Non-Fiction: John le Carrè: The Biography by Adam Sisman

carre-biography-xlargeAdam Sisman’s eloquent biography of David Cornwell — aka John le Carrè — is an insightful, engaging glimpse at a remarkable life and fifty-plus year writing career. Cornwell’s story begins in 1931 in England, and Sisman spends a considerable portion of the book focused on his earliest years. The author’s formative influences were many, among them his childhood experiences of World War II, but none were greater than the influence of his father Ronnie, a notoriously likeable con man whose erratic business dealings systematically charmed and bilked marks for decades. Ronnie is so exhaustively examined that I started to get sick of him, but it’s time well spent, as Cornwell’s conflicted relationship with his father would go on to inform his work for decades, most notably in his semi-autobiographical novel A Perfect Spy. Sisman chronicles Cornwell’s schooling, his relationships, a brief military service, and short-lived careers in teaching and the intelligence services, leading up to his unlikely transition to one of the most successful writing careers in history. Particularly interesting during this stretch is the almost offhand manner in which he came to the intelligence world: casually recruited to report on fellow students while studying abroad in Switzerland, he ultimately found his way into the employ of MI-5 and then MI-6, even running agents briefly before a posting to Germany. There his embassy experience in Bonn would feed into his later novel A Small Town in Germany.

Interestingly Cornwell turned to writing fiction to relieve the boredom of intelligence work, and (ironically) to “supplement” his income. His two early mystery novels, which introduce George Smiley, built him a modest reputation before his landmark book The Spy Who Came in from the Cold catapulted him to international fame. This novel changed his life irrevocably, leading to the end of his MI-6 career and, ultimately, his unhappy first marriage. He struggled mightily with this unexpected success — his next three books did not do nearly as well — but by the late 1970s his “Quest for Karla” series re-established him as the world’s pre-eminent spy novelist.

Once the book shifts focus to le Carrè’s fiction, the biography reads very quickly. For readers familiar with the novels, it’s a little like re-reading them in succession; while not a critical examination, it does look into each book’s merits, reception, and most interestingly how they’re each a reflection of the times in which they were written. Le Carrè’s novels consistently engage with the present, so reading about them is a like a journey through history; it’s fascinating to watch how the events of the day informed the material, and how changing geopolitical circumstances spun the tone of his work.

No writer has entertained, inspired, or enlightened me more than John le Carrè. Sisman’s biography, while attempting to at times, fails to dispel the author’s mystique. Indeed, it made me want to re-read each and every novel again, from the beginning.

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TV: Happy Valley (Seasons 1 & 2)

happy-valley-sarah-lancashire-dvd-cover-artThe extraordinary British series Happy Valley may not look like much at first glance: a hard-nosed female police sergeant fights crime in an economically depressed corner of northern England. What’s the big deal? Well, only this: it’s probably one of the best modern crime dramas ever made. Immersive, ingeniously structured, and powerfully feminist, it builds brilliantly on the long-form techniques of outstanding modern crime shows like Breaking Bad, Fargo, and The Shield, matching them for dramatic intensity. But while those series are overly enamored of their antiheroes — often in the service of exploring the criminal lurking within us all — Happy Valley puts that ugly glamorization in its place, redirecting the spotlight from villains to victims, and from destructive male impulse to inspiring female endurance.

A former detective, Catherine Cawood (the amazing Sarah Lancashire) now leads a squad of police officers in the West Yorkshire police. She took demotion in the wake of tragedy: her daughter Becky committed suicide after being raped, but not before giving birth to the rapist’s son Ryan (Rhys Connah). Catherine’s decision to raise her grandson shattered her marriage, but she’s managing the daily struggle, with the assistance of her sister Claire (Orphan Black’s Siobhan Finneran, terrific here). Of course, Claire has her own problems: a history of alcoholism and drug addiction.

