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 60Old-fashioned Heroes

 

Gregory Peck - Image courtesy of Wikipedia - Public Domain


In these days of dark and deeply flawed protagonists, you don’t find too many old-fashioned heroes in fiction any more. I’m not necessarily referring to dashing swashbucklers or ruggedly handsome cowboys, although my concept of a hero can certainly encompass a good-looking one.

   What I’m thinking of is an upholder of justice, a thoroughly decent person, someone you know will stand up and be counted, even though it might involve some sacrifice along the way. You’ll notice that I’ve used the word ‘person’. By heroes, I also mean heroines, but for now I’ll focus on the heroic male protagonist.

My favourite fictional hero is Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch. Anyone who’s seen the movie will no doubt visualise him as Gregory Peck, tall, square-jawed and gentle, yet assertive when he needs to be. Atticus is a man of great compassion, not afraid to show his vulnerability, particularly when it comes to his love for his children.

Another favourite of mine (who just happens to be a cowboy) is Tom Booker from Nicholas Evans’ novel, ‘The Horse Whisperer’. He’s kind, intuitive and manly – the perfect ‘metrosexual’, except that he lives in far-flung Montana, not the city. The character of Tom Booker is now so enmeshed in my mind with Robert Redford’s performance in the film that I’m a little biased about this one. But I remember thinking Tom Booker was the kind of hero I’d like to see more often in books.

In my own small way, I’ve tried to create an old-fashioned hero in the person of Charles Chen. I wanted him to be a man of strong convictions without being self-righteous. I fell in love with him at the same time Amy did. I’m not sure that it was a wise thing for an author to do. Feeling that way probably clouded my judgment about him. Then again, I couldn’t help myself! I’ll be interested to hear what readers think of Charles. Let me know your thoughts.

Deborah O'Brien

September, 2012

 


fbook icon 60Happy Endings?

  

I have a love-hate relationship with happy endings. Whenever I watch a movie, I’ll be secretly hoping that the leads will fall in love and live happily ever after. Yet when the happy ending finally comes, I’ll condemn it as a cliché and an easy way out.

Do you remember the film, ‘An Officer and A Gentleman’? In the last few minutes of that movie, I was thrilled to see the dashing Richard Gere carry Debra Winger out of the factory and off to happy-ever-after-land, yet I also cringed at what seemed like a facile and stereotypical denouement. What does that make me? A sugar-coated cynic? Probably.

I blame it on fairytales. As a child, I would sigh dreamily at the happy endings, even though part of me (the nascent cynic) would also wonder why things, which had gone so badly all through the story, suddenly came right at the very last moment. Worse still, the ending invariably resulted in the demise or banishment of the most intriguing character – the villainous queen, the evil sorcerer or the wicked witch.

I find it hard to write happy endings, but I don’t want to write something dark or devastating either. So I find myself hinting at things, not tying up all the threads, leaving room for the reader to make their own judgments on what might happen to the characters in the future. You would expect readers to be cranky with me for doing that, but generally they’re not. Why are they so charitable? I think it’s because we all recognise that life is predicated on unknowns. None of us can foresee how things will play out. We wait. We hope. We fantasise. But we never know for sure. And they’re the type of endings that I like to write.

Deborah O'Brien

September, 2012

 

 


Why Is a Book Like a TARDIS?

 

 

‘Why is a book like a TARDIS?’ my husband asked me one day as we sat in our local café, drinking coffee. From a man who’s never been a ‘Doctor Who’ fan, it was a very odd question.

At first I thought it must have been a riddle he’d heard somewhere. While I was pondering the source of the question, he proceeded to answer it for me:

‘Because it’s bigger on the inside than the outside.’

Being both a writer and a ‘Doctor Who’ aficionado, I was delighted with the aptness of the metaphor. Just like the Doctor’s blue police box, a small paperback book can offer huge possibilities. It's only a matter of stepping inside. But what I like best about the TARDIS imagery is the concept of the Author as Time Lord, possessing the power to transport his or her ‘companions’ to strange and exotic worlds. Not only that, the Time Lord … sorry, Author can shift the reader back and forth between time periods with a blank line, a little icon, a change of font or the words ‘now’ or ‘then’. I do it all the time!

And speaking of ‘Doctor Who’, do you have a favourite Doctor? Mine is Tom Baker. I also like the current incarnation, Matt Smith, for his youthful exuberance and quirky charm. Let’s hope he has a long incumbency, but when his time is up, who do you think would make a good successor? I’ve always fancied Alan Rickman. His golden syrup voice would be perfect. Any other suitable candidates? 

