Thursday, 30 January 2014

NI Film Industry 2014

Filmmaking is not a simple process. Nor is it one where rewards are easy come to by. Aspiring auteurs should be mindful of these facts. On a more positive note, locally-made television drama and film is in ‘very good shape relative to any time in Northern Ireland’s history.’  

That is the assessment of Richard Williams, Chief Executive of Northern Ireland Screen, the man in charge of an organisation responsible for much of the increase in production that has characterised the region over the last decade. Backed by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment through Invest NI, along with significant support from the European Regional Development Fund, NI Screen is the leading agency with a remit to develop, produce and fund television and feature films within Northern Ireland. Business is booming and the organisation is currently experiencing a significant level of success. ‘There are more aspects to the industry than there have ever been’ says Williams. 

‘That doesn’t mean it’s an easy vocation or easy job area to inhabit. It’s not. It’s a very tough place to be’ he points out. ‘But with the large scale productions happening fairly steadily and there being a reasonable stream of television drama and features, along with money available through NI Screen for the development of scripts,’ he suggests that things are very much pointed in the right direction.

The continuing goal of course is to maximise Northern Ireland’s potential as a hub for a wide variety of output and it is significant that American companies are now opting for this corner of the UK — whose generous tax credits draw them across the Atlantic in the first place — over Eastern Europe and beyond. Universal Studios enjoyed first-hand experience of Northern Ireland, when it produced Your Highness there during 2009. These major players were sufficiently impressed to return, recently wrapping the upcoming epic Dracula Untold. Beyond location shoots, the filmmakers moved into the former C&C factory in Castlereagh. Now a huge soundstage, its industrial function has been converted from lemonade to popcorn.

According to Williams, however, the ongoing presence of HBO’s Game of Thrones has been truly instrumental in marking us out in the international arena. ‘Game of Thrones is the big thing… It’s the big economic driver’ he says. That the fantasy behemoth should base itself in Northern Ireland is a significant triumph. ‘It is perhaps the most talked-about show that exists. The fact that it is here gives us a tremendous bounce. We get that with every genre too. Even if you’re talking to an animation distributor, saying that Game of Thrones is made in Northern Ireland will make some kind of positive contribution to your credibility. We have momentum here.’ 

Likely to run for a few seasons yet, the HBO flagship forms one half of a two-pronged approach by NI Screen to establish large projects in the north. The hope is that another Hollywood studio-sized picture will be turned out alongside it with increasing regularity. Allied with this, the ‘stream of television’ referred to by Williams includes three acclaimed BBC series, Blandings, The Fall and Line of Duty. In a tribute to the efforts of all involved in securing such programming, the latter — which is partly funded by NI Screen — actually re-located the filming of its second series to Belfast. ‘We are very happy that the BBC is getting into the habit of basing two dramas per year, here.’ In Williams’s view these returning shows are ‘really driving the stability of the sector.’

To punctuate the calendar more regularly with the kind of content NI Screen appears determined to attract, there is an acknowledge requirement to upscale soundstages. ‘We need to grow the infrastructure a bit in order to aggressively chase other large scale stuff,’ Williams asserts. ‘I’m optimistic that, in the next couple of months, we’ll have that concluded.’

The eagerness to bring in these sizeable projects goes beyond simple prestige or the promotion of tourism. The professional disciplines essential to any production are honed each time a studio or network runs its latest release out of Northern Ireland. Those who have availed of these opportunities are already gaining a reputation as a highly skilled workforce.  

As far as the interested government bodies are concerned, the boost to the economy is not inconsiderable but Williams is keen to stress that NI Screen has a commitment to fostering smaller grassroots initiatives. Blockbuster budgets are central to this intention. ‘They allow us the flexibility and the latitude to do other things. To support the development of indigenous stuff, which we really hope will come to fruition in the future. When you’ve got a bit of stability you can focus a bit more on independent films, which we’re very anxious to see.’ 

Shooting for Socrates, written by Marie Jones, a movie made in Belfast and based around the exploits of the Northern Ireland football team at the 1986 World Cup, is set for release in time for this summer’s sporting bonanza in Brazil. It represents the kind of relatively inexpensive feel good family entertainment into which NI Screen is willing to put its money. ‘You can see a logic in it’ says Williams of that investment. He would apply the same rationale to something as ‘deeply, deeply local’ as the Terri Hooley-themed Good Vibrations.

What makes Northern Ireland so attractive to those with the resources to set up shop in any place they so please? Fiscal considerations and incentives notwithstanding, Williams reckons it is our geography that sets us apart. The cost of shifting equipment, actors and crews from place to place can be a dauntingly expensive enterprise even for those with deep pockets. The variety of the northern landscape and the country’s compact size makes for a good mix. ‘If films have huge build demands and considerable rural location demands — and a lot of films require them — we will be very hard to beat. We’re not aware of anywhere that can come close to us on that. That is our unique selling point.’