The first season’s mystery begins with a run-of-the-mill accountant named Kevin Weatherill (Steve Pemberton). In some ways analogous to Breaking Bad’s Walter White or Fargo’s Lester Nygaard, Weatherill is a walking midlife crisis, a self-proclaimed loser and small-minded malcontent who sees his respectable but hard-luck life as a crushing disappointment. His envious grudge against his powerful, successful boss Nevison Gallagher (George Costigan) leads him down an unexpected criminal path. When he stumbles across the operation of an organized crime outfit shortly after being snubbed for a raise, he impulsively decides to get into bed with the criminals by serving up Nevison’s daughter Ann (Charlie Murphy) in a half-baked kidnapping plot. His intentions are spiteful and avaricious, but he’s opened a more destructive can of worms than he realizes: one of the kidnappers’ minions happens to be Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) — Becky’s rapist and Ryan’s biological father, just released from prison. In light of past events, Royce is already on Catherine’s radar, but his involvement in Ann’s kidnapping turns into a reign of terror, setting Catherine on a collision course with the architect of her grief-stricken life.

Season one is a shattering procedural, full of graphic violence and disturbing situations, but it held me absolutely rapt, and not just with its compelling plot of escalating complications and reactive puzzle-solving. As emotionally challenging as it is, it’s also emotionally satisfying, delving deeply into the psychology of its characters — moreso, perhaps, than any other show I’ve seen. Programs of this nature often conspire against the viewer, tricking them into relating to the monsters driving the calamity; meanwhile, the actions of the criminals’ adversaries are often secondary. Happy Valley flips the script, depriving its impulsive male villainy of any sympathy whatsoever, instead shining a light on the tragic and powerful resilience, primarily female, of those forced to deal with the consequences. As Catherine Cawood, Sarah Lancashire delivers one of the most gripping sustained lead performances I’v ever seen. But her resolve and constitution is matched or reflected by the many other women of the series, whether it’s Claire struggling with her addiction, Ann fighting for her life against the kidnappers, or the long-suffering wives of Weatherhill and Nevison, forced to cope with and pick up the pieces of their husband’s rash or misguided decisions. Norton’s Tommy Lee Royce is one of TV’s most broadly despicable antagonists, but in his own quiet way Pemberton’s Kevin Weatherill is just as deplorable, as are the other kidnapping conspirators who enable and exacerbate the situation. Series writer-creator Sally Wainwright doesn’t let any of them off the hook, and consistently reminds us that the people we should really care about are their innocent victims.

The equally effective second season has two thrusts. The first of these feels like a stretch, at first: a campaign of psychological warfare against Catherine, carried out by Royce with the assistance of a gaslighted accomplice, Frances Drummond (Shirley Henderson). This thread is deftly handled, ultimately, but more sure-handed is the primary criminal plot, which involves the shrewdly cast Kevin Doyle (familiar to Downton Abbey fans as the awkward butler, Molesley). Doyle plays a philandering detective, John Wadsworth, who attempts to fold the evidence of his own impulsive crime into an ongoing investigation against a serial criminal. Like Weatherill and Royce, Wadsworth views himself as a misunderstood victim, completely unwilling to concede his own considerable shortcomings. As a police insider, he engages in a delicate ploy to mislead his colleagues, but he’s no criminal mastermind: indeed, he’s a fidgety opportunist, incapable of admitting his inherent hypocrisies. Doyle is an inspired choice for this role and makes the most of it, and while his crimes don’t drive Catherine’s struggle this year, they inform it, and lead to another memorable climax between a beleagured, inspiring hero and a truly monstrous villain.

Happy Valley is exceptional television, a gripping and intense journey that breaks new ground in serial crime drama by finally shattering the criminal mystique. Instead it creates a much more necessary one: a heart-wrenching, breathtaking awe for the resilient survivors of the world’s unspeakable evils.

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Film: Phoenix

PhoenixChristian Petzold’s Phoenix (2014) is slow, deliberate, and energyless, but oddly effective for all that. In the aftermath of World War II, Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) returns to Berlin after being liberated from Auschwitz. Disfigured in the war, Nelly’s face is reconstructed, making her unrecognizable. This vastly complicates her primary goal: reconnecting with her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Their reunion leads to a thoroughly uncomfortable and unexpected new turn in their relationship.

