disarms.

We hear of (and agree with) the way a story-telling trait and scorching sense of humour seem to have passed down the generations: his balding paternal grandfather, Pop, told 5-year-old JC his hair had, in falling off his head, stuck to his ears and nostrils and chest where they now flourished.

In a calm, lucid tone, JC relates how he was not given the chance to restore with his father an old car that had been promised for his 18th birthday before his father, separated then from his mother, hung himself in the garage. Big and burly at 6ft 3in the older man, despite a mischievous quality, was never able to talk about his feelings or seek attention — something JC resolves not to emulate.

If his dad had taught him what not to do, his mum, on the contrary, has made him (and his two brothers) whom he is today: a good son, father, brother, uncle. Person. This heartfelt recognition is no doubt made more intense by JC’s role as a parent.

With overwhelming tenderness behind piercing eyes JC tells about his pride of being a father to his two sons and daughter, aged 8, 6 and 3, in which the underlying nature of the man comes shining through.

The young man reflects upon the challenges of fatherhood and the influences — positive and negative — parents have on impressionable lives.

It is a charming yet powerful watch, bravely and brilliantly delivered in an hour for the Melbourne Fringe Festival. Woven through this very personal tale, too, are some deliciously memorable lines: recollecting the bubble-gum he and his brothers had given to their Pop they later found on his bed after he passed away, JC observes that even after somebody dies there exists physical and tangible evidence they keep on living by way of memory through those evidence.

Towards the end, one becomes acutely aware of the potential for history to repeat itself; after all, JC’s father was a single man when he suicided, probably suffered from mental health issues, had 3 kids, was also in his mid-30s.

Only, we have implicit faith in JC.

Men hide their emotions; they think them a weakness. But Clapham clearly knows that the showing of emotions is a strength. To do what he has done is a demonstration of incredible strength, incredible even for a woman.

Humpty Dumpty Daddy  is a fine work every man ought to see and every woman will appreciate.

Theatre review: Man of the Year

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Full marks to 5pound theatre for opening one of the first shows for the Melbourne Fringe Festival. And it does so with voluble vigour, packing significant moments in our history over 2,000 years on a stage hardly larger than a pocket-handkerchief.

Thanked for their presence the audience finds themselves as guests of a speaker: the eponymous Man of the title. Soon, around and about two lecterns, memorable speeches by some of the world’s most prominent leaders begin to roll off his tongue. The Man leaps from Abraham Lincoln to Adolf Hitler, swerves past Martin Luther King to Margaret Thatcher, not before meditating on Winston Churchill, then glides on to Saddam Hussein and Stan Grant, through Susan B Anthony and Julia Gillard and Paul Keating. It is minute after enthralling minute of stirring rhetoric and rousing statements.

And now and then, through the 50-minute, one-person show, like words coming out of the air, a woman’s voice emerges from behind the curtain, interjecting the Man’s breathless recitals, as if speaking our unheard thoughts: she chastises his method of delivering the message, she interrogates the direction of his articulations, she questions his right to those famous articulations.

Despite the occasional whimsy this is a decidedly intense work, paying tribute to — and criticisms of — revolutionary luminaries, on whom time has passed judgement that the theatre-makers are here inquiring. With perceptible reverence and sensitivity the play contemplates the motivations behind the gleam of eloquence and ramifications of persuasive oratory. It dwells upon the way violence can be justified and asks if the desire for power and influence might not have been the common fuel in the infernal belly.

Then the Man, half-way through the staging, transforms into a rogue performer, as he narrates the execution of his plan to take his listeners hostage. He imagines a locked door, police thumping on the other side, tying up a victim. For a moment, with a glass-case on the lectern displaying a gun, its label “Chekhov’s Gun” staring tellingly at us, one is made to feel appropriately uneasy.

Only, nothing happens.

