Film Review:

1917

 

The madness and futility of the First World War has been the inspiration for many fine films, beginning in 1930 with Lewis Milestone’s version of the Erich Maria Remarque novel, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, which was a daring story for its time, in that it showed the horrors of war from the perspective of German infantrymen.

In Sam Mendes’s ‘1917’, it is the British with whom we sympathise, but in other ways, the themes are similar - incompetent and ego-driven officers, and troops who are treated as cannon fodder. Mendes, however, also gives us officers doing their best in impossible circumstances.

This film is based on a story told to Mendes by his grandfather, Alfred, to whom the film is dedicated. In that respect, it is a very personal project.

But what makes ‘1917’ unique is the way it is filmed as a continuous shot or, at least, the illusion of one. We literally follow the two lance corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), on their mission to cross no man’s land and reach the Devonshire battalion in order to warn the colonel that they are heading into a German trap and they should call off their attack. For Corporal Blake, this mission is deeply personal – his brother is a lieutenant with the Devons.

We follow Blake and Schofield as they weave their way through the British trenches and then cross the battlefield, avoiding bomb craters filled with water and rotting bodies. Eventually they reach the abandoned German trenches, where a nasty surprise awaits them.

There are heart-stopping incidents along the way, as well as a poignant encounter with a young French woman who is caring for an orphaned baby, a scene which reminds us humanity can exist in the hell that is the Western Front. Possibly the most moving moment of the entire film is the scene involving the hymn ‘Poor Wayfaring Stranger’. It brought tears to my eyes.

‘1917’ does not have leading men in the traditional sense. The two protagonists are little known* actors; their very anonymity makes the viewer’s identification with them much stronger. There are some ‘name’ actors in the film – an almost unrecognisable Colin Firth as the general who sends the boys on their mission, Andrew Scott (Moriarty from ‘Sherlock’) as a world-weary lieutenant who couldn’t give a damn, and the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch in a brief but nuanced performance as the frazzled colonel in charge of the Devons.

‘1917’ is a moving story of the horrors of war. It has already won a Golden Globe for Best Drama and you can expect an Academy Award to follow for the film and its director.


*George MacKay plays a tortured Ned Kelly in 'The True History of Ned Kelly' (2019)  alongside Essie Davis and Russell Crowe.

Deborah O’Brien

26 January 2020

 


fbook icon 60The World of the Book

DOB Styled 2

After I gave my mother one of my manuscripts to read, I couldn’t wait for her reaction. A few days later she phoned me.

  ‘Did you like it?’ I asked anxiously.

  ‘I loved it,’ she replied.

  What a relief.

  Then she added, ‘But there’s something that’s been worrying me about your story.’

  Oh dear. Was there a huge plot hole I hadn’t spotted? Or had I used too many swear words?

  ‘It’s about Amanda,’ Mum continued.

  Amanda was my female protagonist, the lynchpin of the narrative. If there were problems with her, then it would mean a major rewrite. I started to feel sick.

  ‘It’s the shirt that she wears to meet Justin,’ said my mum.

  I wasn’t sure where this was heading. Had I made a continuity blunder by changing the colour of the shirt during the course of the scene? No problem. That was a mistake which could easily be fixed.

  ‘What about the shirt?’ I asked.

  ‘Well, she’s going to a reunion with a man she hasn’t seen in more than thirty years. And it’s a long car trip. Won’t that linen shirt be badly creased by the time she gets there?’

  I started to laugh, though not in a raucous way because I didn’t want to offend my mother. Then, as gently as I could, I said, ‘Mum, Amanda is a character in a book. She’s not real. And neither is the shirt. I made them both up.’

  Afterwards, I realised my mother’s comment was one of the greatest compliments a writer could ever receive. Mum had entered so completely into the world I’d created that she reacted to Amanda as if she were a real person. And I really shouldn’t have laughed because, as a writer, I often become immersed in the story to the extent that it feels more real than my real life.

  Have you ever been to a movie and identified so much with a character that when you walked out of the cinema, you felt you actually were the person from the film – just for a few moments? When I’m writing a character, he or she can linger in my pysche after the laptop has been shut down for the day. Sometimes characters will keep me awake at night as they jostle for attention inside my head. And occasionally they will insinuate themselves into my dreams, having found an unlocked door into my subconscious. But don’t worry. On a rational level, I do know my characters are inventions. After all, I told my mother that very thing.

  Yet, in the right side of my brain, the place where creative ideas originate and grow, it’s a different story altogether!

Deborah O'Brien

May 2012


 


 

fbook icon 60Tales of the Emporium

Items  from Emporium

When I was a little girl, suburban shopping malls were a new and rare phenomenon, and the city was still the heart of the retail world. During the school holidays my grandmother used to take me to visit the big department stores like Anthony Hordern’s, Mark Foy’s, Grace Bros at Broadway, Farmers and David Jones. She was an inveterate shopper. So are my mother and I – it’s in the blood.

I must have been about eight when I first heard the word ‘emporium’.