The atmosphere and production values of Phoenix are first-rate, bringing the bleak post-war years of Germany vividly to life, and Hoss is mesmerizing as the traumatized, unreadable protagonist. But the film is also static, protracting the tragic scenario’s infrequent story beats; it felt like a short film dragged out to feature length. This made for tiresome viewing…and yet, in the end, the patient narrative strategy pays off in a rather elegant and powerful final moment. An unimpressive resolution might have left me regretting the watch, but Petzold nails it, rescuing the difficult build-up with an ending that is perfect. This one’s probably not for a wide audience, but it’s liable to resonate with certain afficionados of understated international cinema.

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Film: Sisters

sistersWhatever possessed the Criterion Collection to feature Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1973)? Offering the merest glimmer of De Palma’s later technical prowess, it’s a trainwreck of a camp thriller that I can only speculate Criterion thought made for an interesting historical curio.

It starts with a weird meet-cute in New York City: French-Canadian model Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder) pranks advertising man Philip Woode (Lisle Wilson) on a Candid Camera-style game show, and afterwards they go out for a drink. Their one-night stand goes awry the next morning in Danielle’s apartment, when Philip is brutally murdered by her unhinged twin sister Dominique. From the next building, the crime is witnessed by crime reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), whose previous criticism of the NYPD delays the response enough for Danielle and her creepy ex-husband Emil (William Finley) to cover up the crime. But Grace pursues the story, ultimately learning that Danielle and Dominique were conjoined twins who were surgically separated, and…well, why spoil the “surprise.”

Early in his career, De Palma developed a reputation as a technically accomplished knockoff artist. His penchant for mimicry is on full display here; Sisters is a shameless Hitchcock homage, replete with third-rate references to Psycho, Rear Window, and Suspicion, while also attempting similar story tricks (such as major point-of-view shifts). There’s even a Bernard Herrmann score struggling valiantly to class up the joint. But aside from some interesting split-screen sequences, there’s not much artistry here: the production values are grubby, the acting uneven, the plot turns telegraphed, the story elements incredibly hokey. Ultimately, the mystery is resolved in multiple infodumps: first, through convenient documentary footage, and later through the unnecessary confession of a villain. The affair ends on a comically silly rimshot.

Is Sisters a knowing satire of itself? Viewed through that lens it’s at least mildly entertaining, leaning into its campy characteristics and thriller clichés. Witness Kidder’s thick French accent, Dolph Sweet’s skeptical cop, Charles Durning’s mansplaining private detective, and Finley, whose villain resembles a cross between John Waters and Heinrich Himmler. (He might as well be twirling his moustache.) A late, trippy hypnosis sequence in a psychiatric hospital steers the proceedings into David Lynch territory, which is a welcome left turn, stirring even more what-the-fuck into the soup . But I’m not sure I’m ready to give the film credit for clever self-awareness. Even at its best it’s a clunky diversion; otherwise it’s a tacky, derivative mess.

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Novel: Planetfall by Emma Newman

Color me frustrated with Planetfall (2015) by Emma Newman, an atmospheric and rather interesting tale of colony world science fiction that’s full of great ideas, but doesn’t quite overcome its executional issues. It’s narrated by Renata Ghali, an expert on 3D printer technology who supports an expedition to a colony world far from Earth. The group’s settlement at the base of a mountain they call God’s City is surviving in its new environment, thanks to advanced technology, but it’s a place founded on lies to which Ren is complicit. The colony’s peaceful existence is threatened when Sung-Soo, a long-lost survivor from an accident in the early days of Planetfall, finds his way to the settlement, and becomes a threat to its carefully guarded secrets.

Planetfall opens well, carried on the strength of effortlessly read prose, technological world-building that feels realistic and compelling, and an engrossing sense of mystery. Underlying the surface plot is a riveting cosmic intrigue that raises interesting questions about the intersection of science and faith, and certain chapters down the home stretch are dramatically powerful. But there’s an inherent problem with the execution, in my view; the plot depends largely on strategically revealed secrets, but the protagonist is privy to those secrets and excessively coy about bringing us in on them. In a first-person narrative this is highly distracting at best, if not a systemic narrative cheat. A crucial aspect of the character’s personality somewhat justifies this authorial approach, but it still feels like a story that only works by consistently lying to the reader; and when the lies come out, a not particularly likeable protagonist loses some of her understandable sympathy.

It’s a shame, because the structural bones of the novel are strong, it’s thematically thought-provoking, and it reads along effortlessly at the sentence level. Unfortunately the viewpoint issue is crucial, and while it didn’t totally derail my enjoyment, it did severely temper my enthusiasm.

