Bergman Island

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Drama

Availability: In theatres

Plot: French film director and screenwriter, Mia Hansen-Løve brings this serene and absorbing drama to the screen. It tells the story of married filmmakers Chris and Tony, who travel to Fårö, a small Swedish island north of of Gotland. Without a doubt, Fårö’s most famous resident was Ingmar Bergman, master filmmaker, who made a number of films on the island. With the establishment of The Bergman Centre four years after his death, Fårö has become both a place of pilgrimage for Bergman devotees, and a scriptwriters retreat. The protagonists are taking part in the residency programme offered by the centre. Tony, the older and more successful of the two, is clearly much admired as a filmmaker. He confidently addresses groups and mingles with film aficionados. Chris, in the early stages of her career, seems uncomfortable from the start. For her, the serene perfection of the place is oppressive. In their separate work spaces, he writes with ease, while she struggles to put pen to paper. All this is explored gently and understatedly, as they nicely traverse the tension and irritation, tenderness and passion within their relationship that gives the union authenticity. Halfway through the film, Chris begins to share her work with Tony, at which point we experience her story within their story. The lines between the two fictional stories soon become blurred as Hansen-Løve explores the world of the writer’s imagination. 

Filming and Setting: As Chris and Tony arrive in Gotland we follow them on their journey to Fårö. First they pick up their rental car and drive north to the ferry that will take them to the lovely island where the rest of the film is set. They settle into Bergman’s cottages – beautiful in their simplicity – and throughout the film we get to see the the places where Bergman lived and worked. We also see the Bergman Centre, including its small movie theatre. Hansen-Løve has great fun with the ‘Bergman Safari’ tourist industry that has developed since Bergman’s death. It’s a bit like a Hollywood tour with added literary pomposity that I imagine would have Bergman turning in his grave.

Cast: Vicky Krieps is excellent in the lead role playing the petulant Chris. As she tries to reconcile what she is experiencing with her own perceptions of art, she is beautifully serene one moment and tense and argumentative the next. Tim Roth is terrific as her husband Tony. As his character enjoys all the glory bestowed upon him by adoring fans, he plays the role assuredly with just a hint of arrogance.

Personal Comments: In the week following Bergman’s death in 2007, we travelled across Gotland and watched a Bergman film that was shown in candle-lit ruins – a magical tribute to the filmmaker. It didn’t matter that it was in Swedish with no subtitles. It was all about the atmosphere. Having made the trip to Gotland and Fårö we were pretty keen to see what Hansen-Løve would make of Bergman Island. We were certainly not disappointed. It is a beautiful film, that cleverly exposes the working process of imagining and the unfolding of creative narrative. We see Chris experiencing her life and relationships, and then we see elements being played out in her writing. The boundaries between her life and her work become increasingly blurred, as characters move from one story to another. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but bathed in late summer sunshine, it’s a playful, sometimes mischievous, exploration of story writing that lingers long after the credits.

Midnight at the Pera Palace

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Fantasy adventure mystery

Availability: Netflix – Turkish with subtitles

Plot: This Turkish series is based on Charles King’s book Midnight at the Pera Palace: The birth of modern Istanbul. The adaptation takes more than a few liberties with the book, creating a curious and entertaining story about the beginning of the Turkish War of Independence. It is, in fact, a story within a story. In modern-day Turkey, a young journalist and avid Agatha Christie fan, Esra, is given the task of writing an article about the famous Pera Palace Hotel. Well known as an historical centre of political intrigue, Christie was a regular guest there. A room has been named after her which features significantly in the plot. I will leave you to find out about how Esra ends up being involved in a plan to avert the assassination Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, revolutionary hero and founding father of the Republic of Turkey. Enough to say, it’s a wonderful story that romps along – part comedy, part romance, part mystery, with engaging fantasy elements.

Filming and Setting: Filmed in Istanbul, the series takes us to the opulent and magnificent Pera Palace Hotel. It is a visual feast. The costumes are glorious and the soundtrack is wonderful, as are the stage shows that take place at the nearby Garden Bar. There is great attention to detail, all resulting in a visually outstanding TV series. The adaptation manages to create an important sense of the political precariousness of time and place, while at the same time it is full of quirky moments that provide subtle comedic relief. 

Cast: Hazal Kaya is terrific as Esra as she launches haphazardly into all elements of the story. Tansu Biçer is also impressive in the role of Ahmet, the manager of Pera Palace, who tries to steer Esra through the dangers of the hotel’s secrets. There is a warm chemistry between the two, and much of the humour is derived from their adventurous antics. Both have perfect comic timing and great emotional expression. In fact, all the characters do well in this series. Selahattin Paşali does a fine job playing Halit, potential love interest for Esra, and Yaseman Szawloski plays Sonya, the coolly detached aristocrat who has fallen on hard times. The British come out worst in this series with James Chalmers ably playing the evil wannabe dictator, George, who is determined to gain complete power over Turkey. All great fun.

Personal Comments: Directed by Nisan Dag and produced by Emre Sahin, this series is a joy to watch from start to finish. There is lots of action and movements in time, so you need to pay attention. Overall, it takes elements of Turkish history, and mixes it with an engaging fictionalised story that is full of plot – which doesn’t always hold up under scrutiny, but is nevertheless charming throughout. If you like quirky, with a few historical educational elements thrown in, you might just like his one.  

