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

Writing and Art

 

 Florals in urn 420

 

‘Florals in Terracotta Urn’. Acrylic gouache and impasto on canvas.

Deborah O’Brien (2001)

 

I’ve never been sure whether I’m an artist who happens to write, or a writer who also likes to draw and paint. What I do know is there are certain things that inspire me. First and foremost, I adore old buildings. If you’re read any of my books, you’ll know that buildings, their construction and renovation, play a big part, both on the cover and in the text itself.

I’ve written stories and drawn pictures for as long as I can remember, probably from the time I could hold a pencil in my hand. My mother, who was an artist herself, kept all the miniature books I made in primary school and the illustrated magazine I concocted for my dad when he went into hospital for an operation. At school I filled the backs of my exercise books with romantic stories and drawings of the heroines (never the heroes, because I couldn’t draw men). And when it came time to hand in my books for marking, I simply ripped out the offending pages.

When I was about ten years old, I sent a short story to the Sun Herald Juniors page, accompanied by an illustration. They published it and posted me a money order for the princely sum of two dollars fifty. After that, I submitted articles and drawings on a regular basis and the money orders kept me supplied with Paddle Pops until I was fifteen and too old to be a junior anymore!

Over the years I’ve continued to write and draw. Sometimes it was a job; at other times it was strictly for fun. Fast forward to ten years ago when my mum, who was always my greatest supporter, asked me: ‘When are you going to get around to writing your novel? I’m not getting any younger, you know.’

By then I had abandoned the idea of fiction as a career. But that very evening, fortified by a glass of wine, I sat down at my laptop and began typing a dual narrative whose premise had been living in my imagination for a long time: two women, one Gold Rush town, then and now. I called my story Mr Chen’s Emporium.

When my lovely publisher asked me to do a rough sketch for the cover, I was delighted to be involved, as I was well aware that authors are rarely consulted about cover design, except to approve it. Below is the first rough sketch I produced. When I emailed it to my publisher, she diplomatically suggested that, as the title of the book was Mr Chen's Emporium, the building should really appear on the cover. Hence, the second sketch, which was approved by the powers-that be, and then passed on to the illustrator to finesse.

 Chens Cover JPEG DOB

 InDesign CoverA4

 

Concept sketch MCE 420

‘Mr Chen’s Emporium’. Concept sketch – ink and coloured pencils

Deborah O’Brien

 

Mr Chen's Emporium produced two sequels – an historical novel, The Jade Widow, and a modern-day story, A Place of Her Own, about looking for a safe haven when nothing seems safe anymore. I drew pen and ink illustrations for all three books, but apart from concept sketches and hand-drawn lettering for the titles, I left the final covers to the experts. For some reason, my publisher actually preferred my rather wonky lettering to the computer-generated kind and used it on Mr Chen's Emporium and The Jade Widow. 

 

Mr Chens text

Emporium text

 

 Emporium Hotel Colour3

Rough sketch of the Emporium Hotel for 'The Jade Widow'. It was used inside the book.

 

Deborah O'Brien

An earlier, shorter version of this article appeared on the Australian Rural Romance website 2015

 

The Five Books
That Have Influenced Me Most

 

Here are five books that I read before I was twenty but have stayed with me all my life.

 

ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND by Lewis Carroll

 
Image result for alice's adventures in wonderland

 

I’ve always been fascinated by ALICE IN WONDERLAND, although I do have a confession to make – as a little girl, there were parts of the story which really frightened me, especially the episodes with the Queen and her repeated command to chop off people’s heads. It was the randomness of the threatened violence that I found unsettling. Perhaps that’s why the storyline and characters have lived in my subconscious ever since.

In recent times I’ve re-read ALICE and THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS and found them to be brimming with subtext about the search for identity and the notion of order versus chaos. Although Lewis Carroll might not have intended it, Alice comes across, to my mind at least, as a nascent suffragette, manoeuvring her way through Wonderland with considerable determination and aplomb, while constantly questioning its rules. Those aspects inspired the premise for THE JADE WIDOW, my novel about women challenging the conventions of Victorian society.

