Film Review:



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




All’s Well That Ends Well:

My Top Ten Romantic Comedies



Having written a recent blog about unrequited love, I decided it was time for something a little more upbeat. That’s why I’ve chosen romantic comedies to finish my Valentine’s series. 

It was Shakespeare who originated the rom-com genre four hundred years ago with his ‘comedies’: ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, ‘As You Like It’, ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ and ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’. You can see his legacy in films such as Richard Curtis's ‘Love Actually’.

I’m not giving anything away when I say that every film in my list has a happy (or potentially happy) ending. It’s the standard rom-com formula. You can’t possibly have a romantic comedy that ends tragically. It would be like including a sex scene in a ‘Muppets’ movie. Unthinkable!

N.B. Mild spoiler alerts for those of you haven’t seen ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ and ‘When Harry Met Sally’.

 1. Love Actually (2003)

This Richard Curtis film could easily be labelled contrived, but I can’t help loving it. Like Shakespeare’s comedies, ‘Love Actually’ is a story with a number of romances developing in parallel and interrelated threads. There’s a stellar cast including Bill Nighy, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman (he of the golden syrup voice), Hugh Grant, Colin Firth and Laura Linney. Meanwhile, Kris Marshall plays the part of Colin (‘cousin’ of Spike in ‘Notting Hill’) as a modern-day Bottom, crude, funny and strangely endearing.

 2. It Happened One Night (1934)

Despite its age and general creakiness, this Frank Capra film is still a lot of fun. Clark Gable is the fast-talking reporter sent to find Claudette Colbert, an heiress running away from her father. The two of them are thrown together on a Greyhound bus, which makes this the original road movie. The film won Best Picture of 1934 and I can see why – its escapist story and witty dialogue must have been a cheerful counterpoint to the gloom of Depression-era America. 

3. Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

Attention: Spoiler Alert

What’s particularly clever about this Nora Ephron film is that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan don’t actually meet until the end. Hanks is the perfect leading man in the Jimmy Stewart tradition and Ryan is ‘America’s sweetheart’. I love Ephron’s sparkling dialogue and nostalgic references to ‘An Affair to Remember’, a rather overwrought  1950s ‘weepy’ with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr (after whom I was named).

 4. Woman of the Year (1942)

There just had to be a Tracy/Hepburn film in this list and ‘Woman of the Year’ is the best of them. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn are reporters – his specialty is sport, hers is politics. As the title suggests, there are some feminist elements, but it’s not what you’d call a feminist film. After all, it was made in 1942 - pre Women's Lib.  You only have to look at the billing – Hepburn always ceded first place to Tracy. Besides, with a few notable exceptions, the notion of a feminist rom-com tends to be an oxymoron  - even now.

5. Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

There’s so much to like about this Richard Curtis film – the clever screenplay, Hugh Grant’s ditheringly charming persona (which became the model for his characterisations in ‘Notting Hill’ and ‘Love Actually’), Andie MacDowell’s self-possessed charm and the dazzling cast of supporting characters, including John Hannah, Kristen Scott-Thomas and Simon Callow. I must have watched this film half a dozen times and I always enjoy it. That’s the test of any film – whether it can take multiple viewings.

 6. It’s Complicated (2009)

It's a sad truth that there are very few rom-coms where both the leads are ‘of a certain age’.* In fact, I can only think of two: ‘Something’s Gotta Give’ starring Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, and ‘It’s Complicated’ in which Meryl Streep is torn between her wicked but lovable ex-husband (Alec Baldwin) and her soppy architect, Steve Martin. I know who I’d choose! Alec Baldwin is so engaging that he steals the picture.

 7. Green Card (1990)

Written and directed by Peter Weir, this is the only Aussie** film in my list. Set in New York, it’s a charming story of a young woman (Andie MacDowell) who marries Frenchman Gérard Depardieu (at his cuddly best) so that he can get a ‘green card’ to work in the US. You can guess what happens next.

 8. When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Attention: Spoiler Alert

This is the archetypal tale of best friends, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, who discover there’s more to their relationship than they thought. Written by the wonderful Nora Ephron, it’s brimming with memorable scenes and quotable quotes, the most famous being: ‘I’ll have what she’s having’.

