Netflix review: Behind Her Eyes

Louise Barnsley (Simona Brown) leads an ordinary enough life. She is divorced and lives with her young son, Adam (Tyler Howitt) in London. She enjoys her job working at a psychiatrist’s office. She gets on well with her main colleague Sue (Georgie Glen) and has another good friend outside work, Sophie (Nichola Burley).

She does, however, suffer from night terrors and is haunted by dreams in which she wonders down creepy Clive Barker-esque corridors and which see her son see endangered in various ways. These nightmares often cause Louise to sleepwalk: potentially a serious problem as she lives in a high-rise flat with a balcony.

One day, she literally bumps into Adele (Eve Hewson, the daughter of U2 musician, Bono) who she recognises as the wife of her new boss, Dr. David Ferguson (Tom Bateman). This is awkward as Louise and David have already kissed on a night out, shortly before David started the job. At that point, Louise had had no idea either that David was already married or that he was about to become her new employer. The kiss would doubtless never have happened if she had. Things get more awkward still when Adele who is very beautiful but clearly very lonely starts pushing hard to befriend Louise. Louise is initially wary: Adele does not, of course, know about the kiss and Adele doesn’t want David – who seems to be very controlling and possessive – to know about her friendship with Louise. Without really meaning to, Louise has thus got into a position where she is deceiving both sides of the Ferguson marriage at the same time. On the plus side, Adele does seem to have a possible intriguing solution to Louise’s night terrors.

On top of all this, the Ferguson marriage seems to be a loveless nightmare. David is clearly miserable, drinks heavily and seems to be attempting to control Adele through a regimen of prescription pills. He clearly expects her to stay at home all day in their large but sterile home while he goes to work. A series of flashbacks to the late 2000s, meanwhile, reveal a younger happier Adele befriending a young Scots drug addict, Rob (Robert Aramayo) while both are apparently staying at a rural psychiatric institution.

What is the truth behind Adele’s troubled past? Who exactly was Rob and what happened to him? What does the well, which keeps appearing in the flashback sequences, have to do with anything? Why are David and Adele so unhappy together? Is David manipulating Adele? Is Adele manipulating him? Are they both manipulating Louise and if so, why? What exactly happened to Adele’s family? Is there something suspicious about Louise’s friend, Sophie? Why are there pigeons everywhere? Can Louise disentangle herself from this mess?

This compelling new six-part Netflix thriller from Steve Lightfoot and based on Sarah Pinborough’s 2017 novel raises many such questions and will keep you guessing right until the very final scenes.

TV review: It’s A Sin

It’s 1981 and a group of young people are on their way to embark upon a new life in London in Russell T. Davies’ new five-episode Channel 4 drama.

Escaping a fairly loveless home environment on the Isle of Wight, Ritchie Tozer (Olly Alexander) is soon having the time of his life in the capital. Good-looking and confident, he is free to enjoy the delights of the capital’s thriving gay scene at night while pursuing bit parts as an actor in the likes of Doctor Who during the day. He soon befriends Jill (Lydia West, who appeared in Davies’ previous drama, Years and Years), who is also hoping to tread the boards. Colin (Callum Scott Howells), meanwhile, is gay too, like Ritchie, but a tamer character who has moved from Wales to work at a tailor’s. He is soon being forced to politely resist unwanted sexual overtures from his married male boss. Finally, Roscoe (Omari Douglas), another live wire, has been forced to flee his family home after his family threaten to send him to Nigeria because of his homosexuality.

All of these characters and a number of others soon converge and become friends in London. As the series moves through the next decade, all also see their lives seriously impacted by the spread of AIDS.

This is clearly very serious subject matter indeed and it would be wrong to pretend that watching It’s A Sin isn’t a powerful, hard-hitting, harrowing and overall, very moving experience. At the same time, Davies doesn’t forget to show that at least initially life for these twentysomethings as they go out, get jobs, make friends, live together, go clubbing, get drunk, go on the pull and generally experience adult life for the first time is lots of fun. This is something many of us will be able to relate to regardless of whether we are young or old, gay or straight or can remember the 1980s ourselves or not. The soundtrack is also amazing. Putting 1980s songs in a TV drama is hardly an amazingly original idea but songs such as Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, Freedom by Wham!, REM’s Everybody Hurts and yes! It’s A Sin by the Pet Shop Boys (many although not all of them performed by artists who whether we knew it or not at the time were gay themselves) are deployed very effectively.

