Elly McDonald

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The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (2018) – moral decisions

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A murder will occur tonight in a crumbling stately heap named Blackheath, at 11pm. You know who the victim is.* Your mission – and you have no choice but to accept – is to identify the killer. You have eight days to do this: the same day will repeat, Groundhog Day-like, eight times; each day you will inhabit the body (and assimilate some mental traits) of a different witness. Make good use of each window to investigate.

Each day you will co-exist alongside – interact with – your other iterations. You may discover who they are as the days repeat. You may offer to collaborate. They may – or may not – do so.

You are in competition with two other souls tasked with the same mission. The first correct answer wins. The winner will be returned to his/her initial identity, have his/her memory restored, and will be permitted to leave this place. The two laggards will not.

Oh. Watch out for the sociopathic sadist footman. Footman, as in attendant on a hunting shoot. Btw: almost every guest invited to Blackheath’s masque ball and hunt has brought a footman. Which is the one?

And who is Anna?

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This is the premise for The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which its author describes as a “time-travel, body-hopping murder-mystery novel”. The cover blurbs refer to it as “unique” and “original”, as if this territory isn’t worked repeatedly by David Mitchell (The Body Clocks, Slade House), and as if the plot construction doesn’t owe a debt to games design. But I’ll grant it’s “darkly comic, mind-blowingly twisty”, “energising and clever”, and given his vision of grafting time travel, body-hopping onto an Agatha Christie-style English Country House Weekend murder mystery, I’ll grant Stuart Turton the title “the Mad Hatter of crime”.

Turton himself refers to the genesis of his novel as “Lynchian”, referring to filmmaker David Lynch.

Allowing the narrator’s consciousness to live in the present tense through the vehicles of eight other individuals permits multiple perspectives on solving the murder. The narrator, who we learn has voluntarily submitted himself to this bizarre “puzzle box house”, Blackheath, is, we are given to understand, one Aiden Bishop.

Bishop is a moral character, a character who believes in justice and subscribes to judgement. His musings invite the reader to engage in multiple moral perspectives. Which loyalties carry most weight? Is redemption possible? Can an evil person work good? Can seemingly inevitable futures be averted?

A masked man in a black-feathered coat, known as the Plague Doctor, tells him

“Nothing that’s happening here is inevitable, much as it may appear otherwise. Events keep happening the same way day after day, because your fellow guests keep making the same decisions day after day. […] They cannot see another way, so they never change. You are different, Mr Bishop. […] You make different decisions, and yet repeat the same mistakes at crucial junctures. It’s as if some part of you is perpetually pulled towards the pit.”

The Plague Doctor speculates this is Bishop’s nature. To break out of Blackheath, Bishop will need to change his decisions so markedly that he has in effect changed his nature – become a different man.

“[E]very man is in a cage of his own making,” proclaims the Plague Doctor.

This is a version of Hell.

The very name “Blackheath” summons a kind of hell: Blackheath south of the Thames in London, where thousands of plague dead lie buried (and where Blackheath Village is now a genteel suburb peopled by the kinds of upper-middleclass folk who enjoy Agatha Christie and will read this novel. I lived there myself for eight years). A “plague doctor” was a person who in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries attended to plague victims, wearing “a beak-like mask which was filled with aromatic items. The masks were designed to protect them from putrid air, which (according to the miasmatic theory of disease) was seen as the cause of infection. […] These doctors rarely cured their patients; rather, they served to record a count of the number of people contaminated for demographic purposes.” [Wiki]

 

 

Blackheath has resonances of Limbo, from the Latin ‘Limbus’, meaning “edge’ or “boundary”, referring to the “edge” of Hell (ref Wiki). But the Roman Catholic religious concept ‘Limbo’ condemns those consigned there to eternity. Blackheath is more like a Purgatory, from which those destined to be saved will eventually be delivered.

More closely, Blackheath draws on the Hindu concept Samskara:

Sanskara (IASTsaṃskāra, sometimes spelled samskara)

In the context of karma theory, Sanskara are dispositions, character or behavioral traits, that exist as default from birth or prepared and perfected by a person over one’s lifetime, that exist as imprints on the subconscious according to various schools of Hindu philosophy such as the Yoga school.[3][5] These perfected or default imprints of karma within a person, influences that person’s nature, response and states of mind. – Wikipedia

Samskara is the repetition of behaviours that results in deeply entrenched behavioural patterns, in ruts, that effectively constrain our choices, determine our actions, and hence our outcomes: our karma.