 9. Two Weeks’ Notice (2002)

Here's Hugh Grant again. (I’ve only just realised he’s in four of my top ten!) This time he’s paired with the beguiling Sandra Bullock, who plays the legal counsel to Grant’s spoilt millionaire. Even though this film is formulaic in the extreme, it’s also very entertaining, thanks largely to the charming performances of the two leads.

 10. Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)

Renee Zellweger is adorable as Bridget Jones, thirtyish, rosy-cheeked, pleasantly plump, prone to faux pas and desperately seeking the man of her dreams. Will it be her roguish boss Hugh Grant or the earnestly handsome Colin Firth? There’s a supporting cast to die for – including Jim Broadbent, Gemma Jones and the much under-rated Neil Pearson. The ending will make your heart zing.

The films that just missed out (in no particular order): ‘Tootsie’, ‘His Girl Friday’***, ‘The American President’, ‘The Philadelphia Story’***, ‘Notting Hill’.

*      There are plenty of rom-coms where the man is older and the woman  young - for instance,  'Charade' with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, 'Sabrina' with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn and more recently 'As Good as It Gets' with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt.

**      Well, there's an Aussie director . . .

***    classic oldies

Read the other articles in the Valentine's Day series: My Four Favourite Stories about Platonic Love and My Five Favourite Books about Unrequited Love.


 Deborah O’Brien

12 February 2014



fbook icon 60Film Review: ‘Saving Mr. Banks'


File:Saving Mr. Banks Theatrical Poster.jpg

If you were a child in the late Fifties and early Sixties, it's likely you would have watched Walt Disney's 'Disneyland' on Sunday evenings*. It was the highlight of the week, especially when ‘Uncle Walt’ would take us to visit his cartoonists at work in their studio or lead us on a tour of the newly built theme-park bearing his name. I longed to visit that place and finally made it there as a thirty-something adult. To my delight, I could still feel the magic.

Even now, Walt Disney remains an iconic figure in my memory. That's why I was wary of seeing ‘Saving Mr. Banks’, the film about the gestation of the movie ‘Mary Poppins’. I couldn't imagine an actor, even one as good as Tom Hanks, capturing the spirit of the man. But I didn’t need to worry. Hanks inhabits the character of Uncle Walt so completely that I became a small child again, watching him on a Sunday night.

Speaking of Hanks, I saw him a month ago as Captain Phillips. What a stunning performance! I once referred to him as a modern-day Spencer Tracy, but he’s much more than that. Tracy was a great actor, but he was always Spencer Tracy playing someone else. Hanks, on the other hand, loses himself in every part he plays.

But enough of Tom Hanks. This film is the story of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of the 'Mary Poppins' books, and her reluctance to hand over the film rights to Walt Disney. We first meet the author as a dreamy child in turn-of-the-century Queensland. In the next scene she’s become a cantankerous middle-aged woman living in London, who can’t bear to part with the books she's written, for fear of them being trivialised. Over the course of the film we discover why she feels so strongly, the reasons lying deep within her Australian childhood. Like Tom Hanks as Disney, Emma Thompson’s performance as Mrs Travers illuminates the film. If she doesn’t win an Academy Award for this, I’ll be seriously disappointed.

The supporting actors are perfect: the versatile Paul Giamatti as Mrs Travers’ driver; Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak as the Sherman brothers, who composed so many memorable film scores; and English actress Ruth Wilson (who delivers a convincing Australian accent) as Travers’ mother. But the standout is Colin O’Farrell’s moving and nuanced portrayal of the quixotic and troubled father.

The final credits are an added bonus, featuring photographs and story-board illustrations from the Disney archives, as well as a tape recording of P.L. Travers in a script session. Among the credits I noticed an acknowledgment to Valerie Lawson’s book, ‘Mary Poppins She Wrote’. I've always enjoyed Lawson's insightful newspaper articles and I look forward to reading her biography of P. L. Travers.

I loved the sets in 'Saving Mr. Banks', the attention to detail, the way that 1961 Los Angeles came alive. My only issue with the film is the depiction of Queensland. If you’re going to get everything else right, why not film the Australian scenes in situ? The houses of early 1900s Maryborough are jarringly 'American gingerbread' in their architecture (in fact, they look like a street out of Disney's 'Pollyanna'). And WGH* tells me that we never had steam engines with ‘cattle catchers’.  

But let's not get pernickety. This is a delightful and engrossing film and I commend it to you.