It’s easy to forget how far social attitudes have progressed in the thirty or forty years since the show’s 1980s setting. None of the main characters feel able to tell their families they are gay with the end result that when many of them do contract AIDS their families discover that their children are both homosexual and potentially mortally ill almost simultaneously. Initially, there is a terrifying mystery about the disease. One fairly minor character goes to his grave early on, apparently at a complete loss as to why he and his partner seem to have both contracted cancer at the same time. Another is so ashamed by his condition that he won’t tell anyone he has it. Following his death, his family not only cover-up the cause of his demise but attempt to destroy any evidence that he ever existed. Even as liberal and well-intentioned character as Jill is sufficiently worried about her AIDS-infected friend drinking out of one of her mugs that she destroys it afterwards. The information simply wasn’t available then.

The myth that AIDS exclusively affected only the homosexual community persisted for far too long to, hindering progress partly because many authority figures clearly felt many victims to some extent deserved their fate simply because they were that way inclined. In one memorable sequence, talking straight to camera, Ritchie articulates his own reasons for believing the AIDS virus to be a myth dreamed up by a homophobic media. Such conspiracy theories, of course, foreshadow those who persist in claiming in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t exist today. If anything, although we know Ritchie’s argument is no less bogus than they are, Ritchie does present a better argument for his disease not existing than they do.

Ultimately, with an excellent supporting cast including Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Fry, Tracy Ann Oberman, Keeley Hawes and Shaun Dooley, It’s A Sin is a worthy companion piece to Russell T. Davies’s earlier series Queer as Folk and Cucumber. January is barely over yet this may well prove to be the best British TV drama of 2021 along with Russell T. Davies’s greatest ever masterpiece.

All episodes of It’s A Sin can be viewed now on All 4. It is also being broadcast n Channel 4 every Friday at 9pm.

The Crown. Series 4, Episode 2: The Balmoral Test

Balmoral: 1981. And the holidaying Royal Family are buzzing with excitement at the news a computer-animated stag has been sighted, limping across the nearby landscape. Who amongst them will be the first to fell the wounded beast? This episode is entitled, ‘The Balmoral Test.’ It could just have easily been called, ‘Stag Party.’

The Windsors also have other prey in mind too, as the Prime Minister and her husband are set to join them for a few days of socially excruciating fun and games. Will Margaret and Denis Thatcher (Gillian Anderson and Stephen Boxer) prove up to the challenge? Will they, in short, pass ‘the Balmoral test?’

Spoiler alert: no. They don’t.

As usual, writer Peter Morgan presents a balanced view of things. On the one hand, Margaret Thatcher was clearly a workaholic, with little sense of humour and no sense of fun. In real life, she described Balmoral as “purgatory.” Here, she commits a number of social gaffes, notably turning up for a rural excursion to hunt the stag in a brilliant blue suit more appropriate for addressing the Conservative Party Conference. The woman who, in reality, spent nearly every New Year’s Eve of her eleven-year premiership in the company of Jimmy Saville, proves unable to tolerate more than a few days with the holidaying Windsors. She has better things to do: the country is in the grip of recession and her Cabinet, some of whom were in ‘Allo ‘Allo (Guy Siner – Gruber in the sitcom, Sir Francis Pym in this) are in open revolt.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see why any outsider might struggle to get involved in the long established traditions of a close-knit family, particularly one as jaded and weird as the Windsors are. The Royal Family treat the Thatchers with frosty disdain, never explaining anything and assuming everyone else already knows their silly little rules. It is easy to see why Thatcher might not enjoy playing ‘Iggle Piggle’ or enjoy the delivery of Princess Anne’s (Erin Doherty) spirited animal impressions at close quarters. It also doesn’t help that two of the Royals, Princess Margaret and Prince Philip (Helena Bonham Carter and Tobias Menzies) were clearly amongst the rudest people to have ever lived.

Later, Mrs. Thatcher diminishes herself still further in the eyes of the Queen (Colman) explaining her purge of the Wets (that is, more moderate Tories, uneasy at the severe consequences of her economic policies) occurred almost entirely due to a lack of resolution on their part resulting from their privileged social background. This would have been an odd tactic to adopt when talking to the Queen, of all people, and doesn’t really do justice to the stubborn self-belief which enabled the Iron Lady to cling doggedly to such policies, even as society was devastated by mass unemployment.