An edited version of this article was first published here.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Moyes rolls the dice

My new article over on

'An attacking midfielder of prodigious talents and startling consistency, Mata’s move north amounts to a renewed focus by the Manchester club to squeeze as much from the residue of this season as is possible. He is exactly the type of superior operator coveted by fans as yet unconvinced by the new manager and already sceptical of the Glazers’ willingness to expend serious capital on the best players available. By way of comparison, the marquee purchase of Mesut Özil, for instance, has proved crucial for Arsenal this year, their impressive passage to the summit of the league pyramid aided not just by the continued presence of an experienced man in the dugout but also by the perceptible lift stemming from the gliding German’s superstar status.'

Check it out here

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

My newest review of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit over on

'Plot holes aside, Shadow Recruit is entertainingly worthy nonetheless. The Belfast-born Branagh is not immediately associated with action cinema, of course, but he displays a sure hand in dealing with the movie’s more hectic sequences, a car chase through the Moscow gridlock representing a particular treat. Its energetic, tech-literate and computer savvy protagonist offers a refreshingly clean break too from the harassed Ford’s stuffy spin on Ryan; a man who was, at one time, almost defeated by running out of paper for the printer.'

Check it out here

Friday, 24 January 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

‘Do you ever think about the future at all?’ asks Carey Mulligan’s acerbic Jean of struggling singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Issac). ‘You mean like flying cars? Hotels on the moon?’ he replies flippantly. 

It is a subtly irreverent moment in the otherwise thoughtful and delicate Inside Llewyn Davis and one which suggests that this down-on-his-luck existence is not entirely separate from a feckless attitude to life’s more serious travails. His meagre solo career never quite reaches the level of depressing but this latest opus from Joel and Ethan Coen is nonetheless a quietly bracing depiction of those on the wrong side of the public appetite. 

The year is 1961; the initial setting, Greenwich Village’s dank Gaslight Cafe, a regular venue for the folk scene that so characterised early Sixties New York City. Essentially homeless and reliant on the dwindling goodwill of a small band of friends and acquaintances, Davis is a man at a crossroads. He is scarred by the death of his former recording partner and while their relationship is barely explored, his perpetual motion is no doubt indicative of the lengths to which he will go to avoid serious reflection. Indeed, it is not without symbolism that the beautifully arranged duet playing over the opening minutes is later resurrected by the grieving, lonely survivor. Its form is drastically altered, however; its gentleness is gone. The depth of his loss goes deep.  

Davis occupies a nomadic netherworld, inhabiting the Village like a drifting paper bag. Considering the historical period, it is worth imagining the parallel Uptown presence of Mad Men and the similarly lost Don Draper. Both are sadly awkward outsiders, representatives of divergent but iconic eras in the most iconic of cities. Davis’s humble odyssey fits perfectly within the beatnik environs of Lower Manhattan. When the permanently irritated Jean talks of settling down he dismisses it as ‘square’, not a fate he appears to have designs upon. He would rather flit from couch to couch, penniless, than give in to simple existence. 

Merely existing would be a step up of course, such is his lowly state. This is not a tale of redemption or personal discovery and it foregoes easy clichés in favour of the stark message that not everyone can make it. Llewyn does not lack talent but life will always produce its also-rans. For every Bob Dylan there is a Llewyn Davis. The audience can’t love everybody.

Accompanied by an orange tabby, which takes on a quasi-totemic significance, Davis meanders through the cold, grey winters of New York and Chicago, perfectly captured by Bruno Delbonnel’s richly evocative cinematography, lacking any semblance of fortune — and a decent coat. Dire straits these may be but Llewyn Davis should not be taken as a wholly depressing experience. It comes infused with a genuine lightness, surprising to even the most ardent of Coen followers. 

The brothers are not averse to departing from their familiar idiosyncrasies and in recent years they have turned out pretty conventional fare in the shape of No Country For Old Men and True Grit. Both were adapted from existing sources but still they bore the Coen brand: cleverly layered dialogue, ambitious editing and a discernible tone, just off centre. This latest effort, on the other hand, is essentially an original creation and the directors excel in bringing their own screenplay to life. 

Their penchant for quirk is well known but there is no sign of such clutter here. A tenderly elegiac story is afforded room to grow, its characters unburdened by the need to deliver laughs or sell a strange plot contrivance. The Coens are, quite simply, filmmakers at the very pinnacle of their craft and one should be awed by the confidence they display in rowing against their own current, in playing it almost completely straight. They are comfortable enough in their own abilities to pick and choose from their enviable range of artistic tropes.

