Slow Horses

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Spy drama

Availability: Apple TV

Storyline: Based on Mick Herron’s 2010 novel this dark and funny series follows the antics of a group of MI5 spies who have disgraced themselves in some way or other and have been dispatched to Slough House as a punishment. So Slough House is where the MI5 failures are sent. It’s a grubby and miserable place where unimportant work is undertaken and everyone has a secret. To add insult to injury they are nicknamed the ‘slow horses’. Jackson Lamb is the boss, a man with secrets of his own, and he regularly makes it absolutely clear to everyone how utterly useless they all are. When River Cartwright, a newly disgraced recruit, joins them in exile his insubordinate actions create chaos and risk for everyone.   

Film-craft: Award-winning comedian, scriptwriter, actor and producer Will Smith has done a fabulous job of adapting Herron’s espionage novel. The dialogue is sharp and Smith manages to bring together a perfect mix of comedy and more serious elements in a witty and intelligent script. The cinematography is perfectly grimy. 

Cast: The acting is outstanding in Slow Horses, and everyone stands out in their own particular way. Gary Oldman nevertheless leads the troupe and is wonderful as Jackson Lamb. He is obnoxious, abusive, unkempt and in every way dislikable. Yet he is the most compelling of all the characters and is the essential lynchpin of the series. Interestingly Oldman played George Smiley in the 2011 series Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, a brilliantly unobtrusive and composed performance. In Slow Horses he plays an older and much more battle-weary spy, but he is equally impressive. In a great counter to Oldman’s Lamb, Jack Lowden is terrific as the enthusiastic and ambitious River. He is certain he doesn’t want to end his career in Slough House and the exchanges between River and his boss are some of the best in the series. Kristin Scott Thomas is also formidable as the scheming Diana Taverner, the deputy head of MI5. Her office is in the more salubrious part of town.  

Personal Comments: Slow Horses is a darkly humorous, intense and clever series that shows us a rather different side of the spy business. While the plot might be overly complex and not particularly credible, particularly in the second series, none of this really matters. The wonderful cast carry it triumphantly from one hapless situation to the next, making it a riveting watch. I loved every minute of it.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Period crime drama

Availability: Kanopy (AUS/NZ), Amazon UK, Britbox

Storyline: The first of this four-episode series is based on the book by Kate Summerscale, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2008. The investigation into the 1860s murder of three-year old Saville Kent created considerable press attention at the time, particularly as it related to the child of a wealthy family in terrible circumstances. Investigating officer Detective Inspector Jack Whicher, a working class member of the police, was discharged from his position following much press criticism and public shaming after arresting a well-born young woman for the crime. The subsequent three episodes are fictionalised accounts of Jack Whicher in his role as private enquiry agent, sometimes working with his old colleagues at the police, but more often in conflict with them. As he investigates similar crimes they trigger earlier traumas that expose the fragility of his own mental health. 

Film-craft: Created for the ITV by the British Hat Trick Productions this is a finely detailed, high quality period drama. There is considerable attention to detail which provides the series a strong sense of authenticity. The historic Chatham Dockyard in Kent is used to great effect in depicting areas of London.

Cast: Playing the lead in the series, Paddy Considine is exceptional as Detective Inspector Whicher. In an outstanding performance he brings strength and vulnerability to the role and is a constant presence in all the episodes. Considine is ably joined by William Beck and Tim Pigott-Smith as his once supportive police colleagues, Dolly Williamson and Commissioner Mayne. All three provide an important continuity throughout the series. Other well-known actors then appear in single episodes, for example Peter Capaldi in episode 1, and Olivia Colman in episode 2, bringing further heft to the series. 

Personal Comments: Not necessarily a fan of historical crime fiction I came uncertainly to this one. While there is a tendency to stereotype the societal underbelly of nineteenth-century London, writers Helen Edmondson and Neil McKay deftly explore the nuances of family life, crime, violence and issues of mental health, making this a successful and compelling series. If you like period drama with elements of crime, I expect you will like this one.