*6.30pm on TCN, now known as the Nine Network.

**WGH – World’s Greatest Husband. It says so on his coffee mug.

Deborah O’Brien

9 February, 2014


 Valentine's Day Series - Part 2

fbook icon 60My Four Favourite Stories about Platonic Love

                                                     JNorris Scrapbook 21                                               

       1890s scrapbook image courtesy of Jan N.

There’s always a strong element of suspense in a platonic love story. I call it the ‘will they or won’t they?’ factor. As a reader or viewer, you wait with bated breath, secretly hoping the relationship will be consummated, yet knowing things won’t be quite the same if they really do get together.

Take Harry and Ruth in the BBC’s long-running series ‘Spooks’. The ongoing unfulfilled relationship between the MI5 chief and the analyst forms the perfect counterpoint to the dirty world of international intrigue. It’s a poignant romance characterised by polite English restraint. Neither says what they really feel. In fact, you might even call it Chekhovian in its sub-text.

And speaking of the BBC, who can forget the chemistry between Nikki and Harry in ‘Silent Witness’? Their flirtatious banter brightened many seasons of that series and is sorely missed now that the lovely Tom Ward has gone elsewhere. American television gave us eight years of agonisingly unresolved sexual tension between Mulder and Scully in ‘The X Files’, while that brilliant series ‘The West Wing’ produced one of the most endearing platonic* partnerships in television – Josh and Donna.

So, what accounts for my own fascination with this genre? Well, I blame it on ‘Brief Encounter’. I must have been in my early teens when I saw the film on television. Afterwards I produced an endless stream of bittersweet love stories for the entertainment of my family and school friends. Even now I find the same themes appearing in my ‘mature’ work so it’s pretty obvious that the platonic trope is lodged deep within my psyche.

‘Mr Chen’s Emporium’, for example, introduced a platonic relationship which continues in ‘A Place of Her Own’. Here’s how the female protagonist of both novels describes her situation:

'Even though they would never be lovers, they could be best friends. After all, friendship was worthy and satisfying. Look at Bette Davis in 'Now, Voyager'. She might not have had the moon, but she had the stars instead. And although stars might not always illuminate your life with high romance, they would sparkle nonetheless. Particularly on a dark Millbrooke night.’

So here are my four favourite stories about platonic love:

 1. Brief Encounter  - Laura and Alec

Written by Noel Coward and directed by David Lean, this film is a little masterpiece. In spite of having to wear a collection of ugly hats and headscarves, Celia Johnson gives a glowing performance that illuminates the film. Meanwhile, a young Trevor Howard is perfect as the doctor who removes a cinder from her eye and falls in love with her. Both are married, of course, and there’s the rub. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2 forms the perfect backdrop, its relentless rhythms reinforcing their desperate moral dilemma in the face of overwhelming emotions.

But what I particularly like about David Lean’s ‘Brief Encounter’ is that the two protagonists are ordinary everyday people, not glamorous leads in the manner of Nikki and Harry, or Mulder and Scully. That’s one of reasons why the 1970s’ remake with Sophia Loren and Richard Burton didn’t work - the casting was ridiculous.

 2. The Remains of the Day - Mr Stevens & Miss Kenton

I can’t recall which one I discovered first – the book (by Kazuo Ishiguro) or the film (Merchant/Ivory). But it doesn’t really matter because they’re equally good. Like ‘Brief Encounter’, this is a story about ordinary people – a butler and a housekeeper, and there’s a very British tension that hums just below the surface. It’s almost unbearable to watch/read the scene where Miss Kenton tries to prise Mr Stevens’ book from him, only to discover that it is merely a ‘silly romance’. As an onlooker, your heart aches for the two of them and their lost opportunities.


3. Wuthering Heights - Cathy and Heathcliff

There just had to be a novel by one of the Brontë sisters in this list – they could write unfulfilled passion better than anyone (which reminds me that I should have included Charlotte’s ‘Villette’ in my blog about unrequited love). In ‘Wuthering Heights’ Emily Brontë created a highly original tale seething with emotions – love, jealousy, anger, vengeance. The plot is as vast and wild as the moors where the story is set. Cathy and Heathcliff never do consummate their love but it rumbles through the book like a brewing storm about to wreak havoc on the characters.