Indeed, those few nods to their more recognisable habits come and go without fanfare. The ridiculous track on which Davis willingly waives his right to royalties is straight out of the brothers’ back catalogue. So too is John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund’s mysterious double act, Beckettian in its considered obscurity. They are nonsensical but unobtrusive figures. When the dialogue occasionally invokes the directing duo’s earlier material — ‘Where is its scrotum?!’ — it does not linger to wink knowingly at the audience.

As one would expect the cast is superb. In particular, Justin Timberlake’s vocals and boyish innocence are just the right side of bearable given his relatively small role. The look of wounded pride at the questioning of his songwriting ability is brilliantly nuanced and a reminder that for all the dreadful features in which he assumes the lead, his presence in an ensemble piece is rarely wasted. 

As the eponymous Davis, it is towards the leading man that many of the plaudits should be aimed. Isaac has been standing out in various projects over recent years, be they blockbusters (Robin HoodSucker Punch) or acclaimed dramas (Drive). In the little seen 10 Years, he ably demonstrated his considerable musical talents and as their central player, the Coens entrust him with the task of convincing as both man and artist. He disappoints on neither front. 

Isaac’s stony visage and blue collar delivery underscore a steely determination beneath the wistfulness of his music. In the face of each new disappointment, he endures. Whatever his faults and despite his unwillingness to join the real world — where useful prospects actually do exist for him — hard work is not his downfall. 

He snaps only once, reminding the well-meaning but naive hosts at a dinner party that his guitar and his songs, far from being the trappings of a ‘performing poodle,’ amount to a livelihood. ‘This is how I pay my rent’ he cries. It is an incredibly raw and unexpected outburst. The Coen formula rarely deals in standalone drama, unseasoned by acceptable hints of weirdness, but it is demanded here. Anything less would be churlish. 

The recent Oscar snubs of this fine film should not indicate anything other than the Academy’s predilection for ignoring that which is often right in front of it. In the midst of awards season, cinema audiences should be willing to step inside Llewyn Davis if only to confirm the folly of that oversight.

An edited version of this article was first published here.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Mourinho turns the screw

My new article over on

'Such utterances are by design of course. In anticipation of Sunday’s home fixture against Manchester United, the Chelsea manager was keen to emphasise the visitors’ qualities, even in the face of their tumultuous season. The champions remained, he said, a dangerous prospect: ‘when the giant is sleeping, the giant is never really sleeping’. It was a gracious – and typical – nod to the talents of a side which has looked anything but gigantic since David Moyes’s succession as manager.'

City and Colour | Limelight Belfast, 21/1/2014

The Limelight’s three decade tenure as a fixture of the Belfast music scene has made it as familiar a cultural landmark as the Ulster Hall, the Grand Opera House or the Lyric Theatre. For those who have passed through and graduated from Queen’s University, and the University of Ulster, it will almost certainly feature as a character during their halcyon student days.

A bar, a night club and, most significantly, a music venue the Limelight had long attracted talent from within and without Northern Ireland’s borders. Oasis famously played there just hours before Definitely Maybe, the band’s seminal debut album, reached number one in September 1994. In the past decade it has hosted acts as diverse as Seattle grunge pioneers Mudhoney, Irish-American punk rockers Flogging Molly, Devon folk musician Seth Lakeman and Texan post-rock deities Explosions in the Sky. 

True to its eclectic form, the famous old stage last night night treated Belfast to another evening of superior music with the arrival of City and Colour. The recording alias of Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter Dallas Green (hence city… and colour), City and Colour is somewhat removed from the band with which Green made his name. As vocalist and guitarist for the now disbanded post-hardcore outfit Alexisonfire he was a member of a collective known for its thrashing chords and hard-edged vocals. 

His present project is by contrast a far more elegant affair. Pitched somewhere between folk and acoustic, Green’s haunting falsetto lends it a delicately ethereal quality, his heartfelt lyrics sliding perfectly between each fragile melody. His presence at the Limelight was something of a coup given the widespread acclaim with which the current album, The Hurry and the Harm, was greeted upon its release in his native Canada. This date represented the first in a UK and European tour with the next stops being the Olympia in Dublin and Newcastle’s O2 Academy. 

As expected, his performance did not disappoint. Its diverse mix of cleanly arranged acoustic rock, stomping blues and melodic introspection thrilled a packed house.  Dressed in a simple yellow shirt and sporting his distinctive horn-rimmed spectacles, Green was ably supported by a four piece band. He promptly opened up with Of Space and Time, a wistful song of longing and loss.

The crowd certainly responded well, captivated by the purity of Green’s vocals. He possesses the enviable talent of sounding as good on stage as he does on the track, an expected ability perhaps, but hardly a given considering the disconnect between many artists’ live output and their recorded content. From the beginning, however, it was plain that this would be no simple rehash of City and Colour’s four albums to date. While not quite reaching the ‘musical experience’ level of live performances, Green still seemed determined to deliver a genuinely distinctive show rather than rote renditions of his material. 

