The Power of the Dog

Rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Alternative Western

Availability: In cinemas and on Netflix from 1 December

Plot: New Zealand director Jane Campion created The Power of the Dog, based on Thomas Savages’s 1967 novel of the same name. It’s a Western of sorts. Brothers Phil and George are cattle-ranchers in Montana, and they couldn’t be more different. Phil, cruel and mean, looks every bit the archetypal cowboy. George, gentle and softly spoken, wears a business suit even as as he rides across the Montana plains on horseback. The younger of the two, George has clearly experienced his fair share of bullying from Phil over the years, and there’s no doubt about the pecking order in this family. After days of herding their cattle to the railhead, they stop with their ranch-hands at a Wild West town where Rosie, the boarding house proprietor, has prepared rooms for them. In the dining room Rosie’s effeminate teenage son, Peter, waits on the tables. There is an air of menace as alpha male Phil cruelly ridicules the boy whose paper flowers adorn the tables. Phil’s taunting of her son distresses Rose, unintentionally setting the scene for George to comfort her. Romance blossoms, and Phil is appalled and angry when George brings Rose back as his wife to live with them in their rambling mansion. Seeing Rose as a gold-digger, Phil maliciously persecutes her. Later, when Peter visits from university where he is now studying to be a doctor, Rose fears for the safety of her son.   

Cast: Four main characters drive the action in this film, Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil, Jessie Plemons as George, Kirsten Dunst as Rose, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter. Married in real life as well as onscreen, Dunst and Plemons bring a lovely tenderness to their relationship, and in different ways, they poignantly express the crushing effects of Phil’s bullying domination. It is nevertheless Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee, in their compelling performances of the bully and the bullied, that truly stand out. It wouldn’t surprise me if they are both recognised in upcoming awards.     

Filming and Setting: Filmed in New Zealand, the cinematography is stunning. The physical landscape of Central Otago is spectacular and we get a real sense of the rugged existence of life on a cattle ranch in 1920s Montana – although I expect only a Montanan would be able to say with certainty whether Campion manages to pull this off. Skilful in capturing the beauty of the physical landscape, Campion is also an expert in depicting emotional landscapes. She maintains a tense and suspenseful atmosphere throughout, constantly paring back the dialogue until she exposes the raw essences of the characters’ emotional frames – wordlessly, Phil’s banjo torments Rose as she deteriorates into alcoholism; a human wolf pack, controlled and suppressed by Phil, chillingly encircles its prey. It’s quality filmmaking, (despite the faux pas with the fence posts).

Personal Comments: The Power of the Dog is impactful and unsettling. Full of symbolism, it’s languid and multilayered plot has scenes that are at times sensuous, and at other times abhorrent. Then, just when you think you know what’s going on, Campion pulls the rug from under your feet, making you want to watch it again to discover, if you haven’t already, the trail of breadcrumbs she’s skilfully left in her wake. It’s one of her best films. While it is due to be released on Netflix soon, you may want to see it on the big screen as this will show its expansive and beautiful cinematography to full effect.

The Chestnut Man

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️  ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Detective drama

Availability: Netflix, Danish with subtitles

Plot: The six-part series of The Chestnut Man begins with a 1980s flashback of a brutal murder – the killing of a family on an isolated Danish farm. Small chestnut figurines are found, adding a creepy sense of foreboding. Fast forward thirty years to present day Copenhagen where a women is viciously slain by a killer who leaves the same calling card – chestnut figurines. Then it happens again. Detective Naia Thulin takes on the case, along with her new partner, Europol agent, Mark Hess. At first, Thulin is unimpressed with Hess. He’s distracted, and in the well-worn Nordic Noir tradition, he looks like he might be on the spectrum. Concurrently, Rosa Hartung, Denmark’s Social Minister, returns to work after twelve-months leave following the abduction and murder of her daughter, Kristen. In their own ways, Rosa, her husband Steen, and their son Gustav all try to cope with the loss of a much loved daughter and sister, a loss that critically exposes the fragility of the family. When Kristen’s fingerprint is found on a chestnut man figurine next to each of the recently murdered women, the detectives begin a relentless pursuit of the killer as they try to connect the victims. 