 

ANIMAL FARM by George Orwell

Image result for Animal Farm

 

I discovered ANIMAL FARM in my first year of high school. Back then, I read it as an entertaining tale about farm animals taking over the farm. I didn’t know it was a political allegory, and even if someone had told me, I wouldn’t have understood what those words meant. As far as I was concerned, it was just a rollicking good story in which animals behaved like humans. As a writer, I’ve learned an important lesson from this book. No matter how impassioned its message or how clever the satire and symbolism, an allegory has to work first and foremost as a story. And that’s certainly the case here.

 

JANE EYRE by Charlotte Brontë

 

Long ago, in the process of working through the Victorian novels in the school library, I came across two dark and emotionally charged books that didn’t seem to fit the traditional model: WUTHERING HEIGHTS and JANE EYRE. The authors were sisters, who spent their lives in a parsonage in Yorkshire. Together with their siblings, they created their own imaginary worlds. Years later I would make a pilgrimage to Haworth to see where they lived. Although I’ve always loved both those books, it’s JANE EYRE that I’ve returned to over and over again. Jane is a rather unusual Victorian heroine. Neither simpering nor helpless, she knows her own mind and in her quiet, self-deprecating way, goes after what she wants.

 

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird By Harper Lee

 

If I had to choose my all-time favourite book, it would be TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Everything about it is perfect – structure, story, setting, characters, themes and language. I like the way the events unfold through the eyes of the narrator, Scout Finch, whom we get to know as a little girl and as an adult reminiscing about her youth. I can almost hear Scout’s Southern accent whenever I read the book, but that might be a result of the novel and the film having merged in my brain (which is also why I tend to picture Atticus Finch as Gregory Peck). Among a cast of memorable characters, Atticus is the standout for me, a noble hero and a great father.

 

LE GRAND MEAULNES by Alain-Fournier

Le grand Meaulnes By Alain Fournier - (9781981480289)

 

I would never have known about this wonderfully evocative novel, if it hadn’t been a set text in my 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 trying to recapture a lost past. In that respect, there are similarities to THE GREAT GATSBY, which just happens to be another of my favourites. 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 innocent 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.

 

Deborah O’Brien

13 March 2020

Film Reviews:

My Top Five Films about Politics

Warning: Spoilers, mostly mild ones.

 

Do you think anyone will ever make a film inspired by Trump’s White House or Boris’s Number Ten? If I were a screenwriter, I’d be finding plenty of juicy material in the current goings-on. In fact, certain recent events make the Watergate scandal seem somewhat tame.

And speaking of Watergate, here are my top five films with political themes.

1. All the President’s Men (1976)

 

My all-time favourite political film is adapted from the bestselling non-fiction book of the same name by journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

What makes this film so great? Obviously the casting of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the two journalists, the preppy Woodward and the dishevelled Bernstein. They are the perfect odd couple.  Then there's the source material, a story so Machivellian that in our '70s naivety, we couldn't quite believe it was true.

The film begins with a bungled break-in at the offices of the Democratic Party. Soon Woodward and Bernstein discover links to the White House. With the support of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards), they persist in their investigation, even in the face of White House attempts to close them down.

At the time, we were shocked and appalled by the Watergate affair and the fact that the President turned out to be a crook. Nowadays, it seems like small play compared to what has been happening under Trump’s regime – the Ukrainian quid pro quo scandal being the tip of the fatberg. Nevertheless, All the President’s Men still resonates more than forty years after it was made.

In a nutshell . . .

This is one of the best suspense thrillers ever made, and all based on fact.

2. Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939 poster).jpg

Where there’s political power, there will always be corruption. But you only need one honest man to fight for truth and justice. In this case, it’s Jefferson Smith (aka James Stewart) who is elected to the US Senate where his personal mission is to fight for ‘lost causes – the only causes worth fighting for’. Mr Smith’s idealism doesn’t sit well with fellow politicians from his home state who try to bring him down by circulating forged documents and fake stories. Sound slightly familiar?

In a nutshell . . .

Capra’s film was a ground-breaker in dealing with political corruption and and nepotism in post-Depression America and is just as relevant today. Perhaps more so. The film is a bit creaky and the acting often veers towards histrionics, but if you're a movie buff, it’s worth a look.

