Writing By The River

A bit of catastrophe in the quiet


My glance long and oblique up the bus caught
Of a man and a woman side by side on a seat
Behind the driver one blustery autumn day;
And I, perched by the back window in a corner,
Of somebody whom I knew, and who knew me, but less,
Quietly approaching from the steps, down the empty length,
Until she sat next to me and took my hand.
For all the time scenes paraded behind us and
Wind flapped like birds on endless take-offs
Against the open glass; all the time they leaned and
Laughed, shoulder to shoulder, in every attitude of
Delight and belonging and oblivion, there we two,
Content in each other’s company, saying not much, saying —
Actually — nothing at all.

Film review: The Daughter

The Daughter.jpg

In a scene near the opening of Simon Stone’s The Daughter, a wild duck with a gunshot wound to its wing stares straight out, motionless, from inside a cage, as if disappointed in the world, on a vehicle that bears it away. “Put it out of its misery,” a voice says. Then new rounds are loaded into a gun.

We do not know whether the coup de grace is carried through, until the duck appears a third of the way into the film in the animals’ home of Walter (Sam Neill), a local resident. “It is like an artificial RSPCA,” says his grand-daughter, Hedvig (Odessa Young), about the makeshift sanctuary in the rural town.

The debut feature by Stone, an Australian theatre director, in his adaptation of Hendrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, weaves through the tale its analogy, resonant though it is, like luminous cotton. However, what it lacks in subtlety, this gorgeously-shot movie — of pale palettes, as though the entire drama takes place behind the grey mist of the NSW countryside — more than makes up for in its soundtrack and first-rate acting. Besides the title character that is powerfully embodied by Young, the rest of the formidable cast plays their roles with convincing flawlessness.

When we meet him, Henry (Geoffrey Rush), the owner of a timber mill that has kept the whole community employed for more than a generation, is announcing its closure. There are a few jeers, some quiet swears, amid feelings of resignation. But while people are forced to relocate to seek employment elsewhere, the mogul is planning a lavish wedding to his housekeeper, a much younger woman. And his son, Christian (Paul Schneider), has also just returned for the ceremony from America.

Estranged from his father, Christian chooses to spend time with his childhood mate, Oliver (Ewen Leslie), and gets to know his daughter, Hedvig, his wife, Charlotte (Miranda Otto), and becomes reacquainted with Walter, in whose safe-house he sees the recovering duck and learns about Henry’s involvement in its plight.

Only, he goes on to learn more.

In the years he has been away since his mother’s suicide, Christian has battled alcoholism. And now as he witnesses Henry’s apparent self-centred indifference, moving on with a new relationship, his own marriage in tatters, the embittered man resumes drinking with abandon.

Deftly swelling an imperceptible sense of latent violence, Stone makes us hold our breath in anticipation of what damage on Oliver’s family bliss instability could inflict with long-hidden truths.

It is not hard to infer where Stone has elected to place his emphasis, nevertheless. Following Hedvig in her navigation through endless changes, the account is ultimately an end-of-innocence story in which the 16-year-old finds her fate pre-ordained from birth. Although proving resilient, after being disillusioned by her first sexual encounter, she grapples with friends leaving the neighbourhood, and struggles to understand impunity for the rich and powerful, before watching her family unravel in a whirlwind of scandals and secrets.

Toward the end of the film, there is one frame, quick and (incongruently) nuanced, flashing past like fleeting consciousness, that I found particularly indelible: as the father-daughter relationship between Hedvig and Oliver collapses in a bleak carpark, the camera pans to an upstairs window of a nearby apartment block, and the child’s face — looking down upon them — in it.

The Daughter, that connects two families across three generations, impresses with the way it captures deep-seated human emotions. And despite its trite metaphor of a broken bird flying again, and its less-than-credible denouement, it is something worth watching still.

Book review: As I Lay Dying


It is July 1913 in the Mississippi countryside. Addie Bundren, a mother of five, is on her deathbed.

The eldest child, Cash, is bevelling up planks for the coffin, while his two brothers are on an errand, hurrying to make some much-needed money, then to get the mules-driven wagon home.

Anse, their father, has given his word to bury Addie in the town where she grew up. But, by the time the family is ready to set forth on their 40-miles ride, rains and floods have washed away bridges across swollen rivers.

William Faulkner’s first chronicler of life in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County — the setting for many of his later novels — relates the tale through 15 sets of eyes: each of the Bundren family members, and their (mostly) friends and neighbours, and Addie herself. This arrangement of multiple viewpoints, in describing the treachery of their passage, takes us also on a revealing journey deep through the characters’ minds.