Cast: The cast of The Chestnut Man is strong, and the uneasy pairing of the two detectives is a real strength of the series. Danica Curcic is terrific as Naia, a single mother and full-time detective who realises that her daughter is bearing the brunt of her obsessive work life. She applies to transfer to a desk job, but in the meantime the demanding Chestnut Man case takes up all her time, also exposing the fragility of her relationships. On top of that, as she gets to know and like Hess, she tries to look out for him. Hess, played well by Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, is talented, but also struggles to cope with his own tragic family history. As such, this places additional strain and responsibility on Naia. 

Filming and Setting: This is a very well filmed series. The aerial shots are stunning, and the film’s overall use of muted colours serve to reinforce the dark and menacing plot. It seems that Danish children make all kinds of animals from chestnuts during the autumn months, and the appropriation of a child’s chestnut man by the serial killer makes the drama even more sinister. This is chillingly captured in a scene where children are innocently singing a song to the chestnut man, inviting him in, while an ominous dark shadow loiters above them. It’s a clever juxtaposition of safety and threat, something that the series does well throughout. 

Personal Comments: The Chestnut Man  is a suspenseful drama that intelligently weaves together multiple themes relating to fragility in families as the characters cope with grief, loss, responsibility and sadness. At the same time, it is a classic whodunit that has you looking for clues and trying to solve the mystery of how the sinister chestnut figurines connect across different details of the story. Following familiar Nordic Noir territory, Søren Sveistrup’s screenplay, based on his own successful debut novel of the same name, results in a tightly knit and compelling series. Interestingly, Sveistrup also created The Killing, and both have the mark of a deliberate, slow burner plot. The Chestnut Man is, in fact, similar to the earlier series in a number of ways, and could be mistaken as being from the same decade. If you like Nordic Noir and enjoyed The Killing, this intense and satisfying series is well worth the watch.

The Green Knight

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Medieval Fantasy 

Availability: Prime Video

Plot: David Lowery wrote and directed this new adaptation of the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was written around 1400. Simon Armitage in his wonderful 2007 translation of the poem suggests it is ‘not only a most brilliant example of Middle English poetry but one of the jewels in the crown of English Literature’. The poem is great fun to read, especially the Armitage translation. The film begins with brief scenes of Gawain, nephew to King Arthur, enjoying Christmas Eve pleasures of the flesh at a local brothel. In this interpretation, and to his mother’s clear frustration, Gawain is a wastrel, showing little sign of knightly prowess or virtue. The following day Garwain attends King Arthur’s Christmas gathering at Camelot, where unexpectedly he is invited to sit beside his uncle and Queen Guinevere. Festivities continue until they are interrupted by the arrival of a strange knight on horseback. It is a magical sight, and Merlin, the King’s advisor indicates caution. Otherworldly and of green hue, both rider and horse are monumental in size and presence. The forbidding Green Knight issues a challenge to the boldest and most courageous of Arthur’s men – to land a blow upon him. The only catch is that in one year hence he must come to the Green Chapel where he will receive the same blow in return from the Green Knight. There is silence at the round table. Then, at the King’s encouragement, Gawain takes up the challenge. With the help of Excalibur, the king’s magical sword, he decapitates the Green Knight with a single blow, thereby ostensibly putting an end to the matter. Except it’s not quite that easy. Just when everyone is celebrating Gawain’s success, the headless Green Knight arises and picks up his severed sconce – not a bad Christmas party trick. The head then speaks, reiterating the bargain that has been struck. They will meet in twelve months time when Gawain will be subjected to a comparable blow. The Green Knight then rides out of the castle gates, head in hand, and laughing maniacally. Time passes, and all too soon Gawain must make his way to the Green Chapel and receive the blow that awaits him. The film then takes us on dangerous and mystical travels as Gawain, somewhat reluctantly, journeys toward his fate.