 4. Now, Voyager - Charlotte and Jerry

This is the only American story in my list. I must confess that I haven't read the original novel by Olive Higgins Prouty** but I’ve seen the 1942 film several times. It’s worth viewing, if only for the final scene which is heavy with sub-text (you can see a clip on YouTube). Although many aspects of the movie are dated, and the chain-smoking Bette Davis is wont to overact (something Celia Johnson would never do), there’s a certain nobility in the choices made by Charlotte (Davis) and Jerry (Paul Henreid). I’ve referenced this film several times in ‘A Place of Her Own’. By the way, the title comes from Walt Whitman’s poem.

* If I recall correctly, this was consummated in the final season.

** For all you movie buffs out there, Olive Higgins Prouty also wrote the bestselling  ‘Stella Dallas’ which became a hit film with Barbara Stanwyck in the leading role.

See also: My Five Favourite Books about Unrequited Love and My Top Ten Romantic Comedies.

Deborah O’Brien

6 February, 2014


fbook icon 60Valentine's Day Series - Part 1

My Five Favourite Books about

Unrequited Love

JNorris Scrapbook 19

1890s scrapbook image courtesy Jan N.

‘Unrequited love hurts like hell – whether you’re fifteen or fifty-something.’ 

That’s the tagline from my forthcoming novel, 'A Place of Her Own'. And it’s true, isn’t it? There’s no age limit on the emotional pain involved in loving someone who doesn’t love you in return.

Whether it’s a teenager experiencing her first love or a ‘woman of a certain age’ yearning for someone she can’t have, I’ve always thought there’s something noble about a love that’s unspoken and full of longing. Most of us have experienced it, even if it was only a fleeting adolescent crush on someone who didn't even know we existed.

In 'A Place of Her Own', a woman suffering from unrequited love comes to the following conclusion:

‘In a romantic sense, he might be spoken for, but that didn’t matter. She could love someone who didn’t love her in return. There was no law against it. In fact, people did it all the time. He would never have to know. She just needed to keep things in perspective, avoid wallowing in the unrequited nature of her feelings.’

Then there’s the dysfunctional scenario, the one where unrequited love morphs into an obsession. If a person happens to be psychologically unbalanced, an obsessive passion can lead to extreme behaviour. Ian McEwan writes chillingly about aspects of this phenomenon in his novel, ‘Enduring Love’.

But back to the concept of unrequited love as a romantic infatuation which is never acted on. The nineteenth century English poet, William Blake summed it up in these two famous lines:

‘Never seek to tell thy love,

Love that never told can be.’

So, without further ado, here are my five favourite books about unrequited love. By the way, there are spoiler alerts in the text for those of you who haven't read 'The Great Gatsby', 'Young Werther' and 'Jane Eyre'.

 1. NOTRE DAME DE PARIS, Victor Hugo

When I was a teenager, I used to stay back after school every Wednesday afternoon to attend film club. That’s how I came to see the 1930s version of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’. I loved Charles Laughton’s gargoyle-like Quasimodo, desperately in love with Maureen O’Hara’s beautiful Esmeralda. Anxious to linger over the story, I bought the book itself, a ponderous tome with multiple sub-plots and a great deal of extraneous historical material that I skimmed relentlessly in my search for the passages about Quasimodo’s heroic infatuation with the Gypsy girl and its counterpoint, the dastardly Claude Frollo’s obsession with her.

 2. LE GRAND MEAULNES, Alain-Fournier

I would never have known about this wonderfully evocative novel, if it hadn’t been a set text in my first year French course at uni. That’s usually enough to put you off a book, particularly when there’s an essay involved, but I quickly fell in love with Alain-Fournier’s dreamlike story about a young man called Meaulnes, trying to recapture a lost past in which he met a girl who stole his heart.

In that respect, there are similarities to ‘The Great Gatsby’ (discussed below). However the two novels differ markedly in mood and tone. Fitzgerald’s story, set in the Jazz Age, is often dark and cynical, while ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’ reflects the comparatively innocence of the pre-World War I period in which it was written. For me, there’s an added poignancy in that its young author was killed in action on the Western Front not long after the book was published. It was his first and only novel. If he had lived, he might well have been one of the great novelists of the twentieth century.

