Madam Black

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Short drama 

Availability: New Zealand Film Commission (

Storyline: This short film, directed by New Zealander Ivan Barge, was a festival hit when first screened in 2015. It won the Director’s Choice award at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, the Prix de Public at the Clermont Ferrand International Short Film Festival, and also won Best Short Film at the 2017 New Zealand Film Awards. Barge has said that the film was inspired by a story that was related by Kafka’s lover, Dora Diamant, having met a little girl in a park who had lost her doll. Similarly, Madam Black tells the charming, if somewhat edgy, story of a photographer, a child, and a lost cat.

Film-craft: At eleven minutes long, Matthew Harris’s witty screenplay is necessarily succinct and well-paced. And Ivan Barge gets the very best out of it. From the first scenes of the tired photographer through to its clever ending, he impressively merges humour and pathos in tight concentration.  

Cast: Madam Black  brings together a small, quality cast who portray everyday life expertly. Yvette Parsons starts us off provocatively as the client who hires the photographer to capture her best side. She is a hoot. British actor Jethro Skinner is perfect in the role of Marcus, the careworn photographer, who finds himself increasingly embroiled in a complicated relationship with Tillly and her cat. Pearl Everard, playing the preadolescent Tilly, also deserves a mention, as does Rebekah Davies playing Rachel, her mum, whose protective instincts come nicely to the fore as Marcus starts turning up outside their house.

Personal Comments: You will be reassured to know that no animals were hurt during the filming of Madam Black. The uneasy subject matter could have gone very wrong for Barge. But his nuanced approach manages to engage all kinds of human emotion, and in the end it’s a tribute to him that broad audiences have so clearly enjoyed the film. I think it’s worth every second of its eleven minutes.

Life After Life

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Period Drama

Availability: TVNZ on demand, Britbox

Storyline: It’s 1910 and a baby is born to wealthy parents in their appealing English country house. But there is a snowstorm and only a housemaid is there to help with the birth. The child, a daughter, is strangled by the umbilical cord around her neck. But then, in a time-looping twist, the baby is born again. This time, with the help of a country doctor, she lives and is given the name Ursula. We revisit this scene time and time again as Ursula grows into an adult, and as she dies repeatedly through a series of misadventures, and then is reborn each time. While the story may be subtly different in the retelling, her infinite chances to make things better in the new version of her life provides both hope and distress.

Film-craft: Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel is ambitious in its exploration of life and the ‘what if’ question in a story of a life beginning over again and again. While no doubt assisted by Atkinson and Bathsheba Doran’s clever screenplay, John Crowley’s screen adaptation might be considered even more ambitious. In four one-hour episodes, the series manages, almost seamlessly, the life/death/life transitions that are central to the complex narrative. The production has the quality stamp of the best of BBC. There is great attention paid to authenticity in time and place, and once you get the hang of its existential recycling, it’s easy to become engaged in this unusual and intriguing drama. 

Cast: Life after Life has a excellent cast. The New Zealand actor, Thomasin McKenzie, is brilliant as Ursula in adulthood. She presents her as an every-woman character, understatedly representing the experiences of many women whose lives were adversely affected by a particularly turbulent period in world history. Sian Clifford is terrific as Ursula’s mother, who brings to the fore a range of maternal feelings in the face of alternative scenarios. She is nicely supported by James McArdle playing Ursula’s father, an endlessly positive character. My favourite, perhaps for the lightness she brings in an otherwise deeply sad set of stories, is Jessica Brown Findlay playing the role of Ursula’s vibrant aunt Izzie. She represents independent modern womanhood with aplomb. 

Personal Comments: This is a curious series that takes us into the world of unknowables. If you like a production that provides a neat resolution, I’m afraid you won’t find it in Life after Life. Here the mystery of Ursula’s repeated lives is eternal, and it’s no coincidence that her kindly psychiatrist quotes Nietzsche as he encourages her to embrace fate. What you will find though, is an extraordinary take on what might happen if we were to be given the chance to re-run our lives. Now that’s something to think about.