‘Let’s go to the Palace Emporium,’ my grandmother announced as we emerged from the dark railway tunnel at Museum into the dappled sunlight of Elizabeth Street. It turned out that the Palace Emporium was the old name for the magnificent six-storeyed Anthony Horderns’ building, which occupied much of the block bounded by Pitt, George and Goulburn Streets.

Built in 1905, the Emporium was four years younger than my grandmother, aDOB Arcades 09 girl born and raised in the Central West of New South Wales. At the age of twenty-one, with her mother dead from the pneumonic flu and her father a distant memory (having deserted his wife and three daughters many years earlier), she took the decision to move to the city. She had left her formal education behind at age thirteen, but made up for it by reading everything she could get her hands on. She was also a talented seamstress, able to put together a stylish outfit in no time.

I can just picture my grandmother in her cloche hat and fox-fur stole, alighting from the train at Central, her suitcase in one hand and Gladstone bag in the other. If she had walked up George Street or even caught a cab, she couldn't have missed the Palace Emporium looming into view on the right. Even a country girl would have recognised the famous building, familiar to everyone from the picture on the cover of the Anthony Horderns’ mail-order catalogue.

DOB Arcades 12Decades later, I too found myself gazing at the same edifice, a little girl gripping her grandmother’s hand. True to its name, the exterior looked like a palace, complete with a castellated tower and parapets topped by a series of Grecian urns, like jewels on a crown. Being a child, I had no idea that the business was in decline, nor that the term ‘white elephant’ had been used to describe the premises. (And even if I had heard those words, I wouldn’t have understood the significance of the metaphor.) All I saw was a fairytale castle. Sadly there would be no happy-ever-after for the Anthony Horderns' building, but nobody knew that then.DOB Arcades 13

Once inside the store, I discovered embossed metal ceilings, heavy columns, vast spaces and an array of goods meticulously laid out on tables. I might be confusing it with somewhere else, but in my mind’s eye I can still see an old-fashioned docketing system using a pulley and wires, which seemed to spirit away the money and promptly deliver a receipt, as if by magic. Back then, department stores had lifts with operators who would recite the names of the goods on every floor. I could have ridden up and down in those lifts for hours, just listening to the fascinating inventory.

Ever since those days, I’ve loved the word ‘emporium’, though as a small child, I never imagined I would write a novel with an emporium as its centrepiece … or a novel of any kind, for that matter. My own emporium isn’t grand like Anthony Horderns’. It’s just a single-storeyed building of modest size on the main street of a fictional country town.

However, inside its blood-red front doors, the heroine Amy Duncan finds a different world, ‘a storehouse of possibilities’, as she calls it. For someone who loves to shop, it’s filled with covetable items – silks, furniture, porcelain and jade. For a young woman intrigued by its owner, there is far more to Mr Chen’s Emporium than the merchandise. Above all, it is a place where a love story, prohibited by the prejudices of nineteenth-century society, can blossom unchallenged, until …

Read more about MR CHEN'S EMPORIUM here.

DOB MCE 10

The magnificently restored arcades in the photographs above are in Melbourne, not Sydney. Apart from the wonderful Queen Victoria Building and the Strand Arcade, it is a tragedy that Sydney retains very little of its 19th century shopping history. 

Deborah O’Brien

March, 2012

 


fbook icon 60Frosty Tales

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When I began planting my country garden, I had visions of French lavender hedges and geraniums in pots. By the end of summer that dream had become a reality. Then, one autumn morning, I discovered something very strange. Overnight the geraniums had turned brown and the lavender was drooping. Thinking that the plants needed watering, I gave them a generous soaking. For good measure, I trimmed off the worst of the drooping lavender stalks and removed the dead geranium flowers. 

The next morning, I checked my garden, expecting a recovery. Instead, the lavender looked worse than ever. The remaining flower heads had begun to wilt, as though they were grieving for their lost companions. And the geraniums were barely recognisable. As I touched the leaves, they turned to dust in my fingers. What had happened, I wondered, to cause such havoc?

You guessed it. The culprit was that stealthy morning visitor – the dreaded frost! As a coastal gardener, I'd never experienced one before.  Even now, when I know how destructive they can be, there are winter mornings when I find myself gazing out the living room window and marvelling at the white fields, glistening as if they’ve been dusted with crystallized sugar. But, believe me, the dark side of frost far outweighs its transitory visual delights.

So, how does a gardener fight back? You can monitor the weather forecasts and cover your plants in the afternoon or evening in anticipation of a frost. You can get up early and try to hose off the icy crystals – that is, if your hose isn’t frozen. You can accept the losses and plant suitable things next time. Or you can abandon the idea of a garden altogether and watch luxuriant weeds filling the space. (Wouldn’t you know it? Weeds are frost-hardy.)

What did I do? Something I should have done in the first place. I walked around town and checked out what was thriving in other people’s gardens. I even pinched some cuttings from a rock-rose in the garden of our old courthouse (ten cuttings; one survived to grow into a lush shrub from which I now plan to take more cuttings).