Deborah O’Brien

September, 2012

 


fbook icon 60An Emporium by Any Other Name …
What’s in a Title?

front mr chen web thumb

Some years ago, when I began writing MR CHEN’S EMPORIUM, which is partly set in the Gold-Rush era and partly in the present day, I considered calling it Days of Gold, a phrase from the classic Henry Lawson poem, ‘The Roaring Days’. I’ve always loved literary references in titles. I think it’s because they impart a certain gravitas, not to mention a dash of magic. There are endless examples, of course, but among the best are Proust’s Remembrance of Times Past, an allusion to Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 30’, Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (quoting Gray) and the recent Her Fearful Symmetry (Audrey Niffenegger referencing Blake).

Even now, whenever I start up my laptop, I can’t help smiling at the file named ‘Days of Gold.doc’, which I’ve never bothered to delete. For a few weeks it served as the working title of my novel, until a quick search of the net revealed a couple of existing books with the same name. Damn! I really wanted something unique. Then it struck me that the centrepiece of my story wasn’t the Gold Rush at all. The real star was Charles Chen’s emporium, an Aladdin’s cave of treasures, whose presence would run right through the narrative as a potent force in the lives of the two female protagonists.

Much later, when I happened to mention the early title to my agent, she said that although it was worthy enough, it wouldn’t have grabbed her attention. And, of course, she was right. If my book had remained as ‘Days of Gold’, I might still be looking for an agent, not to mention a publisher!

Speaking of titles, here are a few of my favourites, in no particular order. By the way, not only are the titles wonderful, so are the books themselves. You’ll notice there are two from Mr Dickens, that doyen of memorable titles.

War and Peace

Atonement

Where the Wild Things Are

The Slap

Sons and Lovers

The Book Thief

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

A Tale of Two Cities

Gossip from the Forest

Wuthering Heights

Great Expectations

To Kill a Mockingbird

 

Do you have your own favourites? Let us know. 

Deborah O'Brien

August, 2012

 


 

fbook icon 60Never Write When You’re Hungry

 

Breakfast 3 Cropped

Image: DOB

After a dear friend of mine, who also happens to be a writer, finished reading my latest manuscript, she said, ‘There’s a lot of food in your books, isn’t there?’ It’s not surprising, considering that food is one of my obsessions – eating it, cooking it, poring over cookbooks, planning dinner parties, even dreaming about meals. So I suppose it’s natural that delicious food should feature abundantly in my manuscripts.

Part of the problem is that I tend to write when I’m hungry – or more exactly, I become so engrossed in the writing process that I forget to eat. (Yes, I do know it’s not good for my health.) Most mornings I wake up, go straight to the laptop and write for a couple of hours, oblivious to the gurgling of a reproachful stomach. The missed breakfasts manifest themselves in my writing.

You can see the results in MR CHEN’S EMPORIUM and A PLACE OF HER OWN. Every morning my female protagonist, Angie Wallace, goes to the local café, and not just for a piece of raisin toast or a healthy bowl of muesli. Mostly she consumes big, hearty meals, incorporating all my favourites elements – sourdough toast, savoury muffins, corn fritters, crispy bacon, perfectly poached eggs and the sauce to beat all sauces – hollandaise. That sauce even permeates its way into a conversation between Angie and her rather prosaic landlord about the colour that she intends to paint the walls of the Old Manse. Naples yellow hue, she tells him, an artist’s colour (after all, she is an artist) and then she adds by way of explanation: ‘…the colour of hollandaise sauce’. 'You mean the stuff they put on my eggs Benedict,' he replies, 'that wouldn't be so bad.'

‘Never shop for groceries when you’re hungry’, the diet experts warn us. ‘You’ll end up buying chocolate bars and potato crisps’. It’s true, isn’t it? When your stomach’s full, you can summon up the willpower to proceed through the confectionery aisle with nary a sideways glance. But just watch how the snack food piles up in your trolley when you’re hungry. It’s the same with writing. Sometimes, I notice that a sentence I've just written contains a whole list of food items, almost as though I'm composing a menu, and then I know it’s time to stop and have something to eat. When I return to the laptop, I set about abridging that list. If I’m fully sated, I might even delete it altogether.

And what of the reader? Can reading about food make you hungry? Of course, it can. And not just reading cookbooks either. I recall my childhood encounters with Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’. Although the food in those books could never be described as ‘gourmet’, it certainly hit the spot with a hungry eight-year-old. Invariably, after reading a description of a mouth-watering picnic, I would head straight for the kitchen to raid my mother’s biscuit tin, filled as it always was with home-made melting moments, or date and walnut slice, or jam kisses, or peanut cookies, or ANZAC biscuits, fragrant with golden syrup, or …

Actually, excuse me for a moment, while I just disappear into the kitchen … 

Deborah O’Brien

July, 2012