Of the earlier work, City and Colour dipped into 2008’s Bring Me Your Love album. As Much as I Ever Could is a genuinely beautiful, whispering ballad and in the Limelight’s sturdy walls it was infused with an equally strong blues element. ‘Won't you lay by my side, And rest your weary eyes’ go the lyrics, their author seemingly on the verge of an emotional episode. 

The thumping, riff-heavy tracks continued with the towering Weightless (from Little Hell, released in 2011) and The Hurry and the Harm’s outstanding Thirst. Its angry, inventive references to snake charmers, iron in the blood and the ‘wolves and the thieves’ are as evocative as anything else in Green’s songbook. 

On stage Green is humble and affable, a pleasant example of the stereotypically polite Canadian. He engaged with the audience in soft tones and quipped about his merchandise guy’s 21st birthday. He suggested the attendees shell out for shots and "tips… with a 'p'" to celebrate. He later apologised for stumbling over some lyrics, attributing his confusion to the sudden sight of an enormous promotional poster bearing his enlarged likeness. "Sorry, it threw me for a loop."

He would later express justified puzzlement at a number of loud conversations that appeared to be drowning out the sound for those at the back. "What did you expect to happen when you came along to a concert?" he enquired mildly. The punters, for the most part, hung on his every word, answering his invitation to sing along with the slightly macabre Body in a Box. "This came from a conversation I had with my dad." Okay then. 

Proceedings take a more serious turn with the affecting Comin' Home, a tale of life on the road and the desire to be back with those closest to the heart. The original version is a spare effort of limited studio production but last night Green broke it down even further, standing alone on stage, his only company an acoustic guitar. 

A requirement to be finished before 11pm led to the set running along swiftly. Its final standouts were the brilliantly up-tempo Fragile Bird and the soaring Sorrowing Man, into which he subtly slipped a few verses from earlier in the evening. 

There was, of course, room for an encore which Green rattled through as the deadline loomed. The Girl was charmingly simple before its pace quickened and the twang of country and western arrived unexpectedly to liven things up. It served as a neatly accomplished lead-in to the night’s final tune, the muscular Two Coins. "This is my favourite song" he proclaimed by way of signing off. On a dark and frigid January evening its final verse was strangely apt: ‘Come the biting winter cold, Just put two coins upon my eyelids, So I can pay the poor man's toll’.

An edited version of this article was first published here.

Lyrics quoted are the copyright and property of D. Green. No ownership is claimed or assumed herein

Monday, 20 January 2014

Broken City: The New York Giants Opt For Fresh Blood

My new article over on 

'Regardless of the details or the apportionment of blame, the system that was in place simply failed to succeed with Manning under centre. The powers that be, in an attempt to wipe the slate clean and rebuild their star man’s confidence, have elected to put their faith in McAdoo’s clear potential rather than the tried and tested methods with which they are unquestionably more familiar.'

Thursday, 16 January 2014

360º Script Writing Festival

Tinderbox Theatre Company has long been associated with producing drama by new writers in Northern Ireland, its commitment to breathing life into content outside of the established mainstream making it a pillar of the local arts scene. Its 360º Script Writing Festival offers writers, both upcoming and established, the opportunity to meet, to discuss ideas and to network. 

Now into its sixth year, the festival, which begins next week, forms a central part of Tinderbox’s approach to dramaturgy, that exacting process of composing and creating material for the stage, from the genesis of an idea to the final curtain. Beyond editing or writing a script - hardly insignificant elements in themselves - dramaturgy is the theatre-specific practice by which a story is moulded into a structured and consumable performance. For Hanna Slättne, Tinderbox’s resident dramaturg, it is an indispensable tool in any person’s development as a writer. 

‘In the theatre, with its three dimensional element, the dramaturg works with and develops the skills around the writing’ says Slättne. ‘It’s about understanding how meanings are created and conveyed on stage. It’s not only the text but how it is presented in a space with light, sound and different actors. All those things coming together create the dramaturgy of a particular piece.’ 

She believes that it is through theatre that most dramatists will learn to hone their talents: ‘It is such an immediate situation.’ 

According to Slättne, her role is one of support and guidance. ’I am there to help write the piece and make it as good for the stage as possible.’ It is not a rigid framework, however. The dramaturgy serves the writer’s concepts rather than the other way around. ‘It comes from the idea. You have to explore what is the core, what is the heart - the writer’s passion and preoccupation. How do we add structure and other elements so that the meaning comes across? The dramaturgy is shaped around those core ideas’ she says. 

It is a fascinating approach to the creation of new work and one which has proven to be incredibly popular. The 360º Festival affords its attendees the chance to interact with successful exponents of the craft including, amongst others, Holy Cross writer Terry Cafolla and local playwright - and Queen’s University Belfast academic - Jimmy McAleavey. The festival will also provide workshops on script editing, writing and development alongside more pragmatic classes on the commissioning process. Slättne will also hold a session centred on her own particular discipline. There will even be room for ‘speed networking’. 

