Film Review: ‘Their Finest’

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In the mid-1980s, graphic novelist Alison Bechdel came up with a simple question to assess the level of sexism in a film. It is known appropriately as the Bechdel test. Here’s the question: Does this film feature at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man?

In 'Their Finest’, directed by Lone Scherfig, a Welsh copywriter by the name of Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) ponders the same question, but it’s 1940 and women’s dialogue is referred to as ‘slop’. However, the Ministry of Information’s Film Division, headed by a pompously majestic Jeremy Irons, realises it’s necessary to engage a largely female wartime audience. As a result, Mrs Cole is enlisted to provide the ‘feminine perspective’.

Based on Lissa Evans' novel, ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’, this film is a charming and ultimately moving story about British filmmaking during the Blitz. It’s a time of sweeping social change when women are keeping the home fires burning and some of them have no intention of being ‘put back into their box’ when the War is over.

This is also a film about making a film – under the constraints set by the Ministry of Information’s Film Division, which require that the storyline be ‘authentic and positive’ in order to boost public morale at a time when Britain’s fate seems increasingly bleak. The British Expeditionary Force has just been evacuated from Dunkirk, France has fallen, Britain is besieged by German air raids and America is pursuing a policy of neutrality.

There’s a stellar British cast led by a beguiling Gemma Arterton and a deglamourised Sam Claflin as the lead writer, together with the aforesaid Jeremy Irons in a cameo which gives him a chance to declaim the rousing St Crispin’s Day speech from 'Henry V'. Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard steals the show in his role as a self-absorbed sixty-something former leading man who is now offered only minor roles. It’s a part which allows him to overact to his heart’s content and even break into song.

With the approval of the Ministry of Information, the writers, Tom Buckley and Mrs Cole, decide upon the true story of twin sisters who set out in their father’s boat in an attempt to cross the Channel and evacuate British soldiers from the beach at Dunkirk. But soon the writers find themselves required to include an American character for the US market and to alter their script in other ways to meet the demands of their masters. Until the very end, the movie is referred to as the ‘Dunkirk film’ but astute viewers will guess the eventual title from the start.

Being a big fan of British films of this era, I loved the references to actors and movies from the period but you don’t have to be familiar with them to enjoy the film.

There are fascinating insights into the writing process which will resonate with all you writers out there. When Mrs Cole delivers her rather lengthy script to Tom Buckley, he tells her to cut half of it. ‘Which half?’ she asks. The one you don’t need, he replies. A script, she is told, is ‘real life without the boring bits’.

In a nutshell, ‘Their Finest’ is a charming and bittersweet tribute to British filmmaking during the darkest days of World War II and the pivotal role of women on the home front.

Deborah O’Brien
16 April 2017

Film Review: Alone in Berlin

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Set in Nazi Germany from 1940-1943, 'Alone in Berlin' presents a series of simple acts of resistance by a dour middle-aged couple whose soldier son has died in the Battle of France. This is a strong story made even more powerful by the fact that it is inspired by real people and events, as portrayed in Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel, ‘Jeder stirbt sich allein’ (‘Everyone Dies Alone’).

It's June 1940, and Berliners are celebrating the German victory over France and the signing of an armistice in the same French railway carriage where Germany surrendered in November, 1918. We first meet Otto and Anna Quangel in their Berlin apartment as they are delivered a letter from the Wehrmacht informing them their only son has been killed on the battlefield. Otto is a Nazi Party member and Anna is involved in the NS-Frauenschaft - the National Socialist Women's League, but both begin to question their alliance to the Nazi regime.

Overcome by quiet grief, Otto begins to write postcards urging others to resist the Nazis and decrying their manipulation of the truth. With Anna’s help, Otto leaves these subversive cards at random locations across the city - under doors, in stairwells. The messages are headed ‘Free Press’. There is, of course, no free press in Nazi Germany. When Hitler came to power in 1933, he forcibly eliminated all his opponents, settling old scores with left-wing newspapers like the 'Munich Post', whose premises were wrecked by the ‘Brownshirts’ and its courageous journalists imprisoned and subsequently murdered. Having just written about the demise of the free press in Nazi Germany in my new novel-in-progress, I found the events of the film particularly affecting.