Instead, we move on to hear about racial discrimination and gender inequality, and their injustices and danger. We realise that because of the reformer in Anthony there rose the Iron Lady. And even though he rattles away in German the pronouncements of Hitler with deep, sonorous, guttural vibrations, the Man disdains Hussein’s Arabic. These certainly bear repeating at a time when hard-right groups are again emerging across Europe (and Australia), when women continue to endure lower salaries, and ethnic tensions are high. That the theatre company has chosen Man of the Year rather than Person of the Year to be the name of their drama seems to echo those sentiments.

Tim Wotherspoon’s production handles the weighty considerations in the material with control. The illumination that almost every important event can be linked all the way back to the first ages is astounding. There is nice work from Sharon Davis whose Voice has an effect profound enough on the Man to suggest the world eventually gets what they deserve. Jason Cavanagh is tremendous as the Man; dressed in a tuxedo over pyjama trousers and bedroom slippers he brings conviction and sincerity and spirit to the part, showing how words can charm and frighten and churn hearts and shape stories.

Man of the Year has plenty to say and one hopes it will not be edited away from the dramatic scene, like Chekhov would recommend for the gun that never goes off.

 

Book review: Heart of Darkness

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The word epic seems inadequate to describe Joseph Conrad’s phenomenal novella Heart of Darkness. You don’t so much read it as absorb it in small doses like a drug. There are limits in one’s capacity to cope with the concentrated formula.

The book opens one night on a boat by the Thames where Marlow, through his recollections, takes several friends (including the unnamed narrator) along the Congo River. A sea-man by profession, Marlow was under the employment of a colonising regime, charged with delivering a coterie of men upstream to seek out their first-rate agent, Mr Kurtz. Esteemed on account of the amount and value of ivory he had harvested, Kurtz had generated anxiety with news of ill health.

Heart of Darkness was published in 1899, nine years after Conrad himself sailed into Congo as part of King Leopold’s administration, in which the author discovered that far from the ethical purpose of bringing progress to the backwater — what was being propagandised — extravagant carnage had been perpetrated for the material gain of elephant tusks. Some academics are convinced the novel was driven by a burning conscience.

Kurtz, it seems, had not been tarred by the same hypocrisy that stained the Belgian government. Marlow saw the way white people, despite or because of their own motives, were inspired by Kurtz’s conviction each outpost “should be like a beacon… towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanising, improving, instructing.”

But on arriving at Kurtz’s station deep in the region the captain of the steam-boat came upon scenes of horror: decapitated heads of natives were poised on poles outside the windows. More astonishingly still, surviving others worshipped him, literally, in “midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites”.

In calm, elegant, if dense, prose Conrad explains the sense of madness the jungle — dark, from absent law and missing public opinion — induces. Implacable and silent and still the wilderness, in these pages, is not just a setting; it is an active presence, a protagonist in the complex drama of ruin without redemption. The reader is subliminally persuaded with the inference of travelling into one’s own inner environment from a journey into the forests.

Conrad, writing in his third language, makes you sensitive to the nuance between a conqueror and a colonist. The distinction lies in intent: while a conqueror occupies and raids with as much morality as “burglars breaking into a safe” a colonist, in offering of themselves by way of deliberate belief, wins minds and hearts. And we see the different fates that come to fall on them respectively, raising resonant questions about toppling despots and spreading democracy.

To encounter Heart of Darkness after reading later literary works is to appreciate how writers like Graham Greene and VS Naipaul and John le Carré had been influenced by it. In this slender heavyweight every minute observation serves to convey something. Marlow is peculiar in finding “meaning of an episode not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out, only as a glow brings out a haze…” — an image threaded through this compelling narrative like a motif, not least in earth clearings being invariably surrounded by the wilderness, as by truth, by evil.

As he ventured farther and farther into the bush Kurtz who started off altruistic was confronted by his own personal reality that had now been claimed by greed, by desire for power, desire to be worshipped. He then dies, after uttering his judgement upon his soul’s adventures on this earth: The horror! The horror!

Interestingly, the woman to whom Kurtz was engaged to be married is depicted with light on her forehead making visible the darkness around her. Yet, like the subject in the oil painting by Kurtz, she is blind(folded) to the facts around the man she alleges to love, around indeed herself.