‘The feedback has been quite phenomenal’ says Slättne. ‘People come from England, the Republic and further abroad. It’s a unique event in the writing world.’ The interactions and contacts flowing from it are just as important as the workshops. ‘We read and are sent scripts that people from all around the country spend time and passion writing’ says Slättne. ‘This is a great opportunity to meet us, to put names to faces. But those people can then also understand the process of feedback because we spend so much time saying no to people, which is hard.’  

She hopes that the instruction received at 360º will progress learning and development. With any luck those who attend can reach the point where Tinderbox, and others, say yes. ‘The main response I get from writers every year is how utterly buzzed up they are and how they just go home and finish that script they couldn’t get finished.’ 

That such a comprehensive programme should be available free of charge is indicative of just how committed both Tinderbox and its partner, BBC Northern Ireland, remain to the development of local writing talent. Indeed, the involvement of the BBC speaks to something more practical. Tinderbox’s remit is traditionally within theatre but it recognises the need for writers to be able to diversify. As far as the 360º Festival is concerned the different mediums are all covered. In order to make a living as a scriptwriter, suggests Slättne, it is now essential to be au fait with screen, television and radio as well as theatre. 

Her BBC colleague in this venture is senior drama producer Sarah Stack. She welcomes the chance to assist writers by facilitating meetings with industry professionals. This in turn will help them ‘to grow their craft’ she says. The diversity at the heart of the festival is a useful means, she believes, by which they can ‘explore different avenues. Some ideas might fit with some mediums better than others.’ 

The BBC is always looking for gifted writers says Stack. Events such as 360º promote both the the fostering of connections and fresh angles and she points to the excellent individuals with whom the BBC already works. In the long term, however, Stack states that the BBC would of course be seeking to expand the pool from which it draws talent. In co-ordinating with Tinderbox she hopes those new to this world can ‘learn the skills to improve their writing.’  

Slättne is keen to emphasise the beneficial nature of these events, even for those experienced in the various disciplines. ‘You never, ever stop learning’ she says. ‘I learn every year I go to 360º. But above all I am inspired.’

360º Script Writing Festival runs from 22nd January until 24th January.

An edited version of this article was first published here.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

In praise of Ronaldo

My newest article over on

'The tears following his selection as planet Earth’s finest were genuine, reflecting a raging and ongoing pursuit of perfection, of ‘making the magical mundane'. In a season when Ronaldo’s employers usurped his record price tag by acquiring Gareth Bale – Cardiff’s own proud version of the athletic and outrageously gifted 21st century attacker – their Portuguese aristocrat has reinforced his place at the head of an obscenely opulent table.'

Monday, 13 January 2014

12 Years a Slave

Of all the filmmakers to have trained their sights on Northern Ireland’s tortured history, Steve McQueen was perhaps the most unusual. Amsterdam-based, London-born and of Grenadian heritage, McQueen was an established video artist and Turner Prize winner when, in 2008, he released his feature debut Hunger. 

Focusing on the 1981 Maze hunger strikes, Hunger was a cold and brutal snapshot of a truly horrifying period in the recent past. Generally light on words, the densest dialogue formed the core of an extraordinary single take scene in which the magnetic - and perfectly accented - Michael Fassbender (as Bobby Sands) discusses the morality of the strikers’ actions. 

It is arguably the most authentic film ever made about the Troubles, the peculiar geo-political intricacies of which have turned more than one respected director into purveyors of mawkish and horrifyingly inaccurate nonsense. That it should come from such a left field source was all the more impressive. 

McQueen worked with Fassbender again in 2011. His sophomore effort, Shame, was a disturbing tale of loneliness and the corrosive effect of sexual addiction. It was, once more, an unpredictable choice from the director. 

In choosing to adapt 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir of his time in bondage, McQueen would appear to have selected predictably virtuous fare to follow up his earlier dark explorations of the human condition. Cynics might even suggest that the potential for awards success played some role in the decision to tell this story. McQueen’s sensibilities, however, do not appear to extend to simply placating the masses and in his hands a subject touched on before, more than once, adopts the kind of jagged edge that has so far set him apart.

That being said, with its impressive period detail 12 Years a Slave is a significantly richer picture than either Hunger or Shame. Unyielding in its representation of the plantation’s swelteringly violent ignominy, it even invokes Tarantino’s Django Unchained by delving deep into the shame of America’s original sin. Yet, while Django was fortunate enough to have a six-shooter, a cool soundtrack and a beneficent comrade in his pursuit of vengeance, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon is armed with nothing more than a heroic spirit in the face of his cruel subjugation.

