The Pembrokeshire Murders

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Crime drama

Availability: Acorn

Storyline: In 2011 John Cooper, a local Pembrokeshire man, was convicted of, and sentenced for two double murders that he committed in 1985. They became known as the Pembrokeshire Murders. At the same time, Cooper was charged and sentenced for the rape and sexual assault of two young teenagers. Cooper had held them at gunpoint with three other teenagers in 1996. The Pembrokeshire Murders is one of thirteenth real crime dramas presented by ITV. It tells the story of Operation Ottawa, a cold case investigation that was undertaken by DCI Steve Wilkins and his team who were able to use new developments in forensic science, including DNA evidence, to review unsolved cases. The series covers the reexamination of evidence collected at the time, the re-interviewing of people involved, and the subsequent court hearing. 

Filming and Setting: The external scenes for the series were filmed in Pembrokeshire and other beautiful areas across Southwest Wales. Given the film was based on real life, the filmmakers were very conscious of the need for locational sensitivity, while at the same time wanting to be authentic to the place and time. Rather than filming in the locations where the crimes actually took place, they chose similar locations and architecture. The drama is also understated. Without the histrionics and multiple twists and turns we’ve come to expect of a fictional detective series, The Pembrokeshire Murders has the feel of realism and legitimacy. 

Cast: Consistent with this dramatic authenticity, the cast give the impression that they might have come straight out of the Dyfed Powys police force. While everyone does well in this series, four actors stand out. Luke Evans is excellent playing DCI Steve Wilkins who has returned to Wales from a stint working in Scotland Yard. He brings calm and dignity to the role, while assertively  negotiating thorny police procedures and professional relationships. Keith Allen plays the psychopath John Cooper to perfection. He is seriously frightening, particularly as we see him controlling the people around him, and in particular his wife Pat who is gripped by fear, and very well played by Caroline Berry. Finally, Oliver Ryan brings a deep vein of humanity as he plays Cooper’s estranged son, Andrew/Adrian. He does a terrific job portraying a character damaged by years of abuse and neglect. 

Personal Comments: I’m sure not everyone will like the understated nature of The Pembrokeshire Murders. But I am impressed by the way in which the series manages to condense the passing of procedural time as the evidence is re-examined – all captured in the first single episode, leaving the remaining episodes to focus on interviews, discoveries, and the subsequent court process. Threaded through the series we also see Wilkins at home, trying to manage a divorce and strained relationships with his ex and their children – not a lot, but enough to show the demands of juggling family life and a stressful work environment. None of this is new, nor does particularly generate new insights. But it is a respectful, and compelling, portrayal of a police investigation, without the usual dramatic bells and whistles.

Inventing Anna

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: Docudrama

Availability: Netflix

Storyline: In 2018, the journalist Jessica Pressler wrote an article for the magazine, New York, exposing Anna Sorokin, the Russian-born German conwoman who duped America’s rich and famous into financially supporting her extravagant lifestyle and her entrepreneurial dreams. It caused a sensation, particularly given it exposed the superficiality of celebrity culture and the gullibility of people whose lives are obsessively driven by it. Inventing Anna, created by Shonda Rhimes, tells the story of Anna Delvey (Sorokin’s pseudonym), her deceptions in New York, the people she deceived, and the consequences she faced.

Filming and Setting: Largely filmed in New York, Inventing Anna shows us some of the city’s famous sights including external shots of the wonderful 281 Park Ave, the building Delvey wanted for her new art club. Opulent scenes of New York restaurants and hotels feature prominently, and scenes were also filmed on location in Morocco and Germany. As such the film is a visual feast. It makes no secret of the fact that it uses of both factual and fictionalised elements to tell the story. Many of Anna’s activities in the film are factual, but other elements are fictional, for example, much of the journalist’s story (and indeed, aspects of the defence attorney’s story). Sometimes this works, but often it strikes a wrong chord. 

Cast: In general Inventing Anna has a very good cast who do what they can with a misguided script. With the possible exception of Neff Davis, played by Alexis Floyd, none of the characters are very likeable, which then makes the film hard to like. The socialites are stereotypically superficial in the extreme, and invariably the actors communicate this wholeheartedly, which in itself has some entertainment value. Julia Garner, as Anna, plays her character’s delusions and vulnerabilities to perfection, despite her affected and very peculiar accent. Laverne Cox as Anna’s personal trainer is also very good, as is Anna’s friend Rachel, played by Katie Lowes, and Arian Moayed as Todd Spodek, her defence attorney. By contrast, Anna Chomsky is terrible as Vivian Kent, the journalist who breaks Anna’s story in the film. She is undoubtedly poorly treated by the script, but her mannerisms are also excruciatingly miscast.

