Elly McDonald

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So Frenchy, so… je ne sais pas: Juste Un Regard (Just One Look) and Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne)

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Tell No One / Ne le dis à personne – intimate times

Harlan Coben is an American crime writer whose novels include Just One Look and Tell No One. Both novels have been adapted by French filmmakers: Just One Look as Juste Un Regard, a six-part TV series (2017), and Tell No One as a film, Ne le dis à personne (2008).

In some respects the two narratives mirror each other.

In Tell No One (which I’ll refer to by its English-language title), one moment a man and his adored wife are enjoying intimate time together, then abruptly she disappears, abducted, ostensibly murdered, till a cryptic email with photo shows up eight years later suggesting the possibility she’s alive. The man pursues a trail of leads, engages in a fierce chase, to find the truth of his marriage.

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Marie-Josée Croze and Francois Cluzet in Tell No One

In Just One Look (for consistency, I’ll stay English title here too), a woman and her adored husband enjoy domestic intimacy one moment, then a photo appears suddenly, and he, too, abruptly disappears, ostensibly deserting the family he loves, till a coded text arrives suggesting he’s been abducted. The woman pursues a trail of lead, engages in fierce chases, to find the truth of her marriage.

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Just One Look / Juste Un Regard – Virginie Ledoyen and Thiérry Neuvic find that troubling photo

The French film adaptation of Tell No One changes Harlan Coben’s original ending. The novelist agrees the French ending is superior, and it is, but I find it amusing that both French adaptations conclude with the recognition that in both cases the wife, on the face of it a paragon, is in fact deeply, Eve-like guilty. The angel is in truth a fallen woman, no matter how sympathetically we might view her circumstances. Cherchez la femme.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the angelic wife in Juste Un Regard is named Eva; in the novel, the character had a different but also arguably symbolic name, Grace, and her married name, the name her husband carries, is ‘Lawson’ – “the law’s son”. In the TV series, the family name, the name Eva married, is ‘Beaufils’ – “beautiful son”. “Beau” (strictly speaking, ‘handsome’) is also the generic first name recruits to the French Foreign Legion traditionally take to preserve their anonymity in their incarnations as colonial military, as in ‘Beau Geste’. This is definitely not coincidence.

Both the film and the TV series are highly watchable, largely thanks to appealing casting. In Just One Look, Eva is played by the delectable Virginie Ledoyen, Everywoman as Everywoman wishes she were. Her husband is Thiérry Neuvic, who I wouldn’t trust at 20 paces. The villain-as-ally is Thiérry Fremont, a French actor also seen in the 2017 French TV series Transferts (Transfer), where he is equally brilliant – my new fave face of evil. The villain-as-villain is Jimmy Jean-Louis, a large menacing Haitian, casting I wasn’t sure about – racial stereotype? – but which works well. (The villain-ally played by red-haired Fremont is written as Chinese in the novel, by the way.)

In Tell No One, the hero is Francois Cluzet, Everyman as Every French Man wishes he were, and the missing wife is an elegant Marie-Josée Croze. (A hitman who in the novel is male and Chinese is in the film female and apparently butch.)

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Virginie Ledoyen and Thiérry Neuvic again, still. Would you trust that man as a husband?

Both films had central premises that made me laugh, an entertained, indulgent laugh. In Just One Look, the plot hinges on a commercial dispute (I’m trying to write that spoiler-free – the nature of the dispute is one I am all too familiar with in my personal history, but which rarely surfaces as the basis for a crime mystery.)

In Tell No One, the plot depends on accepting that husband and wife had been childhood sweethearts, from their first kiss, at primary school age; that there never was or could be anyone else, for either of them; and that after eight years, with his wife’s body ostensibly identified and buried, the husband was still in perpetual mourning.

I’ve known a few French men. I like them very much. I get that the French are romantic and sentimental. It is also the case, without wishing to plunge too far into national stereotypes, that the French men I have known are entirely capable of being romantically in love with one woman while concurrently sexually involved with other women. But that would make for a very different film.

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Francois Cluzet. Chasing the truth.


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Despicable Me – how I destroyed my employment prospects and simultaneously upset the cosmic balance and Uncle Albert to boot

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‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; but that was before I turned my ‘lectric eye on them and put my ray gun to their heads. Alas, slithy toves are now no more, and it’s all down to me.