Back at Balmoral, however, another new arrival – Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) brings a new subject for the family’s scrutiny, young Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin). There is a slight sense of manipulation in the way Diana wins over the Royals – for example, she tells Philip (falsely) she is essentially a country girl at heart. But this isn’t overstated. Diana soon helps the Duke kill the stag, effectively winning over all the Royals (except Margaret) in one fell swoop. She has passed the Balmoral Test with flying colours!

Next time we see her, she is Diana as most of the wider world in 1981 first saw her. A beautiful but seemingly ordinary young woman at the centre of stories about her relationship with the Prince of Wales, smiling self-consciously as she walks down the street surrounded by a growing number of snapping photographers, seemingly slightly irritated by all the attention, but also rather enjoying it at the same time.

And so, it begins…

TV review: The Stranger

2020. Available on Netflix.

Seemingly happily married with a nice house and two children, Adam Price (Richard Armitage) has a good life. Or at least, he thinks he does. That’s until ‘the stranger’ (Hannah John-Kamen) turns up.

One day, while he’s watching one of his kids play football, a young woman in a baseball cap approaches him and starts to make troubling and damaging accusations about his wife (Dervla Kirwan). Upsetting though this is, the stranger’s allegations cannot be easily dismissed. She clearly has insider knowledge and her claims seem to have the ring of truth about them. What should Adam do?

This is just the starting point for Netflix’s British-set crime drama, The Stranger which is based on US author Harlan Coben’s 2015 novel. And while never hard to follow, there’s a lot going on in this intensely plotted, incredibly gripping thriller.

Coben isn’t Albert Camus but his story certainly raises lots of interesting questions. Should Adam confront his wife or leave things be? Who is the stranger anyway? How does she know so much? Is she a force for good or evil? Does Adam have any skeletons in his own closet? Furthermore, what exactly happened at the wild teenage party Adam’s son attended? Why did a teenage boy end up running naked through the woods? Can Adam save ex-cop Stephen Rea’s house from destruction? And, most bizarre of all, why did someone decapitate an alpaca in the street?

Totally compelling from beginning to end, The Stranger also features a rare straight role for Jennifer Saunders.

The Man in the High Castle

Reproduced, with thanks, from Bingebox magazine (2016):

It seems like a familiar sight. A lone sultry and very famous singer delivers a seductive performance of “happy birthday” to the birthday boy, actually her secret lover, who also happens to be her leader. But as she reaches the third line, something jars. The words change and things take a chilling turn. “Happy birthday…Mein Fuhrer,” are the star’s next words. For while this is Marilyn Monroe, she is not singing to President Kennedy, the charismatic young American president but to … someone else entirely.

So, begins the trailer for the second season of Amazon Prime’s, The Man In The High Castle. And as if we didn’t know already, this is a world in which history has taken a very different turn from our own. And not for the better.

THE REICH STUFF

The premise of The Man In The High Castle stems from the endlessly fascinating question; what would the world be like, had Nazi Germany and imperial Japan triumphed at the end of the Second World War instead of the Allies, (that is the United States, Soviet Union, British Empire and others)?

It was a question which once haunted the feverish, troubled but hugely imaginative mind of author Philip K Dick. The man whose writing ultimately inspired many of the greatest science fiction films of all time including Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau, Dick been just too young to fight for the US in World War II himself but nevertheless realised what a close thing the outcome of the war had been. Over fifty years’ ago, inspired by another novel which convincingly  imagined a victory for the slavery supporting Confederacy in the 1860s American Civil War, he set to work producing a book depicting a similar alternative ending to World War II.

Prone to hallucinations and sudden bouts of paranoia, Dick had a relatively short turbulent life, dying in 1982, aged just 63 without seeing most of his work reach the screen. But he enjoyed probably more success The Man in High Castle than with any other book during his lifetime.

WELCOME TO AMERICA: 1962

The first season of The Man In The High Castle in 2015 brought the book’s chilling vision vividly to the screen. The United States of America we know from this period (portrayed in the early series of Mad Men, amongst other things) was confident, victorious and powerful poised on the verge of huge successes such as in the space race, but also riven by racial division and on the brink of disaster both in the Cuban Missile Crisis and in the growing war in Vietnam. But the America portrayed here is very different: it is no longer in fact, even the “United States” at all. We soon learn that the west coast of the former USA is now under the control of the victorious Japanese while the eastern bit is under Nazi German rule. The Rocky Mountains meanwhile are a neutral buffer zone between the two sides, this being where the mysterious “man in the high castle” is said to reside.