After Love

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Drama

Availability: Apple TV, Prime TV, Kanopy

Storyline: Mary was a fourteen year-old teenager when she first met Ahmed Hussain. When they later married the young English woman converted to Islam and assumed the Arabic name Fatima. She and Ahmed then lived for many years in the midst of a supportive and devout Muslim community in Dover. Ahmed, a ferry captain, spent his working life sailing back and forth from Dover to Calais. But when Ahmed dies unexpectedly Fatima discovers that the man to whom she’d devoted her life had a secret family in Calais. Determined to find out more about Genevieve, Ahmed’s newly discovered French ‘wife’, things become increasingly complicated when she finds Ahmed also has a teenage son, Solomon.

Film-craft: This exceptional film by English-Pakistani writer and director Aleem Khan has received multiple awards since its release in 2021. With a deft hand Kahn peels back layers of deception as the characters try to make sense of their feelings of loss and betrayal. Dynamics of racism and deception are exposed, and there is a wrenching intensity of emotion as Mary practices the rituals of prayer and grief in her Calais hotel room. There are many moments when Khan astutely leaves it to the audience to search for meaning – what is Mary thinking as she touches her body and her abdominal scar that we know must tell a story; what does she feel when she sees a photograph of Ahmed in Genevieve’s house happily enjoying a can of beer; and when she introduces herself as Mary is she meaning to deceive Genevieve or is it a step toward reclaiming her former identity? Avoiding the use of flashbacks there is also a clever use of technology to tell the story – Mary obsessively listens to Ahmed’s loving voicemail message, and texts are used to both deceive and to expose secrets.  

Cast: British actor Joanna Scanlan is stunning as Mary. In a courageous performance she lays bare her physical and emotional self with relatively little dialogue. It’s not in the least surprising that she has received many accolades for her role in the film. Nathalie Richard is also terrific as Ahmed’s French ‘wife’ Genevieve. Although they have loved the same man, the women couldn’t be more different. Overweight Mary is reserved and stoic, while the rival for her husband’s affections is a modern French woman, outgoing, with a breezy sophistication. When Mary turns up on Genevieve’s doorstep wearing a hijab and salwar kameez the French woman mistakes her for her new cleaning woman. It is an uncomfortable scene that speaks volumes about their differences, and both women carry it off perfectly. 

Personal Comments: After Love is an  intelligent film that illuminates the sacred and secular worlds of the two women and the very different lives they have lived with Ahmed. Slowly drawn and with a palpable poignancy we are taken through a journey of loss and grief. Moving rather too quickly toward resolution at the end, the film is nevertheless one of the best I’ve seen in quite some time.

Building Bridges – reviewed by Robyn Peers

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Building Bridges: Bill Youren’s Vision of Peace

Director, Cinematographer and Editor John Chrisstofels

New Zealand International Film Festival

This documentary is a gem from this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival. 

Harold Wilfrid (Bill) Youren, a Hawkes Bay farmer in the mid-twentieth century built bridges both literally and figuratively. A lawyer by training he became disillusioned with his chosen career and bought and developed an isolated farm in Hawkes Bay, using his undoubted intelligence and technical know-how to bring many innovations to his rural life, including a fifty metre heavy traffic suspension bridge over a steep gully on his farm.

In the years after the second World War, from this back country farm, Bill, a socialist and advocate of civil liberties campaigned for peace and nuclear disarmament. This is clearly an interesting social history, but the joy of Building Bridges is that Bill was a film enthusiast and with his 8mm camera filmed many aspects of his farming and family life. He also used the camera extensively when, as vice president of the New Zealand Peace Council he was invited to China three times during the early years of the communist takeover, his footage charting the changes he saw as Mao transformed the country.

The documentary, based on Youren’s footage, has been skilfully edited by Canterbury University Senior Lecturer in film, John Chrisstoffels. James Beattie and Tom Brooking provide expert historical commentary, and Richard Bullen, Associate Professor of Art History at Canterbury provides a background to the art and cultural artifacts which Youren brought back from China after his visits. Youren’s daughter Dale, gives an evocative personal perspective to the life of her father and her family.

Youren was a gifted amateur filmmaker and Christoffels has chosen carefully from his extensive archive. There is footage of early aerial top dressing, farm vehicles being coaxed out of deep mud and other aspects of rural life. The sequences of fifties life kindled nostalgia; the military march beginning the school day, the proud wearing of an immaculate Brownie uniform and camping holidays were from a New Zealand I remember well. The joy of his earliest visits to China and the disillusionment with the changes recorded over the course of his visits is clearly documented.