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Lightspeed Review: The Man in the High Castle and Occupied

Some shows were made to be reviewed side by side: certainly that’s the case with The Man in the High Castle and Occupied, two intriguing science fiction shows that involve hostile takeovers and occupation governments. My review of these two shows is now live at Lightspeedfor those who are curious about these shows or would like to compare their impressions. Stop by and support this high-quality speculative fiction publication!

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Film: Foreign Correspondent

696_DF_box_348x490_originalWhile lesser known than Hitchcock’s other comic thrillers, Foreign Correspondent (1940) is an enjoyable and perhaps underrated wartime adventure bearing many earmarks of the Master of Suspense’s best. When the publisher of a New York newspaper gets fed up with the insubstantial European reporting of his staff, he goes off the board in search of a new voice: Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), a snarky crime reporter rechristened with the unlikely pseudonym “Huntley Haverstock.” Sent to Europe, Jones gets the scoop he’s looking for when the leader of a peace organization, Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), is murdered right in front him. Jones’ pursuit of the assassin, which thrusts him into the path of cute-meet love interest Carol Fisher (Laraine Day), leads to a nest of German spies, whose sabotage of the European peace talks is prelude to war.

Foreign Correspondent’s obscurity is understandable: the humor is subtle, the pacing is occasionally slow, and the plot is on the rambly side. But it’s an entertaining wartime morale booster, and may be an underrated entry in Hitchcock’s canon. McCrea makes for a genial hero, Day is charming, and they’re surrounded by effective villainy and support: particularly notable is George Sanders as the droll “ffolliott.” The pre-war backdrop creates a menacing atmosphere that contrasts nicely against the light-hearted banter, which turns serious at just the correct moments. And finally, it boasts the famous setpieces for which Hitchcock is known: the assassination scene, the quiet windmill sequence, and especially the dramatic plane crash. Fans of Hitchcock’s body of work, and of this filmmaking period in general, will find plenty to enjoy.

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TV: Daredevil (Season 2)

Daredevil-Season-2-Trio-PosterHow far is too far? This question bubbles along in the background of the second season of Daredevil, as Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) butts heads with shady characters walking the line between right and wrong in their pursuit of justice. Unfortunately, while Daredevil may be asking himself the “how far is too far” question, the writers and producers clearly did not, tipping the show so far over the line into torture porn that its last three or four episodes are nearly unwatchable.

As the season opens, the imprisonment of Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) has left a power vacuum in the organized crime landscape of Hell’s Kitchen: one that various angling factions have flooded in to fill. So it is, at least, until a murderous vigilante known as the Punisher (Jon Bernthal) arrives on the scene, ruthlessly killing off criminals and bringing a new level of terror to vigilantism in the city. This, of course, is of considerable concern to Daredevil, but the Punisher’s rampage is just the start of his troubles; soon, his morally dubious old flame Elektra (Elodie Yung) shows up, and draws him into a mysterious secret war that’s threatening to tear the whole city apart — not to mention Nelson & Murdock.

The first season of Daredevil did so much so well that I was able to overlook its sketchier, uglier characteristics. The winning team chemistry of Murdock, Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), especially rallying together, left me anxious to see more of their cases, struggles, and camaraderie. Unfortunately, though, the plotlines of season two divide them, and lean into the first season’s least interesting aspect: ultraviolence. But not just regular ultraviolence…we’re talking shocking, stabby, gratuitously bloody, vicious violence of the sort you might expect from a horror film. A certain amount of this sort of butchery doesn’t bother me, sparingly deployed in the service of story, but this season boasts a bludgeoning wall of it. And sadly, it’s rarely informed by any kind of emotional content; Daredevil’s tortured, Catholic guilt act is over-relied on to drive viewer investment, but that act wears thin in a hurry, and the fight scenes play out like so much squelching carnage. Also wearing thin is the nominal romantic chemistry between Daredevil and Elektra, and the fuzzy, largely unresolved nature of the secret war they’re both conflicted about fighting. It all leaves an icky taste in the mouth.