3. The Ghost Writer (2010)

The Ghost Writer poster.png

Unlike All the President’s Men, The Ghost Writer is a work of fiction, yet it feels very real. A corrupt former Prime Minister, played with charming malevolence by Pierce Brosnan, is struggling with his memoirs and wants a ghost writer to pen them for him.

Enter Ewan McGregor, who arrives by ferry at the PM’s house on a windswept island. If you thought being a politician’s ghost writer would be a bland occupation, think again. Referred to only as 'The Ghost', McGregor soon discovers hidden documents that reveal the former PM is hiding some very dangerous political secrets. Is there anyone our Ghost Writer can trust? The PM’s wife? The professor? Or perhaps the senior politician who claims he has dirt on the ex PM?

In the best thriller tradition, there is a knock-you-for-six ending that will leave you reeling.

In a nutshell . . .

An intelligent thriller which will draw you into its dark and sinister world.

4. The Ides of March (2011)

The Ides of March Poster.jpg

 

Ryan Gosling is a novice campaign director, working for Governor George Clooney, a charming Presidential hopeful, competing in the Democratic primaries. In this film, nobody is as they seem and everyone wants to win at all costs, from the campaign managers to the candidates themselves. There’s collateral damage along the way but no-one seems to care.

An outstanding cast, including the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Governor’s chief of staff and the ever-reliable Paul Giametti as the opponent’s campaign manager, lifts this film above your run-of-the-mill political thriller.

In a nutshell . . .

A riveting drama about political and personal machinations with plenty of twists.

5. Dave (1993)

Dave poster.jpg

Wikipedia

 

Ostensibly a romantic comedy, there is far more to Dave than that. The titular hero is an ordinary guy who runs an employment agency and has a part-time job impersonating the President. When the real President suffers a stroke, the White House Chief of Staff (a delightfully devious Frank Langella*) recruits Dave to take Potus’s place.

The President’s wife (Sigourney Weaver), who is estranged from her husband, soon works out there is an imposter in the Oval Office but keeps this to herself as she finds Dave’s kindness and honesty rather refreshing. So does the American public who are delighted to see that their President has become a new and better man following his stroke.

 

*Frank Langella also played a chilling Nixon in Frost Nixon, another excellent political film based on the famous interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon.

In a nutshell . . .

Can a rom com about politics be deeply insightful? You bet!

Afterword

I couldn’t end this article without mentioning some outstanding television series with politics at their heart.

 

The West Wing (1999-2006)

The first few seasons are a tour de force, featuring quick-fire ‘walk and talk’ scenes delivered by an impeccable cast. At the heart of the series is President Josiah Bartlet, played by the magnificent Martin Sheen, who had previous experience in the Oval Office as JFK in the 1983 miniseries Kennedy.

For those of us who suffered through the George W. Bush years, The West Wing provided an alternative political world led by an intelligent and capable statesman.

Following the departure of scriptwriter extraordinaire Aaron Sorkin, the series started to flag, but it did give us a Hispanic President (Jimmy Smits) in the final year.

A snippet of trivia –Elisabeth Moss who plays June in The Handmaid’s Tale rose to fame as Martin Sheen’s daughter Zoey in The West Wing.

  

House of Cards (1990)

This is the original BBC series, which I found far superior to the more recent American version with Kevin Spacey. The late Ian Richardson plays the nefarious and manipulative Francis Urquhart who plots to become leader of the Conservatives and then PM. The ending is truly shocking.

The Politician’s Husband (2012)

Written by the talented Paula Milne, this miniseries stars David Tennant as a leadership aspirant and Emily Watson as his wife, a woman with political ambitions of her own. There is a fine supporting cast including Ed Stoppard and Roger Allam and lots of twists culminating in a pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you ending.

 

The Thick of It and The Hollowmen

Who says politics can’t be humorous? Particularly when the humour is of the satirical kind. The British series features the incomparable Peter Capaldi as spin doctor Malcolm Tucker, a man renowned for spicing his conversations with picturesque profanities. Meanwhile The Hollowmen is a biting Australian satire targeting politicians and bureaucrats alike.

Deborah O’Brien

February 2020

Film Review:

'1917'

1917 2019 Film Poster

 

The madness and futility of the First World War have 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, showing the horrors of war from the perspective of German infantrymen.