See How They Run

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Murder mystery comedy 

Availability: In theatres

Storyline: It’s 1953 and a West End play, The Mousetrap, written by Agatha Christie, is celebrating its 100th performance. There is talk of a film, but Christie’s contract will not allow it until six months after the end of the play’s run. A murder is committed, and the under-resourced London police duo, Inspector Stoppard and Constable Stalker, investigate. Christie requires that in every performance of the play the audience must be told never to divulge the perpetrator of the crime. After all, there is no point in a whodunit if everybody knows who did it. As we watch See How They Run we are similarly committed to silence. So I’m afraid that’s all I’m able to say by way of plot.  

Film-craft: Directed by Tom George, this is a fabulous production. The costumes are spectacular – mid-century halter-neck gowns really do need to come back into fashion. The smart cinematography is superb, brilliantly capturing the colours and styles of the 1950s. The cars are hilarious. And the well-crafted, witty screenplay is a hoot as it takes the mickey out of Agatha Christie and the beloved genre that she made her own. 

Cast: See How They Run has a host of stars who are all clearly enjoying the romp. The exceptionally talented Irish actor Saoirse Ronan is wonderful in the role of Constable Stalker, the rookie policewoman who writes everything down while jumping to conclusions. She has some of the funniest lines in the film. Perfectly countering Stalker’s enthusiasm, Sam Rockwell is equally terrific in the role of her careworn boss, Inspector Stoppard. 

Personal Comments: This entertainingly stylish film is tremendous fun. Go and see it.

Love and Anarchy

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Comedy drama

Availability: Netflix, Swedish with subtitles

Storyline:  Acclaimed Swedish scriptwriter and Director Lisa Langseth created this terrific eight-part comedy series for Netflix in 2020. It tells the story of Sofie, a strategic consultant who has been brought in by Lund & Lagerstedt, a literary publishing house, to help them overcome their challenges in moving to a digital platform. It’s Sofie’s job to get them onto a more secure financial footing in the increasingly competitive publishing market. Sofie is a forty-something professional, competent in her work, seemingly happily married with children, and coping with the contemporary trials and tribulations of balancing family and professional life. But quite early on we see a somewhat disconcerting side to Sofie as she takes whatever opportunity presents itself to masturbate to porn on her cellphone. When she gets caught after hours in the act in her office, it sets in place a sequence of increasingly more daring acts that have implications for Sofie, her family, and the staff at Lund & Lagerstedt. 

Film-craft: This series deftly explores notions of personal needs, family assumptions, professional pretentiousness, and societal expectations. It gets the balance right – it’s never too serious, and its  laugh-out-loud scenes that poke fun at wokeful elements of the contemporary workplace are often hilarious. Filmed in Stockholm, with an occasional drive to the country, it certainly shows off the beauty of the city and its environs. 

Cast: Love and Anarchy has a great cast, and it is difficult singling people out. The vibrant Ida Engvoll, playing Sofie, displays a stunning range of states, from confident, to restless, to emotionally devastated. Björn Mosten is also impressive playing Max, the young IT technician who becomes embroiled in the increasingly reckless game of dares with Sofie. Björn Kjellman plays the superficial delegating CEO of Lund & Lagerstedt with comedic flawlessness. But my favourite is the wonderful Reine Brynolfsson playing Friedrich, the publisher and advocate of fine literature, who is baffled in the face of the fast-changing and increasingly media-focused publishing business. Surprisingly Johannes Kuhnke, who can play the role of self-centred husband to perfection, doesn’t quite make the credible transition from Sofie’s loving partner to controlling husband, Johan. We needed to have seen his manipulative side earlier on.  