Cast: The Green Knight has a stellar cast. Dev Patel (the unlikely hero of The Personal History of David Copperfield) is brilliant as he gives full expression to Gawain’s tumultuous experiences in search of the Green Chapel. Sarita Choudhury as his witchy mother, Morgan Le Fay, is terrific, along with Sean Harris as Arthur, and Kate Dickie as Guinevere. All three bring a sombre presence to the story. By contrast, Alicia Vikander is wonderfully versatile playing two lively characters, first Gawain’s lover who is paid for her services, and later the a noble lady who tempts Gawain while her husband is away hunting. Her existential soliloquy about the enduring  power of nature and the vulnerability of humankind is impressive. 

Filming and Setting: This is a beautiful film, with marvellous overhead shots, and spectacular visual effects. It’s easy to see the Weta Workshop tradecraft here, particularly in the presentation of the Green Knight. Resembling a tree, he could easily trace his cinematic genealogy to Tolkien’s Treebeard. Rich, dark and brooding, the film takes us into a medieval world of the supernatural, the devastating fields of battle, and the courtly riches found within castle walls. The filming is stunning from start to finish. 

Personal Comments: I have been waiting patiently to see this film since its completion earlier this year, and I’d have to say, it’s been worth the wait. No doubt there will be debate about the film’s fidelity to the original poem. The Green Knight is faithful to critical elements of the poem, but Lowery certainly borrows from other legends of the time, and his characterisation of Gawain is unequivocally more complex than the poem’s honourable knight. This makes for a very good film indeed – definitely true to the period, yet resonating with contemporary issues in compelling ways. It has layers of depth that will make you want to see it more than once. And if you want to read a really wonderful translation, Simon Armitage’s is one of the best. 


Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: Period Romance/Biopic

Availability: In cinemas

Plot: This film depicts a taboo relationship between two women in 1840s Lyme Regis, a town in West Dorset, England. It is a place that is renowned for fossil excavation. Mary Anning, in real life an early 19th century paleontological pioneer, famously had a workshop there, where she would also sell the fossils she’d found to provide income for herself and her widowed mother. In the first scenes, we are introduced to Mary, the harsh environment in which she undertakes her excavations, and the grim routines of her life as she makes shell-encrusted curios for tourists. One day a wealthy and enthusiastic hobbyist, Roderick Murchison, comes into her shop wanting to accompany Mary on her fossil hunting expeditions. Reluctantly she agrees as she needs the fee he will undoubtedly pay. His depressed and silent wife, Charlotte, is with him, and later as he prepares to leave Lyme Regis for Europe, Roderick worries that the trip would be too much for his wife, and so engages the reluctant Mary to keep an eye out for her during his absence. So the relationship between the two women begins, becoming increasingly intimate and opening an emotional space for both women.

Cast: Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan play the two women, big names in the film industry, and unsurprisingly they are both outstanding. Saying very little, Winslet in particular brings remarkable expressive emotion to the role of Mary. Alongside Winslet and Ronan, there is a great supporting cast,  James McArdle as Roderick, and Gemma Jones as Mary’s harrowed mother. 

Filming and setting: Ammonite is beautifully filmed. It’s slow and lingering, and we get some great shots of the rugged West Dorset coastline. Although much of the drama takes place in Mary’s cottage, a small oppressive place that reinforces the sense of confinement and constraint. The sexual scenes in the film are graphic yet sensitively done, although I think occurring with unlikely haste. I would have preferred to see more tender exploration as their intimacy developed. The move to full-on sex might nevertheless portray the depth of unmet need in both characters. 