To break Samskara, a concerted moral effort, an effort of courage, is required, and consistency.

The hell that is Blackheath is the hell of the addict, and more than one of Bishop’s host entities are addicted to drugs, alcohol, food, criminal, immoral or self-defeating behaviours.

The other guests at the masque ball at Blackheath are a Hieronymus Bosch representation of Hell, an evil cornucopia of vice. They are trapped in Samskara, doomed to repeat the same vile behaviours ad infinitum.

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Yet the Plague Doctor tells Bishop he is different, “Each time you fail, we strip your memories and start the loop again, but you always find a way to hold onto something important, a clue if you will.”

The nature of the clue he wakes up to each new loop determines the tone, the nature, of that loop.

This loop, Bishop’s clue is “Anna”.

Bishop finds that with each successive host entity, the residual memories and traits of each host grow stronger. He first wakes as a man who is a blank slate, a man who can recall only the name “Anna”, and a vague sense that who he is, is a coward. His earliest hosts’ vices merely niggle at Bishop; his later hosts’ vices threaten to overwhelm him.

Each of Bishop’s hosts has different strengths and weaknesses, and he’s challenged to learn how to best use each one’s strengths, and best manage each one’s weaknesses.

He learns that masks, and being in different guises, only serve to reveal underlying character. Embodied in different entities, oftentimes he is only recognised by allies and prospective allies as Bishop because his behaviour contrasts with the way his host would have behaved.

At one point he tells a man with a differing philosophy, “We’re never more ourselves than when we think people aren’t watching, don’t you realise that?”

The other man argues back that Blackheath is a “puzzle, with disposable pieces”.

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He argues that “Avoiding unpleasant acts doesn’t make a man good.”

The person killed today will reappear in endless tomorrows, to be killed again. Are they “never anything more than a trick of the light […]. Shadows cast on a wall”?

Are the characters that people Blackheath anything other than two-dimensional? Are they imbued with any real humanity? If not, does their fate matter? What is actually at stake?

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The recurring time-loop that is the prison Blackheath is clearly a moral project, but what is its purpose?

The Plague Doctor provides a clue: “Do you know how you can tell if a monster’s fit to walk the earth again, Mr Bishop? […] You give them a day without consequences, and you watch what they do with it.”

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Samskara

[MAJOR SPOILERS FROM HERE ON]

As well as being a moralist, Aiden Bishop is a romantic.

When the Blackheath puzzle ends, he believes in a future he must know is impossible:

“It seems like a dream, too much to hope for […]. The luxury of waking up in the same bed two days in a row, or being able to reach the next village should I choose. The luxury of sunshine. The luxury of honesty. The luxury of living a life without a murder at the end of it.”

This, despite the Plague Doctor warning him, “Once you’re released, start running and don’t stop. That’s your only chance.”

Despite that he has no knowledge of the life he’ll be returned to – to what point in Bishop’s timeline, into what practical reality. What paperwork do citizens require? How is ID established? Will irises be read, faces mapped, fingerprints scanned? How is food and shelter obtained? Income acquired? Transport accessed?

Don’t get out of the carriage.

Seems to me there is death at the end of this road. In effect, the footman still awaits.

Aiden Bishop, who was finally able to combine the multiple perspectives and talents of eight different hosts to make sense of what happened in Blackheath, appears, in his haste to shed everything he learned at Blackheath, to have fallen once again into the pit dug by the dominant trait of his nature: that is, the rut of his obstinate tunnel vision.

Whatever happens next is karma.

Yet Bishop is a delirious optimist:

“Tomorrow can be whatever I want it to be […]. Instead of being something to fear, it can be a promise I make myself. A chance to be braver or kinder, to make what was wrong right. To be better than I am today.”

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*Or maybe you only think you know.


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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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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.


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Review: Stone Mattress (2014) – nine tales by Margaret Atwood

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Growing old is a sorcery, a transformation.

