⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Supernatural Drama

Availability: In cinemas – Icelandic with subtitles 

Plot: This strange film starts with eerie Icelandic scenes of an isolated farm. The snow-capped mountains are beautiful, but the horses are unsettled sensing that there is something creepy in their midst. In the barn sheep with strange expressions look cautiously about them. Then one of the sheep lies exhausted on the wooden floor beside the pen. We need to pay attention to these early scenes as it becomes increasingly important later on. A childless farming couple go about their daily activities in 24 hour daylight. Although it’s springtime, the husband, Ingvar, feeds the sheep in the barn as there is insufficient grass growing outside. Maria, his wife, looks ominously out of the window, also sensing that things are somehow out-of-tune. They work together delivering their lambs, then one day they deliver a lamb that they connect to in an unusual way. This sets the scene for a series of sometimes humorous, but mostly disturbing events that change their lives. 

Cast: There are only three people with significant roles in this film – Naomi Rapace playing Maria, Hilmir Snær Gudmason playing her husband Ingvar, and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson as Pétur, Ingvar’s brother. They are all excellent. Mostly stern and serious, they nevertheless bring an expressive presence. There is a lovely scene when the three are watching a sporting game together on TV – it’s a rare, and funny example of how normally stern characters let their hair down. The rest of the action involves the animals, and it’s astonishing what insights we get from them. Not only the sheep look nervous – the dog and the cat do too. There is something rotten in the state of Iceland, and they all know it.

Filming and Setting: The cinematography is beautiful in this film. The landscape is spectacular and we get a real sense of the rugged existence of life on an isolated Icelandic farm. The scenes of farm life are not necessarily for the squeamish, but as the couple work together there is an engaging tenderness that is a mark of quality filmmaking – often silent, yet believably meaningful.  

Personal Comments: This is a very curious film that is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a Nordic fairytale with sinister and supernatural elements, and like the original Grimm fairy tales, it is very grim indeed. Yet Valdimar Jóhannsson’s directorial debut brings us a tender story of loss, childlessness, joylessness and happiness, all communicated through relatively few words. I suspect this is not a film for everyone, in fact, it may be a film for hardly anybody – there were only four of us in the cinema the night we decided to give it a try (by comparison, the new James Bond film was fully booked). But if you enjoy a seriously weird experimental film with a discomforting supernatural edge, you may enjoy it. And it’s likely to linger long after the credits.

Back to Life

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Comedy Drama series 1 and 2

Availability: TVNZ on demand, Freeview on demand

Plot: Co-created by Daisy Haggard and Laura Solon, Back to Life tells the story of Miri Matteson, a prison parolee who is trying to rebuild her life in Hythe, her old home town. It’s not easy. The taking of another person’s life is not readily forgiven or forgotten in the small seaside town. Everyone knows everyone else’s business, and there are some nasties in the community. Miri receives threats and the most horrible of things in the mail. On top of that, a lot has happened on the outside during her eighteen years of imprisonment. The technology Miri used as a teenager would now be more commonly found in a museum. Many of the people she knew as a teenager have also changed. Her parents Caroline and Oscar have endured more than their share of humiliation and community hostility. The Christian women of Hythe are not as Christ-like as one might expect. So far, you may think the series would lack the necessary ingredients for a comedy. But Back to Life is seriously funny – and there is also a mystery at its heart that demands a resolution. Miri is a gentle soul, engaging and kind-hearted – something that is apparently at odds with what we learn about her past. As she returns, the series takes apart long-held secrets, sometimes this is sad and heartbreaking. At other times it is hilarious. But it is always sure-footed, holding humour and pathos together hand in glove.  

Cast: Daisy Haggard, who also co-created the series, is marvellous in the lead role. She captures Miri’s naivety and discombobulation perfectly as she tries to adapt to a modern lifestyle that has left her behind. In the second series Miri meets a friend from prison who asks her if she misses it – the comfortable surety of an institutional existence. In these moments, and their are many of them, we realise this is no ordinary comedy. It digs deeply into the emotional frameworks of the characters, leaving us both touched and sad one minute, then laughing out loud the next. It’s a tribute to all the actors in this series to not have a single misstep. Miri’s parents played by Geraldine James and Richard Durden are brilliant. Jo Martin as Janice, Miri’s probation officer, is a joy to behold. Adele Akhtar as Billy is terrific as Miri’s new friend and potential love interest. Lizzy McInnerny, as Norah, haunted by the loss of her daughter and terrorised by her menacing husband, gives a commanding performance in the second series. Watch out for her dance mid-way through. It epitomises what Back to Life is all about. 

Filming and Setting: Filmed mainly in Kent, we get to see some spectacular scenery, including Abbot’s Cliff where there is a concrete sound mirror overlooking the ocean. It seems these structures were positioned as ‘listening ears’. Before they were made obsolete by radar, they would warn towns of air attacks during wartime. Fisherman’s Beach in Hythe that frames the seaside waterfront features prominently as Miri cycles to and fro. 

Personal Comments: This is an absolute gem of a series. It is intelligent drama at its very best. Give yourself a treat and watch it.


Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Contemporary opera/drama (with hints of gothic)

Availability: In cinemas

Plot: Instructed to take a last deep breath, the audience is told how to behave. Amongst a number of prohibitions, breathing will not be tolerated during the show… And so begins Annette, a thoroughly extraordinary theatrical film that defies genre. Once clear about what the show will and will not allow, the musicians tune-up and we experience the cadenced ear-worm So May We Start. It’s hard to imagine where the show will go from there. There is a plot buried within, but that’s the very least of what is on offer. French director Leos Carax brings us an astonishing musical that tells of two celebrities, Ann the beautiful opera singer, and Henry a stand-up comedian. To the intense interest of the media, they find each other, marry, and have an unusual daughter, baby Annette. Sadly it’s not plain sailing. Henry, initially the more successful of the two, obsesses that his star is in decline, while Ann’s career, famous for her operatic death scenes, soars. Then we follow the tragic deterioration of their celebrity relationship. But this one is like no other, and soon we are drawn into a compelling tale of jealousy, exploitation and destruction. 

Cast: Adam Driver is tremendous as the deeply flawed Henry McHenry who switches seamlessly from charming to offensive, from caring to self-indulgent, and from handsome to ugly. Despite being a successful comedian, his inclination toward self-loathing guarantees him little fun, and his dominating presence in the film ensures that we appreciate this is no typical comedy we are watching. It is a dark film full of malice, but also fantastical magic realism. Marion Cotillard as the ethereal Ann, although having a smaller part is equally outstanding. But inexplicably it’s the casting of baby Annette that is the most emotionally revealing of all. The voice she magically inherits from her mother is palpable in its sadness and her face is a picture of a human despair.  

Filming and Setting: American pop and rock band brothers Ron and Russell Mael have written a great soundtrack for Annette. They also put in an appearance at the beginning of the film when they perform So May We Start with the rest of the cast. It’s a classy act that is completed in a single take. The cinematography is terrific, with novel scenes of sheer brilliance. The birth of Annette, accompanied by song (She’s Out of this World), is peculiar and shocking. Also accompanied by song, the bizarre sex scenes are erotic and obsessive – top marks to Driver and Cotillard for keeping on singing throughout! Carax apparently required that all the songs be sung live. Imagine that.

Personal Comments: It wouldn’t surprise me if Annette generates a cult following – it’s the kind of film that some people will go back to again and again. It’s certainly not mainstream nor is it perfect – it drifts halfway through, and it’s way too long. But if you like seriously weird contemporary opera, and are not too disturbed by dark and controlling themes, it is a memorable and entertaining watch. In fact, I might just go and see it again…just to check that they were indeed singing throughout the sex scenes…

Masum (Innocent)

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Categorisation: Crime Drama

Availability: Netflix – Turkish with subtitles

Plot: Directed by Seren Yüce and adapted from Berkun Oya’s stage-play, this Turkish drama was brought to the screen in 2017. Yosuf, a hot-headed detective, is obsessed by his estranged wife’s new relationship. She has taken their daughter and moved in with a new man. Yosuf interferes unwisely and inappropriately, creating  problems for everyone, including his boss. After several warnings, he is given an assignment that takes him from Istanbul to his home village where the family of ex-police chief, Cevdet, has experienced a tragic loss. Emil, Cevdet’s daughter-in-law, has been killed in a car accident. Cevdet’s older son and Yosuf’s childhood friend, Taner, was with Emel in the car, but mysteriously his body has not been found. The local police have been unable to close the case. Whilst working undercover, Yosuf uses his relationship with the family to dig deeper into the tragedy. As he does so, family secrets are exposed and through a myriad of twists in the plot Yosuf examines the complexity of innocence and guilt.

Cast: The performances are excellent in this series. Haluk Bilginer is outstanding as the retired police chief, Cevdet. His heartfelt portrayal of the loving father, carries the action as he tries to keep his family on track and the police at bay. Nur Sürer is also very good as the family matriarch, Nermin. Cold and distant one minute, she surprises with impassioned emotion the next. Okan Yalabik does an amazing job as their younger son, Tarik. Plagued by debilitating mental illness, he is haunted by grief over the death of his wife Emel. Some of the best scenes involve him trying to understand his own behaviour in a life that is full of misunderstanding and assumptions. 

Filming and Setting: The series is beautifully photographed, cleverly capturing visual expressions as the character’s lives unravel. If you prefer action to a slow-moving buildup, you might find the series frustrating. The soundtrack is also likely to divide opinions. Some will find it irritating, others intriguing, but in any event, it certainly adds to the tension. The story is told through a series of largely unsignalled flashbacks and as a consequence time sequences can be confusing. Full attention is required otherwise you are likely to lose your way in this one. 

Personal Comments: Award winning writer and director Berkun Oya created the wonderful 2020 Turkish series Ethos (see, and so I was interested to watch an earlier production of his. Like Ethos, Masum is a slow-burning psychological exploration of family dynamics that exposes the nature of family frailty. But it is a much, much darker series as violence permeates relationships and family loyalties become central to the way in which the protection of individuals is sought and lost. This is an intelligent eight-episode drama that has its fair share of surprises.