There are finely nuanced performances from the leads, Brendan Gleeson as Otto and Emma Thompson as Anna, together with Daniel Brühl, who gives an outstanding performance as the police inspector trying to track down the anonymous author of the postcards and being pressured by the Gestapo to solve the case. The acting is so understated that when the violent moments come, they are even more shocking.

The streets of Berlin in the early 1940s are depicted in muted monochromes by director Vincent Perez and his cinematographer, Christophe Beaucame. One exterior scene shows us the Gestapo headquarters covered in snow, the only touches of colour being the red background of the swastika banners hanging from the building.

From the film’s credits I discovered that the actual filming took place in Berlin itself and also in Cologne and a town called Görlitz in Saxony, which, Wikipedia tells me, served as a backdrop in 'The Grand Budapest Hotel', 'The Reader' and 'The Book Thief'.

What I particularly like about this film is that they’ve taken the time to get the details right – the dialogue, the historical facts, the costumes, even the posters promoting the Hitler Youth. 

At a time when the concept of truth as an absolute value is being threatened by ‘alternative facts’, this film should resonate with all of us. The Quangels' brave acts of 'civil disobedience' may not have had the effect they anticipated in that most of their postcards were promptly handed over to the Gestapo; even so, their little campaign of resistance demonstrates that ordinary people can find ways to express their opposition, even in a tightly controlled society.

In many ways, ‘Alone in Berlin’ is a dour film, much like the couple at its centre, but it's also one of the most moving and powerful films I’ve seen in a long time.


Deborah O’Brien

4 March 2017


My Top Six Tips
for Aspiring Writers of Historical Fiction


 DOB Styled 2

Image: DOB

I’ve written all my life but it wasn’t until 2009 that I made a serious attempt at a full-length work of historical fiction, and even then the story alternated between the past and the present – 1975 and 2009/10. I just didn’t have the courage or the skills to set it entirely in the past. For more than a year the manuscript went back and forth between my desk and various assessors. In the process, I learnt to embrace revisions rather than fear them and eventually it became a different (and better) novel than the one I’d started.

Just when I’d completed a polished first draft, incorporating all the feedback the experts had given me, real events overtook my story. In the winter of 2010, Kevin Rudd was deposed, Julia Gillard became PM, and my novel about Australia’s first female Prime Minister was kaput. There were many sleepless nights as I experimented with other political and ambassadorial roles for my female protagonist (first President of a hypothetical Australian republic, Foreign Minister, High Commissioner to the UK) but it just wasn’t the same.

So, I consigned that unfortunate manuscript to a digital drawer (where it remains to this day) and started another book, which went on to become 'Mr Chen’s Emporium'. I was still uncomfortable about setting an entire novel in the past so I shifted back and forth between the 1870s and the modern day. When the book came out, I was nervous about what people would think of my foray into historical fiction. But, much to my surprise, the critics and the readers liked the 1870s storyline (some weren’t so happy with the contemporary thread) and the book became a bestseller.

After 'Mr Chen’s Emporium', I began to feel more comfortable about writing historical fiction. What I liked best about it - and still do - is the element of time travel, the sense of escapism, the notion of journeying into the past and becoming immersed in another world. The novelist L.P. Hartley, author of 'The Go-Between', famously said:

‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’ 

I enjoy exploring those ‘foreign countries’, whether it’s the 1870s in 'Mr Chen’s Emporium', the 1880s in 'The Jade Widow', 1966 in 'The Rarest Thing', or the 1930s and 40s, which is the backdrop for my next novel, 'Camille Dupré'. This will be my first historical story set outside of Australia. After four historical manuscripts, I feel ready to make the trip. France was the obvious choice because I know it well and speak the language. Could I have set a novel in Russia or China, for example? I don’t think so. Not without living there and knowing the language.

So, what are my top six tips for writing historical fiction?

1. Do your research. Familiarise yourself with the period. Live there in your imagination until you know it intimately, and then just start writing. You can fact-check the tiny details as you go along – that’s the advantage of having the internet.

