The Crown

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: Period drama

Availability: Netflix 

Plot:  This is the fourth of what will be six miniseries of the The Crown, tracing the reign of Queen Elizabeth, her prime ministers, and the trials and tribulations of the British royal family. This series focuses on the 1980s, in particular the marriage of Charles and Diana, and also the Thatcherite years, a period known for its neoliberal reforms and devastating impact upon the less well-heeled in Britain’s class-ridden society. The series begins with the royal romance, the election of Margaret Thatcher, and the dramatic death of Lord Mountbatten at the hands of the IRA. While some of the following episodes tackle political events, most focus on the dysfunctional relational dynamics of the royals.

Cast and screenplay: The series brings together a stellar cast, all of whom mimic stereotypes of the royals. Olivia Colman, as the Queen is dignified and solid, as we might have expected. Tobias Menzies as Prince Phillip is excellent, managing to portray irascibility, fun, and support for his wife. Emma Corrin plays the coy, immature Diana, and Josh O’Connor plays an emotionally and physically stunted Charles. Gillian Anderson, looking remarkably like Margaret Thatcher, gives a laboured impression of a simpering, often wet-eyed ‘Iron Lady’. Because she likes to cook for her husband and colleagues, she is played as servile. It is one of many examples of a heavy-handed script, and despite the quality of the cast, the series comes across as a presentation of caricatures. 

Filming and setting: The filming is rich and luxurious with scenes that display the opulence of the royals, juxtaposed with the grim realities of life on the dole. Sharp contrasts are therefore drawn between the two, but we see much more of the privileged elite. A great deal of care is taken to create visual authenticity.

Personal Comments:  Despite the positive reviews of series 4, I found it frustrating to watch. The cast do their best with a silly screenplay that distorts their characters, and fantasises about what might have been said behind the closely guarded doors of the royal household, and the British government. The series is unmistakably sympathetic to Diana, damaged and imprisoned behind unfriendly walls of the palace. So confined, she is the victim of the cold, cruel and manipulative royals who are determined to protect the firm, regardless of the consequences. There is a serious lack of nuance and credibility in the screenplay. While the action is framed upon real events, and some episodes are better than others, its soapy interpretation is so ridiculous and unlikely, it speaks to the creation of fake history. In the same way The Tudors presented a truth too preposterous to believe, The Crown offers a contemporary version of something similar. I only hope future generations don’t rely on it to inform their understandings of history. In the end, despite the visual quality of the production, it is the film equivalent of the tabloids.

The Secret City

Rating :   Season 1:  ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

                 Season 2:  ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Political drama

Availability: Netflix 

Plot:  This Australian series takes us into the inner workings of the federal government in Canberra. Based on the books The Marmalade Files, The Mandarin Code, and The Shadow Game by Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis, season 1 first appeared in 2016, followed by season 2 three years later in 2019. The Australian government finds itself right in the middle of rising political tensions between China and the US, and none come up smelling of roses. In fact, it falls to the press gallery journalist, Harriet Dunkley, to expose conspiracies and she has to go down some very dark corridors to do so. It’s a taught political thriller with lots of twists and turns as we discover, along with Harriet, the menacing depths that some people will go to to retain power. 

Cast: There are some great performances in both season 1 and 2. Harriet, played by Anna Torv, is excellent from start to finish. Her facial expressions convey volumes as she puzzles her way through the increasingly suspicious and alarming plot(s). Jackie Weaver as the Attorney General is imposing, as she ties people in knots with her cutting remarks. But everyone does well in this stellar Australian cast, particularly once the script writers settle into a more nuanced story as the episodes unfold. 

Filming and setting: The series won a number of awards, best direction in the Australian Directors Guild Awards, as well as a number of Logies for most outstanding actress (Anna Torv) and most outstanding supporting actor (Damon Herriman playing Kim Gordon, Harriet’s trans-gender ex-husband – long story). The photography is terrific with lots of wonderful aerial shots of Canberra.