This morning my former editor Greg pointed out that my future employment prospects, even as a volunteer, are sadly compromised due to the “Unfortunate Incident (With An Aardvark) of 1982, which still casts a broad shadow over [my] otherwise stellar resume”.

In my ongoing remorse about that episode with the bag of oranges and the Lord Cthulhu’s Oegopsidic cousin, the sarin gas leak faux pas, I’d quite overlooked the aardvark incident these decades past.

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[Note: Oegopsida is one of the two orders of squid in the superorder Decapodiformes, in the Cephalopoda class. It was formerly considered to be a suborder order of the Teuthida, in which case it is known as Oegopsina, together with the Myopsina. This reclassification is due to Oegopsina and Myopsina not being demonstrated to form a clade.]

We all recall things differently, even momentous, epochal hinge-events, and plainly there is still some public confusion, as my friend Jen queried if that was the time I “caused the escape of a sacred blood pheasant which triggered an avalanche in upper Himalayastan village leading to a renewal of endangered fallopian tiger orchids in the top paddock?”

No, it was not. The sacred blood pheasant was another occasion, when I’m glad there were (some) good outcomes. Though that can hardly compensate for the devastating loss of four millennia of preserved religious tradition.

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Aaardvark, white with pink ears. That should have been a tip-off.

[The Oegopsida are an often pelagic squid, with some nerito-oceanic species associated with sea mounts. (from http://www.fao.org/docrep/014/i1920e/i1920e04.pdf) They consist of 24 families and 69 genera. They have these characters in common: the head is without tentacle pockets, eyes lack a corneal covering, arms and tentacle clubs may have hooks, the buccal supports are without suckers, and oviducts in females are paired.]

Now that I am reminded of some of the more obscure harms I’ve caused the world, obscure but by no means trivial, my global guilt is triggered. I accept I have been in da Nile, or up shit creek, a bog of repressed culpability.

I feel – because I am a sensitive type – I have no recourse but to expunge these memories by writing a confessional blog post. My friend Ian assures me confessional blog posts are the modern way to seek absolution, though, as a Presbyterian by birth, I am mindful “Most Protestants consider auricular or private confession to be unbiblical and consider confession viewed as a sacrament to be equally unbiblical.” -https://www.britannica.com/topic/confession-religion.

[Two families, the Bathyteuthidae and Chtenopterygidae, which have features characteristic of the Myopsida while retaining others common to the Oegopsina, are sometimes placed in the Bathyteuthoidea.]

I didn’t mean for those children to be so affected, and now I have a better understanding of aortic rips – and tidal currents – I’d never permit anything like that to happen again. I also take this moment to apologise to those colleagues who had not previously encountered the Aos-Sidhe and were disconcerted by the jagged teeth. Usually you’re safe, except in dark ravines.

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[The Oegopsida differ from the coastal Myopsida, characterised by the genus Loligo, which have corneal coverings over the eyes and tentacle pockets, but lack hooks, have no suckers on the buccal supports, and a single oviduct.]

In fairness, there was warning:

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun The frumious Bandersnatch!”

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Those Bandersnatch will get you every time

Next time I’ll make a point to be more explicit.

(Not making excuses, but that whole situation could have been averted by a simple glass of ale, brewed from a bag of malt offered by each team-mate, presented by a chosen representative wading waist deep into the ocean at midnight in midwinter and accompanied by appropriate votive prayers chanted on shore by the light of beeswax candles.)

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Seonaidh waiting for a glass of ale

Also, it should be remembered this stuff was minor compared with the Hulder incident.

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[Oegopsid squid are the only decapods that lack a pocket for the tentacles. Otherwise, they share different characters with different decapod groups. Like the Bathyteuthoidea and Myopsida, the Oegopsida have a brachial canal, which is absent in other forms. As with the Spirulidae and Idiosepiidae, the Oegposida lack suckers on the buccal supports, and like the Bathyteuthoidea, Idiosepiidae, and Spirulidae, they have no circular muscle on the suckers.]

So Keep your mouth shut, you’re squawking like a pink monkey bird
And I’m busting up my brains for the words

Sometimes, sorry seems to be the hardest word.

