The Father

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Drama

Availability: Local cinemas

Plot: Considered a ‘genius’ by Le Figaro, and described as ‘the most exciting new theatre writer of our time’ by The Times, the forty-one year old French novelist Florian Zellar takes his play, The Father, from stage to screen in this extraordinary new film. It is a story about a father and daughter trying to navigate and understand the onset of dementia and the ways in which it influences family dynamics and the perceptions of people experiencing the most devastating impact of brain function decline. It is a world in which it’s hard to distinguish current reality, flashbacks, dreams or hallucinations. 

Cast:  Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman are both outstanding as the film’s two main characters, Anthony and his daughter, Anne. It is Hopkins though, in his depiction of an old man plagued and tormented by dementia, who ultimately carries the drama. Flirting with his new caregiver one moment, then cuttingly cruel to his daughter the next, his emotional range is remarkable. He is absolutely at the top of his game in this film, and it unsurprising that he was successful as best actor in the Oscars earlier this week. 

Filming and setting: Zellar also won the best-adapted screenplay Oscar for The Father, which he adapted from his highly acclaimed play of the same name. Again, this is no surprise. Exploring the world through the eyes of the increasingly confused dementia sufferer, involves us in a shared confusion. Zellar uses subtle, almost imperceptible changes, to create Anthony’s changing world – one moment the kitchen tiles are shades of brown and orange, the next they are blue. Are we in the same kitchen? Are we in the same apartment? One moment his daughter is clearly played by Colman, then a different actor enters the scene as Anne. Anthony is suspicious – and so are we, as we try to work out who is this woman? Something isn’t right…he knows it, and so do we.  The film is clever, discombobulating, and with disturbingly sinister elements. It’s a masterclass of filming and the use of setting to undermine meaning and create uncertainty. 

Personal Comments: This is a brilliant film. It is heartbreaking, but curiously not depressing. Rather, it’s an exploration of family dynamics presented through fractured storytelling that remains with you long after you leave the theatre. 

Concrete Cowboy

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: drama

Availability: Netflix

Plot: Ricky Staub directed Concrete Cowboy, based on Gregory Neri’s coming of age novel, Ghetto Cowboy. It is a story about Cole, a troubled youth who is expelled from school in Detroit for the umpteenth time. This time though, his exasperated mother decides to send him to live with his father in Philadelphia. Cole resists, but his mother is determined, and when she drops him off in the street outside his father’s door, he finds himself transported into the world of Philadelphia’s Black urban cowboys. It’s a tough existence where Harp, Cole’s father, and a group of other Black men and women, look after their horses in the old inner city stables. This is a community of Black cowboys that has been a feature of Philadelphia’s history for a hundred years, always being moved on by police as the city’s poorer areas are gentrified over time. It is clear that Cole is shocked to find himself transported from the home of his loving mother into the harsh world of the Fletcher Street Stables community. The film then follows Cole as he learns the earthy realities of cowboy life, along with the cultural traditions that the cowboys represent. 

Cast: The cast is a mix of professional actors and real life characters that actually live in the Fletcher Street community. The professional actors are all very good – Idris Elba playing Harp, Calib McLaughlin playing Cole, and the terrific Lorraine Toussaint playing Harp’s neighbour, Nessie. But the surprising standouts in the film are the real life characters. Ivannah-Mercedes is great as the young black cowgirl and Cole’s teenage romantic interest, as is Jamie Prattis playing Paris, the cowboy in the wheelchair who provides Cole with some of the guidance and affection that he so desperately wants. 

Filming and setting: Minka Farthing-Kohl’s cinematography is stunning as he weaves together gritty scenes of the urban landscape, with unmistakable elements of wild-west cowboy imagery. 

Personal Comments: As a film, Concrete Cowboy has a strong sense of grim authenticity, providing a vivid and compelling picture of life in the Fletcher Street Stables. It’s easy to empathise with the characters who are constantly under threat of eviction as they strive to retain the traditions of cowboy life in the inner city. We are both dismayed and admiring of Harp’s efforts to steer his son away from the criminal elements of Philadelphia’s omnipresent Black urban youth drug culture. But in the end the film is very predictable. It provides a binary alternative for Philadelphia’s at risk Black youth – to work hard and engage with the positive philosophy of the Stables, or risk the consequences of a life of crime out on the streets. Jharrel Jerome’s tragic portrayal of Smush, Cole’s friend who is embedded in the drug dealing supply chain, is a stark illustration of the latter. A more nuanced and multilayered exploration of the characters and the choices that are available to them, I think would have resulted in a stronger film.


Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: detective drama

Availability:  Series 1-4 are available on Netflix, but you may need to go to Acorn for series 5

Plot: In series 1 of Shetland we are introduced to Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez and his team who keep law and order in the Scottish Shetland Islands. Perez is a widower caring for his teenage stepdaughter, Cassie, with whom he has a warm and affectionate relationship. Cassie’s biological father, Duncan Hunter, shares the parenting role. Yet it is clear from the beginning, the two fathers couldn’t be me more different. Jimmy is thoughtful, responsible and authoritative, managing the daily challenges of raising a teenage daughter. Duncan, a scheming businessman and serial womaniser, now in his shaky second marriage, is an indulgent father to Cassie having been absent for much of her early life. This odd-couple relationship between Jimmy and Duncan provides a good deal of the humour for the series, giving an interesting human backdrop as the family of three rub along together. These characters, along with Tosh, Jimmy’s plucky female police colleague, and the dogged DC Sandy Wilson, become the cornerstone of this hugely popular series. Initially based on the novels of Anne Cleeves, David Kane has been the principal script writer throughout. It is a series that has received much critical acclaim and has clearly struck a winning formula. Kane has written a tense script of high quality for series 5. It’s a tough storyline of people smuggling, something we don’t really expect to find in the beautiful Scottish archipelago. The team is back together, but there is a noticeable shift. The crimes are somehow more intense, as we start to realise that Shetland is catching up with the nastier side(s) of crime that are more often found in the bigger cities. 

Filming and setting: Most of the action is set in the beautiful Shetland Islands, a big viewer drawcard in itself. It is windswept, bleak and beautiful. There is a focus on the fisheries industry in this series, and the scenes have a solid ring of truth about them. One of the great strengths of Shetland is its use of local facilities which brings a strong authenticity to the programme. For example, viewers will be familiar with Jimmy’s waterfront home which appears in every series. It’s foundations under water, the house emerges from the sea and ends up on the kerbside of Shetland’s grey stone capital of Lerwick. Alternatively, many of the internal scenes are filmed in Glasgow, and as a backdrop to the action we get to see Sophie Cave’s visually expressive hanging heads installation at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery. 

Cast: Seasoned in the role, Douglas Henshall has played Jimmy Perez since the series began in 2013, and he plays the calm, empathic, yet steely-spined detective with aplomb. Mark Bonnar, who plays the feckless Duncan brilliantly, would have to be one of the best actors on UK television right now, while Alison O’Donnell as Tosh brings a lively presence to the series overall. 

Personal Comments: Fans of Shetland will see the compelling further development of characters in this series, with both Jimmy and Duncan portraying increasingly complex characters. Jimmy, who normally applies an objectivity to his policing, is tested by a romantic interest which presents a new side to his character. While there are one or two weaknesses in the plot, it is a satisfying continuation of a successful series. If you have yet to see Shetland, then I suggest you start at series 1. It is a rewarding journey.

The Courier

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: Spy drama

Availability: Currently in cinemas

Plot:  Based on a true story, The Courier takes us into the world of international espionage during the Cold War era. Dominic Cooke (director) and Tom O’Connor (screenwriter) tell the story of the real life character Grenville Wynne, a British businessman who is cajoled into smuggling Russian secrets for MI6. At first he is reluctant – he’s only a businessman who works with clients, some of whom live in Eastern Europe, and he has never even been to Russia. He also drinks too much, he’s not exactly fit, and he knows nothing of spying. But during the Cold War, people do their duty and he finally agrees. We then watch as Grenville’s clandestine activities in Russia unfold, and we see their impact on his relationships at home and at work.

Cast: The three stars of the film are undoubtedly Benedict Cumberbatch as Greville Wynne, Jessie Buckley as his wife Sheila, and, Merab Ninidze as Oleg Penkovsky. While all three are excellent in their roles, Ninidze is outstanding as the experienced Russian spy. His superb portrayal of the dangers in turning against his homeland – his expression of joy in the West and increasing terror as the Soviet leadership moves inexorably toward nuclear war, is nothing short of brilliant. Angus Wright does a good job supporting the action as MI6’s Dickie Franks. But Rachel Brosnahan (who was terrific in the The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel)  struggles to gain traction, and is increasingly irritating as the American CIA agent Emily Donovan. 

Filming and setting: The cinematography is evocative in The Courier. There is incredible attention to detail as we get to see 1960s life in London and Moscow. It is a wonderful period drama. 

Personal Comments: The stakes are high for Wynne and even more so for Penkovsky in this film and the sense of danger is palpable, particularly given we know that the film is based on the experiences of real people. Often when I review films based on real life events, I am critical of the way in which film-makers fabricate and frequently undermine real life experiences to make a film more dramatic and engaging for contemporary viewers. This film is a bit different. By all accounts Wynne, in real life, was an unreliable narrator. Following his return to the West he wrote a number of books about his exploits that were clearly untrue – and often flamboyantly so (for an interesting summary of Wynne’s writings see So in this instance, Dominic Cooke and Tom O’Connor have had to try and steer a viable path between what is known about the Cold War era, what has been written about the particular events, and in the absence of any definitive record, what might be a realistic story about a spy and a courier whose lives have been shaped by their experiences. On balance, I think they do this pretty well.