Personal Comments: On the face of it, as a film about the relationship between two women, Ammonite tells the story pretty well…although I think it could have been shorter in the telling. It subtly uses the metaphor of the ammonite to explore the gradual opening of Mary’s tightly held emotional frame. But my main criticism of the film is the way in which it misrepresents both women professionally and personally. In reality, Mary and Charlotte both made important contributions to science. Completely obliterated in the film, Charlotte’s expertise in geology long predated her husband’s interest. Indeed, in recognition of her scientific contribution she had an ammonite that she had sketched named after her, Ammonites murchisonae. Over the years, Charlotte and Roderick were constant companions, travelling across Continental Europe, as they both undertook their important scientific work together. A thoughtful, intelligent and cultured woman, Charlotte influenced her husband greatly. As Roderick’s brother confirmed ‘To his wife he owed his fame, as he never failed gratefully to record…’ ( It is true that Charlotte and Mary met each other and, despite coming from different social classes, became close friends. It is also true that during the 19th century (and following) women in science faced considerable disadvantage, their discoveries often usurped by ambitious men. But I do find it objectionable when filmmakers purposefully fail to acknowledge the achievements of real women, and misrepresent critical aspects of their personalities, something that is clearly done in Ammonite. The film maker, Francis Lee, has referenced his own experiences as being working class and queer. It seems this is also becoming something of a filmmaking signature for him, his debut, Gods Own Country, traversing similar territory. Shoehorning Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison’s relationship into this frame as a means to an ideological end, is disrespectful to both women – and in fact is entirely unnecessary. Given the complete lack of evidence for Lee’s interpretation of the women’s relationship, and indeed evidence to the contrary, he might have better avoided the biopic genre altogether and instead told a beautiful, poignant story of two fictional women…for me, that would have had so much more integrity.


Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ + ½

Categorisation: Police drama/nuclear thriller

Availability: TVNZ on demand, FOXTEL/Binge, Freeview Australia

Plot: Experienced British screenwriter Tom Edge brings this six-episode BBC drama to the screen. It is a series that is filmed mostly on board a submarine, the fictitious Royal Navy HMS Vigil to be precise. The story begins dramatically with a fishing vessel being dragged below the waves, slowly and distressingly, by something we can’t identify. Then a body is found on board the submarine, a crew member who is reportedly a victim of a heroin overdose. It’s an unexplained death, and so the Police become involved and DCI Amy Silva is called upon to investigate. Amy has her own set of issues, including a fear of confined spaces, which is not helpful on a submarine and this inevitably plays into the plot. Adding to this, she has recently experienced a family tragedy and is suffering PTSD. But she is nevertheless relentless in her pursuit of the truth surrounding the death of Petty Officer Burke, and this places her at odds with a naval hierarchy that has little time for her or her investigation. The plot thickens as Amy digs deeper and realises that there are many dangers to be found in a big silver tube below the waves.  

Cast: The series brings together an impressive cast, and everyone does well. Suzanne Jones stars as DCI Amy Silva (Line of Duty) playing a claustrophobe, while at the same time presenting as a competent investigator – at least most of the time. Martin Compston, also from Line of Duty, plays Petty Officer Burke in his usual serious way, and Shaun Evans (Morse in Endeavour) does a great job as the Human Resources coxswain, Elliott Glover (you never really quite know what to make of him). Scottish actor Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones) does a fine job as Amy’s detective on solid ground, Kirsten Longacre (interestingly, she is the great-great-granddaughter of Frederick Weld, New Zealand’s sixth prime minister). Paterson Joseph as the Commanding Office of HMS Vigil also does an effective job trying to manage tensions and hostilities on board.             

Filming and Setting: Carefully recreating conditions aboard a ballistic missile submarine, the cinematography is excellent. The terrific camerawork showing Amy being lowered from a helicopter into the submarine is a good example of the quality of the filmmaking. The scenery on land is equally impressive, with beautiful shots of Ayrshire in Scotland.

Personal Comments: This is a very entertaining series that is gripping throughout. It gets a bit silly in the middle when the plot becomes increasingly implausible, and I’m not sure it needs the romantic subplot. But if you are prepared to suspend disbelief for a while and like a police drama with plenty of twists and turns, you will probably like this one.