Personal Comments: There are, in fact, two stories being told in Inventing Anna, one relating to Anna Delvey, and the other relating to the journalist, Vivian Kent. The focus on Kent undermines the fascinating story of the fake German heiress. As such, despite the length of the series (an almost unendurable nine episodes – too long by far) we never fully understand why people were so keen to believe her, or how the desperate need for recognition, fame and fortune created Anna’s criminal persona. Ultimately, it’s is all about money, and the impact that money has on people. In this regard there is a curious irony in Inventing Anna. Apparently Netflix paid Sorokin for her story, more than the amount she stole. And the series is the most successful for Netflix this year.

Elizabeth: A portrait in parts

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: Documentary

Availability: In theatres

Storyline: This documentary is the final film Roger Michell made before his death in September last year. The much-acclaimed theatre, television and film director (Notting Hill, Enduring Love, Changing Lanes, Duke) was well-liked, and his unexpected death was met with shock across the industry. This adds a poignancy to the viewing of Elizabeth as it shines light on different aspects of the life of the British monarch who has reigned for the entirely of Michell’s own life. The documentary captures the Queen at home, out riding, at the races, and hosting the myriad of activities expected of her, including regular meetings with British Prime Ministers for whom she apparently provided a listening ear. 

Filming and Setting: What makes this different from most royal documentaries is that Michell has used existing news-reel and documentary footage of the monarchy, plus events of the period, and contemporary music and clips of musical performances that extend from George Formby to the Beatles. Presented thematically rather than chronologically, the combination makes for a mischievous conglomeration of images and sound that come together in discrete chapters. There is no narration. Rather, Michell let’s the songs carry the dialogue, often in humorous ways. And the film has laugh-out-loud moments – watch for the little girl who is presenting flowers to the queen, only to become a victim of a militaristic salute. It’s hilarious, even though one knows one shouldn’t really laugh at it (the film’s use of ‘one’ is insidiously influential). 

Cast: This documentary is all about the Queen and as such, she is undoubtedly the star of the show. Other royals are pushed into the wings as Michell focuses our gaze entirely on Elizabeth. There is nevertheless another star in the documentary – the music. And it is the role of the the lyrics to interpret the action and provide both humour and emotional impact. 

Personal Comments: I was in two minds about seeing this film, particularly given my ambivalence about the British monarchy. But there is no doubt the film is entertaining, and funny. Michell manages to tread a careful line between being fondly respectful, while perfectly illustrating the utter absurdity of the institution. I’m not sure the thematic approach works though, and the film is unapologetically nostalgic, but in the end it left me with an appreciation of the achingly tedious meeting-and-greeting that represents much of royal life. And I have to admit, she’s definitely shaken more hands than most people have ever seen.

Samurai Gourmet

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: A slice of life drama 

Availability: Netflix, Japanese with subtitles

Plot: This twelve-part Japanese series, produced by Masayuki Kusumi in 2017, is not exactly a cooking show. But it is a lovely example of what can happen when Eastern philosophies integrate with the cultural appreciation of food. In the first episode, we are introduced to Kasumi, who is newly retired from his corporate job. Indeed, at the beginning of every episode we are reminded that he has lost his title and the support of his company, and he feels it deeply. It is day-one of his retirement, and Kasumi is at a loss to know how he will spend his day. Then he stumbles upon a little local restaurant where he experiences food that engages his senses, brings back nostalgic memories, and helps him to overcome his fears and anxieties, his shame in drinking beer in the middle of the day, and to find happiness and fulfilment in this new phase of his life.  

Filming and Setting: In each episode of Samurai Gourmet Kasumi takes us to a different restaurant where we watch the food being cooked, and we see his enjoyment as he savours it. The restaurants feel and look authentic as we experience a slice of Japanese life – that is until a samurai arrives just at the moment when Kasumi needs guidance. The samurai is his alter-ego of sorts, sword-wielding and wearing traditional costume. His wise parables embolden Kasumi into actions that he would otherwise be reluctant to take. The appearance of the samurai, while a little odd at first, brings both humour and a liveliness to the drama that is a nice balance to Kasumi’s philosophical contemplations. 

Cast: There are three main characters in the series and all, in their different ways, are impressive. Naoto Takenaka is terrific in the role of Kasumi. His expressions of joy as he shares the art of the meal requires no translation. Honami Suzuki as his tolerant wife Shizuko, who is subtly effective as she gradually gets the better of him in their traditionally gendered household. And the handsome young Tetsuji Tamayama as the samurai is gusto personified as he encourages the hesitant, and frequently conflicted Kasumi to be more adventurous. 

Personal Comments: Watching Samurai Gourmet is like watching children gathering autumnal leaves and tossing them in the air. It is delightful and heart-warming. There are many moments of joy in the series. It’s gently amusing and unexpectedly poignant, particularly as the series explores Kasumi and Shizuko’s relationship. Don’t be put off by the second episode (The Demoness’s Ramen) where Kasumi has a joyless experience in a Chinese restaurant. The use of cultural stereotypes as comedic effect falls flat, a rare misstep in the series. You may prefer to skip it all together and go with the joyful innocence of a sixty-year-old man‘s coming of age story as he finds peace in a gourmet fantasy.