A private and flawed woman, Addie was overtly partial to Jewel, her third-born, whom she conceived from an affair with a church minister. On discovering this, second son Darl was so overcome by jealous fury that he took to revenge through Dewey Dell, his sister, in a way their mother never came to know.

In the author’s mastery of the stream-of-consciousness technique and his known deployment of symbolism, the narrative in As I Lay Dying, even if it describes exquisitely those innermost feelings and coping mechanisms (especially of the youngest boy Vardaman), can be bewildering.

Like, amongst other obscurities, whether 17-year-old Dewey Dell pines for their 70-year-old doctor out of affection, or that he is seen only as a solution to her unwanted pregnancy, if indeed her pining is not because he is that solution (in a wild conflation of two emotions) is equivocal.

What is unequivocal, though, is Faulkner’s scathing indictment of the religious, and, by extension, religion as a whole: he casts Cora, Addie’s fellow country-sider and self-congratulatory Christian, as irrational, a contradiction, perceptibly blind and ridiculous in pride, with the novel pulling no punches either on the squalid hypocrisy of the minister who fathered Jewel and then (probably) Dewey Dell.

“I could just remember how my father used to say the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time…” Addie thinks, and we begin to appreciate her partiality and witness the materialisation of her legacy when Jewel turns out to be the one to save their mother from the jaws of water then, risking his own life, to rescue the coffin single-handedly out of enveloping flames, and meanwhile protecting the Bundrens from further indebtedness and more shame.

In Faulkner’s county, men, despite preferring women to be lesser than them, seem confused about what their wives want. Respectful in some regards, husbands are baffled by the spouses who in turn feel invariably hard-done by in the sprawling rural-scapes.

Here, where country folks harbour a life-long inferiority complex to town residents, there is as much fraternal helpfulness (begrudging or not) as there are freeloaders, like Anse.

Pervading the book, like miasma in the hilly dusk, is a sense of things ending without departure, of illusions of motion, people who are dead but do not yet know they have died, or being detached from themselves.

“It’s like there was a fellow in every man that’s done a-past the sanity or the insanity, that watches the sane and insane doings of that man with the same horror and the same astonishment.” Cash thinks, when Darl is sent away to an asylum, unconvinced anybody ought to judge what is madness, what not, questioning if Darl’s attempts to burn their decomposing mother is that crazy, after all.

Faulkner’s prose steeped in vernacular is strangely mellifluous and certain passages are utterly breathtaking. But it is his acute capacity for social observation and powers of imagination with an implacable eye for the nuanced human conduct (and blood traits) that put me under his spell.



Film review: The Danish Girl


In The Danish Girl Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne plays Einar Wegener, an accomplished landscape painter who, when we meet him in 1926, is holding a solo exhibition in his home city of Copenhagen, where he lives with his wife of six years, Gerda (Alicia Vikander). She, too, is a painter, although her efforts in portraiture are, at the opening of the film, yet to receive similar recognition.

Despite Gerda’s ambivalence towards her husband’s success — a mixture of pride and envious rivalry — the couple enjoy a healthy sexual relationship and are trying for a baby. So when Gerda discovers she has had her period, a second blow, after suffering rejection in her professional endeavours, Einar feels obliged to fulfil her request and stand in for a woman-model, whose busy schedule has kept her away, to help Gerda towards completing her work.

As Einar starts to pull the sheer stocking up his leg, holding the dress close against his chest, however, something (or, really, someone) stirs within him like a female twin waking from a long slumber. In one bedroom scene afterwards Gerda finds him wearing her lingerie snug under his shirt.

Acknowledging the hitherto-unseen face that has seemed to emerge from inside Einar, Gerda begins to paint the new guest in their household, whom they soon come to call Lili. Only Lili is here to stay, edging out Einar more and more, until Gerda finds her husband kissing another man at a party in which the playful wife has introduced the painfully shy girl as Einar’s cousin.

Based on David Ebershoff’s novel, a fictionalised account of the true story surrounding Einar Wegener (and Gerda), in the Danish artist’s quest to transform himself from man to woman, making him one of the first candidates to undergo sexual reassignment surgery, Tom Hooper’s latest feature documents the wave of pathos that sweeps through transgenders and, with no less strength, that which crashes upon their spouses.

The movie is beautifully acted and Redmayne and Vikander let us see how the chemistry between Einar and Gerda develops from being heterosexually heated to become one of an unconditional sisterly affection.

The anguish behind Vikander’s quivering, dark eyes on a brave face Gerda carries in unyielding support of her rapidly-fading husband, sometimes falling helplessly into the arms of Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), a man whose love she stoically declines out of singular devotion to Einar, is deeply convincing.

