Small Axe: Alex Wheatle review

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The latest offering from Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, Alex Wheatle (co-written with Alastair Siddons) features an impressive debut from Sheyi Cole in the titular role. The film follows the early life of the award-winning writer from his time in care, his love of DJ-ing to a short stint in prison where he was introduced to the world of books and resolved to write his own.

Alex endured a bleak and loveless childhood, a victim of Britain’s child welfare system. His mother, a married woman, deserted him at birth, while his putative father placed him with a private foster mother. Alex is shunted between council nursery, a children’s home and foster care, where he is bullied and beaten by the very people who are supposed to look after him.

Alex’s growing love of music is a refuge from loneliness as much as anything else. As he grows older, he endures racism at school and is treated with contempt and stark violence by his teachers, strait-jacketed and thrown onto the floor of an empty hall. McQueen lingers over this moment – the stillness of Alex, his loss of trust, his dead eyes – a bitter scene that is replicated in his later, equally brutal, encounters with the police.

When Alex arrives in London, he is given a room in a hostel in Brixton and is taken under the wing of Dennis (Jonathan Jules). Alex has been institutionalised and takes time to find his feet. Dennis teaches him the street lingo, how to dress and how to be cool. Soon enough Alex is hustling with the rest of them, DJ-ing and writing lyrics about Brixton life, until he is swept up in the anger of the Brixton Uprising in 1981, which lands him a stint in prison. There he meets Simeon (Robbie Gee) a great bear of man who he initially treats with open aggression, calling him a “dirty fucking rasta” as he jumps on him. Simeon offers Alex his friendship, listens to him and lends him books, telling him: “If you don’t know your past, you won’t know your future.”

Over a whirlwind 65-minutes, we watch Alex’s rite of passage in Brixton and his unexpected ‘awakening’ in prison. Remarkably, this is Cole first time in front of the camera. He approaches Alex’s emotional journey as a teenager with a sure touch, switching effortlessly between innocence and a gradual hardening. Cole conveys a range of emotions from shyness and disbelief through hostility to joy when he discovers a passion for music and a sense of community. In prison, Alex discovers a love of reading, the curiosity to explore his past and the courage to write about his experiences. The film ends just as Alex embarks on his career path, which will include an MBE for services to literature.  

Alex Wheatle, the fourth of the Small Axe films created by Steve McQueen, airs at 9pm on Sunday 6 December, BBC One and BBC iPlayer.

Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop

Small Axe: Red, White and Blue review

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Steve McQueen’s extraordinary five-part series, Small Axe, set in the heart of London’s West Indian community from the 1960s to the 1980s, continues on BBC One with Red, White and Blue, co-scripted with Courttia Newland and starring John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Based on a true story it follows the fortunes of a black British man, Leroy Logan (Boyega) who decides to change career and become a police officer.

Red, White and Blue explores institutional racism and the alienation of black youth in Thatcher’s Britain, as well as celebrating the triumph of hope and the importance of family. It opens with Leroy, an innocent-faced schoolboy, anxiously awaiting the arrival of his father (Steve Toussaint). Ken arrives late and, to his horror, finds his son being questioned by the police under the bitterly resented SUS law, which allows them to stop and search anyone they deem suspicious, and to target black and ethnic minority communities. Ken’s reaction is entirely understandable, but the experience marks Leroy in a different way.

Years later, Leroy has a successful career as a research scientist. After his father is brutally beaten up by racist police officers, he decides to sign up with the metropolitan police in the hope of making a difference; believing that he can change the organisation from the inside. Ironically, Leroy’s successful enrolment in Hendon’s training academy is determined more by a sudden “drive for coloured recruits” than his skills as a scientist. His decision is bitterly resented by Ken but encouraged by his auntie, who works in police liaison and believes Leroy would be a “benefit to the community”.

Hit on all sides, Leroy finds himself sorely tested by the bigotry of his fellow recruits while members of the local black community label him a “traitor. He proves to be a brilliant student – fit, conscientious and highly motivated. Although recognised as “best all-round recruit”, the persistent racism begins to take its toll. His superiors and fellow trainees repeatedly undermine Leroy and, on graduation, he is relegated to street duties. Their xenophobia is brilliantly encapsulated in a fast-paced scene where Leroy confronts and chases a violent criminal through a printing factory and his fellow officers fail to respond to his urgent requests for backup.

Much of Shabier Kirchner’s footage is shot through car windows, giving a palpable sense of being watched. The period is beautifully evoked through music, Sinéad Kidao’s costume design, Hannah Spice’s detailed domestic interiors and verbal references – there’s a wonderful moment when Leroy tells a cousin, “I want to join the force.” His incredulous response is: “What? You’re going to join the Jedi?” A clever signifier of the time as well as a nod to Boyega’s acting career. Red, White and Blue captures a moment in history, before the onslaught of knife crime and gang shootings, but there are already signs of disaffection in the local black communities.

Toussaint and Boyega are particularly impressive and their father-son dynamic is utterly believable. Toussant conveys all the intensity of a proud, embittered father, desperate for his day in court and betrayed by the system, whiles Boyega exudes the optimism and quiet confidence of a man determined to succeed against all odds. McQueen and Newland’s assured script grips from the start and keeps us deeply involved in the characters’ fates. Not to be missed.

Red, White and Blue, the third of the five Small Axe films created by Steve McQueen for BBC One, airs at 9pm on Sunday 29 November.

Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop

Film Review: Amanda

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Mikhaël Hers’ sensitive, heartfelt third feature Amanda is about loss and bereavement in the aftermath of a brutal terrorist attack in a Paris park. David (Vincent Lacoste), twenty-four, loses his sister Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb) and has to decide whether he can take on the care of her seven-year-old daughter, Amanda (Isaure Multrier).

The film opens with David arriving late to pick up Amanda for his sister, a single mum and harassed English teacher. Sandrine berates her brother for leaving her child alone on the school steps but we can tell they are a close family. A few scenes later David and Sandrine are cycling through picturesque Paris, teasing each other like young lovers. David has not yet found a definitive career – he works for a property owner, meeting tourists and tenants, and prunes trees for the local parks. One tenant, who takes up residence in his apartment block, is Léna (Stacy Martin), a shy piano teacher from Bordeaux who David immediately falls for.