No, for me the true heroes of Daredevil are not the vigilantes who drive the action, but the remarkable, yet ultimately ordinary, people condemned to orbit them. This includes, of course, Foggy Nelson, whose personal courage in an ultimately short-shrifted “Trial of the Century” storyline is truly inspiring. Foggy is so often in the right this season that the writers, as if recognizing this, sideline him down the stretch to keep him from so effectively pointing out Matt’s flaws. Also heroic: Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), who fights Hell’s Kitchen’s battles from the front lines of a hospital emergency room, and gets nothing but life-shattering grief for her troubles. And finally there’s Karen, the bravest of them all, particularly in the season’s most compelling throughline: a complicated, PTSD-worthy rapport with the Punisher (perfectly enacted by Bernthal). Woll is stellar as Karen, and so much more compelling as a protagonist that I often felt disappointed whenever the spotlight shifted back to Matt.

There’s so much ammunition in Daredevil‘s arsenal. The cast is terrific, the atmosphere is immersive, the fight choreography is consistently mindblowing, and it succeeds handsomely in building the mystique of its principal figures. But somewhere along the way, Daredevil lost sight of why we loved this little slice of the MCU, steering the series over the line into sickening territory. Believe me, I say this as a fan of darkness in TV narrative: sometimes there is a too far, and sadly Daredevil goes there in season two. I wonder — much as its line-crossing characters do — if it’s too late to turn back.

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Novel: The Director by David Ignatius

David Ignatius’ The Director (2014) feels like a classic Cold War spy novel that got run over by the 21st century. With an old-school feel rendered more urgent and chaotic by the shifting realities of modern technology, it tells the story of Graham Weber, a billionaire tech CEO who’s also a patriot, and the unlikely pick to be the new Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Weber doesn’t know the spy business, but he does know information security, and he arrives at CIA headquarters geared up to leverage his experience in business leadership against the problems of an entrenched, ineffective service. His skills are immediately challenged when a paranoid hacker reaches out with a startling revelation: the CIA’s isolated networks have been penetrated, possibly by an inside source. Weber confronts this dilemma, and the associated threats to national security, with an outsider’s mix of enthusiasm, naivety, and guile, soon coming to realize that the problems of the agency are far more thorny and intractable than he ever imagined.

Ignatius’ accessible writing style mixes nicely with the requisite plot contortions of the spy puzzler, and he speaks with an authentic voice about the geography and complex politics of Washington. While the novel feels like classic spy fiction — with a mole hunt at its core, and a retinue of angling espiocrats in the cast — it’s also very timely, with a focus on information security, renegade hackers, the looming threat of financial crisis, and data breaches of scandalous secrets. Alas, another attribute it shares with old-school spy fare is its male-heavy, racially homogenous cast; while its sparse female cast is drawn reasonably well, the novel’s one major black character is handled with an egregious lack of nuance. It’s an unfortunate drawback to an otherwise gripping read that possesses some convincing intelligence world mystique and out-of-the-headlines subject matter. Most fans of the genre won’t be disappointed.

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Film: Jubilee

jubileeHulu has a metric fuckton of bizarre Criterion movies available for streaming, and leave it to me to start with one of the weirdest: Jubilee (1978), a stream-of-conscious punk rock dystopia. This plotless melange of guerilla filmmaking has an incongruous Shakespearean frame: Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre), with the assistance of an occultist, conjures a spirit guide who transports her forward in time to a dark future that looks an awful lot like 1970s London. There she witnesses the anarchic behavior of her nation’s future, through the antics of a chaotic gang of artists, arsonists, layabouts, and musicians who wallow in a dying culture of media saturation and societal decay.

Nothing says “anything goes” like seventies cult cinema involving the British punk rock scene; Jubilee is random, uneven, paceless, and full of transgressive behavior and nihilistic political theory. It’s also got raw punk music from musicians like Adam Ant, Toyah Wilcox, and Sioxsie and the Banshees, among others. (Ant and Wilcox have substantial roles in the film.) While vast stretches of its running time are dull and amateurish, it does have a surprising cumulative effect as its mumbly blend of political commentary, grimy visuals, eccentric performances, and half-baked SF tropes spin inexorably into tragicomic nightmare. A broad viewership likely won’t respond to this relic, but it does earn its cult notoreity and I got a kick out of its grungy, experimental camp.

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