For all that has been debated about this giant in literature — that it is a historical document, that it is a parable of humanity’s weakness — Heart of Darkness is really, to me, anyway, a story of betrayal and power, perhaps of (mis)trust, perhaps of love. It is an honest, unflinching portrait of the human condition.

I cannot decide whether Kurtz perceived the last gestures of his Congolese mistress as a triumph for him. But I know he longed for her, with hate.

Arguments, too, have swirled around the book’s racist quality, which fades on consideration of unsavoury portrayals for both whites and blacks. Experts pronounce the work as anti-imperialist, but I am not sure. Marlow, many say is Conrad’s alter ego, is clearly against imperialism by the Belgians; thing is, he appears to favour that by the British.

With so much packed into the sentences between 111 pages, as in lines of cocaine for insufflation, the only side-effect from Heart of Darkness, though, is enlightenment, as it must have been for Marlow, acute, sombre enlightenment.

 

Theatre review: Duets

the_stain_duets_sizedlamama-314fa7c3The Stain, a three-women art troupe, certainly had on its mind expressions by two artistes in the creation of Duets. Conjugation, or the notion of it, is rife in Maude Davey’s eight-member cast staging, although the raunchy production turns out to be a poignant portrait of the joys and pain of human intimacy.

Held together by a palette of ballads and abstract dance, for an absent plot, the work reminds us that behind a world saturated by preoccupations with sex is ultimately a desire for connection.

After a bitter break-up, (in a stirring group performance of Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know), a woman (Francesca Sculli) calls her lover (Jo Franklin), and attempts at reconciliation under apparent talk of rolling-pins and Crisco and nakedness.

A wildly distracted woman (exceptional Sarah Ward), her head in a television-box that she changes channels again and again, further fills the space with songs of longing and of loss. Despite achieving orgasm with inanimate objects she goes on to seek closeness with the audience in a gesture that suggests perhaps the inadequacy of physical gratification.

There is a powerful message inside what first appears to be a sleazy framework (replete with bananas and apples and fake penises) made more potent by Herbz’s dim and hazy set design — enveloped in murky sheets of plastic, so that one feels as if they are looking through half-closed eyes — and a soundscape in which Gen Bernstein’s guitar and Genevieve Fry’s harp strum heart-strings as achingly as they do the airwaves. The lighting is noteworthy, too, creating pulse and motion, like electricity shaking up your nerves.

It is The Huxley’s final rendition, however, that cuts most keenly. Joined from wearing separate costumes attached by a long, red fabric at each other’s chest, Will and Garrett Huxley show and sing of how love is a beautiful condition that comes with the inherent risk of being hurt by actions of the conjoined party.

Still, Duets ends (as it begins; in fact, is interwoven) with a sense of hope through Paula Russell whose graceful ballerina movements, accompanying a choice musical number, leaves you satisfied, with feelings of promise.

An enjoyable afternoon that combines mind and body, science and art, emotions and flesh.

Theatre review: To The Naked Eye

What are the things better left hidden To The Naked Eye in Cerise de Gelder’s play? Do they include the unhappiness within Clare’s matrimony, something neighbour and single-woman Stephanie suspects? Is the unethical business dealings husband Adam is believed to be involved in one of them? And that Stephanie is alone because, decades ago, her three-week-old groom had been convicted of murder — is this another? One thing is certain: none of these revelations makes any difference, even if the story ends with trailing possibilities.

We follow the lives of two suburban households, in which Clare finds herself repeatedly presented with gifts from a grateful Stephanie, whom she had helped in a car accident. When Adam becomes hostile to her excessive presence in their home, Stephanie attempts to convince Clare she could be better off on her own.

Meanwhile, the young house-maker, despite maintaining that she enjoys marital bliss, feels neglected by Adam who, himself nursing hurt from his wife’s one-time infidelity, claims to be hard at work. Then, suspicious of Stephanie’s untoward influence on their marriage, Adam divulges the secrets of her past, and accuses her of sinister motives behind the overtures of friendship.