The first thirty minutes is made up of these modest scenes showing an ordinary Parisian family getting by. Sandrine dances with Amanda to Elvis, David asks Léna for a date, Sandrine buys David, a former tennis player, tickets for Wimbledon. We learn that their estranged mother, Alison (Greta Scacchi), lives in London. Sandrine wants to meet her, David does not, but that’s the only hint of conflict in their genial lives. This idyll is shattered one sunny afternoon. Sandrine, David and Léna have arranged to meet friends for a picnic in the park. David arrives late, as usual, to a scene of surreal mayhem. Sébastien Buchmann’s camera pans over a park full of bloodied bodies, survivors bent over them weeping. Léna is injured in hospital, Sandrine is dead.

David has to break the news of her mother’s death to Amanda and offer what comfort he can, while also grieving. Amanda has no one left to bring her up except David but he feels out of his depth. Léna, damaged in the attack and unsure if she will regain the use of her right arm, decides to leave Paris and returns to the country to live with her mother. The heart of Hers’ screenplay, co-written with Maud Ameline, focuses on Amanda and David as they attempt to pick up the pieces, bond, and resume a normal life. It’s also a poignant study in grief and its various stages. Amanda is by turn disbelieving, angry, and inconsolable. Her anguish is captured in small moments – a scene where Amanda rebukes David for removing her mother’s toothbrush is particularly moving. The camera frequently lingers on Multrier who, in an extraordinary performance, wears her heart on her sleeve.

Amanda begins in Paris and ends in London – reminding us how both cities have witnessed similar atrocities. While journalists tend to focus on the lives of terrorists and what leads them to commit such atrocities, Hers follows the victims of a fictionalised attack and the struggle to rebuild broken lives. The film celebrates the hope and resilience of children as Amanda finds a fragile peace and learns how to laugh again. Hers delivers a hard lesson about the healing power of love and acceptance with simple and unsentimental eloquence.

Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop

Film Review: The Souvenir

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Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical feature The Souvenir introduces Honor Swinton Byrne in a tour de force performance. It’s a stunning evocation of a young woman’s rite of passage in 1980s London, and a poignant exploration of an artist’s early foray into film.

When Julie (Swinton Byrne), an earnest film student, falls for raffish, upper-crust Anthony (Tom Burke) she finds herself sucked into a desperate and damaged relationship. He works for the Foreign Office and charms her with his worldly air and love of fine arts. She is exhilarated, rather than repelled, by his intellectual superiority and appears unperturbed by his erratic time-keeping. Meanwhile, we are aware something is terribly wrong when he keeps borrowing money and disappearing. Julie is as hooked on Anthony as he is dependent on an unsustainable and destructive way of life.

Alongside this turbulent love story, Julie attempts to launch her career at film school—she wants to make a film set in the working-class shipyards of Sunderland (cue Robert Wyatt’s classic track ‘Shipbuilding’). Julie tries to fit in, to distance herself from her privileged background, but it’s there in her parents’ Chelsea flat, in her sweet, almost childlike demeanour and her naivety. One suspects Julie is never quite accepted by her lecturers, fellow students and the boho people she meets at parties; she remains an outsider. Her family is firmly middle-upper class and through carefully constructed mise en scène, Hogg demonstrates that Julie is most comfortable with Anthony and his ilk.

Increasingly, Julie’s motivation is disturbed by Anthony’s moods, her studies disrupted by an impulse to rush to his side whenever he needs her. He woos her with a trip to Venice and manages to dispel her doubts for a short while, but continues to undermine her burgeoning creativity. Despite this, Julie holds on to the romance and excitement he offers and keeps on loving him even when she discovers the depths of his moral and emotional depravity.

Swinton Byrne has a rare poise and a beauty as captivating as any A-list actress. She seamlessly conveys Julie’s gullibility, her dawning awareness that Anthony is self-destructive and liable to bring her down with him, and her inability to give up on him. Like her mother, Tilda Swinton (who plays Julie’s mother), Swinton Byrne can look perfectly ordinary in one take and then the magic is there with the tilt of her face, a particular angle, or a smile that lights up the screen. Burke is equally mesmerising – off-setting Anthony’s boyish charm and vulnerability with a strident, public-school accent and overbearing self-confidence.

The Souvenir’s slow-moving pace and thoughtful air will likely divide audiences. It’s multi-layered and beautifully observed – as much about the creative process as it is about obsessive love. It’s a glorious affirmation of how experience feeds artistic endeavour. We know that Julie will get over Anthony and become a successful filmmaker, but this does not diminish our interest in how she gets there. Hogg captures to perfection the milieu of early 1980s London, destructive first love and artistic awakening.

Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop


Film Review: The Current War

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A stylishly shot period drama, charting the race to provide the world with electricity, should have been compulsive viewing. Instead, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Nicholas Hoult and Michael Shannon, fails to ignite.

Inventor Thomas Edison (Cumberbatch) has already stunned America with his light bulbs but needs to find a way to efficiently conduct electricity and light up the entire country. Businessman George Westinghouse (Shannon) is his biggest adversary. The entrepreneur had initially believed the future was in gas. When he shifts his attention to electrical currents a bitter rivalry ensues between the two men.

The film’s opening sequences are frenetically paced, packed with information and unexpected camera angles, courtesy of DoP Chung-hoon Chung. Edison favours the direct electrical current (DC) whereas Westinghouse sets out to develop a system that uses an alternating current (AC). It’s cheaper and more powerful but, as Edison sets out to prove, far more dangerous and potentially lethal.

Edison is always in need of funding but insists he won’t accept money from anyone who deals in munitions or death. The banker JP Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen) is his long-suffering benefactor. While demonstrating the hazards of using the alternating current, Edison kills a horse with one jolt and attracts the attention of those trying to find a more humane way to inflict the death penalty. The tension between Edison and Westinghouse ratchets up a notch when they find themselves in competition to light the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Determined to win at all cost, Edison abandons his scruples in an attempt to discredit his rival and they become embroiled in a bitter court case.