And Redmayne’s trembling fingers on the soft fabric of frocks, his febrile observation of feminine movements, the bashful joy evoked by men’s attention, are reminiscent of a pubescent child growing up into a woman in full, sensuous bloom.

In one revealing sequence half-way through the two-hour production Lili stands nude before a mirror, tucking Einar’s penis and testicles between her legs, and arches round to glance back at the curve of her buttocks.

As Gerda goes on to earn fame and plaudits for her portraits of Lili, Hooper delicately shows that art reflects inner consciousness and identity in a way mirrors cannot. That Gerda is portrayed as an artist who details accurately what she sees in front of her must also mean she truly believes Lili lives in a man’s body like precious few in the then-society do.

Hooper’s nuanced direction combines with the stunning cinematography to also articulate that Einar’s works in landscapes of his childhood village that he did repeatedly and purely by memory had had to come from a place intrinsic in him. Like Lili. “She was always there,” she confides in Gerda. 

If there is any criticism of the film, it is, for me, that the closing text before the credits roll potentially misleads one to think The Danish Girl is a non-fictional narrative. It takes a half-hearted search through the internet to learn about the actual (albeit alleged) circumstances around the 20th-century bohemians, and to discover a plethora of unfavourable reviews on how far the movie deviates from history.

There is nothing wrong with fictionalising reality — it happens all the time — but only if the audience is duly made aware. Misinformation destroys in an instant the magic that, in this case, has taken years to nurture.



A Name at Night

There is a name I am with most nights,
And most hours of most nights.

With sleep lifted like a lid from my
Eyes one bed-time I sat under the Golden

Ash so the moonlight could dapple it upon my
Dress within which the name slid in

As a lover into bed. A cat jumped down from
Behind me and flicked away, silver brows and

Claws, into the shadows. As I lay on my back,
Half in the black, half white, my legs

In the moon, I watched fractal branches posed
Against the light, then found myself say:

If we could ravel out into time
That would be nice. For in twilight we fall

Into furious attitudes — echoes of age-old
compulsions — at the edge of consciousness.

First Love and Last

He worked in fugs of cigarette smoke when alone.
He was in a different place in that smoke.
He wore a singlet under his shirts.
He woke to find the alarm clock in his hand.
He laughed heartily at his own jokes.
He was hospitalised saving a child from oncoming cars.
He was the mirror on my dresser.
He was the red arrow on a compass rose.
He was the pier waiting for the boat to dock.
He was the reason you suffered to excel.
He was the tallest tree in the world.
He was the bucket on the edge of a well.
He was an open border to refugees.
He was the night-light at bedtime.
He read Romance of the Three Kingdoms back to back five times.
He blew small bubbles when he slept.
He was my first love and will be my last.
He was my Dad.

Film review: Youth



The title Youth may seem totally ironic for a film in which the central characters, both in their late-70s (or early-80s), are living out their latter years. Then, perhaps, it is not all that out of place.

Through his latest production, director Paolo Sorrentino illustrates the way age could erode not only one’s physical well-being but their emotional health. Seeing the world predominantly through the eyes of Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine, sensational), the movie follows the distinguished composer and conductor, as he rediscovers his faculty to feel, and becomes acquainted again with his younger self.

We meet him in a luxury resort at the foot of the Swiss Alps where he is vacationing with his daughter, Leda (Rachel Weisz), and life-long movie-director friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). While Mick is still working on a new script, Fred has declared himself determinedly retired.

Citing personal reasons, he declines even a commission by Buckingham Palace to conduct one of his many compositions for a Royal celebration. So, when he is not submitting with resignation to the body-rejuvenation regime of massages and spas and health checks organised by Leda, the quietly sceptical musician is reminiscing the past to Mick, with whom he also muses about other well-heeled guests at the house. Like the couple on stubbornly unspeaking terms who end up fornicating wildly in the forest. Or the actor (beautifully underplayed by Paul Dano) contemplating roles of horror and of desire.

A poem, held together by the loosest of plots, within which surreal images pierce here and there like exploding themes into the narrative, Youth combines a vivacious cinematography with an often-profound screenplay to reveal the sometimes-visceral, sometimes-banal quality of human condition.

There is one sexy, if elusive, scene where Fred finds the voluptuous Miss Universe (holidaying there too) rubbing up against him as they pass each other on a watery path in front of St Mark’s Square, before coming back to be surrounded again by the shadows of those who survived lost fame, or have lost themselves in that fame.

Imbuing Fred with a few regrets as husband and father, Sorrentino sends him on a trajectory from mechanical numb cynicism towards belief, something Mick demonstrates literally with his life.