2. If there are films and musical recordings from the period you have chosen, immerse yourself in them. Listen to the way people spoke and the words and phrases they used.

3. Search the National Library of Australia’s amazing resource, Trove, for digitised newspaper and magazine articles. There’s nothing better than reading the news as it happened. And if your story is set in Australia between 1933 and 1982, may I suggest Trove’s digitised copies of the 'Australian Women’s Weekly' ( which will give you a window into the morés and preoccupations of ordinary Australians over the decades.

4. After you’ve done all the research, digest it thoroughly but resist the temptation to dump chunks of historical information into the story, no matter how fascinating you might find them. Too much historical detail can overwhelm a manuscript and slow down the narrative. It’s a balancing act. The historical infrastructure of a novel should act like the electricals in a house – everything should work properly, but you really don’t need to see the wiring.

5. Don’t try to retrofit modern beliefs and perspectives onto the past. 'Mr Chen’s Emporium', for example, deals with the way white colonial society discriminated openly against Chinese miners.

Racial discrimination is something I deplore but that was the norm in the 19th century and it needed to be depicted accurately. Although several characters in the book speak out against prejudice. I had to make it clear that theirs was not the prevailing view.

6. Make your dialogue sound right for the period. Avoid obvious anachronisms of the kind that will jolt a reader out of the world you’ve created and right back into the 21st century.

And most importantly, enjoy the time travel.


Deborah O’Brien

18 February 

fbook icon 60Book Review:
'The Princess Diarist', Carrie Fisher

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PREFACE: Carrie Fisher tragically died of a heart attack on December 27 2016, six days after I wrote this review. Dazzlingly talented, Carrie has left us a legacy of wonderful written work, as well as her performances in film and television. She had only just started writing advice columns for 'The Guardian', full of gentle, caring and constructive advice for young people facing bipolar disorder and other problems. And, of course, there's her funny and poignant 'sort of memoir', 'The Princess Diarist'. Here's my review:

Every year I indulge myself by buying a book to read on Boxing Day. Usually it’s an autobiography of the celebrity kind. In the past I’ve discovered some treasures including Dawn French’s 'Dear Fatty', William Shatner’s 'Up Till Now' and Mia Farrow’s 'What Falls Away'. I’ve also bought myself some duds (no names, no pack drill). A few weeks ago I happened upon an extract from Carrie Fisher’s 'The Princess Diarist' which was featured in 'The Guardian' (below). I started reading it, assuming it would be a typical celebrity tell-all about her recently revealed affair with Harrison Ford (which took place during the filming of 'Star Wars' in 1976). Instead I was riveted by the best writing I’ve encountered in a long time - funny, masterful and achingly poignant. 

Intrigued by the extract, I went off to the bookstore to get hold of the paperback, intending it to be my 2016 ‘Boxing Day book’. I’ll just have a quick browse, I told myself when I got home. But I couldn’t put the book down. And yes, I finished it in a single sitting.

In 1976 Carrie Fisher was nineteen, the daughter of a glamorous movie star, Debbie Reynolds, and the product of a broken home (her father, singer Eddie Fisher ran off with Elizabeth Taylor when Carrie was a toddler). So it’s not surprising that she had self-esteem issues and was looking for love. Harrison Ford was in his thirties and married.

When Fisher embarked on a relationship with the wryly taciturn Ford, she was under no illusion that when the filming ended, so would the affair. For his part, Ford didn’t promise her anything in return, just the pleasure of his company.

Although Fisher never raises the possibility in the book, I suspect Mr Ford might have fallen just a little in love with her during their affair. How could he not? Fisher was (and is) as witty as all get-out and the crew adored her. When sixty-year-old Carrie Fisher looks back at photos of herself from 1976, she can see that she was as ‘cute as a button’. At the time, however, her self-image was askew and she considered herself plain and chubby.

The first part of 'The Princess Diarist' is a narrative, while the latter portion includes diary extracts and poems, discovered when Fisher was going through a box of written work she'd forgotten about. It’s worth noting there are no sex scenes in the book - Fisher has made the wise choice to keep the private stuff just that.