Early on, Edison loses his beloved wife Mary (Tuppence Middleton) but barely pauses to grieve. He is supported by his loyal secretary Samuel Insull (Tom Holland) while Westinghouse’s plucky wife Marguerite (Katherine Waterston) stands by her husband throughout. Meanwhile, a brilliant Serb inventor, Nikola Tesla (Hoult), has arrived on the scene but struggles to reap the necessary funds to continue his pioneering work and live the lavish life he aspires to. Edison employs Tesla in his lab at Menlo Park, New Jersey, but refuses to take him seriously so the young inventor tries his luck with Westinghouse.

The Current War was widely panned when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017. Despite its star cast and celebrity backing, the film was dropped from its original distributor, The Weinstein Company, following the sexual abuse claims against the producer. It has been re-edited by Gomez-Rejon and is consummately well-acted. Somehow, though, the sparks just don’t fly in Michael Mitnick’s screenplay. It may be because the world it inhabits is unremittingly male, but The Current War feels like a history lesson with interesting visuals, rather than a compelling, fully-realised historical drama.

Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop

Film Review: Bel Canto

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Paul Weitz and Anthony Weintraub’s screen adaptation of Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto deftly weaves romance into a taut hostage drama. Roxane Coss (Julianne Moore), an international opera star (vocals courtesy of Renée Fleming) has been asked to sing at a diplomats’ dinner in an unnamed South American country.

The evening is in honour of a Japanese industrialist, Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe), who has long admired Coss. They are abruptly thrown together when the mansion is overrun by insurgents, hoping to confront their country’s president. When the rebels discover he has declined the dinner invitation, in order to watch his favourite telenovela, they decide to take the men and Roxane hostage. Their demand is simple: the release of all political prisoners.

A tense standoff ensues. Sebastian Koch plays a member of the Red Cross who ineffectually tries to negotiate the release of the hostages. The resulting stalemate leaves the rebels in despair while the hostages while away their hours playing chess or cards. As Roxanne and Hosokawa’s friendship blossoms and the outside world recedes, they begin to question themselves and their values. The rebel leader (Tenoch Huerta), a former teacher, becomes increasingly depressed at the lack of media interest in their cause. The dignitaries gradually befriend the insurgents, some of whom are only teenagers and keen to exploit the opportunities that are suddenly on offer. One young rebel wants to sing like Roxanne, who delightedly takes on his tuition, while Carmen (María Mercedes Coroy) is eager to learn English.

Despite poor lip-synching, Moore is perfectly cast as the diva and delivers a captivating performance. The international supporting cast also impresses. As the hostages patiently wait for their release, they begin to relax and evidently cannot imagine an adverse outcome to their predicament. Weitz emphasises the subtle shifts in power between the characters, underscoring their shared humanity. A drained swimming pool, where the rebel leaders meet, reminds us of the inequality they are fighting against. Gen (Ryo Kase), Hosokawa’s shy translator, undergoes a poignant rite of passage. He falls for Carmen, as well as gaining a new level of self-respect when he finds his skills are frequently in demand by both the hostages and the rebels. We too rely on Gen’s verbal translations, rather than subtitles.

There are moments in Bel Canto that stretch credibility but the tension never lets up. It takes time to buy into the story (inspired by a real hostage attack in Peru) but, as Weitz immerses us in the drama, together with the captives, we begin to sympathise with the rebels and their cause. Operas inevitably end in tragedy, as do most hostage sieges, so we quickly recognise that Bel Canto’s ending is unlikely to be happy. However, the inhabitants of the mansion clearly do not and therein lies the power of Weitz’s closing frames.

Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop

Film Review: Red Joan

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Based on a true story, Trevor Nunn’s Red Joan is an absorbing wartime drama about a spy ring. It opens in 2000 with Joan (Judi Dench), a pensioner happily tending her roses. Shocked by her unexpected arrest for alleged treason, she is forced to recall her Cambridge University years.

In the late 1930s, young Joan (Sophie Cookson) is studying physics. She is befriended by Sonya (Tereza Srbova), a flamboyant language student, and falls in love with Sonya’s cousin Leo (Tom Hughes). Both are Jewish and ardent socialists. Leo is a charismatic speaker and Joan, swiftly in his thrall, accompanies him to various student meetings and film screenings. It soon become clear, however, that she is secondary to Leo’s political affiliations. As older Joan tries to assure MI5, she had been devoted to her studies and attending a few rallies hardly makes her a traitor.

Nunn tracks back and forth between Joan’s interrogation and her past. During the war, Joan works as a PA in a top secret science laboratory developing Britain’s atom bomb. She grows close to her boss, project director Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore), and they travel to Canada together on a research trip. He declares his love for her, but he’s married and admits that his wife will never leave him. Against her better instincts, Joan continues to see Leo who persists in trying to persuade her to pass on nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. She is adamant that she won’t betray her country but finds herself conflicted when the Americans cause nuclear devastation in Hiroshima.

Initially, Joan comes across as rather plain, earnest in her work and hopelessly naïve in love – forever drawn to the wrong men. Sonya, a vampish KGB operative with a passion for mink coats, is far more dashing. She’s sexually assured and politically self-possessed; everything Joan is not. However, it is not long before Nunn, known for his theatrical ingenuity, turns things on their head. By the end, Joan has far more to lose than Leo and Sonya and reveals her mettle when faced with office searches and the arrest of Max.

Inspired by Jennie Rooney’s book about real-life KGB spy Melita Norwood, Red Joan is essentially character driven. Although Dench is pitch-perfect, and Cookson gives an equally affecting performance, the police interviews are repetitive and interrupt the film’s main focus. The winning over of Joan’s barrister son (Ben Miles) injects an unnecessary note of mawkishness and one can’t help feel that the time devoted to this secondary narrative is more about Dench’s box office draw.