An elegant musician and respected member of his community in upstate New York, Solomon’s life is a bucolic one. He resides in a handsome home, his family is learned and refined. He is a ‘freeborn' black, a term used to set him apart in a nation where colour determines your status as man or property. Tricked by kidnappers into accompanying them to Washington he is drugged and immediately sold into slavery. This is an unremarkable event, it seems, given the colour of his skin. His new masters care little for the protestations that he is not a chattel, cynically informing him that he is in fact a ‘Georgia runaway’. He will be a captive for the next 12 years, for captivity is precisely that which he endures.

It is a testament to the believability of Ejiofor’s towering central portrayal that the pragmatism Solomon must quickly develop to survive feels so necessary. He is not a rebel but a realist. Hollywood loves a tale of noble resistance against oppression, its virtue swollen by self-congratulatory stories of the underdog rising up to defeat his tormentors. McQueen has no time for such make believe of course. This is not the benevolent American slavery of the hilariously outdated Gone With the Wind. Nor is it the institution that Django assails with such aplomb, mined for laughs before its spectacular demise. 

What is presented here instead is an intensely startling depiction of this cultural edifice as it was likely to have existed. Southern society was not alone in its reliance on slavery but it is in the antebellum South that the trade was distilled into its vilest form. The director is unsparing in covering the salient and chilling realities. Children are blithely ripped from their mother’s arms. People constitute commercial property; these are expensive assets to be mortgaged and haggled over. In this altered universe happy families live cheek by jowl with the whippings, lynchings and beatings of the fellow humans they horde like cattle. 

There is a wilful naivety, almost, in the fond reliance on people as possessions. Regular McQueen collaborator Fassbender - an Oscar favourite, surely, for his turn as the unspeakably barbarous ‘nigger-breaker’ Edwin Epps - dismisses pleas for mercy with contorted scripture and a frighteningly logical creed: ‘A man does as he pleases with his property.’

That is not to say that the whites of Solomon’s new world see no ill in the system to which they are so wedded. Each one of them appears sensitive to the perversity of slavery, no matter how little they care about its unfairness or attempt to justify it with baseless philosophy. The warped structures of their world, however, imbue these ordinary people - carpenters, farmers, landowners - with an apparently boundless facility for cruelty and prejudice. Epps’s vindictive wife (a brilliant Sarah Paulson) is motivated in her bigotry by the need to destroy the spirits of those beneath her, lest she be butchered in the night. 

Indeed, the seeds of America’s distressed racial discourse are here for all to see, each lash of the whip matched in ferocity by the dehumanising rasp of a terrible slur. To quote The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, ‘… each use of the N-word is another turn of the screw. Here is the word reconnected to its past, to all its hateful hinterland. Here is what the word actually means and does.’ 

Against this backdrop McQueen’s keen visual sense fixes its gaze, unwaveringly, on the callousness of Solomon’s fall. The camera lingers as uncomfortably on his near lynching as it does on his confused, heartbroken expression in the film’s latter stages. It is this level of attention to detail that could yet land 12 Years a Slave more than one big prize come awards season. Ironically, in seeking to eschew mainstream expectations, McQueen may well have swept the board.

12 Years a Slave is on general release now

An edited version of this article was first published here.

Friday, 10 January 2014

FIFA's folly

My newest article over on 

The 2022 World Cup... What the hell is going on?

'Viewed in isolation, a shift in dates makes perfect sense. Yet it also speaks to the folly of awarding the World Cup, that most iconic of summer affairs, to a country located on the baking sands of the Arabian Peninsula.'

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

As icons go, Nelson Mandela was amongst the 20th century’s most enduring figures, a totem of international civil rights and a symbol of courage and conciliation in the face of unyielding injustice. While he has been portrayed previously on film by the likes of Morgan Freeman (Invictus), Dennis Haysbert (Goodbye Bafana) and Terrence Howard (2011’s Winnie Mandela), most relevant dramatisations have only dealt with snapshots of particular periods in his life. 

The arrival of Justin Chadwick’s weighty Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, however, signals the first large scale filmic biography of this most fascinating of men. As such it brings with it a certain level of expectation and, considering the historical significance of its subject, it just about succeeds as a serviceably virtuous biopic. 

Based on Mandela’s autobiographical work of the same name, Long Walk to Freedom is especially relevant given that the former South African president died only last month, passing away on the night of the film’s UK premier. In the period since, there have been renewed examinations of the crucial role he played in pulling his country away from the brink of a racially-charged civil war and championing democracy in the former home of the internationally despised apartheid regime. 

Mandela’s existence was an eventful one and there is much to pack into a film which opens with the boy his father called Rolihlahla (’troublemaker’) becoming a man on the veldt and concludes with his election to the highest office in the land. In spite of a hefty running time, Chadwick does not quite manage to hit all the necessary marks. 