You don’t need to be a 'Star Wars' fan to enjoy this memoir (or 'a sort of memoir' as she calls it on the cover). Anyone, who’s been nineteen and obsessively in love with someone who’s obliging but spoken for, will ache for Carrie Fisher. Reading her poems and diary entries from that period is like peering into her nineteen-year-old soul. In many ways, she was very brave in making her 'primary sources' public.  

On a technical level, Fisher is a consummate wordsmith. The text bursts off the page with its originality, humour and pathos. There are puns galore, but this is not an exercise in showing off; every element of word-play, every metaphor earns its place in the book.

If you’re waiting for a response to 'The Princess Diaries' from Harrison Ford, don’t hold your breath. Fisher’s sympathetic and engaging portrait of a very private man is perhaps as close as we’ll get to knowing the ‘real’ Ford. As for Ms Fisher, she’s been carrying a torch for Han Solo for the past forty years.

And who could blame her?

You can read an extract courtesy of 'The Guardian'.


Deborah O’Brien

21 December 2016

fbook icon 60Interview with Annie Seaton

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Annie Seaton, bestselling author of Kakadu Sunset, lives near the beach on the mid-north coast of New South Wales.  Her career and studies have spanned the education sector for most of her working life, with the completion of a Masters Degree in Education, and working as an academic research librarian, a high school principal and a university tutor until she took up a full-time writing career. She is now internationally published in ebooks across the romance genre, and in 2014 was voted Australian Author of the Year by romance readers in the Readers' Choice Awards. Each winter Annie and her husband leave the beach to roam the remote areas of Australia for story ideas and research.

Annie's newest book, Daintree is about to hit the bookshelves, just in time for the Christmas holidays. I’m delighted to have the chance to chat with Annie today.

1.  Daintree is characterised by a richness of local detail. If I didn’t know better, I’d assume you had lived in Dalrymple all your life. How do you go about creating such an authentic and evocative setting?

Researching a book in the actual environment and living in that setting for a few weeks is essential to me as an author. I am fortunate to write full time, and each winter, am able to travel with my husband to camp and live in the settings that I will use in future books. This enables me to describe my book landscapes in great detail. You can evoke the atmosphere so much more realistically if you have spent time there: the unique fragrances, the feel of the wind on your skin, and the sound of the birds, the waves or the desert wind. The actual essence of a setting is how you experience and feel it through your five senses. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch written well and woven through your character’s perceptions, assist the reader to believe they are there in the story themselves.

A brief excerpt from Daintree is below. Can you smell the pub?

The graceful old building sprawled on the corner on the northern edge of town overlooking the single track railway line where the sugar cane trains chuffed past on their way to the sugar mill west of town. The familiar mix of sweat, spilt beer and stale cigarette smoke— absorbed for years by the timber and the threadbare carpet in the days before it was illegal to smoke in Aussie pubs— hit her like a solid wall. The sour smell mixed with the sweet aroma of sugar cane coming from the skin and clothes of the cane harvesters.

2.  Like Kakadu Sunset, Daintree is a novel which blends disparate elements – mystery, romance and environmental issues. How difficult is it to integrate those threads?

Integrating the threads of a story is one of the best parts of a writing journey for me. I don’t use any software, or paper planning tools, or whiteboards or charts. I think about my story and the various themes that I want to present, and let it all come together in my thoughts over a period of weeks. Somehow the magic of writing delivers each time, and the story melds together as my fingers hit the keyboard. In Daintree, there is suspense, romance, environmental issues as well as the trauma experienced by health care workers and a little bit of alternative medicine too!

3.  Your female protagonist, Dr Ellie Porter has a passion for holistic medicine  and bush remedies. Do you have a particular interest in these areas?

I have always been interested in holistic medicine. In my early career years, I was employed as an information officer in a medical faculty that delivered an innovative course in medical training for doctors, and my interest in holistic medicine was born. As we explored the Australian outback, my interest in aboriginal culture and the facets that make it unique has been intense, and bush medicine is a part of that learning journey for me.