Then I visited the local nursery and sought expert advice. What I learned was this. Choose the right plants for your climate. Even then, protect them for the first few winters and allow your plants to acclimatise. Don’t remove frost-damaged tips until the frost danger has passed for the season – like a scab over a cut, they protect the ends of the stems. And don’t expect geraniums to survive the winter. Then again, they might surprise you in the spring with a burst of new growth.

Since then, I’ve accumulated plants that seem to do well in our harsh climate (hot, dry summers and bitter winters) – rock roses, of course, buddleia (summer lilacs) and real roses. Owing to the low humidity, my country roses don’t seem to have the fungal problems which afflict their city cousins.

Writers are fond of using the weather as a metaphor. Sometimes it works brilliantly; at other times it seems like a cheap trick. I have to confess I’ve incorporated a frost or two into my novel, MR CHEN’S EMPORIUM. Having read this article, you’ll know it isn’t merely a stylistic device I've thrown into the book to impress the reader. My feelings about the frost are real and visceral. So are those of my female protagonist, Angie Wallace, who hates frosts with a passion, even comparing them to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, creeping up to suck the life out of the little plants she holds so dear.

Angie’s right. The icy onslaught is likely to cause serious damage, and recovery can be a slow process. It may not happen this season, or even the next. And just when you start to bloom again, there may be setbacks. But slowly you will build frost-hardiness. And one day you may find that you have grown in ways you never imagined possible.

Deborah O'Brien

April, 2012

 


fbook icon 60 Life with a Platypus

DOB MCE 14

After years of fantasising about a weekender in the country, my husband and I finally bought a little cottage overlooking a creek on the outskirts of an historic town. It's a long drive from the Big Smoke, but we didn’t let a practicality like that stop us. After all, we had fallen in love with the town and its old buildings, its green hillsides and most particularly, the platypus that lived in the creek. As if by special request of the real estate agent, the creature had even made an appearance on the very day we inspected the house, providing the ‘wow factor’ which clinched the deal.

Some years later, the platypus is still with us, though I’m not certain whether it’s our original one or not. I’d like to think so. There’s been a baby too, otherwise known as a puggle. A tiny version of its parent, yet full of bravado, floating on the surface and enjoying the sun. Then again, a fully grown platypus isn’t very big – about 40 to 60cm, the experts say.

When we arrive at our cottage on a Friday afternoon, the platypus is usually waiting for us. Tired after the long car trip, we are instantly heartened by his presence, foreshadowed by neatly concentric ripples on the surface of the creek. Then we spot the curve of his back as he duck-dives for food. Sometimes he will move on quickly, but often he lingers and we watch him from behind a stand of reeds.

A couple of years ago, our slow-moving creek turned into a raging torrent after a heavy rainfall upstream. Willow trees cracked under the force of the water. Debris came hurtling past at a frightening speed. Creek banks were reconfigured by the tempest. As I stood in the rain, watching the creek rise, all I could think about was the platypus. What would happen to his burrows scattered at intervals along the banks? Would the little guy be washed away altogether? Panic struck as I recalled a story I’d read in a newspaper about a puggle found in the breakers of a South Coast beach. He had been washed all the way to the ocean by floodwaters.

So what became of our platypus?

By the next day, the water level had dropped and the creek was moving slowly again. Rubbish and tree branches had piled up against the stand of willows in front of our cottage. New pools had appeared and the course of the creek had altered. Oh dear, I thought. If the banks are gone, so are the burrows. I went and made myself a cup of tea and by the time I returned to the window, there he was, cavorting as if there had never been a flood.

Including a platypus in my book MR CHEN’S EMPORIUM seemed like a natural thing to do. In the novel, as in real life, he’s like a magician’s assistant, appearing from nowhere and vanishing just as quickly. All that’s missing is the puff of smoke.

Deborah O’Brien

February, 2012

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fbook icon 60Country Ways

DOB MCE 19

What’s so great about living in the country, people ask me? The nineteenth-century poet, William Cowper said it all in his famous line: “God made the country, and man made the town”.

Here are some of the things that make country life special for me:

  • Sheep bleating at night (in the city it’s police sirens)
  • Frogs mumbling to each other in the creek
  • Flocks of black cockatoos before a rain shower (you can’t get angry at them, even when they’ve littered your lawn with pine-cones and branches)
  • A lone bustard (Australian stork) patiently watching for prey among the reeds
  • A wallaby doing an elegant jump over a barbed-wire fence
  • Newborn lambs and calves at the end of winter
  • Tiny frogs as small as leaves
  • A baby wombat on the door step late at night
  • Church bells on a Sunday morning
  • A front-page story in the local newspaper about a lost teddy bear, complete with photo.
  • A mayoral election where the councillors’ votes have resulted in a tie, so they draw a name out of a hat
  • And people who smile and say hello when they pass you in the street, whether they know you or not

Deborah O’Brien

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DOB MCE 15