Throughout the film there are earnest nods to seminal moments in the struggle against apartheid - the Sharpeville massacre and the Soweto uprising being notable examples - yet they are undoubtedly rushed in an attempt to move on with Mandela’s own narrative. Presented as generic occurrences in South Africa’s violent past and used, apparently, as a means of contextualising the struggles of the title character, these incidents lose a great deal of their significance. They are relegated, ultimately, to mere episodes in a film which veers close to a lecture with its occasional captioning and intermittent stock footage. 

This expediency is not a bad thing in itself but it tends to crowd out any deeper examination of Mandela the man. Initially at least, this is not the figure of his latter years: the benign father of Africa. He boxes, he drinks, he philanders and he readily embraces violent rebellion. The problems of his characterisation do not rest with his being a shallow figure, rather they stem from the fact that by the end his motivations and the things that made him tick remain unclear.

That Madiba was, in many ways, a blank canvas onto which the world would colour its hopes for truth and justice is surely beyond doubt. Even he found it politically advantageous to cast his own individuality as unimportant in the wider struggle for democracy. Present in almost every scene, and painted in darker shades than one might expect, he is nevertheless a complex character under whose exterior the audience is never really allowed to explore. Idris Elba’s central performance then is remarkable when viewed through the prism of these complexities. 

Since his outstanding turn as the clinical businessman-gangster Stringer Bell on The Wire, Elba has carved a niche as a reliably excellent performer in film and television. Long Walk to Freedom represents his first true lead feature role and he grasps it with both hands. It is no simple impersonation. Elba’s intense physical presence and obvious confidence combine to render him a believable character. 

Elba infuses his portrayal with humanity, embracing Mandela’s failings as father and husband without ever compromising the audience’s sympathies. A wily politician with a flair for large gestures, Mandela’s clever manoeuvring is nicely juxtaposed with the saintly figure he would later become. Whether it is the securing of long trousers for his prison comrades or outwitting white negotiators unable to countenance ‘a crude one man, one vote system’, Elba revels in these earthier moments. The lack of depth holding the film back should not be ascribed to a leading actor who excels when given the opportunity to go beyond the crusading persona. Indeed, there is genuine heart break at failing his parents’ simple expectations and, when faced with the death of a child, the confines of his island prison come close to breaking his spirit.

Elba’s shadow is a large one and such is the quality of his work here that the rest of the cast is essentially forgotten. As Winnie Mandela, however, Noamie Harris provides a perfect foil to Elba’s more considered approach. Her character is given room to breath and while the steely core that would define her is present from the start, she undergoes a remarkably convincing transformation from pretty activist to militant political wife. Hers is a forceful representation of a fiercely independent spirit and a brilliantly layered portrait of a woman whose hatred of the system and commitment to the cause brought her not glory but sadness and solitude. 

On the back of its impressive principals, Long Walk to Freedom overcomes its episodic nature and pedestrian pace. Whatever the flaws, this is, at times, an absorbing study of an era best consigned to the history of human indignities. That said, one hopes that this is not the last time that Madiba will grace our screens, large or small. The weight of his legacy and the breadth of his story is deserving of further and truly profound attention. 

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is on general release now.

An edited version of this article was first published here

Moyes deserves criticism. And patience.

In yesterday's Guardian, Daniel Taylor suggested that Manchester United erred in the appointment of David Moyes as manager following Alex Ferguson's retirement last summer. That may well be a sensible position to take in the current climate, given the club's listless league form and Sunday's exit from the FA Cup - a trophy that has not called Old Trafford home since 2004. On the other hand, there is no reason for the club or its supporters to panic just yet.

There was certainly a quiet inevitability about the home defeat to Swansea. This season has revealed a shakiness about United unseen in the modern era, an era in which the club was transformed by Ferguson into a perennial heavyweight of the European game. During this period defeats and barren seasons were not unheard of - competitive top-level football would never allow one team's long-term, outright monopoly - but such setbacks were almost always answered with a renewed purpose and a frightening hunger for success.

It is premature in the extreme to declare those days dead under Moyes. His first season as manager is only just past its midpoint and there is much still to play for as far as Premier League position and Champions League progress is concerned. Moyes also has at his disposal a fine array of high-end talent. In Robin Van Persie United possess a player of rare talents whose absence is all too keenly felt at present. Wayne Rooney too has excelled this year and particular credit must go to the manager for quenching the fire of imminent divorce from the star striker that his predecessor stoked as a final act. By way of reward Rooney has turned in the kind of furiously engaged performances that have kept him atop Jose Mourinho's transfer wish list. Adnan Januzaj is one of the most exciting prospects to have emerged from any English club's youth ranks for quite some time. His continuing development should boost United and frighten opponents.

In addition, the club has, in recent years, afforded the League Cup a level of respect that others might take a lead from and with a semi-final tie against a woeful Sunderland the only hurdle in the way of a trip to Wembley in Moyes's debut campaign, early trophy success is a real and respectable possibility.