4.  So far, we’ve met two of the Porter Sisters, Ellie and Emma, and I look forward to getting to know Dru in the final book of the trilogy. Did you know from the outset how their stories would unfold?

The only plan I had in place for the subsequent stories were the professions of the sisters – Emma, a doctor, and Dru, an engineer. The settings were also driven by our travels over the past four winters.  Emma ended up in the Daintree Rainforest, and Book 3, yet to be titled, will be the story of Dru’s experiences in a diamond mine in the east Kimberley region of Western Australia. Her story is almost complete and is about to wing its way to my editor.

5. And finally, if Daintree were to be made into a film and you were the casting director, which actors would you choose to play Dr Emma Porter and Dr Jeremy Langford?

Oh, that is such a hard question for me! I watch very little television or movies, and my favourites are all golden oldies. So . . . let me think.

I would choose Australian actors and I can visualise David Wenham as Jeremy, and Claudia Karvan as Emma.

Thank you, Annie, for taking the time to answer my questions today. 
You can read my review of Daintree here. 

Daintree is published by Pan Macmillan Australia and is available from all good bookshops.

Visit Annie's website.

Deborah O'Brien,

29 November 2016

fbook icon 60Review of Annie Seaton’s Daintree

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What’s the next best thing to visiting the Daintree Rainforest in person? It’s making a vicarious trip there, courtesy of Annie Seaton’s latest novel, Daintree. The gorgeous cover sets the mood, while the evocative descriptions of tropical birds, perfumed plants and rushing creeks will effortlessly transport you to this Queensland paradise. But even in paradise, there are sinister forces at work, threatening the pristine environment and those who would protect it.

After studying medicine at Sydney University and completing her qualifications in Queensland, Doctor Emma Porter has made a life for herself in the Daintree, practising holistic medicine. She’s even hoping to be chosen as the leader of an Outreach Program, establishing new medical clinics ‘up the Cape’. But just as Emma’s life seems to be settling into a pleasant routine, an old flame turns up in Dalrymple – Sydney doctor, Jeremy Langford, who is about to embark on his own tree change. The problem is that neither Emma nor Jeremy has quite let go of the past.

Over the course of the novel, you’ll become acquainted with a strong supporting cast led by Emma’s endearing bushie friend, George, and the indomitable Wilma Randall, an Aboriginal healer who lives in the heart of the rainforest and has introduced Emma to bush remedies. You’ll also meet Troy Greaves, the manager of the Rainforest Centre, who shares her interest in preserving the local flora and fauna. And there’s also a burly police constable by the name of Craig Anderson, who has been making a nuisance of himself with our Emma, and a supercilious pharmacist called Jock Newby, who considers her approach to medicine to be little more than quackery.

Meanwhile, the rainforest is under threat from human greed. And when George stumbles upon something suspicious, things become very nasty indeed. As the suspense intensifies, you’ll find yourself frantically turning the pages to find out exactly what’s going on and who’s responsible.

Annie Seaton Kakadu Sunset cover 480Like Annie’s previous novel, Kakadu Sunset, Daintree seamlessly blends romance and mystery to create a gripping story. In both books, the settings are so lovingly and vividly described that they become characters in their own right.

I recommend that you pack Daintree in your beach bag this summer – you’ll find it hard to put down. And I’m looking forward to the final book in the Porter Sisters trilogy – Dru’s story – in 2017.

Read my exclusive interview with Annie here.

Daintree is published by Pan Macmillan Australia and is available from all good bookshops.


Visit Annie's website.

Deborah O’Brien

29 November 2016


fbook icon 60‘The Rarest Thing’ Playlist

Beatles LP

My battered copy of The Beatles' 1966 'Revolver' album

The music that fills our childhoods stays with us our entire lives, the lyrics and melodies of that era embedded in our brains. The songs from the mid-Sixties have played that role for me, and they will always be my favourites for the nostalgia they evoke.

When I was writing ‘The Rarest Thing’, a story set fifty years ago, right at the height of the ‘Swinging Sixties’, there was always a CD playing in the background – the Beatles, Cilla Black, Dusty Springfield, the short-lived but brilliant Mamas and Papas, the Beach Boys and many more.