With profuse – stricken – apologies, to Lewis Carroll, David Bowie, Ray Charles, Wiki entries on Squid, Scottish Mythology and Hulder respectively.

I am appalled at what I’ve done.

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Pink Monkey Bird. Not to be confused with the Sacred Blood Pheasant.


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Preachy-creepy – slaughter and social conscience in Nordic Noir

Midnight Sun / Midnattssol / Jour Polaire (Swedish-French 2016), Modus Season 1 (Swedish 2015), The Bridge Season 4 (Bron / Broen, Danish-Swedish 2017), Spring Tide Season 1 (Springfloden, Swedish 2016), Before We Die (Innan Vi Dör, Swedish 2017)

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Kjell Bergqvist and Julia Ragnarsson in Spring Tide

We surely have to wonder why it is that so much of our prime-time TV entertainment is stories about serial killers and repulsive murders, fictional and ‘true life’.

I’m not going there here and now. There’s a book, or a thesis, or both, in that inquiry.

Suffice to say for many years I’ve tried to avoid the serial killer thriller genre. Recently however I’ve been out of sorts. It’s been cold and I’ve been angry. It’s felt timely to check out a few TV offerings on the darker side.

I’ve blogged about TV sci-fi thrillers Transfer (Transferts, French 2017) and Counterpart (US 2018) – ‘Losing My Religion: Two short TV reviews’. I’ve blogged about the morality of the Norwegian series Monster (2017) – ‘Review: TV series – Monster’. I’ve blogged about terrorist thrillers Greyzone (Gråzon, Danish-Swedish-German 2018), Blue Eyes (Blå ögen, Swedish 2014), Below the Surface (Gidseltagningen, Danish 2017) and Next of Kin (UK 2018) – ‘The TV Terrorist in Western Europe – a short review’.

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Here, some oddments: Midnight Sun (Midnattssol / Jour Polaire, Swedish-French 2016), Modus, the first season (Swedish 2015), and Spring Tide (Springfloden, Swedish 2016), linked by that insistence on inventively gruesome killings, and by a strange – to my mind – preachiness.

My problem with these TV series is that I’m not sure setting fictional murders against the backdrops of worthy social issues makes up for exploiting voyeuristic appetites for sadistic slaughter.

Midnight Sun takes place in and around a mining town in northern Sweden. It’s a tale about the awful consequences that ensue when corporations and communities disregard, despise, an Indigenous culture, in this case the Sami peoples of far north Sweden. It’s a plea for greater awareness and understanding of surviving Indigenous cultures.

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Jakob Hultcrantz Hansson and Leila Bekhti in Midnight Sun

Modus is, I assume, short for ‘modus operandi’ (Latin, “way of operating”), its lead character being a crime suspect profiler. Season 1 is a tale about the awful consequences when an insular culture overseas, in this case in America, demonises a society whose values it abhors, in this case that society being Sweden, and the despised value being tolerance. It’s a plea to unite against homophobia.

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Marek Oravec in Modus

Spring Tide starts with an horrific sadistic killing, which does lead to other killings, but doesn’t fit the template of the one-sadistic-killing-piled-on-another narrative. It’s a tale of more awful consequences of international corporations behaving unethically (another mining company). It’s a plea for inclusivity, a fable about valuing the contributions of those who might be seen as outsiders: the homeless, the petty crims and prostitutes, the alcoholics, drug abusers, the mentally ill, the very young, and those still in training. The investigative team in Spring Tide could not crack this cold case without the input of people on the margins.

I watched these three series along with another so-called Nordic Noir series: The Bridge Season 4 (Bron / Broen, Danish-Swedish co-production 2018).

The Bridge S4 shares with Midnight Sun and Modus S1 a similar narrative structure: a sequence of exceptionally horrific, sadistic killings. But it is not built on a social agenda e.g. Indigenous rights, LGBTQI rights. (I assume readers are aware the lead investigator in The Bridge series is a woman with Neuraldiversity autism. I do not see the agenda of The Bridge S4 as a plea for awareness and understanding of Neuraldivergent persons.)