Nor has United's championship-winning squad embarrassed itself on a regular basis this season. The massacre at Manchester City was a shock undoubtedly but it was no less alarming than the humiliation suffered at home against the same opponents on the last guy's watch. Equally, the defeat of Arsenal was vintage Ferguson, a finely engineered smash-and-grab against silky opponents high on confidence. Indeed, it was reminiscent of the kinds of title-sealing victories so familiar to much of the football-watching public.

That same public is as fascinated then by what is playing out at the previously impregnable Theatre of Dreams as United supporters are worried. That all too discernible thundering self-belief - a hallmark of the previous regime - appears to have deserted a group of players marshalled so artfully by Ferguson. Losing at home to historically beatable opposition is one thing but it is the manner of those defeats that mark them out as worthy of attention; straightforward, meek, strangely lacking in spirit. The players may continue to disappoint but as the highly remunerated manager of one of the world's leading football clubs, the 'chosen one' even, Moyes must share in the culpability for the side's failings.

In many ways this air of weakness should distress fans more than the results. It goes without saying that the final score represents the bottom line in football but it is perhaps only teams enjoying immediate success who can afford to view it in complete isolation. The ease with which opponents have tamed United this season has been remarkable and that is both Moyes's responsibility and his curse.

The fact that he is not Alex Ferguson is significant when one considers the Scot's dominance over domestic competition during much of his tenure. In situ for so many years, Ferguson himself became an institution. More than a mere football coach, he was somewhat removed even from those men who could rightly be called his peers. But a football coach he was and a wildly successful one at that.

Moyes is clearly no rube plucked from foreign climes or the obscurity of the lower leagues. As manager of Everton, a grand club of no little consequence, he was highly respected and long touted as Ferguson's natural heir at Old Trafford. Yet, in the cold light of day his dearth of experience in operating at the truly gilded levels of the game would seem to undermine him at present. There is only one way he will garner such experience of course but in the meantime he looks set to struggle in concert with those players whose deficiencies were undoubtedly shielded by the last incumbent's force of personality.

Mourinho has been mooted, more than once, as the direction in which the Glazer family should have gone when replacing the departing Ferguson. The Portuguese's record is beyond doubt and Chelsea could yet see his re-appointment pay off. He is, however, his own master and for all his triumphs it is a trait which has proved divisive. Internazionale and Real Madrid are not clubs famed for their patience or stability but Mourinho's abrasively domineering style placed an obvious ceiling on his time at both the San Siro and the Santiago Bernabéu. There were recriminations in the wake of his first departure from Stamford Bridge and it would be unsurprising to see it end in tears once again in the not too distant future. By contrast Moyes's six year contract is indicative of United viewing this appointment as a long term project. Mourinho could guarantee success but form points to his being a relatively short, quick fix.

Longevity has become United's philosophy thanks to the glories Ferguson brought to the club in exchange for its initial patience and his replacement in turn will surely enjoy more time than the tabloids and phone-ins demand. This team is Ferguson's still and one transfer window will not alter that fact. United supporters may shudder at the prospect of Moyes forging a team in his own image but it would be churlish to judge him fully before that point.  

That said, nothing should distract from the significant funds committed to the summer signing of the underwhelming Marouane Fellaini. Like his boss, Fellaini is hardly an unheralded nobody drafted in to bear the weight of the club's new dawn. A centrepiece of a Belgian national team widely regarded as one of Europe's most talented units, he was superb under Moyes at Goodison Park. Tall, athletic, technically sound and a daunting aerial threat, Fellaini has proven himself in the Premier League trenches. There is a distinct sense, however, that Everton got the better end of the deal and, considering the outlay, it is especially puzzling that he should be so misused by a manager aware of all that he brings to a team.

The general consensus holds that Ferguson pulled his team through its more recent title triumphs, an assertion which seems particularly true of last season's victory. Those same players look bereft of confidence now, shorn as they are of the old manager's imposing presence. The theory that Ferguson jumped ship when he realised that he'd drawn the maximum amount from this group may be accurate. That he exited stage left when faced with stagnating transfer budgets is also a strong possibility. On the other hand there are those who suggest that he cynically handpicked Moyes to fail, such failure then burnishing his own already exalted image. Whatever his reputation this is a machiavellian fantasy completely undone by the common knowledge that Ferguson was central to the process of selecting his successor. United supporters are not so myopic that they would blame Moyes for the team's troubles but continue to hold in the highest esteem the man who had essentially installed him. 

As far as Manchester United is concerned, these are unfamiliar waters and it will likely prove impossible for Moyes to replicate the highs that became routine under Ferguson. In spite of this, critics must be careful to assess him on the basis of his own strengths and weaknesses rather than those of somebody else.