Red Joan is unlikely to appeal to younger audiences and many may find the wartime plot, setting and slow-paced romance old-fashioned, but it will win fans because there is much to admire: The solid acting, Lindsay Shapero’s deft screen adaptation, Zac Nicholson’s evocative cinematography, accompanied by George Fenton’s original score. The attention to period detail is also excellent, in particular Charlotte Walter’s wide range of costumes and hats. The production crew add some delightful visual clues – Joan’s Che Guevara mug is particularly apt.

Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop

Film Review: The White Crow

Read Time:2 Minute, 31 Second


Ralph Fiennes’ third directorial feature, The White Crow is an evocative portrait of Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev’s early career and defection to the West in 1961. Inspired by Julie Kavanagh’s biography, David Hare’s perceptive screenplay takes us from Nureyev’s birth aboard a Trans-Siberian train to his first successful tour in Paris with the Kirov Ballet.

Although born into a poverty-stricken family, his hard-working mother somehow found the funds for Nureyev’s dancing lessons while his father appears to have been largely absent during his childhood. Fiennes touches on Nureyev’s past (in a series of monochrome flashbacks), in order to illustrate what made him special – we learn early on that a “white crow” is someone who stands out from the norm. Nureyev’s defining trait is his single-minded determination to dance himself into the history books.

It is only during his Paris trip, befriended by French dancers and a Chilean heiress, Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos), that Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) learns what it means to have choice. Between performances, he visits all the cultural sights and decadent night spots Paris has to offer. His apparatchik minders watch his every move and attempt to curtail his new-found freedom. There are more than a few parallels with Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War (2018). In both films, the communists wanted their leading lights to be feted on their terms, denying them the opportunity to develop their talents. Interspersed with Nureyev’s formative trip are scenes of his training with leading ballet master Alexander Pushkin (Fiennes). Nureyev respected his teacher, and even moved into his apartment, only to begin a claustrophobic affair with Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova), Pushkin’s young wife.

Fiennes utilises a good balance of biography and ballet; emphasising how much Nureyev loved to dance and why, when forced, he chose artistic freedom over love of country. He skilfully ratchets up the tension in the film’s terrific denouement. Despite knowing the outcome, the scene in Le Bourget airport, where Nureyev’s KGB minders try to bundle him on a plane and he makes the historic choice to defect, is nail-biting stuff. Ivenko vividly conveys Nureyev’s internal struggle, his fear of never being allowed to dance again and his dawning realisation of what it means to exile himself from his home and family.

The White Crow is beautifully shot; there is an epic quality to Mike Eley’s cinematography, the lavish dance sequences and attention to period detail. Giving a stunning debut performance, Ivenko is mesmerising as Nureyev, conveying his star quality, charm, irascibility and flamboyance in equal measure. The supporting cast is also spot on. The actor playing young Nureyev bears more than a passing resemblance to Ivenko and the actresses portraying his mother and sisters could be part of the same family. Fiennes’ cameo turn, delivered in fluent Russian, proves as elegant as his direction.

Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop

Film Review: Foxtrot

Read Time:2 Minute, 47 Second


Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz’s heart-rending family drama Foxtrot, starring Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler and Yontan Shiray, explores the futility of war, love and loss. An ambitious melding of three distinctive parts, it opens with a middle-aged couple receiving devastating news.

Two army officers turn up on their doorstep to inform Daphna (Sarah Adler) and Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) that their soldier son, Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray), has been killed. She falls to the floor in shock and is immediately tranquilised; he paces their designer Tel Aviv apartment, angry and uncomprehending. The following hours pass in a blur. The officers in attendance advise Michael to drink water every hour and make patronising suggestions about the funeral arrangements. His brother Avigdor (Yehuda Almagor) turns up to help, while Michael has to tell their dementia-suffering mother (Karin Ugowski) of Jonathan’s fate.

Maoz depicts grief with brutal candour but does not shy away from making us laugh a beat later. He shifts seamlessly between gut-wrenching close-ups of Michael’s anguish and pensioners’ enjoying a dance class. When the soldiers return and admit that they have made a mistake, the parents’ shock is palpable. A Jonathan Feldman has died, but it is not their son. Michael demands to know his whereabouts. When he learns Jonathan is safe, guarding some desolate outpost, Michael wants him brought home immediately.

We then cut to the remote security checkpoint (codenamed Foxtrot) where Jonathan is stationed with three other young soldiers. Maoz and his DoP, Giora Bejach, create a deliberately surreal landscape and mood. An empty road stretches into the distance. The soldiers have to check passengers’ IDs but there is little traffic, bar the occasional camel. With nothing to distract them, one cannot help questioning the point of their deployment in such a barren sport. To amuse his companions, Jonathan dances the foxtrot with his rifle. There is a hypnotic quality to Maoz’s mise en scène as the men wile away their empty hours. They take shelter from the endless rain and watch helplessly as their cabin slowly sinks in the mud – ascertaining the level of its tilt every day by rolling tins of meat along the floor.

Subtle visual cues in one scene are often supplanted by heavy symbolism in another. A quietly haunting scene is followed by explosive tension. There is a wonderful moment when a carload of young Palestinian partygoers draws up. A beautiful young woman sits in the passenger seat. As he checks their paperwork, Jonathan sneaks secretive looks at her, she eyes him back. They display all the signs of mutual attraction. A split second later and everything changes.

Foxtrot is a dangerously slow-burn of a film, but it’s worth the wait. For the final act we return to the Feldmans’ now claustrophobic flat. Daphna and Michael are at loggerheads, their relationship clearly torn. Gradually, through a series of revelations, we learn what has caused this rupture. Maoz underlines the absurdity and destructive nature of a prolonged ‘war’, and the elements of chance that can end life in a flash. Foxtrot is a cinematic delight with a profound message at its heart and many striking shots that resonate long after the final credits roll.

Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop

Film Review: On Her Shoulders

Read Time:2 Minute, 57 Second


The subject of Alexandria Bombach’s On Her Shoulders is an extraordinary woman, Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, and her tireless campaign for justice for the Yazidi people. Bombach demonstrates how Murad’s selfless devotion to the cause win hearts and minds and leads her to become the United Nation’s first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking.