Personal Comments:  After a bit of an uncertain start – for the first few episodes it seemed on the verge of overdoing well-worn political stereotypes within entirely implausible scenarios – season 1 then settles into a compelling and complex drama that is full of surprises. In the end, it has us on the edge of our seats, and hoping that season 2 won’t disappoint. Soon we realise that we didn’t need to worry. Cyber-terrorism enters the story and we’re introduced to a number of new characters and, I think, a more plausible and well worked through plot. For example, we meet Karen Koutoufides played by Danielle Cormack, a Jackie Lambie political figure who is determined to ‘keep the bastards honest’ as an independent MP. This gives the series a discomforting feeling of reality as everyone, from the least to the most powerful, find themselves at risk in one way or another. You have to watch carefully as there is a lot going on, but both seasons are worth watching if you like a good political drama.

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Money Heist

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: crime drama

Availability: Netflix – Spanish subtitled

Plot:  Created by Álex Pina, Money Heist (La Casa De Papel) is a 2017 suspenseful crime drama developed by the Spanish network, Antena 3. According to The Guardian, it’s the most-watched non-English language show worldwide.  An enigmatic genius, the Professor, brings together eight unlikely criminals to pull off the biggest heist in history – the robbery of the Spanish Mint. It’s an Ocean 11-style operation, five months in the planning. The team is trained by the Professor at his isolated hideaway, a beautiful stone mansion. No one is allowed to know each other’s names – they each take the name of a capital city – and strict rules apply. We watch them being educated, as the Professor covers off every last detail. The heist is perfectly constructed, and the Professor is cool and rational. That is, of course, before human emotions step in, rules break down, and things start to fall apart.

Cast: The series revolves around the Professor, played wonderfully by Álvaro Morte. But in fact, every one of the group of eight carry their roles off with aplomb. Pedro Alonso is terrifically menacing as Berlin. Nairobi is delightful as she gets the best out of her hostage workers, while the young members of the team, Tokyo, Rio and Denver are passionate and hot-headed. In fact, we get to know and care about them all. Relationships happen – with hostages, other team members, and even the police. The dramatic and complicated relationship between the Professor and Inspector Raquel Murillo, played brilliantly by Itziar Ituño, is a major feature of the story as each manage the incredible twists and turns of the plot and their cat-and-mouse roles within it. 

Filming and setting:  The drama is set mainly in the Spanish Royal Mint, or at least the studio version of it, and it’s immediate surrounding environment. The hostages and the team of 8 are (mostly) inside, with flashbacks to their hideaway training. The Professor is master-minding the whole operation from close by, and for the police it is a stakeout. Cinematography is great, and the music and sound effects add effectively to the overall tension of the series. 

Personal Comments:

As soon as the heist team arrive wearing Salvador Dalí masks you know you are in for a classy series. On top of that it’s exciting. Álex Pina has said of Money Heist, “I can promise the audience will not think of Covid-19 while watching it” …and he is absolutely right!  The plot is taut and thrilling. Every one of its twenty-two episodes, executed in two parts, is tense and action-packed. It leaves the Ocean 11 series well and truly in the dust, taking the heist genre to another level. It isn’t perfect. There will be times when you think things are more than a little fanciful. But it’s all about the clever plot and if you are prepared to suspend disbelief here and there you will find yourself right in the middle of it. You will be engaged with the characters, embroiled in their humorous, often poignant, joyful, and tragic journeys as they attempt the heist of the century. It’s setting in a broader context of government and neoliberal corruption adds another layer to the plot, pushing us to work out who we are really cheering on in this complex and riveting series. By the way, if you decide to take a look, watch the Spanish version with subtitles. You definitely lose something of the Mediterranean passion when you watch the dubbed version. 

