The Chair

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ + ½ 

Categorisation: Comedy

Availability: Netflix

Plot:  There’s trouble at Pembroke University’s English department. They have too many old and expensive professors who no longer attract student enrolments. Budgets are tight, and with demands to increase diversity they are battling to remain relevant. Except they are not really battling very hard. To the frustration of students and junior faculty, change occurs at a glacial pace. Enter Dr Ji-Yoon Kim as the new departmental Chair. She is the first woman to take the role, and also the first person of colour. Expectations are high. Students expect progressive change. Senior faculty expect her to support the traditional values of the ivory-tower, and the Dean demands that she move ageing tenured academics into retirement. While trying to calm the troops, she reacts to disasters, often with hilarious consequences. There is a lot of fun poked at old academics who are out-of-touch with contemporary developments, and while she’s trying to manage the increasingly belligerent senior group, her arrogant but popular colleague, Professor Bill Dobson, is captured on camera making a nazi salute in the classroom. Not surprisingly, all hell is let loose. In the middle of this managerial baptism-by-fire, Ji-Yoon is also trying to keep things functioning domestically. She is a single-mum and her precocious daughter wreaks havoc at school and at home. Ji-Yoon’s perilous battle for survival on both fronts carries the action. Anne Julia Wyman co-created the series with Amander Peet, and Wyman’s insider knowledge of the academic environment shines through every episode.  

Cast: The Chair has a sterling cast, and Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon Kim is outstanding in the lead role. We get a real sense of her pride as she assumes the Chair, and then her growing frustration and alarm as she becomes aware of the Dean’s cost-cutting agenda. At the same time, she is very funny with great comic timing and wonderful lines. It’s a joy to watch her struggle with a demanding Dean, protesting students and rogue colleagues. But great as she is, the show-stealer in this series has to be Holland Taylor as Joan Hambling. A Chaucer specialist, she is one of the departmental oldies that Dr Kim is expected to move into retirement. Joan’s amazing reactions to expectations within the new academic environment are simply hilarious. Her portrayal of the eccentric academic is a delight to behold. 

Filming and Setting: The fictitious Pembroke University could be any campus across the Mid-Atlantic states – Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New England. Often found in idyllic settings, the buildings are graciously beautiful and steeped in history (I won’t go into the relationship many of these institutions had with the slave economy, but it does add another layer of complexity to all this when you think about it). Enough to say, Pembroke captures all the scholarly gravitas and elitism that academic institutions strive for. The Chair’s office is a good example – rich wood paneling, stained glass windows…you get the idea. And Pembroke sits within a charming and privileged community with its big houses and spaced-out lawns, all dusted by the mid-winter snow. 

Personal Comments: Academia has any amount of wonderful satirical content, and after thirty years as an academic I have more than enough material to write a farce myself. The first four episodes of The Chair are brilliant in the old David Lodge style (if you like a good academic farce take a look at his book, Changing Places). Each short episode is engagingly and cleverly written. Some of the characters are heavily stereotyped, but mostly in a sympathetic and humorous way. All good so far – more than good actually. But then the last two episodes lose their way as the series shifts into rom-com mode. Mixing genres, while also trying to tackle more serious contemporary issues is too ambitious a task. It’s a pity. The Chair suits its half-hour comedy genre, and I would have loved to see them dig deeper into the vast potential that academia has for farce – delving into postmodernism as a Trojan horse or naked emperor, whichever side of the fence you may sit. Or perhaps the departmental Chair becoming increasingly Machiavellian… now that would have been a 5 star series.  