In August 2014, Murad was just twenty-one when her Yazidi village in northern Iraq was taken over by violent ISIS soldiers. She was raped and enslaved before making her escape. After being smuggled out of Iraq in early 2015, she was granted refugee status in Germany. Bombach follows Murad’s efforts to raise awareness of the human trafficking of the Yazidis and bring ISIS before the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Early on, Murad states to camera that she does not want to be remembered as a victim of ISIS. She prefers to be thought of as a refugee, rather than an activist. Her family were farmers and she never intended to become a spokesperson for her people. Instead, she had dreamed of opening a beauty salon. With heavy irony, we watch her having her hair cut and styled in a smart salon before a media interview. We watch Murad’s transformation as she gives testimony before the UN, conducts endless media interviews, visits refugee camps and attends meetings with top government officials in Canada, Germany, Greece, the US, and beyond. Repeatedly she is asked to relive her torture in order to bear witness. Bombach’s camera captures Murad’s extreme courage, her dignity, humility and sorrow – she is wise beyond her years and the weight of her loss hangs heavily on her.

Bombach also conveys the paucity of the international community’s response to the genocide. Many of the powerful men and women Murad meets offer to take her on a tour, are shown weeping, utilising photo ops, or proudly give her gifts, whereas all Murad desires is their assurance that those responsible will be brought to justice. It is particularly telling that her campaign gets a massive boost when celebrity attorney, Amal Clooney, comes on board.

Another hero in the film is Murad Ismael, who co-founded the NGO Yazda. Ismael is Murad’s translator and friend. He travels the world with her, frequently holding her hand, supporting, hugging and protecting her. At one point he refuses to translate a statement from Luis Moreno Ocampo, the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, claiming it will upset Murad too much. Ocampo is another formidable ally; at one point he observes publicly that by splitting up Yazidi refugees, Europe is merely “finishing the genocide started by ISIS.” Interspersed throughout this footage are shots of Murad, against a black background, looking to camera and speaking directly to us.

It is well-known that reliving trauma is immensely damaging for survivors. Wisely, Bombach does not elaborate on, or reveal, Murad’s testimony of the torture she endured. It is enough to know that she escaped with her life. Instead, Bombach illuminates the ongoing anguish of the exiled Yazidis and the toll taken on their primary spokesperson. Shortlisted for the 2019 Best Documentary Feature Oscar, this powerful film deserves a wide audience. For those who find it difficult to sympathise with the plight of refugees, On Her Shoulders is a must see.

Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop

Film Review: The Seagull

Read Time:2 Minute, 50 Second


Michael Mayer takes something of a gamble bringing Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull to the screen and it doesn’t entirely pay off. This is very much an American, celebrity driven rendition of a Russian classic and the stellar cast, including Annette Bening, Billy Howle, Elisabeth Moss and the ubiquitous Saoirse Ronan, its main attraction.

The Seagull is set over two years, at a rambling, lakeside Russian estate, owned by Sorin (Brian Dennehy), a retired government employee, and his sister Irina (Bening), a grand dame of the Moscow stage. Irina usually resides in the city but is visiting family with her latest lover, Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), a successful writer. Her son Konstantin (Howle), an aspiring playwright, lives with Sorin and nervously awaits Irina’s reception of the play he has written and stages by the lake. It swiftly becomes clear that everyone is suffering from unrequited love.

Konstantin adores Nina (Ronan), a young woman from the neighbouring estate, who plays the lead in his play and dreams of becoming a famous actress. But Nina falls for Boris, the sleeker, assured, older man. Meanwhile, Masha (Moss), daughter of the estate managers, is spurned by Konstantin, but worshipped by the local schoolteacher Medvedenko (Michael Zegen). Forlorn and bitter, in between knocking back cups of vodka at breakfast, Masha has some of Chekhov’s best lines and Moss delivers them with panache.

The convoluted machinations of love are, at times, exhausting to watch and Mayer’s focus on the characters’ infatuations are at the expense of Chekhov’s other themes – the lure of fame, conflicting forms of artistic expression, the waning power of the aristocracy and, more importantly, the troubled mother-son relationship which overshadows everything. Konstantin loses both his mother and Nina to Boris and is threatened by the older man’s success as a writer while he struggles to express himself. Konstantin suffers from melancholic moods and there is a tragic inexorability to the choice he faces at the end which is never fully brought home in Stephen Karam’s screenplay.

While certain themes are glossed over, the performances and DP Matthew J. Lloyd’s lush cinematography offer some compensation. Two scenes in particular stand out: Nina and Boris row out on the lake together and her naïve admiration of him and his casual acceptance of her reverence are beautifully nuanced and exquisitely filmed. Nina’s unabashed admiration accentuates her vulnerability, while Boris revels in being the consummate writer, pausing every so often to note down ideas for a story. Another electrifying scene occurs after Irina has spied them in the boat together and begs Boris not to leave her; in both scenes the sexual tension is palpable.

Irina is charming, vain, stingy and insensitive to the point of cruelty and Bening gives a pitch-perfect performance. Ronan captures a girl on the cusp of adulthood, ruined by an older man and yet convinced she can survive through talent and hard work. Howle and Stoll also impress as the two men with conflicting attitudes towards love and art. But something about the film’s tone fails to convince. Chekhov was the master of subtext and lauded for his compelling psychological naturalism. On screen, though, the characters’ desires come across as melodramatic and their impulsive actions lack Chekhov’s subtlety.

Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop

Film Review: The Children Act

Read Time:2 Minute, 35 Second


Ian McEwan’s poignant screen adaptation of his 2014 novel, The Children Act, directed by Richard Eyre, stars Emma Thompson in a career-best performance as a level-headed high court judge facing a crisis in her personal and professional life.

Fiona Maye decides the legal fate of children and early on we are offered a montage of court hearings that makes it clear how professionally and efficiently she conducts herself.  One difficult case involves the separation of conjoined twins – an operation will ensure the survival of one and the death of the other. Hardworking and dedicated, Fiona is proud of her rational approach, but her work is taking its toll on her marriage and her loyal, academic husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) is threatening to have an affair with a younger woman.