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The Chalet

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: TV thriller/drama series

Availability: Netflix – French subtitled

Plot:  Created by Alexis Lecaye and directed by Camille Bordes-Resnais, The Chalet is a 2018 French drama presented by French 2 (one of the French TV Channels). The plot operates across two separate timelines. In the 1990s, a family of four from Paris move to Valmoline, a small village in the French alps. Jean-Louis, the father, who is a novelist has writer’s block. His wife, Francoise, hopes the move to her old home town will release his creative talent. They have two children, Julien and his younger sister Amelie. Despite the idyllic setting there are sinister elements in the village, and soon the family mysteriously disappear. The second timeframe is the 2017, when a wedding brings people back to Valmoline. Following a rock landfall the only bridge providing access to the village is damaged and the wedding party and guests become isolated in the minacious village. People start disappearing, and there is a string of violent deaths. The action moves from one timeframe to the other, and we get to know characters as children, and then as adults who are part of the wedding group. It’s a creepy whodunit with a strong plot, and lots of tricks and turns. 

Cast: There are probably too many characters in this series. Because of this it’s pretty hard to keep track of who’s who. But overall, the acting is good. We really get to dislike the baddies, and the goodies  have their own idiosyncrasies. In the end we get to know most of them. All characters give edgy performances and contribute effectively to the tension throughout the series.

Filming and setting:  The drama is set in the fabulous French alps and the cinematography is terrific. There is no question though…there is something rotten in the village of Valmoline, and the juxtaposition of beauty and evil gives a real edge to the series.

Personal Comments:

You have to pay careful attention when watching this series. The sheer number of characters and the shifting timeframes make it complex to watch. In fact I’m still not exactly sure if I have the correct headcount, who got killed and when. On the other hand it’s gripping, and our episode debriefing was always lively as we identified clues and enjoyed putting the pieces of the series together. Six episodes worth watching. 

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Young Wallander

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Detective drama

Availability: Netflix 

Plot:  This is the third detective series that has been adapted from Henning Mankell’s successful books about the Swedish Police Inspector, Kurt Wallander. The first, a Swedish series starring Krister Henriksson was produced in 2005, quickly followed by the British series starring Kenneth Branagh in 2008. In this 2020 series we glimpse into the early life of Wallander as he makes his way in the Malmö police department. He lives in a social housing block. His neighbours, mostly immigrants, don’t know he is a policeman – if they had known, they‘d be unlikely to trust him. Then one night a murder takes place at the complex, a white teenage victim, inflaming deep tensions within the community. Wallander becomes involved, and we watch him in action as he and his colleagues investigates the crime.

Cast: The casting is curious. The young Wallander is played rather dourly by Adam Pålsson. Being a Swedish actor he speaks English with a Swedish accent. So far so good. But then we find that the other main characters all speak English with a variety of British accents – we have cockney, geordie, Scottish accented people…playing Swedish people in the unmistakably Scandinavian city of Malmö. It’s all rather post-modern and I wasn’t sure what we were supposed to make of it. 

Filming and setting: Stylish and well done, there are some good views of Malmö, it’s seedy areas and it’s more swept-up environs. 

Personal Comments:  The young Wallander series taps into what appears to be a growing curiosity about the early lives of well known TV detectives. The Young Montalbano, produced in 2012 was the Italian prequel to Inspector Montalbano. In 2015 the British prequel to Prime Suspect (Prime Suspect 1973) gave us a look into the early life of Inspector Jane Tennison. And, of course, the hugely successful Endeavour (2012), was the prequel to the long-running British series Inspector Morse. In all the earlier adaptations the filmmakers recreated the world of the protagonist’s earlier life – often beautifully visualised with excellent period detail.  The Young Wallander departs from this, filming Kurt as a young man, but in the present day. Whether this was another postmodernist jumble, or whether Netflix was just trying to save money, for me it didn’t really work. While it clearly tackled contemporary issues, it prevented us from getting a sense of what shaped Wallander’s early career – what was happening in 1960s Sweden and how this influenced his developing police work. This made it a less successful prequel, but overall it wasn’t a bad contemporary series. And we certainly got to see and understand something of the concerns of disaffected migrant groups in Sweden. As a stand-alone, non-prequel, I might have given it another half star.