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

'1917' is based on a story told to Mendes by his grandfather, Alfred, to whom the film is dedicated. Alfred Mendes served as a messenger on the Western Front and this is a very personal project for his grandson. But what makes ‘1917’ unique is the way it is filmed as a continuous shot or, at least, the illusion of one. By using this technique*, Mendes enmeshes the viewer in the story and, for the most part, it works unobtrusively.

The protagonists are two lance corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), who are tasked to carry a vital message to the colonel of the Devonshire battalion that the planned attack on what they think is a weak, retreating German army should be called off; otherwise the Devons will be slaughtered. For Corporal Blake, this mission is particularly close to his heart - his brother is a lieutenant with the Devons.

Blake and Schofield embark on a nine-hour trek marked by heart-stopping incidents. There is also a poignant encounter with a French woman and baby in a scene which reminds us that humanity can exist in the hell of the Western Front. But possibly the most moving moment of the entire film involves a rendition of the hymn, ‘Poor Wayfaring Stranger’ – it brought tears to my eyes.

‘1917’ does not have leading men in the traditional sense. Blake and Schofield are played by little-known** actors, and this relative anonymity makes our identification with them that much stronger. There are some ‘names’ in the cast – 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 a frazzled colonel.

‘1917' has already won a Golden Globe for Best Drama, and I anticipate an Academy Award to follow for the film and its director.

* The same technique was used to great effect in 'Birdman'. See my review here:

http://www.deborahobrien.com.au/index.php/blog/by-theme/12-blog/182-film-review-birdman

** George MacKay played Ned Kelly in 'The True Story of Ned Kelly' (2019) alongside Essie Davis and Russell Crowe.

Deborah O’Brien

27 January 2020


 

Home in the Highlands

 

 

LIFE @ WHITE GABLES: THE INSIDE STORY

The Flying Carpet

 

Livingroomx

 

Although I’ve penned hundreds of words about the garden at White Gables, I haven’t written much about the house itself and its interiors. That’s because we’ve been working hard to repair damaged walls and floors and deal with a series of surprises that didn’t appear in the building inspection report. The hard work is mostly over and several rooms are finished, but there are still some mysteries to unravel.

For example, why do the lights cut out whenever it rains? Our trusty electrician has investigated thoroughly but can't find the answer. Are there ghosts at work at White Gables? While we await a solution, we’ve installed night-lights in every room - fortunately the power points still work, no matter how long or hard it rains. Torches have been placed in key positions, and in the kitchen there’s a desk lamp on the counter-top so that if the ceiling lights go, I can cook dinner by lamplight! 

But back to the real story. My tale of the first major purchase for White Gables. This is how it happened.

When we moved into the property last December, I found myself with a vast formal living room, 7 metres by 6 metres, with a 5.5 metre (18 foot) vaulted ceiling. Unfurnished, it looked even bigger than it had at the inspections. 

 

 

WG Bookcasecropped

For those of you who've read my story, 'A Tale of Two Chandeliers', here's the original chandelier! 
We also inherited the gorgeous oak bookcase and library ladder.

 

How was I going to turn something that looked like an auditorium, complete with echo, into a cosy sitting room? Yes, you guessed it! Add a rug, a very big one!

But where would I find one big enough for this room, without paying a fortune for it?

I spent hours browsing online before coming across a traditional design in muted shades of grey, cream and blue which I hoped would form the perfect backdrop for my existing cream sofas. What’s more, the price was very good indeed.

Fast forward to Monday morning, 9am. After a weekend of vacillating, I decided to buy the rug. Call me old-fashioned but I never place an order online when there's a phone number I can ring. At the top of the home page, there was a one-800 number operating ‘24/7’.

The voice that answered my call was bright and cheery:

   ‘Hi. This is Brad. How may I help you?’

   His American accent caught me off-guard. ‘You’re American!’ I said, forgetting my manners.

   ‘That’s right, ma’am. You’ve just phoned North Carolina.’

   ‘Oh!’ I gulped. ‘But I’m in Sydney, Australia.’

   ‘Don’t worry, it’s a free call. We have a lot of Australians buying our rugs.’