“You say emotions are over-rated; that’s bullshit,” the film-maker says, after the diva (Jane Fonda) he had groomed rejects him and mocks at his fading talent. “They’re all we’ve got.”

But the Academy-award winning director of The Great Beauty is not interested only in the soft and the fuzzy. In an exquisite manifestation of renewal through the next generation, Fred gently instructs a young boy he stumbles upon playing Fred’s own work on the violin.

Where the movie disappoints me, though, is its excruciating drawn-out pace, segueing from one thing to another, as though by an indulgent poet in a drunken stupor, even when Caine, in marvellously indicating Fred’s growing welter of feelings, is the effective hero. One wonders whether this is how the world becomes to everybody with the cruel passage of time.

Still, Youth is nothing less than memorable, and deserves — maybe only just — the patience it demands if only for the thoughtful lines and disarmingly spectacular interjections and scrumptious nude(s).


Two Variations


blackness on blackness : grease running upon
asphalt : down a moonless street : or
black ink on black paper : your favourite
shirt : hanging too big : across my shoulders :
over black cotton : between my legs : crows
crouched like a broken umbrella before the storm : light
carrying disaster beneath her dress : the shape
of your sleep against my back : scorched humour
of time : and life : griefs that cicadas list : skin shining
blackly half above the water : out of and into
the surface : as through to the other side of the earth


The room is quiet and the door unlocked
Wherefore I step inside, despite the darkness that will,

As it does so every time, arrest and keep me
Standing, freely feeling, while it swells

Backwards out and down the hall, among the
Muslin, about the framed pictures

Bearing down on the solitary candle in the
Untouched basement with inimitable intimacy

Theatre review: Maladaptation


“Watch me live, watch me try to live, watch me.” We do, confronting though it is, in Tristan Watson’s original play whose title conjures the predicament in which man-kind finds themselves when adaptation, even if once thought astute, goes wrong.

The central character, heeding the bird that in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets said: Go, go, go, human kind/Cannot bear very much reality, slips back into his (day)-dream, like a bubble pistoned through a membrane. Only this adaptation, when we encounter it, that must for a time have been a reprieve from the physical world, has already gone bad.

He stumbles across the stage, as if in a trance, undertaking a series of routine movements, which are repeated for no obvious purpose. He slithers and he crawls, is poised then falls, and then in the grey, chilly space that is his parallel universe, Watson himself in the richly-created role works up a positive sweat, like ectoplasm, before being swallowed up by the man’s mind.

This is a fascinating and evocative, if rather loamy, meditation on coping mechanisms and excesses and reality, made all the more potent by Lyndon Chester’s textured soundscape, so extraordinary it seems to be the choreographer that informs the actor’s organic expression. The lighting too is effective, illuminating the wild eyes and the sinews and slapping frustrations.

But all these would be a scatter of unjoined dots without Watson’s exceptional performance. Compelling and empathetic, he forces us to acknowledge what it is really like when we wallow in things contrived to save us from apparent dissatisfaction, to recognise the delusional self-image we mould for ourselves in those scenarios, the way we become enslaved to new protocols, not least the violent desperation when we attempt and fail to get out — be it a dream, an unsustainable environment, or perhaps more pertinent today, our virtual persona(s).


Reading was important to you. Unhurried
Your eyes swallowed up sentences like
Spool upon ribbon. Scenes unfolded on an inside screen,
Shaded in each frame, the drama deeper
Than seeing shades unfolding scenes.

Every time you read it felt restful
And enticing. The afternoon opened
When you dissected Graham Greene’s Henry Scobie
To get to the Heart of the Matter. Your head
Wedged between my body and lap, there

In the drawing-room, I sat uncoiling pictures
Between pages in my own serene hands.
Time rolled on. I found myself now and then
Hearing the amplified grave ticking of the tall-case
Clock, the sound that, as I listened and not, ceased

Or recovered, without departing. Looking up
At the calm of mirror-glass and sunstruck pendulum
I watched every detail to record every moment
Until the whole of that November day was processed
To memory: when the room began to look sulphur

Shadows spill across the cream carpet
Like strokes of paint on pale canvas, where,
Out in the enfeebled light, birds hang motionless
In narrowing circles, the quick swollen
Sky giving the illusion of retrograde. But you read

Implacably on, leaning closer, and held my hand
Spreading the book with the other.
As both have now sunk below earth to be held
By interminable darkness my hand narrates on
Inches from your novel playing back

Your bearded profile, sloped into the light,
With rapt immobility above your long brown arms,
Playing back to return us to the air we had been dislodged,
To the concentrated quiet displaced by the
Concentrated stillness I cannot kiss and distract.