Things come to a head when Fiona rules on the case of Adam, (Fionn Whitehead), whose life is at risk because of his faith. His parents (Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh) are Jehovah’s Witnesses and their religion forbids Adam, ill with leukaemia, from receiving a blood transfusion – a simple procedure which would save his life.  But Adam is not quite eighteen and is therefore a legal minor. Fiona has to make a decision in his best interests which goes against his parents’ religious scruples and his own wishes. She elects to visits Adam in hospital, they recite poetry and sing together and she rules on saving his life. During that visit they forge a tenuous bond but when Adam gets better he develops a dangerous obsession with Fiona. Her own feelings are ambiguous, but she attempts to retain a professional distance.

At the same time her marriage to the long-suffering Jack is floundering. While she is the epitome of cool-headedness in court, Fiona behaves irrationally at home, refusing to talk things through with her husband, changing the locks and consulting divorce lawyers. Their marriage is at risk, largely, we, suspect, because of Fiona’s preoccupation with work and their childlessness; a disappointment which she appears to have never addressed or truly comprehend.

The subject could hardly be more topical – the title refers to the 1989 Children Act, which allows the law courts the power to intervene in order to protect a child’s welfare. It’s a serious subject but comic relief comes in the form of Fiona’s punctilious and discreet assistant Nigel (a superb Jason Watkins). While Fiona is all order on the outside, Nigel gives us a glimpse of the theatricality of the English law courts. He tends and guards her ornate wig and gown with all the tender zeal of a costume designer.

McEwan clearly loves writing about specialised professions – his 2005 novel Saturday was about a brain surgeon – and The Children Act brilliantly recreates the measured mind and language of a judge. But McEwan and Eyre are also interested in conveying the tumultuous emotional currents that operate below the surface in a person – often unrecognised until it is too late.

Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop

Film Review: That Good Night

Read Time:2 Minute, 39 Second


There is the uncanny sense of art imitating life in Eric Styles’ poignant, end of life drama, featuring John Hurt’s swansong. That Good Night is about a man dealing with his impending death and Hurt was himself terminally ill when the film was shot.

Ralph Maitland (Hurt), an egotistical screenwriter in his seventies, enjoys a comfortable existence in Portugal with is loving younger wife, and former nurse, Anna (Sofia Helin, The Bridge). When Ralph discovers he has only a few months to live he attempts to reconnect with Michael (Max Brown), his estranged son from an earlier marriage, and put his affairs in order. Ralph expects his family to drop everything when he wants them to and they generally oblige. But when Michael, also a writer, arrives in Portugal with his girlfriend Cassie (Erin Richards), Ralph sees her presence as an intrusion and a threat to the already fragile bond with his son.

Bristling with impotent rage, Ralph repeatedly snubs her. Wrapped up in each other, Michael and Cassie try to take Ralph’s rudeness in their stride but inevitably tempers fray and emotions come to a head. Unbeknown to his family, Ralph hires “the visitor” (Charles Dance), an enigmatic Englishman dressed in a white linen suit, who appears to represent an euthanasia organisation. Ralph wants him to ease his way “into that good night”, the film’s leitmotif inspired by Dylan Thomas’s poem, but the visitor has other ideas. The most affecting scenes involve the interactions between these two fine actors – Dance, still full of vigour; Hurt, gaunt and frail.

Charles Savage’s script, adapted from the stage play by N. J. Crisp, is hampered by a weak, predictable storyline. The main conflict That Good Night turns on is whether Ralph will be able to resolve things with Michael before he dies. We are not surprised when Michael reminds Ralph that he has never been a good parent, nor when they start writing together. This lacklustre emphasis on Ralph’s reconciliation with Michael, and the fact that Cassie holds the key, swiftly deflates our interest. Euthanasia and Anna’s enforced childlessness are provocative subjects and more could have been made of them. But the men’s troubled relationship takes centre stage and Helin and Dance are frustratingly underused.

There is the inevitable pleasure to be had in Hurt’s charismatic screen presence, but Ralph is two-dimensional and we never get a real sense of his kinder, more sympathetic side. This is hinted at in his exchanges with his maid’s son Ronlodo (Noah Jupe), who cleans the pool and yearns to be a writer, but most of the time Ralph is so curmudgeonly towards his nearest and dearest that he quickly loses our respect. The picturesque backdrop is beautifully shot by DP Richard Stoddard, but Thomas’s poem, full of passionate intensity, advocated raging against death, against “the dying of the light”. If Styles’ had focused on Ralph’s battle within himself, his fury as he is forced to withdraw from life, it would have made a more engaging subject.

Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop

Film Review: Custody

Read Time:2 Minute, 29 Second


In France, a woman dies every two and a half days as a result of domestic violence. Xavier Legrand’s feature debut, Custody, a hard-hitting social drama and winner of the Silver Lion, attempts to raise awareness of this harrowing subject through the powerful medium of cinema.

Legrand builds on his Oscar nominated short Just Before Losing Everything (2013) and features the same characters. Custody begins with a claustrophobic scene between divorced couple Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet). Miriam is seeking sole custody of their young son Julien (an astonishing debut from Thomas Gioria) and claims that Antoine is violent. This is backed up by Julien’s written testimony. Filmed in real-time, the tension between the pair is palpable. Drucker, in particular, is adept at conveying the turmoil of her emotions – she looks stoical but her wary eyes betray her fear. Antoine is persuasive as the wronged father. Legrand’s tight framing ensures that the spectator’s perspective is that of the judge for the duration of the hearing.

The magistrate’s decision is conveyed a few days later and Antoine is awarded joint custody. His student daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) is old enough to make her own choice and she steers clear of him. Although convincing in the courtroom, Antoine drops all pretence when he starts picking up his son for weekend visits. His bullying leaves Julien frequently distraught and it soon becomes clear that Antoine wants only to know where Miriam has moved to. His obsession knows no bounds and he is increasingly unable to contain his emotions. After he falls out with his father – both men display formidable tempers – Legrand ratchets up the tension with devastating consequences for Miriam and Julien.