Although the action of the tale lies in manipulation of power through exhuming skeletons in the closet, Gelder’s drama infers truth may be worth less than one would imagine. As the narrative unfolds, we see that, because of circumstances, bringing things into light changes nothing. Characters seem to accept the impossibility of understanding why people do what they do. Given life must go on, the play leads one to think, it might be preferable for happiness to be uncoloured by pain.

Brenda Palmer’s staging is brilliant, with the characters jointlessly segueing between soliloquy (as they voice their inner thoughts) and dialogue. In her collaboration with Harry Paternoster whose set deploys the space to magnificent effect, she uses long swathes of cloth to convey transience and a sense of deliberate, if languid, interference.

Performance, too, is tremendous. Stephanie Lillis is volatile and vulnerable as Clare, an attention-starved spouse, with divided loyalties, yet sure of neither. Carolyn Masson is nervy and defiant as Stephanie, a middle-aged loner determined to avoid a similar fate that met with the Sarajevo woman (she’d read) who had been so isolated she was discovered years after her death.

And Miljana Cancar is the returned spirit of that Sarajevo woman, the enlightened figure in red who, in spite of lurking in a corner, is an instructive voice inside Stephanie’s head, while Robert Ricks is Adam, effectively suggesting a tormented soul behind the abrasiveness.

This is a profound meditation on idealism and pragmatism, dramatising the interface between self-interests, reality, letting go. What is not hidden To The Naked Eye, though, is that behind the fabric of every existence lies the bleak terror of loneliness.

Film review: Mia Madre

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As our parents age impending bereavement from their death inches closer for some of us. Exploring how lives can be dimmed by the stress of this reality, Mia Madre is a gentle drama so melancholy and drawn-out its very air seems to have been sucked away by labour and gloom.

Filming a picture about worker-protests against factory layoffs, director Margherita (Margherita Buy) learns, alongside her brother Giovanni (in a beautifully tempered performance by Nanni Moretti, writer and director of Mia Madre, himself), that their eponymous mother Ada (Giulia Lazzarini) is dying.

Giovanni is sad but calm and dedicates his time to caring for Ada; Margherita, on the other hand, exists in denial, teetering on an emotional melt-down, amid strains in her daily life.

Divorced, she has just initiated to break-off a relationship with a devoted lover. That her teenage daughter, Livia (Beatrice Mancini), has apparently been nursing a heartache she until now knew nothing about is weighing on the guilt. And the leading-man, Barry Huggins (John Turturro), she has imported from America for her movie is proving exasperating and never remembers his lines.

Revealing very little about the bond between Ada and Margherita, despite hints of past fractures, this (curious) Cannes-award winner is largely suspected to be autobiographical; for Moretti was making his feature We have a Pope in 2011 when his own mother passed away.

If so, Margherita’s favourite instruction to her actors — “to stand beside your character when playing them” — may not be that bewildering, after all. If each of us consists of an outer-persona (character-role) and an inner (our alter-ego), then Giovanni is really the inside-man of the film-maker who is Moretti acted out by Buy.

If so, it is a delicious conceit.

Only, the 106-minute account alights remorselessly on protracted  and iterative narrations about the way Margherita is (not) coping. Visits to the hospital are touching but dull. While dream sequences and recollections and a fascinating scene, in which she appears to come face-to-face with her younger-self, count like the equivalent of stream-of-consciousness in literature, the story feels like a book uninferent of progress.

Even Tuturro, by adding colour and raising tempo in his portrayal of the idiosyncratic star, cannot save the work.

Towards the end, we see how Margherita arrives at a better understanding of her mother, of herself, indeed of their startling contrasts.

“You don’t like anything… that’s the way you live,” says her lover, bitterly. “People can have only small doses of you.”

Well, in Mia Madre, she has been a flame-extinguishing dollop.

Theatre review: In Search of Owen Roe

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Arcane ancestor-stories, amongst the most intriguing elements of self-identity, offer rich pickings for dramatists. And this play, written and performed by Vanessa O’Neill, in which she uncovers her Irish roots, certainly digs deep.