   I was on the point of thanking him for his time and hanging up. After all, it would be ridiculous to buy a rug from America – the freight alone would cost a fortune.

   ‘Which rug are you interested in, ma’am?’ Brad continued.

   It couldn't hurt to give him the details. 

  'Yes, we have that rug in stock,' he replied. Then he told me the price - it was exactly the same as the amount which had appeared on the website.

  ‘I’m assuming we're talking US dollars here,’ I said. 

  ‘No, ma’am,  the price is in Australian dollars.'

  While I was processing that particular piece of information, he added: 'And delivery is free.’

  ‘Free delivery to Australia!’ I squeaked, having recently paid forty dollars to have a new fridge delivered from twenty kilometres away.

  ‘Absolutely, ma’am. And it should arrive within ten days.’

The deal was too good to refuse, but a little voice in my head was saying: perhaps it’s too good to be true. Nevertheless, I supplied my details, paid by credit card and was informed that a tracking number and receipt would be zooming their way to me via email.

As soon as I pressed ‘End’, doubts began to fill my head. Would I ever hear from the company again? Did it really sell rugs, or was it simply an elaborate scam set up to snare gullible home decorators like me?

Later that day I happened to mention the internet purchase to a friend when she phoned for a chat.

   ‘You bought a rug from America!’ she exclaimed.

   ‘It’s a reputable company,’ I said, trying to convince myself.

   ‘I hope you haven’t bought yourself a flying carpet,’ she tittered. ‘The kind that flies away and is never seen again.’

Meanwhile an email had pinged into my inbox, containing the tracking number. When I clicked on the link, an official-looking page appeared on the screen, announcing that my rug had left the North Carolina warehouse and was already in a sorting centre in Cincinatti. If this was a scam, they’d gone to a lot of trouble to make it seem authentic.

On Thursday of that same week I checked the tracking info again, expecting the rug to be still in the USA, if indeed it existed at all. But the information on my computer screen indicated differently:

        Parcel arrived Sydney Airport 11pm Wednesday.

        Parcel cleared Customs 8am Thursday.

        Parcel with courier 8.45am Thursday.

        Delivery to purchaser by 4pm Thursday.

Impossible! I thought to myself. After all, I’d only ordered the rug on Monday morning. 

At 2pm that day, there was a knock on the front door. Outside, a courier was holding what looked like a dead body wrapped in heavy green plastic. After he left, I dragged the ‘body bag’ inside and set to work with a scissors to cut it open. Finally, the rug emerged, rolled up and folded in half, like a sandwich wrap. I tried to unroll it in the hallway but it was too big.

 

 

WG Rug in body bagx

 

WG Rug Foldedx

 

That night my son and I lugged the rug into the living room, where we unfurled it, stood back and surveyed the purchase.

   ‘What do you think of it?’ I asked him.

   ‘It’s perfect!’ he replied.

 

 WG Working on Great Room

 

Here's the rug after we unwrapped it. The folds came out easily.
I took this picture on the day after settlement. It was December 2 
and as you can see, my priority was decorating the Christmas tree rather than furnishing the room!
And there's that chandelier again!

 

WG with rug 021217.cropped

 

 

WG Living room from stairsx

The sitting room with the furniture in place.

 

When my credit card bill arrived later that month, the first thing I did was to check the amount I’d paid for the rug. It was exactly as specified. No extras, taxes or customs duty.

Lesson learnt: There are still people left in the world you can trust.

 

WG Christmas and Cody cropped 

Cody gives the rug his seal of approval.  

 

 

Postscript: Not long after I purchased my rug, the Australian Government decided to introduce GST for overseas internet purchases under $1000. I’d bought the rug just in time.

And some good news – our trusty electrician solved the blackout problem – it turned out that rats (we like to call them native mice) had gnawed through the insulation around an electrical wire running under the house to the garage. The faulty wire has now been replaced and there are no more blackouts.

 

Deborah O’Brien

24 July 2018

 

Read more about Life at White Gables:

 

Home in the Highlands: Finding the Dream Home

Home in the Highlands: The Secret Garden

Home in the Highlands: A Tale of Two Chandeliers 

Home in the Highlands: Autumn