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Sofia Helin and Thure Lindhardt in The Bridge S4

If The Bridge S4 has a social message, it’s as broad as Parents, love and protect your kids. Oh – and cults. As with Modus S1, there’s a takeaway here – beware of cults. I enjoyed The Bridge S4 significantly more than the other series discussed here so far. I found it more emotionally affecting. It rang more true to me.

I did like aspects of Spring Tide. I like that it rejects the usual Nordic Noir visual palette of overcast greys in favour of a spring aesthetic: pinks (magenta, fuchsia) and greens. I enjoyed the fresh appearance of the young lead actress, Julia Ragnarsson.

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Julia Ragnarsson in Spring Tide

Midnight Sun? Not a lot I liked (oh ok, Gustav Hammarsten as investigator Anders Harnesk). Modus S1? I liked the evolving partnership of the lead investigators. I liked it even better in Modus S2 (which has the added drawcards of Kim Cattrall playing the USA’s first female president, and English actor Greg Wise playing a nightmare abusive ex-lover).

In point of fact perhaps my favourite recent Nordic Noir was Before We Die (Innan Vi Dör, Swedish 2017), which doesn’t feature freaky grotesque staged murders at all but is instead a family drama-crime ring infiltrator thriller where people are shot and people are knifed in frankly routine ways.

But the plot worked.

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Alexej Manvelov and Adam Palsson in Before We Die


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Losing my religion – two short TV reviews

Transfer (Transferts, French TV series 2017) and Counterpart (USA TV series 2017)

Transferts (Transfer): this French TV series is brilliant.

Identity, mind-body, religion, politics, love, loyalty, corruption, bioscience, the future. French philosophy. And one very creepy – but strangely endearing – ‘little girl’ with a gun.

Am I entertained? Ooh yeah.

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Alexis Loret and Arieh Wortholter in Transferts

In the not so distant future, kind family man Florian wakes from a 5-year coma to find his consciousness has been transferred into the muscly body of special forces cop Sylvain – illegally.

While Florian’s consciousness slept, consciousness transfer technology has been medically developed “for therapeutic purposes,” to enable individuals with terminal illness or incapacitating disability to transfer their beings into the bodies of donors on life-support. The technology is frighteningly simple – some gel goop, some basic equipment – and perhaps inevitably, a black market has emerged, where individuals are choosing to transfer into other bodies for reasons narcissistic, frivolous and criminal, and black marketeers are none too scrupulous about how those other bodies are sourced.

Within two years the technology is outlawed, not least due to pressure from the Catholic Church and its French offshoot, a C21st technology-led mega-cult led by the politically ambitious Père Luc. “Transfers”, people who have undergone the procedure, must present themselves to the authorities to be branded and confined for life in a medical facility with amenities some compare to a holiday resort.

The transfer process has been banned not simply on ethical grounds but because some ‘transfers’ experience reversion – an unstable and potentially dangerous state where their consciousness starts to split and psychosis occurs.

‘Transfers’ who do not hand themselves in are hunted down by a paramilitary squad called the BATI. Florian’s misfortune (among several) is that Sylvain, his host body, was/is a brutal “hero” of the BATI. Woops.

Meanwhile, a sociopathic rogue transfer has commandeered the body of a small girl, and has a malevolent interest in Florian/Sylvain. Sometimes it might be easier to simply, um, die.

Transferts has been compared, frequently, to the Netflix series Altered States, which I’m given to understand is overtly futuristic and heavy on special effects and technological references. Transferts is not like that.

Instead, it’s concerned with the implications of consciousness transfer for human relationships, personal relationships. If my spouse changes body, will I still have sexual chemistry with that person? If another consciousness commandeers my child, can I love that entity? Within my sphere of intimate relationships, what is my hierarchy of priorities, in terms of who matters most to me, in extremis? (The philosophical dilemma of the rescuer with the boat.) If I change physicality radically, into a wholly different body, do I remain me?

If I no longer remain who I was, what am I? Am I a threat?

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Pili Groyne in Transferts

In fact the previous TV series Transferts reminds me of most is the UK series Ultraviolet (1998), memorable for introducing me to the work of actors Idris Elba, Stephen Moyer and Jack Davenport, but even more notable for rescuing the vampire genre from George Hamilton and ‘Love At First Bite’ and making soul-suckers really REALLY terrifying again. As they have remained since.

