The Lost Daughter

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Psychological Drama

Availability: Netflix

Plot: This exceptional film is a directorial debut by actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, who memorably starred in the series The Honourable Woman. Based on Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same name, The Lost Daughter takes a few liberties with the story – it shifts from Italy to Greece and the characters are no longer Neapolitan. The main character, Leda, is an academic, and a Harvard professor of English Literature, who decides to take a working holiday on a small Greek island in the Mediterranean. From the start we get a sense of her uncertain experiences of travelling alone. Here the Director is building an uncomfortable tension that the film impressively maintains throughout. Leda is alone on the beach when people from a noisy crowd ask her to move to make room for them. To their obvious displeasure, Leda aggressively refuses. This incident on the beach unfolds into a series of experiences where Leda becomes increasingly obsessed with the family, and in particular Nina, a young mother who is clearly struggling with her daughter. Something is resonating with Leda’s own experiences, which we begin to gain oblique insights into through a parallel story of her earlier family life. Mother and daughter themes intermingle in complex ways and there are sometimes alarming results. 

Cast: Olivia Colman is outstanding as Leda. She brings extraordinary expression to the character’s emotions, drawing us into her complicated relationships and making us question the motivations and actions of others. Her portrayal of Leda’s manipulative and sometimes excruciating behaviour is an acting master class. Jessie Buckley is also impressive as the younger Leda, who is trying to complete her PhD in the midst of chaotic family life. The vibrant Dakota Johnson plays Nina, another young mother who becomes the focus of Leda’s obsession on the beach. Dakota effectively portrays Nina’s initial fascination with Leda, and then her outrage as she discovers Leda’s deceit. 

Filming and Setting: The Lost Daughter was filmed on the affluent Greek island of Spetses. The film-makers were able to commandeer areas of the island, twenty-two kilometres or so in circumference, during a covid lockdown. This enabled them to move freely about the town, making use of bars, streets and buildings that were abandoned by tourists. It results in an authentic experience for the actors and a splendidly visual film for the audience. Not as popular a tourist destination as some of the other Greek islands, I imagine things might change in Spetses after this film. I have made a note of it. 

Personal Comments: While the film explores the complexities of relationships and the dynamics between people, it is nevertheless all about what’s happening inside Leda’s head. We are never sure whether she is interpreting her relationships accurately – is she paranoid or does she have valid concerns about the motivations of others? Is she threatened, or is she the obsessive intruder into the lives of others? And how does all this relate to her experiences of motherhood competing with her academic ambitions? It’s a film that won’t appeal to everyone, slow to start with complicated dynamics and a sinister atmosphere. Nothing is resolved. The film prefers to remain ambiguous and open to interpretation. But for those who like a good psychological drama, this one is intriguingly cerebral, compelling in its intensity, and breathtaking in its execution.

The Long Call

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: Police Drama

Availability: TVNZ on demand, SBS on demand

Plot: Developed by Kelly Jones,The Long Call is a new police drama adapted from Ann Cleeves recent novel by the same name. Previous adaptations of her crime novels have been hugely successful, Vera for example, and Shetland, both exceptional in the genre. This time it’s DI Matthew Venn, a new character for Cleeves, who returns to his old home town in North Devon with his husband Jonathan. It turns out Matthew grew up in an Brethren community that a colleague in the police calls a ‘cult’. Having been shunned from the community twenty years previously, Matthew has some baggage to deal with. In no time he is investigating the murder of Simon Walton, an alcoholic unemployed man who has been stabbed to death on the beach. Simon attended the local  community centre that is run by Jonathan – a delightful place – but soon everyone who has had anything to do with him and the centre is looking shifty. There are secrets in abundance as Matthew and his team begin to uncover Simon’s story.  

Cast: From the beginning of the series it is clear that DI Venn is no Vera Stanhope. Nor does he have the engaging charm of Shetland’s Jimmy Perez. Matthew is an awkward character, both in the book and in the series. While Ben Aldridge captures this awkwardness well in the lead role, it doesn’t help to make his character likeable. His team mate, DC Rafferty, played by Pearl Mackie, doesn’t help matters. Her rapid-fire delivery of the lines makes the dialogue difficult to follow. So not the best duo to have in the lead roles. Everyone else does pretty well, with two standouts. Martin Shaw plays the Brethren leader, Dennis Stephenson, with complexity (once I got over his ‘George Gently’ associations), and Juliet Stevenson pulls off the role of Dorothy, Matthew’s estranged mother, in an impressively restrained and twitchy sort of way. 

Filming and Setting: The Long Call was filmed on the spectacular coastal area of North Devon, and great use is made of this stunning location. There are lots of views out to the ocean as Matthew takes his morning swims from their quaint, partly renovated beachfront house. There are also charming village scenes, and great aerial shots. It’s worth watching just for this. 