Personal Comments: While not as sophisticated in its plot, Love and Anarchy has much in common with the hugely popular French series, Call My Agent in tackling social and media issues. Love and Anarchy takes satirical swipes at Swedish stereotypes in which expectations of conformity create the suppression of emotions through all kinds of means, but mostly therapy and medication. It targets the literary world in all its pretentiousness, ridicules the vulgar and ever present threat emerging from streaming platforms. It even takes swipes at Sweden’s wartime neutrality – all with good humour. If you enjoyed Call My Agent (, you will probably like this one. 

NB – since writing this review we’ve watched Love and Anarchy series 2. Disappointingly it’s nowhere near as good, losing balance and much of its humorous charm. But at least it’s short. Generously, I’d give it 3 stars.

The Essex Serpent

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Historical drama

Availability: Apple TV+

Storyline:  Sarah Perry’s popular novel forms the basis of The Essex Serpent, a six-part series directed by the acclaimed British director Clio Barnard. Set in the late nineteenth century, the series begins with a sinister scene of a young woman, Gracie, wading through an archipelago-like wetland in Aldwinter, Essex. Fully clothed, she enters the water carrying a large cross. Her sister, Naomi, calls out then watches as a surge of water approaches and Gracie disappears. The villagers fear she has been taken, as punishment for her sins, by a biblical serpent that haunts the dark and misty waters. The scene then switches to London where we are introduced to Cora Seaborne, a gentlewoman sitting at the bedside of her rich husband who refuses potentially life-saving surgical treatment from his doctor, Luke Garrett. His death brings liberation to Cora who has been a victim of her husband’s horrific violence. While still in mourning, Cora embraces her single life, becoming friends with the young and brilliant Dr Garrett, and reengaging with her long-held passion for palaeontology. When she hears rumours that a serpent has been spotted in Essex, she theorises that it may be some kind of plesiosaur that has survived extinction and evolution. Keen to know more, she travels to Aldwinter with her son Frankie and her servant-companion Martha. Once there the headstrong Cora becomes enmeshed in conflict as people in the fire-and-brimstone community act on their fears and suspicions.  

Film-craft: This is a slow-moving, evocative and and atmospheric series. It was filmed on location across a number of areas in Essex and London. The market town of Maldon provides great high-street scenes, and there are interesting background shots of Thames sailing boats from the quay. The salt marshes themselves are fabulous. This attention to detail makes for a quality series. The Blackwater Estuary, a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, provides the magnificent aerial shots that nicely capture the film’s brooding atmosphere. Echoing both landscape and action, the music by Dustin O’Halloran and Herdís Stefánsdottir is hauntingly beautiful. 

Cast: The Essex Serpent has a stellar cast and everyone does well. Claire Danes is spectacular as the exuberant, yet tortured Cora. She is so busy finding her emancipated self she seems oblivious to the impact she has on everyone around her, and unintentionally she leaves chaos and heartbreak in her wake. Tom Hiddleston as Will Ransome, Alswinter’s vicar and one of a collection of characters who find themselves under Cora’s spell, is equally impressive. Contributing to many of the film’s most poignant scenes, his ability to convey emotion without words is quite remarkable. The combined strengths of Danes and Hiddleston bring a chemistry and simmering intimacy that is palpable. While Cora represents a scientifically-informed atheism, and Will a progressive religiosity, Clémence Poésy in a calm and serene performance as as Will’s wife Stella, is the otherworldly character somewhere in-between. 

Personal Comments: I am late in coming to The Essex Serpent, in part because I was expecting a supernatural/fantasy genre that I tend to avoid. But the dramatic focus of the series is far more interested in the exploration of how people relate to each other – or more accurately bump up against each other, illuminating human fears, suspicions, beliefs and passions. I suspect it is a series that will polarise opinion. Some will dislike its supernatural elements and dark religiosity. It’s inclination to modernise characters within a period drama will be jarring for others. But I found it a compelling psychological-philosophical introspective that intelligently explores science, faith, superstition and fanaticism.