Ultraviolet had only the most basic special effects. Its impact relied on that ice in the soul the viewer experienced witnessing human and inhuman betrayals. Transferts has hardly any special effects; but it has that vampiric ice. Set in a city that in most respects seems like any contemporary European city, in Transferts it’s only occasional moments – ‘conferencing’ by hologram, the transfer technology – that remind us this is a future.

Like Ultraviolet, it touches on current, contemporary issues that raise ethical debate. In Ultraviolet, these issues included child abuse under cover of the Church, church-state collaboration, the status of ‘the Human’ and the status of the Other, and sustainability. In Transferts, issues raised include relations between State, Church and cult (again), the ‘rights’ and integrity (or otherwise) of the human mind-body-spirit, and also gender identity, and life extension technologies.

I’ve watched the six episodes of Tranferts Season 1. Now I’m hoping, hard, a Season 2 will be announced.

Not quite as OMG as Transfer but still intriguing: Counterpart, featuring a virtuoso turn – or virtuoso turns – by J.K. Simmons, a swarmy Harry Lloyd, and the bitterly beautiful Olivia Williams, a 50 y.o. actress willing to play ageing but devastating.

Sci-fi meets Cold War meets noir.

In Counterpart, Howard (J.K. Simmons) is shocked to learn the workplace where he’s held a low-level desk-bound paper-shuffler’s job for 30 years is a portal to a parallel world, a world which split from Our Side in 1997.

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Harry Lloyd and J.K. Simmons in Counterpart

For the first five years the two worlds developed along closely similar lines. Then, a pandemic hit the Other Side, killing millions. The Other Side believes Our Side developed and released the pandemic deliberately, to destroy them. Secret diplomatic relations uneasily contain the parallel stasis, but extremists have no patience with diplomacy and the balance is about to be seriously unsettled.

The entertaining conceit of Counterpart is that for each of us alive on Our Side, there is, or was, a counterpart on their side. Until Howard meets his counterpart, no counterparts have ever – officially – met. But what happens if counterparts substitute for their Other? What happens when counterparts collide?

This is another series with some interesting philosophical questions at its heart about identity. It’s played for entertainment, and thank god for that, but yeah: it’s smarter than the average Other Worlds.

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Olivia Williams in Counterpart


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The TV Terrorist in Western Europe – a short review

Greyzone / Gråzon (Danish/Swedish/German, 2018), Blue Eyes / Blå ögen (Swedish, 2017), Next of Kin (UK, 2018), Below the Surface / Gidseltagningen (Danish, 2017)

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If popular entertainment re-presents contemporary social anxieties in fictionalized form, a rash of TV drama series unfolding narratives of terror attacks is to be expected. Hell, even if it’s simpler – as simple as TV production money invests in shows that echo other recent hits – it’s expected, in the wake of the US hit Homeland, that TV series about terrorism and counter-terrorism will proliferate.

In among the dramas about serial killers, I have recently binge-watched a number of European TV series that try to engage with terrorism and related issues. Several of them are highly effective as TV entertainment, as thrillers.

How are they as social commentary?

Next of Kin, from the UK (and not to be confused with the UK sitcom Next of Kin), is the most didactic. It’s beautifully produced, dutifully acted, and comes across like an extended public service announcement: families, if you see ANY SIGN of your loved ones, or those within your ambit, behaving in ways that might raise suspicions they have been or are being radicalized, TELL THE POLICE NOW, TELL THEM EVERYTHING, DO NOT HOLD BACK – because look what a mess this could make of your family and your life. This could destroy EVERYTHING.

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Archie Panjabi in Next of Kin (UK, 2018)

I have no quarrel with that message, by the way. The circumstances of the family that comes to grief (literally) in Next of Kin are so mundane that the point is plain: this could happen to almost any family (any family within a community where terrorist recruiters prey). And I repeat: as a thriller, it’s effective, albeit a hybrid domestic soap-thriller, pitched, I suspect, primarily at the women and teens.

The Swedish TV series Blues Eyes (Blå ögen) similarly functions as a warning against youth radicalization, although in this instance the radicals and terrorists are Right Wing activists and Neo-Nazis. Blue Eyes offers a much more complex take on who is vulnerable to radicalization and/or involvement in terrorist activities, and why, than does Next of Kin.