The children respond in different ways to their parents’ breakup. Joséphine is in love with her boyfriend Samuel and wants to abandon her studies and escape the family tensions while Julien is relentlessly anxious. Legrand seamlessly shifts mood and register between the two. He is almost playful in a terrific scene where Joséphine carries out a pregnancy test and we discover the result without ever seeing her face or the kit. Her yearning to escape with Samuel is in sharp contrast to her brother’s distress, which is often unbearable to watch. While Joséphine is intent on fleeing her dysfunctional family (in order to prematurely begin her own), Julien cannot leave and feels obliged to try to protect his mother.

The psychology of fear is Legrand’s main thrust in Custody although he claims that three films guided his writing: Kramer vs. Kramer, Night of the Hunter and The Shining. Dread dominates his final scenes – Legrand substitutes Hitchcock’s shower and knife wielding psychopath with a bathtub and a gun-toting maniac to great effect. Claustrophobic and brutal, this is an impressive debut and heralds Legrand as a major talent to watch.

Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop

Film Review: Hotel Salvation

Read Time:2 Minute, 45 Second


Set in Varanasi, Shubhashish Bhutiani’s remarkably assured debut feature, starring Lalit Behl and Adil Hussain, has already won plaudits and awards on the festival circuit. Shot when he was just 23, Hotel Salvation is a bittersweet meditation on life, death and salvation.

Haunted by a recurring dream, seventy-seven-year old Daya (Behl) is convinced it is time to die. Following tradition, he donates a cow to the temple, before persuading his stressed, overworked son Rajiv (Hussain), to accompany him to the holy city of Varanasi. Hindus believe that people who die there, after bathing in the River Ganges, escape the endless cycle of death and rebirth and achieve salvation. The pair check into ‘Mukti Bhawan’ (Hotel Salvation) where residents are offered just two weeks accommodation. At first Rajiv is beset by work calls and is desperate to return to the city. It is only his sense of filial duty to his father that keeps him there. While Daya accepts his impending death almost gleefully, Rajiv is torn between feelings of impotence, guilt and impatience. Slowly, though, father and son begin to enjoy each other’s company.

Daya embraces his new environment and makes friends with the other residents, in particular Vimla (Navnindra Behi) a kindly widow who has been there for years – the hotel manager changes the name in the register of any resident who lasts longer than a fortnight. The inhabitants live in simple rooms, complete with peeling walls and mice. They watch their favourite TV series, sing hymns together and freely discuss death and the best way to go. When one of their number passes away, they all participate in the funeral rituals, reciting mantras, shrouding and garlanding the corpse and finally cremating the deceased on the River Ganges.

Rajiv is clearly out of touch with his emotions, his country’s spiritual heritage and changing mores. Rajiv and his wife Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni) want their daughter Sunita (Palomi Ghosh) to marry a man of their choice and settle down. But Sunita is happy with her work and doesn’t want to give up her independence. Certain traditions, Bhutiani suggests, are outdated. Michael Mcsweeney and David Huwiler’s terrific camerawork emphasises the stark divide between Rajiv’s hectic working life and the more measured pace in Varanasi; the transcendent over the corporal. Rajiv’s restrictive domestic sphere is conveyed through shots of cramped, shadowed rooms, contrasted with stunning tableaux of the Ganges, Varanasi’s ghats and temples.

As Rajiv resolves his differences with his father he recognises his own suppressed desires and the sacrifices he has made for his work. Towards the end of Hotel Salvation we suspect it has been more about Rajiv’s liberation than Daya’s. Rajiv’s spiritual side (his love of writing poetry) has been reawakened and he has learned the importance of accepting his family’s different needs. Bhutaini demonstrates an impressive maturity in his snapshots of life’s joys, pains and sorrows, order and chaos and allows us to see what Daya has understood all along – with death comes peace. For its UK release, Hotel Salvation is prefaced by the BFI’s ninety-second film of Varanasi’s ghats by the River Ganges (1899), believed to be the earliest footage of India. It serves to illustrate the city’s timelessness and beautifully complements Bhutaini’s feature.

Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop

Film Review: Land of Mine

Read Time:2 Minute, 24 Second


Inspired by true events in 1945, director Martin Zandvliet’s powerful Academy Award-nominated film about Denmark’s treatment of German prisoners, Land of Mine, demonstrates that the aftermath of war can often be just as brutal as the bloody conflict itself.

Fearful of an allied invasion, Nazi forces left behind two million landmines on Denmark’s western coast and German prisoners of war were forced to defuse and clear the mines in violation of the 1929 convention relating to the treatment of POWs. Even more shocking, many of these prisoners were inexperienced youths who had seen little of war, some as young as thirteen. Land of Mine opens with a brutal scene, which sets the tone for its first half.

Danish veteran Sergeant, Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller) picks on a German soldier and smashes his face in because he is carrying a Danish flag. His hatred and contempt is palpable. Accompanied everywhere by his beloved dog Otto, whose company he evidently prefers to human contact, Rasmussen is initially sadistic and cruel towards the captives, denying them food, taunting and beating them. But it is a rite of passage for the sergeant. Gradually he softens towards the boys, finds them food at the risk of his reputation, and even plays football with then on a rare day off.

Rasmussen promises them their freedom and release back to Germany after they have cleared all the mines, but another officer, Lieutenant Ebbe Jensen (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), has different ideas. Things come to a head between the two men when Ebbe refuses to release the survivors. Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Academy Awards, Land of Mine is not your average war film. While there is impressive attention to historical detail, and plenty of action, it is the quieter moments that remain with you.

Zandvliet focuses on the harrowing experiences of the young prisoners and their shared humanity. The boys’ terror, combined with their hope for a better future, is heartbreakingly sad and the inevitable scenes of bloodshed and violence are sometimes unbearable to watch. Camilla Hjelm Knudsen’s cinematography is remarkable. Picturesque shots of the coast line and scenes of stark natural beauty are in sharp contrast to the appalling conditions endured by the POWs and the shots of abrupt explosions that sever limbs and lives.