As reviewer Brannavan Gnanalingam suggests in the NZIFF programme, this is “ … a gentle portrait of an ordinary man capturing extraordinary things.”

The final Christchurch Film Festival screening of this documentary is on Tuesday August 22nd.


Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Psychological family drama

Availability: Acorn

Storyline: Jonathan Fisher (producer) Lisa Mulchy (director) and the extraordinarily talented Sophie Petzal (screenwriter) bring this bleak and arresting family saga to the screen. The story begins with Cat driving from Dublin to the small Irish town of her childhood to attend her mother’s funeral. In the first scene she is throwing up beside her car along a dark country road, and the local police pull over. The Garda clearly suspects that she is under the influence of alcohol, but he gives her a free pass – her father, a local GP, is well known and liked in the small community. When she reaches the family home Cat soon finds that her siblings, Fiona and Michael, and her father Jim, all believe that Mary’s death was an accident, a fall that was a consequence of her chronic illness and declining health. But Cat, who has long been estranged from her family, thinks differently. She increasingly suspects her father is guilty of killing her mother. As she delves into the circumstances surrounding Mary’s death she exposes secrets that test family relationships and her own sense of reality to their limits.

Film-craft: This is a high quality production that captures a familiar Irish family experience, at least on screen, with literary references, small town constraints, and green landscapes. There is never a moment’s doubt where we are, and that this family will suffer internal divisions and display varying degrees of emotional damage that will ultimately drive the action forward. And it does. The intensity is deliciously relentless and there is no respite. Just brilliant family drama.    

Cast: Across the series, all the performances are exemplary and it’s difficult to single anyone out. But award-winning actor Adrian Dunbar is absolutely terrific as Jim, the family patriarch. Loving one minute, exasperated and menacing the next, he brings a seriously uncomfortable tension to the drama. Carolina Main is equally impressive as Cat. Clearly on the path to alcohol addiction, she presents a raw mix of vulnerability, anger and fearfulness. Grainne Keenan as Fiona and Diarmuid Noyes as Michael are outstanding as Cat’s siblings. They both bring neediness and strength to nuanced performances as everyone tries their best to get through the funeral intact.

Personal Comments: As in many families the characters in this series all have their own unique interpretations of what has happened in their collective past – who did and said what, and whose lives were most affected. But in this family drama there is a palpable sense of the stakes being exceedingly high. Cat is increasingly convinced of her father’s guilt, but her reckless behaviour causes us to question her reliability. Jim’s lies also raise questions about his character – is he well intentioned or Machiavellian? Everything is unpredictable as Cat impetuously and determinedly exposes all their secrets leaving everyone, including the audience, on tenterhooks and anxiously waiting for the next fearful thing to happen. If you like your family dramas full of suspense and surprise, this one is compellingly good.  

I, Claude Monet

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: Biographical documentary

Availability: At theatres, and online at

Storyline: This is another documentary in the Exhibition on Screen series by Seventh Art Productions, a leading independent producer of art films for cinema that are then made available online. British filmmaker Phil Grabsky writes, directs and produces many of the films, including this one that explores the life and works of the French painter and leading Impressionist, Claude Monet. The documentary takes us on a journey through Monet’s life, first as a young painter, then as husband and father, and finally Monet as an old man – still painting but challenged by a debilitating illness. 

Film-craft: I, Claude Monet departs from the usual Exhibition on Screen gallery-film approach that  focuses on a particular exhibition of an artist’s work (see for example Vermeer – the greatest exhibition This documentary is far more personal, spanning Monet’s life and relying entirely on the artist’s own words – his personal letters and diaries – to tell the story. Grabsky augments this very personal narration with archival footage and images of Monet’s art and the locations from which he drew his inspiration. The music, by award-winning British composer Stephen Baysted, complements the film beautifully, resulting in an elegant, visually arresting and thoughtful film. 

Cast: Henry Goodman is impressive as the documentary’s narrator. He brings Monet’s voice to life capturing the excitement of the artist’s early artistic successes, his professional frustrations, and his harrowing distress wrought by financial hardship and family tragedy. So good is the narration, it is almost as if Monet is in conversation with us, as if we might be a friend with whom he shares personal aspects of his life and experience.  