Death on the Nile

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: Crime drama

Availability: In theatres

Plot: Unusually, Kenneth Branagh’s sumptuous adaptation and direction of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel begins with a prequel scene in black and white. Hercule Poirot is a young soldier in the trenches during the First World War. Soon we have an explanation for his extraordinary moustache. Then, shifting to full colour, we move into the main plot – Jacqueline and Simon are in love. Jacqueline’s best friend, heiress Linnet, steals Simon from her. Then Linnet and Simon host all their friends (except for Jacqueline) in a no-expenses-spared wedding, after which they planned to honeymoon in Egypt. Naturally this doesn’t go down well with Jacqueline, who stalks the couple, driving them to change their plans. They hire a magnificent riverboat and take all their friends on a tour of the Nile, as you do when you have unlimited personal wealth. But the threat of Jacqueline is ever-present, and soon people start dying in suspicious circumstances. Fortunately Hercule Poirot is one of the guests and he uses his superior sleuthing skills to investigate. 

Cast: As Hercule Poirot, Kenneth Branagh is surprisingly disappointing. I appreciate that many people will have a particular impression of the Poirot character, particularly given David Suchet’s long history of playing Hercule in the successful TV series. But Branagh’s performance comes across as somewhat artificial, as does his dreadful rendition of the Belgian accent. I hope they never show the film in Poirot’s hometown. So not a good start in casting Branagh as Poirot. Given the vast talent in the rest of the star-studded cast, you might think this would be enough to redeem it. Unfortunately, not so. Gal Gadot as Linnet and Armie Hammer as her husband, Simon, are undoubtedly a handsome couple, but they have no relational spark whatsoever. This makes the unlikely union even less likely. Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, the long-standing comedy duo, do their best with what they are given, but nevertheless struggle to lift the tedium. Thankfully Sophie Okonedo as Salome Otterbourne is an exception. Her singing and performance on-stage (and off) is outstanding. 

Filming and Setting: Death on the Nile is brimming with Art Deco splendour. The riverboat is marvellous, and the river scenes are stunning. While the river scenes were filmed by a crew in Egypt, the rest of the filming was done in the UK. This included building the riverboat and creating replicas of the Abu Simbel temples and the spectacular Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan. In the main this worked brilliantly, although it has to be said that the the temples have a very artificial look to them. But this aside, the producers went to extraordinary lengths to create an authentic vision of the splendour of the time and place under challenging covid circumstances.

Personal Comments: There is no question that this is a glittering production. But despite all of its sparkle, and it’s stellar cast, the film is oddly vacuous, and more than a little dull. In the end, it just isn’t enough to rely on displays of the fabulously rich an famous. Branagh has adapted Agatha Christie’s books before, in particular his 2017 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. That was a film that received very mixed reviews, and I suspect this one might experience a similar fate.

The Chelsea Detective

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Crime drama

Availability: Acorn

Plot: In this series of four stand-alone episodes, we are introduced to Detective Inspector Max Arnold of the Chelsea police. Max is recently separated from his wife, Astrid, and there are clear tensions between them that largely revolve around a custody dispute over an expensive coffee maker that Max believes is rightfully his. Max is living in a houseboat moored on the Thames where he plays Bach on his mini piano. Astrid lives in the rather lovely apartment that they used to share. By the end of the first episode, it’s clear that their relationship is far from resolved, an issue we’re bound to hear more about. In the first episode, Max and his colleague, DS Priya Shamsie, who has recently returned to work from parental leave, are looking into into the death of a man who is hit by a train. As the investigation progresses, they find that the high-class neighbourhood of Chelsea, with all its affluence, is not immune to dark acts of violence.

Filming and Setting: Chelsea is certainly one of London’s most beautiful districts, and this series takes full advantage of it. It’s not surprising that it is home to some of the wealthiest people in England. There are wonderful aerial shots, and we get to see elegant buildings and public spaces as Max rides about on his bicycle. 

Cast:  Adrian Scarborough plays the lead as Max. Scarborough has a depth of experience on screen and on stage, yet surprisingly he tends to play secondary characters. He is, nevertheless, a outstanding actor, whether he plays evil roles (for example, Raymond in Killing Eve) or whether he’s on the side of the good, as he is in this series. He is impressive playing the eccentric detective. Sonita Henry is also terrific as DS Priya Shamsie. She brings a vibrancy to the role and her expressive timing is perfect. She is also charmingly protective toward Max, as he is toward her. The chemistry in their partnership makes for a quality and engaging detective series.

Personal Comments: The Chelsea Detective is not the exciting type of crime series that has you on the edge of your seat as the bodies pile up. It’s more in the nature of Vera, a quality police drama with interesting and engaging characters who use skill and persuasion to get a result. All the characters have their own personal issues, the kind of concerns that happen in life. It is nevertheless refreshing to see a team of generally well-balanced people who are practising thoughtful and smart policing. While it’s got one or two more coincidences than it needs, the script writing is very good indeed. Perhaps unsurprisingly it’s got successful people behind it – the first episode was written by Glen Laker (Vera, Prime Suspect – Tennison), and the executive producer is award-winning Peter Fincham. If it can keep it up in future episodes, it won’t surprise me if The Chelsea Detective becomes a long-lasting favourite. I’ll certainly be watching the rest of series.