The two Danish leads are terrific and there are some equally great performances from the German camp. Particularly memorable are Louis Hoffman who plays Sebastian, the de facto leader of the captives, Joel Basman as the hot-headed Helmut and Emil and Oskar Belton as the two youngest members of the group, twin brothers Ernst and Werner, who can’t function without each other. Land of Mine serves as a poignant reminder that revenge destroys more than it satisfies and that compassion aids the healing process.

Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop

Film Review: Lost in Lebanon

Read Time:2 Minute, 56 Second


This heartbreaking film by Sophia and Georgia Scott follows four Syrian refugees as they struggle to rebuild their lives in Lebanon. Syria’s neighbour has had to cope with a massive influx of refugees – Lebanon’s population of 4.4 million now comprises 1.5 million Syrians.

Lost in Lebanon was shot in Beirut and on the Syrian border between 2014 and 2016. During this time, Lebanon was forced to restrict its open door policy for Syrian refugees and imposed various visa restrictions aimed at discouraging Syrians from entering or staying. As the film makes clear, the result has been devastating for many refugees who have nowhere else to go and fear for their lives if they are forcibly returned to Syria. Sheikh Abdo manages a refugee camp just five kilometres from the Syrian border. Abdo takes his responsibilities seriously and works tirelessly for his fellow refugees. Nemr is a 19-year-old high-school student who fled forced military recruitment: “My destiny would have been to become a killer or a victim.” He volunteers in the camp’s school but dreams of a better future. Reem is a former architect who now helps in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut.

As a refugee she is not supposed to work but spends her time trying to help those worse off than herself. Mwafak is a 26-year-old artist, also based in Beirut. Mwafak never stops giggling, but then we realise his humour is a defence mechanism, a means of survival, he is laughing at his own plight. He is proud; not wanting to be labelled a refugee he refuses to register with the UNRHC until he is forced to. Mwafak is driven by his imagination, his need to create art, and his talent. He also volunteers, teaching art to children in another refugee camp. All four show similar commitment to the health and education of Syrian children, however rudimentary.
They recognise the importance of educating the next generation and that their homeland will need to be rebuilt with love and creativity rather than hate and violence. They exhibit extraordinary resilience in the face of unimaginable hardship but the relentless fear of deportation impacts on them all with devastating consequences. Both Nemr and Mwafak consider attempting the perilous journey by sea. Nemr ponders why anyone would want to risk their lives and concludes,”they’re willing to drown just to live as humans.” Lost in Lebanon contains many such shocking soundbites. At a meeting organised by Reem, one man remarks on the hell they find themselves in: “We can’t go back to Syria, we can’t renew our residency, we can’t leave by boat. Why don’t they just exterminate us and be done with it.”
If you have ever wondered what life is like for a refugee then see this film. No one should have to endure this degree of psychological torture and the West needs to demonstrate compassion rather than prejudice or indifference. Sophia Scott’s beautiful cinematography opens in a long dark tunnel with blinding light at the end and the joyous sound of children playing, calling out the name of their homeland; it ends in the same tunnel but the camera is travelling in the opposite direction with the light receding. Birds also feature; just as they are free to travel over land and sea, refugees are not. The refusal of these men, women and children to give up offers a ray of hope. A remarkable and humane film that never strikes a false note.

Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop

Film Review: A Quiet Passion

Read Time:2 Minute, 51 Second


Terence Davies is no stranger to biographical film, having mined his own life story to great effect in Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. The overall tone of his sensitive Emily Dickinson biopic mirrors the great American poet’s contemplative style. The languorous pace may divide audiences, despite some strong performances and memorable camerawork. A Quiet Passion, starring Cynthia Nixon, opens in 1848 with Dickinson’s family rescuing her from the evangelical Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. She had been considered something of an outsider and was chastised for her lack of religion – something she wrestled with for many years.

Dickinson returns to her Amherst home with her beloved family, and there she remains for the rest of her life and the film’s duration. Dickinson never ventured far from her Massachusetts home, apparently she never found a reason to leave, and so Davies focuses on her relationship with her family – the occasional power struggles with her stern father (Keith Carradine), her love for her supportive sister Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle), affection for her brother Austin (Duncan Duff), and despondency over her ailing, bed-bound mother Emily (Joanna Bacon) as well as an ardent friendship with the feisty Vryling Wilder Buffum (Catherine Bailey).

Dickinson has to ask the permission of her father in order to write poetry and letters during the night and she proves a prolific correspondent. However, most of her letters were destroyed after her death and only a few poems were published in her lifetime. She never married and, considering herself unattractive, became increasingly reclusive and embittered in her final years. She died young, aged just fifty-five, never suspecting that she was to become one of America’s best-known and loved poets. Davies matches Dickinson’s reflective nature with some ponderous takes – especially when the family are in the drawing room reading or crocheting. He admirably succeeds in conveying Dickinson’s stoicism and her frequent internalisation of emotional pain but, at times, A Quiet Passion feels desperately slow.

Although the sisters find succour in their affection for one another, their observance of familial duty is oppressive. Following the strict social mores of the time, they both quietly accept their formal, cloistered existence, rather than attempting to forge a life outside. It is no surprise that Lavinia also remained a spinster. Nixon gives a hugely sympathetic performance and portrays Dickinson’s mental and physical decline with real conviction. She stands out from her fellow actresses, some of whom appear to have graduated from the same school of acting. The men’s exuberant hair, admittedly true to the period, also proves something of a distraction. Dickinson’s life, like many of her poems, was suffused with melancholy.

Davies suggests her sole infatuation was with a rather dull, married clergyman who admires her poetry. It’s only fleetingly touched upon in the film and Dickinson’s obsession appears to come out of nowhere. Similarly, Austin’s affair with Mabel Loomis Todd (Noémie Schellens), who was to posthumously publish Dickinson’s poems, is barely explored and yet it almost destroyed the siblings’ relationship. While Davies vividly captures the period’s austerity and Dickinson’s despair at being misunderstood, there are a few too many scenes of repressed emotion followed by wild outbursts of grief. A Quiet Passion would have benefited from a subtler lightening of the shadows, if only to better appreciate the darkness which was to engulf the reclusive poet.

Lucy Popescu| @lucyjpop