It’s liminal: the gateway to other worlds, other mysteries.

To grow old is to learn what Merlin knew, what Prospero discovered.

There are powers that come with age: powers of far-seeing; powers to forgive, powers to avenge; powers of release, powers to persist.

Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress (2014), a collection of nine tales, builds on Hag-Seed (2007), her re-working of Shakespeare’s tale The Tempest, to explore aging through the tropes of fantasy, myth and folklore.

She’s particularly concerned with sexual karma (aging people reconnecting with past lovers); entrapment; with how we ‘write’ our personal mythologies; with how the act of writing exerts its magic, its power; and with contemporary ‘folklore’ – genre writing in popular culture, whether fantasy, horror, or crime.

The last tale, ‘Torching the Dusties’, is to my mind the crowning glory: who are “the aged,” in contemporary culture? What do they represent, for us? What do they embody?

The weakest tale, on the face of it, is ‘Lusus Naturae’ (Latin for “freak of nature”), which at first seems rote – I wrote a similar tale myself, aged 22. But this is a collection, where each tale is a facet of every other, casting light and shadow, and with its Frankenstein references, fire-fuelled mob rampages, ‘Torching the Dusties’ is the obvious counterpoint to ‘Lusus Naturae’:

“When demons are required someone will always be found to supply the part, and whether you step forward or are pushed is all the same in the end”.

Lusus_Naturae

These tales are so rich in mythic reference a tale by tale deconstruction would overflow a mere blog’s confines. But, as befits a collection titled Stone Mattress, the most obvious references are to Sleeping Beauty and its kin: the lover preserved, or preserved in fantasy; the lover’s kiss; the awakening. Atwood introduces ambiguities. The murderess who needs her “beauty sleep”. Who are the innocents, who the monsters? Who casts the spell, and when are spells benign?

Related, the trope of imprisonment: the lover spellbound, or cursed – the lover contained. A “stone mattress”, after all, is a stromatolite:

The word comes from the Greek stroma, a mattress, coupled with the root word for stone. Stone mattress: a fossilized cushion, formed by layer upon layer of blue-green algae building up into a mound or dome. It was the very same blue-algae that created the oxygen they are now breathing. Isn’t that astonishing?

A stromatolite, a stone mattress, is analogous to the archetypal experiences men and women have enjoyed and endured since the dawn of time. It is the very air we breathe. It is our hearts, pumping, hardening. In the tale ‘Stone Mattress,’ the old folks on a cruise ship dance to Hearts of Stone.

Stromatolite

The first three tales – ‘Alphinland’, ‘Revenant’, ‘Dark Lady’ – are a trilogy, concerning what at first presents as a dyad (Constance and Ewan) but transforms into the archetypal triangle (Constance/Gavin/Jorrie). Constance, who as “C.W. Starr” is the author of a massively successfully decades-long fantasy series set in her imagined world, Alphinland, is now a widow but was once the muse and lover of the poet Gavin, the Gawain of her youth.

Gavin has aged into a vain and cantankerous mediocrity, but Constance’s myth of Gavin lives on in Alphinland, asleep, a Sleeping Beauty, in a hidden cask – much as her husband Ewan lives on in a chest in her attic, embodied by his old clothes. (By the way – Gavin is contained within a wine cask, evoking the Duke of Clarence’s death as depicted in Shakespeare’s Richard III – drowned in a vat of Malmsey sweet wine. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to suggest a Shakespeare reference here, given Atwood referred to Shakespeare’s Richard III in Hag-Seed, and given Hag-Seed explored containment, fantasy and the deep sleeps of enchantment in its retelling of The Tempest.)

Constance conjures a number of devices for metaphorical imprisonment: in her mind are filing cabinets; her mind is a memory palace.

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Jorrie is the Dark Lady who came between Constance and Gavin, transformed in Alphinland into the Scarlet Sorceress of Ruptous (rupture, rapturous), “walled up in a stone beehive”, where “every day at twelve noon sharp, [she] is stung by a hundred emerald and indigo bees. Their stings are like white-hot needles combined with red-hot chili sauce, and the pain is beyond excruciating” – ‘Alphinland’.