Voices in the head and insomnia and a restless consciousness take us back to the 17th-century when Owen Roe O’Neill fought an armed resistance against English rule. One of the most famous antecedents of the dynasty, the commander of the Ulster Army was remembered two hundred years after his death.

It is, however, her great-grandfather, who shares that weighty name eons later, whose life Vanessa desires to explore.

Only, she finds that the body of the man is interred under a bare patch of earth, unmarked, beside his 13-year-old daughter, while everybody else in the family has tombstones to their graves. Why, nobody appears to know.

In this crisp, 60-minute, one-woman show, the playwright tells of how she set out on her mission that has since involved poring over countless documents and trekking many times to her native Shamrock over the past 18 years.

Glynis Angell directs this compelling production that gives us in part a theatrical version of the inside of Vanessa’s mind. Sounds of her thoughts come out of the air (in a haunting design by Darious Kedros) about our heads.

The stage is dark and intimate, with a sense of discontent, furnished by a map of Ireland on the one side, and the other a family tree that fruits as the narrative progresses with names.

At the centre, though, of this brooding agitation and persistent search is Vanessa’s father slipping into dementia; and in his struggle for freedom and for dignity she recognises a mirror to her own fighting spirit, and indeed her son’s emerging quality of independent thinking.

Albeit subtle, Vanessa’s scalpel is uncompromising. She peels away one layer of time after another, alluding to idiosyncracies and strength of character that seem to have passed down the generations like breathing heritage.

At its best, the writing combines poetry and soaring images, as it frames the action with ghostly figures that blur the boundary between the dead and living.

But it is Vanessa switching effortlessly into and out of myriad roles — her father, the great-grandmother, various Irish men she meets at the pub, her son, cousins, to name a few — using artistic unities to fuse past and present that this staging really shines.

Yet, despite its acuity and tenderness, some parallels drawn across the genealogy feel somewhat elbowed into the account, and strains credulity.

Still, as revelations unfold and we come to understand perhaps why the title character was buried without a stone, and to speculate at his decision to calling himself Gary, In Search of Owen Roe, indubitably satisfies.

It is one of those memorable works that leaves you wondering about your own roots and their secrets and about the same vein that shapes lives today as they shaped them then.

Film review: The Daughter

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In a scene near the opening of Simon Stone’s The Daughter, a wild duck with a gunshot wound to its wing stares straight out, motionless, from inside a cage, as if disappointed in the world, on a vehicle that bears it away. “Put it out of its misery,” a voice says. Then new rounds are loaded into a gun.

We do not know whether the coup de grace is carried through, until the duck appears a third of the way into the film in the animals’ home of Walter (Sam Neill), a local resident. “It is like an artificial RSPCA,” says his grand-daughter, Hedvig (Odessa Young), about the makeshift sanctuary in the rural town.

The debut feature by Stone, an Australian theatre director, in his adaptation of Hendrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, weaves through the tale its analogy, resonant though it is, like luminous cotton. However, what it lacks in subtlety, this gorgeously-shot movie — of pale palettes, as though the entire drama takes place behind the grey mist of the NSW countryside — more than makes up for in its soundtrack and first-rate acting. Besides the title character that is powerfully embodied by Young, the rest of the formidable cast plays their roles with convincing flawlessness.

When we meet him, Henry (Geoffrey Rush), the owner of a timber mill that has kept the whole community employed for more than a generation, is announcing its closure. There are a few jeers, some quiet swears, amid feelings of resignation. But while people are forced to relocate to seek employment elsewhere, the mogul is planning a lavish wedding to his housekeeper, a much younger woman. And his son, Christian (Paul Schneider), has also just returned for the ceremony from America.

Estranged from his father, Christian chooses to spend time with his childhood mate, Oliver (Ewen Leslie), and gets to know his daughter, Hedvig, his wife, Charlotte (Miranda Otto), and becomes reacquainted with Walter, in whose safe-house he sees the recovering duck and learns about Henry’s involvement in its plight.

Only, he goes on to learn more.

In the years he has been away since his mother’s suicide, Christian has battled alcoholism. And now as he witnesses Henry’s apparent self-centred indifference, moving on with a new relationship, his own marriage in tatters, the embittered man resumes drinking with abandon.