Personal Comments: The series has an impressive pedigree, and it’s difficult not to make comparisons with the TV adaptations of other novels by Cleeves. But based on this first series, The Long Call doesn’t stack up anywhere near Vera or Shetland. That said, it does have some unique aspects that give it potential. Matthew’s Brethren history provides an interesting context. But more interesting still, is seeing a gay man in charge of a police investigation. Surprisingly we’ve not seen that before. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen a gay policeman on TV. It adds an important dimension to police drama more generally. In the end, whether The Long Call generates an enduring following is yet to be seen. But to do so, Matthew will need to become rather more engaging, and we’ll need to be able to understand what DC Rafferty says. But then, I guess it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve needed subtitles in a British production.

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: Shakespearean Drama

Availability: In theatres and streaming on Apple TV and Amazon Prime

Plot: In this extraordinary production, director Joel Coen adapts the famous Scottish play, choosing to remain largely faithful to the original plot. Macbeth, one of the king’s generals, hears ‘three witches’ predict that he will become the King of Scotland, but that his heirs will not succeed him. Spurred by his ruthless and ambitious wife, Macbeth murders the king and gains the throne. Once there, in order to avoid suspicion and retain power, he is compelled to commit further murders. Consumed by guilt as the gravity of the crimes are fully realised, he and Lady Macbeth fall first into madness, and then meet their own deaths.

Cast: In a star-studded cast, and notwithstanding fine performances by Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady MacBeth, it is Kathryn Hunter playing all three witches who is the most impressive. Hunter contorts her body in crow-like movements that brilliantly carry the supernatural elements of the play. It is a chilling and mesmerising performance. 

Filming and Setting: Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography in this production is really quite amazing. Filming in black and white brings a cold austerity to the film, creating a misty grey bleakness in the remote Scottish highlands. The massive cloisters and staircases inside the castle walls are presented theatrically in shadowed lighting. Every photographic frame is exhibition-worthy. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if some well-known art gallery commandeers them for their next big exhibition. They really are that good. The challenging notion of how to bring the Birnam Wood to Dunsinane has vexed many a production, but not this one. It is answered with an impressive image of movement that illustrates the quality of inspired film making.      

Personal Comments: Coen brother fans will have greatly anticipated the release of Joel Coen’s interpretation of Macbeth, and some may be surprised by its lack of action. While there are some bloody scenes, this is a brooding interpretation that studies the psychological elements from a distance, without getting too deeply involved. There is no doubt that Washington and McDormand are experienced Shakespearean actors, both powerfully commanding in different ways. But neither character’s slide into madness is particularly convincing. While there are some terrific scenes, the film doesn’t quite give them the time they need to take us through that harrowing transition. What is unusual about the film, nevertheless, is Coen’s casting of these two particular actors who are both in their mid-sixties. Although Shakespeare doesn’t give any indication of the characters’ ages in the play, the Macbeths are often perceived as an ambitious younger couple, intent on securing power. By positioning the characters in their later years, Coen adds further questions relating to the themes of children, parenthood and legacy to the mix. I expect this alone will keep academics arguing the toss for years. It is certainly a film to see.

The Durrells

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: British Comedy Drama

Availability: TVNZ on Demand, Freeview (you may need to check in Australia)

Plot: The Durrells is a four-series production in which Simon Nye loosely adapted Gerald Durrell’s well known autobiographical trilogy, The Durrells in Corfu. It tells the story of the famous British conservationist’s mother, Louisa Durrell, who is struggling to raise her four children on a meagre widow’s pension in 1930s Britain. Desperate, and pretty much penniless, she decides they will all move to the beautiful Greek island of Corfu. The series then follows the antics of the Durrells as they confront a pauper’s life amidst colourful native flora and fauna and the culturally diverse inhabitants of the island. 

Filming and Setting: The series is beautifully filmed and, not surprisingly, the scenery in Corfu is spectacular. From the magnificent cliff-faces to the sun-drenched Mediterranean village, to the Durrell’s dilapidated but charming house that looks over the Ionian Sea, the whole experience is joyful. It makes you want to be there…it really, really does.

Cast: Everyone performs exceptionally well in the series, but in many ways this is Louisa’s story. The family matriarch is played splendidly by Keeley Hawes. Susceptible to more than the occasional tipple and romantic interest, she brings an eccentric parenting style that is effervescent, protective and at times controlling. At one stage, in a plaintive voice, she ponders why her children have become so vile. It’s likely that we will all have our opinions about why this is the case, but it’s very amusing to watch it play out in the Durrell family dynamics. My favourite character is Lugaretzia, played wonderfully by Anna Savva. She is the Greek housekeeper who works for a pittance, and makes no qualms about which of the Durrell children she prefers. It doesn’t matter that she speaks little English, we know exactly what she’s thinking. She is one of the gems of the series, hilariously disparaging most of the time, with an occasional nod of sympathy as Louisa confronts yet another challenging family calamity.    

Personal Comments: While each member of the Durrell family experience life’s challenges, nothing really bad ever happens. Cross-cultural misunderstandings occur, romantic liaisons take place, and the eccentric activities on the island seem a world away from their previous dour existence. Broadcasted over four years during the months of April and May, when the average high temperature is a chilly 12 degrees C in Britain, it’s completely unsurprising that millions of Brits have been enamoured by the idyllic and curious stories of a family choosing a particular and unusual Mediterranean lifestyle. If you are feeling like a bit of a tonic as we begin another Covid year, this charming and amusing series might just be the one for you.