It also offers a more complex take on the power structures within which terrorist events occur. In Next of Kin, it’s ultimately about corrupt or unethical transactions at the level of global big business and government: it’s about foreign trade and investment. Blue Eyes would not dispute that, but it does map out in much more detail how this might operate.

I’ve seen Blue Eyes compared to House of Cards (the US version) and to the Danish TV series Borgen, both of which explore the compromises and corruptions of institutions of government, incorporating hefty doses of fictionalized violent crime. It’s a fair comparison.

Personally, I found the political shenanigans strand of Blue Eyes far less compelling than the plot strand following radicalized youth. Blue Eyes is left wide open for a Season 2. I’m up for that.

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Karin Frank Korlof and Adam Lundgren in Blue Eyes / Blå ögen (Swedish, 2017)

Two other series, Greyzone / Gråzon (a Danish/Swedish/German co-production) and Below the Surface / Gidseltagningen (Danish), do engage centrally with why individuals become terrorists but from a somewhat different perspective: where in Next of Kin and Blue Eyes, we follow the trajectories of young people being radicalized within their home communities in Britain and Sweden respectively, in both Greyzone and Below the Surface the main antagonists are men made murderous as adults in consequence of violence in lands far from Europe.

Greyzone and Below the Surface both make the point, strongly, that the violence that drives these men was perpetrated in consequence of decisions made by Western governments, generally – or at least tacitly – supported by their Western citizens.

Greyzone and Below the Surface raise much more troubling questions about guilt and innocence, about proportional response, about revenge and forgiveness. It’s hard to avoid the language of religion when discussing these two narratives, even briefly. Both series can be viewed as a mea culpa, and both resolve with reference to sacrifice and redemption.

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Johannes Lassen in Below the Surface / Gidseltagningen (Danish, 2017)

Of these four TV series, I liked Blue Eyes and Greyzone best, but my pick is Greyzone. IMHO, Greyzone is a very superior thriller, for multiple reasons. It addresses terrorism, but it simultaneously refers to wider structures of violence and oppression: it focuses on a female protagonist largely within a domestic environment, and parallels with domestic violence occasionally spark a charge of their own.

Sometimes it called to mind for me the 1960s thriller The Collector (book by John Fowles, film directed by William Wyler). In the film The Collector, Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar enact the struggle that is misogyny. In Greyzone, actors Ardalan Esmaili and Birgitte Hjort Sorensen face off as man v woman as much as terrorist v victim or victim v weaponries industry oppressor.

In The Collector, the outcome – and implied sequel – is as we might expect in a novel written in 1963. In Greyzone, the relationships, and the story those relationships weave, are less predictable: more nuanced, more complex.

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Brigitte Hjort Sorensen and Ardalan Esmaili in Greyzone / Gråzon (Danish/Swedish/German, 2018)


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Review: TV series – Monster (Norway, 2017)

Monster (2017) – TV series, set in northernmost Norway.

This is a Norway to make its tourism board wince. This is a contemporary Norway that makes it self-explanatory why menfolk went a-viking during the winter months, a Norway where gods of war and mayhem and the two-faced goddess Hel still hold sway.

This is a Norway of grotesques, where almost everyone is decaying, ugly, distorted, misshapen, spiritually if not physically. The grotesque is so defiantly presented it’s stated as the norm: See this? THIS? THIS is normal, hereabouts.

Overlaid on this landscape of casual and purposeful violence is a dark form of Christianity, embodied in an isolated sect and pervading the narrative.

Mankind (woman too) is fallen. We are all flawed, all guilty. We are all exposed to the Devil and we all flail about, blindly reaching for salvation, whatever form that may take.

Who or what is the “Monster”?

Monster is a different Nordic-Noir, or Scandi-Noir. It’s even bleaker, and in some respects experimental. There are sequences where the physical choreography of the human body is the point. There are sequences that are Theatre of the Absurd.

Monster is not easy viewing. It’s a rejection of our television norms: the actors (with conspicuous exceptions) do not look like TV actors, the characters defy sympathy. Things don’t turn out the ways we might assume.

Loose ends are scattered like nooses, which might presage a Season 2. I hope not. I think the tale left it just where it was meant to, with those ugly odd bits provocatively on display.