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A Suitable Boy

Rating :  ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️and a half

Categorisation: Period Drama

Availability: Netflix (BBC production)

Plot:  This new series is a BBC adaptation of Vikram Seth’s successful book A Suitable Boy, a monumental 1300 page novel that was controversial when it was published in 1993. Set in 1950s, it traces a year in the lives of four privileged families in post-partition India. So it tackles the issues of the period – the ugliness of religious conflict, political nationalism, and the role of women in Indian society. The series was produced by Mira Nair and Shimit Amin, but it’s Andrew Davies, a Welshman in his 80s writing the screenplay who gets to tell us the story. It follows the book’s main threads and, while various subplots are touched upon, two main strands carry the story along: the search for a suitable husband for nineteen year old Lata Mehra; and Maan Kapoor’s coming of age, from wayward son to more thoughtful adult. Through these two characters we gain insight into an Indian social milieu of women’s friendships, men’s friendships, and the romantic liaisons that are all shaped by cultural traditions and the political events of the time.

Cast: While some of the acting is a bit wooden, Lata, played by Tanya Maniktala, is terrific in the lead, as is Ishaan Khatter playing Maan, the irresponsible son of a government Minister. Both bring fresh spirit to the roles, even though it all feels very familiar in a Pride and Prejudice sort of way. Indeed, Lata’s mother Rupa Mehra (played by Mahira Kakkar) is a perfect Mrs Bennett as she hunts for a suitable son-in-law. There are a few other stand-out performances. Namit Das as Haresh Khanna, one of Lata’s three suitors, is particularly impressive in managing to portray the complexities of character, and Tabu is wonderful as the musician courtesan, Saeeda Bai. Her singing is quite beautiful.

Filming and setting:  This series is visually stunning, with magnificent buildings in urban centres contrasting with dusty rural settings, all capturing the amazing colours and beauty of India. The series is worth watching for this alone.

Personal Comments:  This a joyful rendition of Seth’s work. While we do get a sense of the political violence of the period, the drama focuses much more strongly on the relationships and concerns of the rich and advantaged people in society. The needs, concerns and lives of the less advantaged are glossed over, as is the devastating impact of a bloody Partition. This sits at the heart of the criticism of the anglo influence of the screenplay and some of the more obvious illustrations of this, for example, the use of English in preference to indigenous languages. On the other hand, all the important roles are played by Indian actors, and Seth’s book is generally seen an accurate representation of 1950s India. Apparently Seth was completely supportive of Davies. For all these contradictions, we found it to be a series that generates much reflective dialogue. So in the end, if you enjoyed the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, I think I you will probably enjoy this Indian equivalent. 

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Million Yen Women

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: TV thriller/drama series

Availability: Netflix – subtitled

Plot:  written by  Shunju Aono, and directed by Michihito Fujii, Million Yen Women was released in 2017 by TV Tokyo. Shin Michima is an unsuccessful young novelist, and the series revolves around whether his novels are any good, and the tricky problem of writer’s block. He lives alone, until one day a young woman arrives in his apartment, unannounced and unexpected. Four further young women come to stay, all strangers to each other, and each pay him one million yen a month to stay with him. All the women have responded to an invitation to stay with Shin, written by a mysterious sender. Like the characters, we don’t know who has issued the invitation nor do we know why. There are rules. Shin must look after the women, they must all eat together, but no personal questions can be asked, nor can personal information be shared. Over the series we nevertheless get to know a little of the women as rules break down and consequences occur.    

Cast: There are some great performances in this series. Shin plays a wonderful part (despite his over-long fringe) as a somewhat reserved character who finds himself living with five stunning women. Each woman brings a uniqueness to her character, and effectively keeps us wondering why they have responded to the invitation, what role they have in the drama, and what their characters will do next.

Filming and setting:  Much of the drama is set in Shin’s apartment, but we also get to see glimpses of Japanese life, including its nightlife, both funny and serious. The film also captures, often poignantly, the nature of Japanese relationships shaped by an Asian social milieu.

Personal Comments:

I think this is a terrific series, reflecting my 5 star rating. It’s clever, puzzling and intriguing. At the beginning it seems that we are watching a curious domestic drama unfold, then things get much more sinister. This makes it a pretty unique thriller. Its twelve short episodes drive the action, and a lot is packed into each episode. It’s an unusual thriller that keeps you guessing until the end. We watched it in two nights!

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