 Tantalising hints as to what has befallen the Allies are scattered liberally throughout both the series and the book. One character suggests the great war leader President Franklin D. Roosevelt was assassinated long before the war started in this reality, perhaps explaining why the US did not win. Another suggests that the war dragged on until 1947 instead of 1945 here, only ending when Nazi Germany dropped an atomic bomb on Washington DC.

TORN ASUNDER

A divided land then and few of the characters we meet are not facing a conflict of the loyalty of some sort or another. With the first season still on Amazon Prime some might want to steer clear now. But for everyone else, here’s a quick reminder…

San Francisco resident Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) for example, an expert in aikido appears happy living under Japanese rule at the start of Season 1. That’s until her half-sister Trudy who turns out to have been a member of the anti-government Resistance, is unexpectedly killed. Juliana finds herself drawn herself into the work of the Resistance as she attempts to complete Trudy’s last job: delivering a tape entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy to the mythical man in the High Castle. Intriguingly, the tape depicts an alternative version of history in which the US and the Allies defeated Germany and Japan! Essentially, the world in the tape is very like our own.

Juliana is aided and abetted by her boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) a man enjoying some creative success but who has a dark secret which pushes him closer and closer to full blown rebellion: he is Jewish. Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) meanwhile faces conflict of a different sort. Although supposedly a member of the Resistance he is in fact a secret agent in the employ of SS Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith (Rufus Sewell). Although very clearly a baddie, Smith is far from the typical stereotypical black and white Nazi villain. As his name suggests, he is an American-born participant in the new regime. A family man living a comfortable suburban life, it is suggested he has been drawn to Nazism by the apparent failure of the old American system in the Great Depression of the Thirties. Trade minister Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is yet another character who finds himself torn between conflicting loyalties. The new series also sees Chief Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente) begins to take more interest in the Man in the High Castle.

With Juliana, increasingly unsure what to do about the treacherous Joe, Joe doubting his own continued commitment to the Third Reich, Smith increasingly doubtful about the Nazi philosophy after the illness of one of his children, more revelations from The Grasshopoper Lies Heavy tapes and mounting tensions between Germany and Japan, the ten hour long episodes of Season Two of The Man In The High Castle promise to be just as compelling and as full of intrigue as the first.

At the root of the series’ success however is its authentic portrayal of a chilling but plausible alternative version of American history that though perhaps a touch more plausible in the wake of Donald Trump’s recent election victory, has mercifully never existed.

WHO’S IN IT?

ALEXA DAVALOS

Playing the starring role of Juliana Crain, French-born Alexa has appeared in a good range of TV (Angel, Mob City) and films (notably The Chronicles of Riddick and Clash of the Titans).

RUPERT EVANS

With a key role in Ewan MacGregor’s recently released directorial debut American Pastoral, British actor Evans who plays Frank Frink has been in plays, TV and film aplenty, notably offbeat superhero flick Hellboy.

RUFUS SEWELL

Instantly recognisable as the older man love interest Lord Melbourne in the recent ITV Victoria, Sewell, also British, has been playing sexy villains for years in A Knight’s Tale, The Legend of Zorro and other films and TV.

The Returned: unanswered questions

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Few recent series have so captured the popular imagination as eerie French drama The Returned (Les Revenants) which ended its Channel 4 run yesterday. But with a second series and indeed an English language remake planned, many questions still remained unanswered as the first series ended.

Chiefly:

Why exactly did some people in the town start coming back to life? What’s the connection with the dam and the water supply?

Why didn’t everyone who had died come back? Why was Camille the only one to return from the crashed bus, for example?

The boy Victor seemed to cause the bus crash in the first episode. Why was this?

Why did Camille’s older sister Lena (not actually one of “the returned” herself) develop horrible symptoms on her back? And how come these seemed to go away?

How did religious loon Pierre come to be involved in the murder of the Victor’s family?

How many times can the dead be killed and come back?

Why exactly did Simon die on his wedding day? Was it suicide? Or something else?

Is Julie, who was attacked in the underpass seven years ago dead? (Probably not).

Did Victor kill Julie’s nosey neighbour?

Is Adele dead?

What was the story behind Monsieur Costa’s suicide in Episode One? Why didn’t he come back?

Why couldn’t Julie and Laure leave the town at the end of Episode Seven? Is everyone in the town dead? Are they in Purgatory?

What happened to The Returned at the end?

And…the town’s flooded. Merde!