Deftly swelling an imperceptible sense of latent violence, Stone makes us hold our breath in anticipation of what damage on Oliver’s family bliss instability could inflict with long-hidden truths.

It is not hard to infer where Stone has elected to place his emphasis, nevertheless. Following Hedvig in her navigation through endless changes, the account is ultimately an end-of-innocence story in which the 16-year-old finds her fate pre-ordained from birth. Although proving resilient, after being disillusioned by her first sexual encounter, she grapples with friends leaving the neighbourhood, and struggles to understand impunity for the rich and powerful, before watching her family unravel in a whirlwind of scandals and secrets.

Toward the end of the film, there is one frame, quick and (incongruently) nuanced, flashing past like fleeting consciousness, that I found particularly indelible: as the father-daughter relationship between Hedvig and Oliver collapses in a bleak carpark, the camera pans to an upstairs window of a nearby apartment block, and the child’s face — looking down upon them — in it.

The Daughter, that connects two families across three generations, impresses with the way it captures deep-seated human emotions. And despite its trite metaphor of a broken bird flying again, and its less-than-credible denouement, it is something worth watching still.

Book review: As I Lay Dying

 

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It is July 1913 in the Mississippi countryside. Addie Bundren, a mother of five, is on her deathbed.

The eldest child, Cash, is bevelling up planks for the coffin, while his two brothers are on an errand, hurrying to make some much-needed money, then to get the mules-driven wagon home.

Anse, their father, has given his word to bury Addie in the town where she grew up. But, by the time the family is ready to set forth on their 40-miles ride, rains and floods have washed away bridges across swollen rivers.

William Faulkner’s first chronicler of life in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County — the setting for many of his later novels — relates the tale through 15 sets of eyes: each of the Bundren family members, and their (mostly) friends and neighbours, and Addie herself. This arrangement of multiple viewpoints, in describing the treachery of their passage, takes us also on a revealing journey deep through the characters’ minds.

A private and flawed woman, Addie was overtly partial to Jewel, her third-born, whom she conceived from an affair with a church minister. On discovering this, second son Darl was so overcome by jealous fury that he took to revenge through Dewey Dell, his sister, in a way their mother never came to know.

In the author’s mastery of the stream-of-consciousness technique and his known deployment of symbolism, the narrative in As I Lay Dying, even if it describes exquisitely those innermost feelings and coping mechanisms (especially of the youngest boy Vardaman), can be bewildering.

Like, amongst other obscurities, whether 17-year-old Dewey Dell pines for their 70-year-old doctor out of affection, or that he is seen only as a solution to her unwanted pregnancy, if indeed her pining is not because he is that solution (in a wild conflation of two emotions) is equivocal.

What is unequivocal, though, is Faulkner’s scathing indictment of the religious, and, by extension, religion as a whole: he casts Cora, Addie’s fellow country-sider and self-congratulatory Christian, as irrational, a contradiction, perceptibly blind and ridiculous in pride, with the novel pulling no punches either on the squalid hypocrisy of the minister who fathered Jewel and then (probably) Dewey Dell.

“I could just remember how my father used to say the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time…” Addie thinks, and we begin to appreciate her partiality and witness the materialisation of her legacy when Jewel turns out to be the one to save their mother from the jaws of water then, risking his own life, to rescue the coffin single-handedly out of enveloping flames, and meanwhile protecting the Bundrens from further indebtedness and more shame.

In Faulkner’s county, men, despite preferring women to be lesser than them, seem confused about what their wives want. Respectful in some regards, husbands are baffled by the spouses who in turn feel invariably hard-done by in the sprawling rural-scapes.

Here, where country folks harbour a life-long inferiority complex to town residents, there is as much fraternal helpfulness (begrudging or not) as there are freeloaders, like Anse.

Pervading the book, like miasma in the hilly dusk, is a sense of things ending without departure, of illusions of motion, people who are dead but do not yet know they have died, or being detached from themselves.