Another standout is the title tale, ‘Stone Mattress’: an enchantress enacts a primordial (literally, primal) revenge on the male mortal who wronged her.

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I’m a long time, life-long, aficionado of the fantasy genre. As I keep bleating, my attempted MA thesis was on Transformation and Shapeshifting in Early Medieval Literature. I’m also a carer for an octogenarian mother, a daughter who held her father across his last hours through till his death. For me, a big part of the pleasure in reading Stone Mattress is how Atwood shifts her representation of various characters between their archetypes, their counterparts in myth – Nimue, Vivian, Bluebeard, Jessica Rabbit – and their actuality; between their spirit, as undying archetypes, and their material reality, as bodies experiencing decay.

A raven flies, overhead. Can it tell? Is it waiting? She looks down through its eyes, sees an old woman – because, face it, she is an old woman now – on the verge of murdering an even older man because of an anger already fading into the distance of used-up time. It’s paltry. It’s vicious. It’s normal. It’s what happens in life.

– ‘Stone Mattress’

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Andrew Lloyd-Greensmith, The Inner Stillness of Eileen Kramer (2017)

Sometimes the trajectory is from youth straight to decay, as in the tale within the tale in ‘The Dead Hand Loves You’ (where a female Sleeping Beauty is wakened by a monster), and ‘The Freeze-Dried Groom’ (another Sleeping Beauty – but who is the beauty, who the witch or monster?). Other times it ‘magically’ reverses: in ‘Torching the Dusties,’ a slightly ridiculous older man turns into a dignified, honorable Sir Lancelot; a cynical male pulp fiction writer is awakened by the touch of his princess (‘The Dead Hand Loves You’).

Male_nude_sleeping

In the tale ‘Stone Mattress’, a ‘prince’ is ‘awakened’ in the rudest terms by a girl he turned into a monster, and a male Sleeping Beauty awakened by a touch fails to recognize the princess, or even the girl, seeing only the monster:

They say dead people can’t see their own reflections, and it was true; I could not see myself. I saw something, but that was not myself: it looked nothing like the kind and pretty girl I knew myself to be, at heart.

– ‘Lusus Naturae’

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Underlying Stone Mattress is the problem of recognition: seeing through the spells, the glamours, recognizing people for who, for what, they are.

In ‘Revenant’ (which means, ‘The Dreamer’)

[…] Maria’s just a nice, ordinary high school girl making a few bucks, dime a dozen, nothing special. Hardly a nymphet, hardly the beckoning sapsucker from “Death In Venice.” […] Still, he likes the idea of Maria as the Angel of Death. He’s about due for one of those. He’d rather see an angel in his dying moment than nothing at all.

In ‘Stone Mattress’

Verna’s heart is beating more rapidly. If he recognizes me spontaneously, I won’t kill him, she thinks. If I tell him who I am and he recognizes me and then apologizes, I still won’t kill him. That’s two more escape chances than he gave her.

In ‘Dark Lady’

“She doesn’t recognize me!” Jorrie whispers. […] Who would recognize you, thinks Tin, with that layer of stucco and dragon scales on your face? […]

She [Constance] knows exactly who Jorrie is: despite the gold flakes and the bronze powder, she must have known from the first minute.

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When Constance recognizes the truth of Jorrie, the two sorceresses experience a shared moment of truth. They have the opportunity to release each other.

“We live in two places,” says Constance. “There isn’t any past in Alphinland. There isn’t any time. But there’s time here, where we are now. We still have a little time left.”

There always was “an alternate vision stashed in Constance’s inner filing cabinet, in which Constance and [Jorrie] recognized each other […] with cries of delight, and went for a coffee, and had a big bray over Gavin and his poems and his yen for blow jobs. But that never happened. ” – ‘Alphinland’.

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Even as Constance and Jorrie in ‘Dark Lady’ work through their karma, the spells that have bound them, a younger writer watches, recognizing this as her moment of power:

She’s embedding us in amber, thinks Tin. Like ancient insects. Preserving us forever. In amber beads, in amber words. Right before our eyes.

Because that’s what happens to old people. They either turn to dust, or they turn into myth.

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Margaret Atwood as Prospero