Personal Comments: Grabsky’s approach in these art history documentaries is to bring to the screen the human story behind the art, and he certainly does this in the aptly titled I, Claude Monet. It is an intimate film, slow and meandering in places, but with a powerful intensity that engages the gamut of the artist’s and viewer’s emotions.


Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Crime mystery

Availability: Apple TV (Aus/NZ), Kanopy (NZ), Britbox

Storyline: Based on three of Michael Dibdin’s popular crime dramas, this is a story of Aurelio Zen, an honest detective working for the Italian police in Rome. As a Venetian he is an outsider, but what really sets him apart is his respectful attitudes toward people, and in particular, women. Suave, sophisticated and pushing forty, he is separated from his wife and living with his mother. Zen always pays for his own espresso and his reputation for integrity is well known, something that also distinguishes him from his colleagues in the force. But Aurelio’s crime-fighting tactics are not free from the odd transgression as he explores the moral imperfections of the Italian police, the political system, and Italian society itself.

Film-craft: Comprising three 90 minute films Zen has all the trappings of a quality series, beautifully filmed, written and directed. It is visually arresting, with none of the grimness of Scandinavian noir’s gritty plots and dark violent stories. There are no bleak landscapes. Rather, it’s full of style, beautiful people and glorious buildings bathed in golden sunshine. With a screenplay that has more than its fair share of fun and romance, it’s almost like being in Rome, except that everyone is speaking English. And I have to admit, that takes some getting used to. Like Wallander, it’s British stablemate, Zen has UK actors in most of the lead roles – except for the women who are invariably played by Italians, which is interesting in itself.  

Cast: Whether British or Italian, Zen most certainly has a stellar cast. The seriously handsome Rufus Sewell is superb as Aurelio Zen. Perfect in every scene, he brings a charming and understated presence to the character. After a while it’s even possible to stop hearing his accent and start enjoying the lightness of his character. Caterina Murano is also stunning as Zen’s love interest Tania Moretti, and Ben Miles playing the powerful government officer Amedeo Colonna brings exactly the right ambiguity to his role as he tries his best to compromise Zen. 

Personal Comments: First aired by the BBC in 2011, Zen is something of a hidden gem. It is stylish and entertaining with a vintage approach that just manages to carry off any wobbles in the plot. So if you enjoy the delights of Italian cities and detective stories such as Donna Leon’s Brunetti (Venice) or the long-standing Montalbano (Sicily), you may very well like this one.


Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Crime mystery

Availability: Apple TV (Aus/NZ), Kanopy (NZ), Britbox

Storyline: Based on John Banville’s crime novels (under the Benjamin Black pseudonym) this 2014 BBC adaptation focuses on the first three books from the Quirke series: Christine Falls; The Silver Swan; and Elegy for April. Quirke (we never get to know his first name) is a pathologist in 1950s Dublin. Ireland is bleak and in the grip of a menacing Catholic Church. Repressed characters abound, plagued by guilt, driven by power, and harbouring all kinds of family secrets. Quirke finds himself right in the middle of it. Raised in an orphanage where bad things happened, he is a complex character with all kinds of problems, the most obvious being his debilitating addiction to alcohol. Damaged by the events of his past he is compelled to apply his sleuthing skills to uncover grim legacies, not only within his family but in Ireland itself.

Film-craft: Quirke powerfully captures the grimness and griminess of 1950s Dublin. Its evocative choreography realistically illuminates the city’s cold, dimly-lit and smokey recesses. The pace is slow, frustratingly so if you prefer your crime mysteries to be thrilling. Like Banville’s books, these episodes are not representative of your typical crime mystery. Commissioned by Danny Cohen and Ben Stephenson, the series takes us on an atmospheric, slow-burning exploration of people in time and place.

Cast: Gabriel Byrne is outstanding as Quirke as he delves into the tortured life of the enigmatic protagonist. He is impressively supported by Nik Dunning as Quirke’s brother Malarchy and Michael Gambon as their father. 

Personal Comments: Like Banville’s crime novels, there are three main things going on in the TV series. There are crimes to solve, but these are very much secondary to the exploration of  Quirke’s family dynamics, and the stifling and controlling Irish context in which the action takes place. Banville’s books, and the episodes in this three-part series, are both grim and shocking in their own ways. The hapless Quirke is happiest when he is unhappy, and it seems that Banville is at his happiest when he’s exploring blighted Irish lives in 1950s. If you are interested in Irish Noir, this series captures it perfectly.


Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: Crime thriller

Availability: Kanopy 

Storyline: Stewart, a young handsome Scot, has gone into exile in London. He did something he regretted in the fictional town of Stonemouth and to avoid retribution he had to leave town and his lovely girlfriend, Ellie. Now her brothers are after him, full of anger and baseball bats. Sometime later his best mate Cal, another of Ellie’s brothers (she seems to have a lot of them) sends him a text asking for his help. Stewart fails to respond, and later is told that Cal has jumped from the Stonemouth bridge to his death. Remorsefully, Stewart seeks permission from Cal’s father, the local crime-lord Don Murston, to return to Stonemouth to attend Cal’s funeral. Consent is begrudgingly given, but Don makes it clear that his return home will be fleeting. He doesn’t want him anywhere near his favourite daughter. But Stewart struggles to accept that Cal has taken his own life and when driven to search for the truth, he experiences the dangers of having crossed the powerful Scottish mafia. 

Film-craft: Released in 2015, and based on the Iain Banks novel of the same name, Stonemouth is visually beautiful. Filmed in the lovely town of McDuff, the stylish cinematography captures the best of the Scottish light and scenery. Less successful is the significant use of flashbacks that take some getting used to, and Stewart’s first person narration can be rather stultifying at times. But the two episode series packs a lot in, and overall it clips along nicely.

Cast: Christian Cooke is very good as the hapless Stewart whose seems to stagger from one dangerous situation to another. Charlotte Spencer as Ellie undoubtedly has a beautiful face, but as a character she doesn’t really have much impact. Brian Gleeson does a good job playing the untrustworthy Powell, but it is Peter Mullan as Don, Ellie’s father and criminal boss, who impresses.  

Personal Comments: I haven’t read Stonemouth, but I wonder whether the hour-and-forty minutes of film was sufficient to flesh out the characters that are underdeveloped and generally unlikeable in the series. On the other hand, it is a pacy production with plenty of action and good deal of black humour. But perhaps the main find this week has been the Kanopy platform. With films and miniseries, old and new, it’s worth checking to see if it’s freely accessible through your local library.

The Blue Caftan

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: Drama

Availability: At theatres, Arabic with subtitles

Storyline: Created by Moroccan film maker, Maryam Touzani, this gently affecting film tells the story of three people. Mina and her husband Halim have a store in an historical town in northwestern Morocco where they sell exquisitely crafted traditional caftans. Halim is a master tailor (maalem) who works long hours creating hand-made garments that his wife sells in the shop. Halim is way behind in his work, and his customers are frustrated. One suggests that they get a sewing machine as nobody can tell the difference between machine- and hand-made clothes these days. Mina gives as much as she gets but still pushes Halim along. They need to quicken their pace if the business is to survive. They employ an apprentice, Youssef, who seems to appreciate the finer aspects of the traditional craft. But Mina is suspicious of him, particularly when she notices that Halim’s interest in Youssef extends beyond the professional.

Film-craft: Despite its sparse dialogue, there is a rich communication of emotion in The Blue Caftan. Touzani uses furtive looks, glimpses of sadness and expressions of longing to slow the pace and intensify our concern for the characters. The film is unfailingly sensuous – hands caressing fine silks, the rituals of the working day, Halim’s bathing in the local bathhouse, all beautifully filmed by Virgine Surdej, who brings together the shop’s earthy colours and the splendid fabrics in a cinematic master class. 

Cast: The Blue Caftan’s three main characters are terrific. Saleh Bakri brings an impressively nuanced performance to the role of the repressed Halim who is anguished by his desires. Lubna Azabal as Mina brings a lively complexity as she flatters and reprimands their clients. Complementing Bakri and Azabal, Ayoub Missioui is excellent as Youssef who finds that he must carefully negotiate a complex set of dynamics as relationships are threatened and their interdependent lives begin to change.

Personal CommentsThe Blue Caftan is a deeply intimate film that gently explores the nature of  love and affection between people. But you will need a fair degree of patience if you are to enjoy it. It is languid but with a surprisingly gripping tension between the characters that in the end is captivating. It was short-listed in the International Feature Film category of the Oscars, but sadly got no further.