“It’s like there was a fellow in every man that’s done a-past the sanity or the insanity, that watches the sane and insane doings of that man with the same horror and the same astonishment.” Cash thinks, when Darl is sent away to an asylum, unconvinced anybody ought to judge what is madness, what not, questioning if Darl’s attempts to burn their decomposing mother is that crazy, after all.

Faulkner’s prose steeped in vernacular is strangely mellifluous and certain passages are utterly breathtaking. But it is his acute capacity for social observation and powers of imagination with an implacable eye for the nuanced human conduct (and blood traits) that put me under his spell.

Film review: The Danish Girl

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In The Danish Girl Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne plays Einar Wegener, an accomplished landscape painter who, when we meet him in 1926, is holding a solo exhibition in his home city of Copenhagen, where he lives with his wife of six years, Gerda (Alicia Vikander). She, too, is a painter, although her efforts in portraiture are, at the opening of the film, yet to receive similar recognition.

Despite Gerda’s ambivalence towards her husband’s success — a mixture of pride and envious rivalry — the couple enjoy a healthy sexual relationship and are trying for a baby. So when Gerda discovers she has had her period, a second blow, after suffering rejection in her professional endeavours, Einar feels obliged to fulfil her request and stand in for a woman-model, whose busy schedule has kept her away, to help Gerda towards completing her work.

As Einar starts to pull the sheer stocking up his leg, holding the dress close against his chest, however, something (or, really, someone) stirs within him like a female twin waking from a long slumber. In one bedroom scene afterwards Gerda finds him wearing her lingerie snug under his shirt.

Acknowledging the hitherto-unseen face that has seemed to emerge from inside Einar, Gerda begins to paint the new guest in their household, whom they soon come to call Lili. Only Lili is here to stay, edging out Einar more and more, until Gerda finds her husband kissing another man at a party in which the playful wife has introduced the painfully shy girl as Einar’s cousin.

Based on David Ebershoff’s novel, a fictionalised account of the true story surrounding Einar Wegener (and Gerda), in the Danish artist’s quest to transform himself from man to woman, making him one of the first candidates to undergo sexual reassignment surgery, Tom Hooper’s latest feature documents the wave of pathos that sweeps through transgenders and, with no less strength, that which crashes upon their spouses.

The movie is beautifully acted and Redmayne and Vikander let us see how the chemistry between Einar and Gerda develops from being heterosexually heated to become one of an unconditional sisterly affection.

The anguish behind Vikander’s quivering, dark eyes on a brave face Gerda carries in unyielding support of her rapidly-fading husband, sometimes falling helplessly into the arms of Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), a man whose love she stoically declines out of singular devotion to Einar, is deeply convincing.

And Redmayne’s trembling fingers on the soft fabric of frocks, his febrile observation of feminine movements, the bashful joy evoked by men’s attention, are reminiscent of a pubescent child growing up into a woman in full, sensuous bloom.

In one revealing sequence half-way through the two-hour production Lili stands nude before a mirror, tucking Einar’s penis and testicles between her legs, and arches round to glance back at the curve of her buttocks.

As Gerda goes on to earn fame and plaudits for her portraits of Lili, Hooper delicately shows that art reflects inner consciousness and identity in a way mirrors cannot. That Gerda is portrayed as an artist who details accurately what she sees in front of her must also mean she truly believes Lili lives in a man’s body like precious few in the then-society do.

Hooper’s nuanced direction combines with the stunning cinematography to also articulate that Einar’s works in landscapes of his childhood village that he did repeatedly and purely by memory had had to come from a place intrinsic in him. Like Lili. “She was always there,” she confides in Gerda. 

If there is any criticism of the film, it is, for me, that the closing text before the credits roll potentially misleads one to think The Danish Girl is a non-fictional narrative. It takes a half-hearted search through the internet to learn about the actual (albeit alleged) circumstances around the 20th-century bohemians, and to discover a plethora of unfavourable reviews on how far the movie deviates from history.

There is nothing wrong with fictionalising reality — it happens all the time — but only if the audience is duly made aware. Misinformation destroys in an instant the magic that, in this case, has taken years to nurture.

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