Some of my favourite songs and their performers are referenced in the book, but no lyrics are included because getting permission is a copyright nightmare. Sometimes though, just the title is enough to create the mood.

If there’s one song that sums up the spirit of the Sixties, I think it’s Paul Simon’s ‘Feeling Groovy’ (‘The 59th Street Bridge Song’). I didn’t allude to it in the book only because I thought it might be pushing the Sixties references too far to include a song whose title contains one of the ‘in’ words of the era. Does anyone say ‘groovy’ nowadays, or ‘outta sight’, for that matter?

If you’ve read my article called ‘The Beatles and Me’ (, you will know that I adored the Beatles, and particularly Paul McCartney. In 1966 I also had a fleeting but intense crush on Scott Walker, to the extent that I glued his picture inside the lid of my little suitcase (yes, that’s what we did in those days) over the top of Paul McCartney (sorry, Sir Paul). Tony Worsley was another big crush. Likewise, all four Monkees who made my little heart zing whenever I watched their TV show – they were the first made-for-TV boy band.

Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots Are Made for Walkin’’ topped the charts for weeks in 1966 and inspired a fad for white boots like the ones she wore with her mini-skirt in the TV clip. I begged my mum to buy me a pair but she said I was too young. ‘When you’re thirteen, I’ll get you the boots,’ my mother promised. But by then white boots were ‘out’ and they never came back into fashion. Ever since, I must have hankered for white boots on some deeply subconscious level because they found their way into my manuscript and kept turning up as the book progressed. One of my editors wanted me to remove the white boot references - she couldn’t see the point. I responded by saying, ‘Those boots are wish-fulfilment, they need to stay.’ Besides, for me they epitomise 1966!

Here is the soundtrack to ’The Rarest Thing’, together with some other personal favourites circa 1966, in no particular order.


‘Good Vibrations’                                                  The Beach Boys

‘Good Day Sunshine’                                            The Beatles

'Wishin’ and Hopin’                                             Dusty Springfield

‘These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ ’                Nancy Sinatra

‘The Look of Love’                                                Burt Bacharach

‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’                                Cilla Black

‘The More I See You’                                           Chris Montez

‘Homeward Bound’                                              Simon and Garfunkel

‘As Tears Go By’                                                    The Rolling Stones

‘Eleanor Rigby’                                                     The Beatles

‘Monday, Monday’                                               The Mamas and Papas

‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’            The Walker Brothers

‘59th Street Bridge Song: Feeling Groovy’       Simon and Garfunkel

‘I Hear a Symphony’                                            The Supremes

‘Friday on My Mind’                                            The Easybeats*

‘Raining in My Heart’                                          Tony Worsley*

‘I’m a Believer’                                                      The Monkees

‘Twilight Time’                                                      Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs*

‘Bus Stop’                                                               The Hollies

‘Spicks and Specks’                                              The Bee Gees*

‘The Carnival Is Over’                                          The Seekers*

‘Trains and Boats and Planes’                            Dionne Warwick

‘What Now, My Love?                                          Sonny and Cher

‘Sunday Afternoon’                                               The Kinks

‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’               Dusty Springfield

‘We Can Work It Out’                                           The Beatles

*Australian or British/Australian performers


What do you think? Was 1966 popular music’s best year ever? If you were there, what was your favourite song and who was your favourite singer or band?

Deborah O’Brien
10th November 2016


Crafting Characters

Guest Post for Hey Said Renee

Grey possum 

How do you come up with your characters? That’s a question people often ask me. I wish I could tell them I compile meticulous character cards before I start writing and that I make a detailed plan indicating exactly what will happen to my characters over the course of the book. 

That would be a logical and sensible approach to characterisation, but I have to plead guilty to doing the exact opposite. No cards, no plans, no details. Just an initial idea around which to build a character. It could be a mannerism, an accent, a personality trait or even a job. It might be a combination of those things but at the outset it’s always woolly and ill-defined.

Read more at the Hey Said Renee website.