La Cocinera de Castamar (The Cook of Castamar)

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Period drama

Availability: Netflix – Spanish with subtitles

Plot: La Cocinera de Castamar is loosely based on the 2019 novel of the same name by Fernando J. Muñez. Created by Tatiana Rodriguez, the series has been a hit for Netflix. It is set in early 18th century Madrid, where the Duke, Diego de Castamar, lives in mourning following the death of his young, beautiful wife, Alba. Devastated by her loss, he lapses into an extended period of melancholy, unable to respond to official or personal duties. Friends, family and royal officials try to persuade him to assume his responsibilities, but to no avail. Then his mother, the well-meaning Doña Mercedes is encouraged by a family friend, the scheming Enrique de Arcona, to find Diego a wife. They bring the gentlewoman Amelia Castro to Castamar, marking the beginning of a determined strategy to capture Diego’s heart. The plot then branches out, in a number of convoluted ways, involving an increasing number of characters. This includes Clara, the gifted new cook, who becomes increasingly admired by the Duke, and is the subject of intrigue in both the kitchen and the elite upper dining room. Gabriel, the Duke’s mixed-race brother, fancies Amelia and is suspicious of Enrique. And then there is the dysfunctional Spanish royal family, in particular the king, who brings another whole set of problems to the fore. 

Cast: With a cast of well-respected Spanish actors, everyone does pretty well in this series. Villains are always more interesting to watch than heroes, and overall it is the wicked characters that shine in this series – Hugo Silva is terrific as the sly Enrique, and Marina Gatell is equally good as Lady Sol, the archetypal femme fatale. She brings levels of complexity to the plot and the scenes involving her are some of the best.

Filming and Setting: The filming here is opulent and the series is visually stunning. The Spanish countryside provides a beautiful setting, and much of the filming takes place in the magnificent Palacio del Infante Don Luis, which is situated in central Spain. In all its splendour, the palace, with its impressive gardens and sumptuous interiors, becomes the Duchy of Castamar. Great attention is paid to historical detail, and we are treated to wonderful scenes of life, both upstairs and downstairs, as the characters, in their authentic eighteenth-century costumes, strive for ascendancy within their spheres of power and influence.

Personal Comments: La Cocinera de Castamar is a mix of Dangerous Liaisons, and Downton Abbey. Full of scheming, moral ambiguity and family drama, it begins really well. Based on a good book the series has a competent cast, a wonderful setting and impressive cinematography. But despite this, it just doesn’t quite pull it off. After the first few episodes the plot loses its way, meandering aimlessly with new characters drifting in and out with little explanation. Then, in an attempt to pull it all together in the last few episodes, it ends neatly in a series of predictable outcomes, which is a pity. The book upon which it is based is a sensuous celebration of cooking and food aesthetics. While there is a nod to this in the series, it ends up prioritising an overlong and less appetising catalogue-of-events, which is an opportunity lost. By centralising the theme of gastronomy, it could have been one of cinema’s great culinary love stories.

Botticelli, Florence and the Medici

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Documentary

Availability: In theatres

Plot: Botticelli, Florence and the Medici is one of an increasing number of ‘Great Art on Screen’ documentaries that we are now fortunate to find in local cinemas. Italian film-maker, Pianigiani Marco brings this outstanding documentary to the screen, exploring Botticelli’s life, his art and the enduring fascination we have for the artist centuries after his death. But this is more than a documentary on art. This is Botticelli in context, including the powerful political and historical forces that determined life in the early renaissance period. The all-powerful Medici family, and in particular Lorenzo de’ Medici, had control of everything. Known as ‘Lorenzo the Magnificent’, he was an enthusiastic patron of the arts, and a forceful political leader. To the chagrin of more experienced artists, the young and dynamic Botticelli thrived under his patronage. It was nevertheless a precarious existence. Fortunes were won and lost in the midst of political intrigue and power struggles that often resulted in violence, as factions did whatever they could to gain or retain power. 

Cast: The documentary is effectively narrated by Stephan Mangan. But it is the art historians who most powerfully bring together the story of art, politics and power. Deeply knowledgeable and passionate in their exploration of Botticelli’s work, life and times, they provide a compelling story around which the film is created. 