 3. THE GREAT GATSBY, F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have a confession to make – I own two copies of ‘The Great Gatsby’ – one in the city, the other in our little country cottage. I love this book so much that I reread it at least once a year. In essence, it's a tale of a man who builds a whole life around the idealised love story he has concocted in his head. (Spoiler AlertFor a while, the fantasy seems to become a reality, but this isn’t the world of ‘The Notebook’, and things don’t end well. Poor Gatsby. He never realised he was trying to recapture an epic romance that didn’t exist in the first place.


‘Die Leiden des jungen Werthers’ is yet another set text from my first year at university. It’s a classic tale of unrequited and overwrought love, but unlike ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’, (Spoiler alert) there’s a particularly nasty ending for the long-suffering Werther. Goethe later disowned the book, which contained embarrassing autobiographical elements inspired by his own youthful infatuation with a young woman. The novel became influential among young men of the time –a kind of 1770s’ equivalent of ‘Catcher in the Rye'. 

 5. JANE EYRE, Charlotte Brontë

(Spoiler alert)

Wait a minute, I can hear you say, didn’t Jane Eyre marry Mr Rochester in 9780307455192the end? 

Well, yes, she did, but only after his house burned down and he was blinded in the fire. For a large part of the novel, during which Jane served as governess to Mr Rochester’s ward, she was in love with her boss while he manipulated her emotionally by carrying on with the aristocratic and wealthy Blanche Ingram. It’s an odd book when you analyse it, but if you just go with the flow, it can be an engrossing Gothic read.

See also: My Four Favourite Stories about Platonic Love and  My Top Ten Romantic Comedies.

Deborah O’Brien

January 26, 2014


fbook icon 60First Impressions

Have I ever bought a book on the basis of its cover? Absolutely. In fact, a gorgeous cover will always grab me. Erin Morgenstern’s THE NIGHT CIRCUS is just one such instance - I couldn’t resist its silhouetted Victorian figures, silver stars and embossed lettering. It turned out that the cover captured the spirit of the book brilliantly and I've never regretted that impulse buy.

Another example is Alan Bennett’s THE UNCOMMON READER. I fell for this little book the minute I saw its white and gold dust jacket emblazoned with a raised gold crown (yes, I do like tactile covers). Admittedly, my purchase was influenced by the author's name. But, most of all, I loved the title.

Which leads me to the real subject of this article – just how important are titles in ‘hooking’ a potential reader? Those of you who are regular visitors to my blog will know that I’ve discussed this in an earlier article, and I still feel the same way. A great title is paramount.

As a writer, I can’t settle into my manuscript until I have the perfect name for it.  During the first few weeks in the gestation of MR CHEN'S EMPORIUM, the book was known by another name, a perfectly acceptable one, but unspectacular nonetheless. When the right title came to me, I knew instantly that it was ‘the one’. And after the title was firmly in place, gracing the first page and the footer, I felt free to get on with the story.

In the case of THE JADE WIDOW, I had the name months before I started writing the book. Actually, I suspect that was one reason why the writing went so smoothly. As for my forthcoming novel, A PLACE OF HER OWN, I have a confession to make. Over the past three years there has been a series of working titles, none of which ever fully satisfied me. At one stage my husband asked, ‘What are you calling it this week?’ Finally I resorted to dubbing it ‘Number 3’. Oh dear.

So I went back to basics. What is my book about, I asked myself. The answer came easily. It’s about finding a safe place, a refuge, a bolthole. And suddenly I knew the word ‘place’ had to be in the title because it has so many levels of meaning.

First and foremost, there’s the physical sense of the word. A real location. For my female protagonist, Angie Wallace, it's a charming Victorian house with high gables, fancy bargeboards and dormer windows, surrounded by rolling lawns and a lavender garden. She has a very personal investment in this place, having renovated it herself.  And she has developed a special bond with one of its nineteenth-century inhabitants, a young woman by the name of Amy Duncan Chen, who suffered the sudden loss of her husband, just as Angie did more than a century later.

Then there are the psychological connotations of the word 'place', the sense of ‘being in a good place’ emotionally, or its converse, being 'all over the place'. Angie Wallace experiences both states of mind but I won't say any more for fear of giving away too much.

A PLACE OF HER OWN will be released by Random House Australia on May 1. By the way, you don't need to have read MR CHEN to pick up the story. Although this book features characters from the modern-day thread of MR CHEN'S EMPORIUM, it's most definitely a stand-alone novel. 

Deborah O’Brien

January 2014


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