Filming and Setting: The documentary uses multiple approaches to tell the story. The artworks themselves draw us into representations of sublime beauty, but also become the ‘mirror of power’ as Botticelli paints the faces of Medici family members into his paintings. Through this, we get to know the people who ruled the economic, political and social aspects of life, including the generation of art. The film also takes us across Florence, the open-air museum in all its magnificence, perfectly illustrating the richness of renaissance life. Timoty Aliprandi’s cinematography is spectacular. Churches, palaces, sculptures, frescoes, all filmed free of tourists, bask in the sharpness of the glorious Italian light. Then through a series of slow-motion, almost dream-like re-enactments, we get a flavour of the human elements – feasting, dancing, and the physical acts of violence that drove the political feuds of the time. It is a truly splendid film.

Personal Comments: Blending narration, art, and drama, Botticelli, Florence and the Medici is a sumptuous film that delights the intellect and the senses. While much attention is focused on the renaissance period, the art historians also bring us to the world of contemporary art and popular culture, as they explore the endurance of the Botticelli brand in the works of more recent artists from Salvador Dali to Andy Warhol to Jeff Koons. It all fits together in a fascinating story of how Botticelli has become one of history’s most important artists. Give yourself a treat and see this film.

Official Secrets

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ + ½

Categorisation: Whistleblowing/Spy Drama

Availability: Netflix 

Plot: Based on the book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell, Official Secrets tells the true story of whistleblower Katherine Gun, a translator in the British security services. It is 2003, in the run-up to the Iraq War, and Katherine spends her time listening into conversations and reporting anything that may be suspicious to her seniors. One day, along with her fellow translators, she is forwarded a memo from a high-level US official seeking help from the British services to pressurise vulnerable UN Security Council countries so they will fall in line and vote in favour of the war against Iraq. A strong ally of the US, and in ‘matter of fact’ style, the Brits respond positively. The translators are clearly shocked by the scandalous effort by the US to legitimise the war, but in turn take an ‘ours-is-not-to-reason-why’ position. Katherine is nevertheless incensed by the conspiracy and after some angry soul-searching, she leaks the memo. The film then follows the extraordinary story of the personal and professional costs of being a whistleblower when the stakes are high and the politics are bullying.

Cast: Official Secrets has a strong cast of well-known actors with mixed results. Matt Smith does a good job playing the likeable Martin Bright, the Observer reporter who broke the story. Rhys Ifans plays a somewhat excessive Ed Vullismy, Bright’s journalistic colleague. Ralph Fiennes plays a rational Ben Emerson, Katherine’s lawyer. While numerous reviews celebrate Keira Knightley in the lead role, I don’t consider her the best choice to play Katherine Gun. In real life, by most accounts, Gun is a brave and forthright woman. Knightley plays her as a simpering-vulnerable character in the early part of the film, which makes her later shift to confident-assertive rather less believable. There is no doubt that the very act of whistleblowing is stomach-churning – and the real Katherine Gun reported being literally sick to the stomach in the immediate aftermath of the document leak. But in real life she doesn’t come across as simpering. So an actor better able to bring out her strong yet vulnerable character would have been a better choice in the lead role. 

Filming and Setting: Imbuing the film with a documentary quality, director Gavin Hood has taken a non-sensationalist approach. These days we have come to expect full-on action in spy dramas, so this may come across as understated. There are nevertheless subtly tense scenes that carry the drama along, for example, the intimidating interviews in which Katherine is interrogated by the security services and the police. The vindictive response to Katherine’s Muslim husband, who was applying for permanent residency in Britain, also illustrates the abuses of bureaucratic power, and the interspersed footage of political speeches at the time of the incident – Tony Blair and George Bush – are chilling, particularly now the outcome of the illegal war is known. 

Personal Comments: Official Secrets is an important exploration of conscience and moral dilemma – is whistleblowing a betrayal of country or an heroic statement of truth? Given this, I would have liked to see more of Katherine’s life prior to the incident. This would have provided more depth to the drama, and would have helped us to interpret her actions for ourselves, rather than having it laid out explicitly before us. It is nevertheless an important film that lays bare some of the events leading up to the Iraq War, the political deceits that made it all possible.