The Essex Serpent: Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston in gripping, gothic TV

For better or worse, this is serious, thinky telly where the serpents are metaphorical

By Ed Power

With Game of Thrones on the way back with a dragon-enriched prequel series, many of us will suddenly be in the mood once more for stirring tales of long-necked beasts losing their tempers in a variety of destructive ways. Being unfamiliar with Sarah Perry’s 2016 bestseller The Essex Serpent, I therefore went into Apple’s adaptation (Apple TV +, Friday) foolishly expecting at least one CGI monster before the end of the first episode.

But this, for better or worse, is serious, thinky telly where the serpents are metaphorical and the biggest special effect is the stubble dappling Tom Hiddleston’s A-lister chin.

He plays a worldly rector aghast when his flock starts to pay heed to rumours of a long-necked monster prowling his parish of Aldwinter in coastal Essex in 1893. Hiddleston is best known as charming anti-hero Loki in the Marvel films. Here, however, he is rigorously buttoned down as a man of reason opposite Claire Danes, who portrays Cora Seaborne, a well-to-do widow who has taken up amateur palaeontology following the death from throat cancer of her abusive husband.

With Netflix having gone all in on reality TV and Shonda Rhimes capers, Apple is one of the few remaining repositories of what used to be called “prestige television”. This, as we all know, means slow-moving fare featuring big names grappling with big ideas – and typically adapted from a middle-brow novel.

All those boxes are ticked with The Essex Serpent. Now, obviously, this sort of thing isn’t for everyone. As one of those who likes their serpents very much nonfigurative and given to biting people’s heads off, I find myself constantly yelling “get on with it” while hoping that Hiddleston would suddenly transform into Loki, the whole fandango revealed to be a secret Marvel spin-off.

Yet it is solidly assembled. Danes’s English accent is impeccable – even better than Joe Alwyn’s in Conversations with Friends – and Hiddleston gives good “hunky vicar” as he casts meaningful gazes as Cora (despite being married to Clémence Poésy’s Stella). In other words, it has everything apart from the actual serpent – and, as reminder why prestige television is important and we should continue to watch it, adds up to a gripping gothic slow-burner.

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Glasgow Film Festival Review: Terence Davis “Benediction”

Benediction, 2022. Directed by Terence Davies. Starring Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi, Jeremy Irvine, Kate Phillips, Gemma Jones, Simon Russell Beale, and Ben Daniels. SYNOPSIS: The story of English poet, writer and soldier Siegfried Sassoon.

By Chris Connor

Terence Davies has left an indelible mark on the landscape of British cinema over the past four decades with numerous acclaimed films including Deep Blue SeaDistant VoicesStill Lives and The Long Day Closes. Davies’ films are noted for being semi-biographical and often referencing cinema with a focus on post-war Britain. His latest is Benediction, a biopic of the war poet Siegfried Sassoon chronicling his years in the First World War and his life and social circle post-war with a younger Sassoon played by Jack Lowden and an aging Siegfried played by Peter Capaldi .

One of the challenges facing Benediction is perhaps that there is greater awareness around his war exploits and friendship with the renowned war poet Wilfred Owen.  The friendship of the pair is touched upon but perhaps doesn’t play as much of a part as one might expect although it is responsible for some of the film’s most hard hitting moments revolving around Owen’s poem Disabled. Continue reading

“You Are Not My Mother” – An unholy marriage of Irish folklore and familial dysfunction

Film review: Impressive debut blurs line between friction, bipolar disorder and the supernatural

By Tara Brady

Kate Dolan’s promising debut feature opens with an indelible sequence in which a baby in a buggy is parked in the middle of a suburban Dublin street. A woman walks from her house and pushes the infant into nearby woods only to assemble and light a strange, ritualistic fire around the crying child.

Thus begins an unholy marriage of Irish folklore and familial dysfunction. At its best, You Are Not My Mother’s intergenerational portrait of women and strange goings-on recalls the slow-burning Alzheimer’s horror of Natalie Erika James’s Relic.

Hazel Doupe (Float like a Butterfly) stars as a reticent, bullied teenager named Char, who lives with her depressed mum Angela (Carolyn Bracken) and increasingly odd grandmother Rita (Ingrid Craigie). As the film opens, Angela, a mere husk of a woman, is scarcely able to perform such basic maternal responsibilities as grocery shopping, driving her daughter to school, or getting out of bed.

When Angela’s car is found abandoned, with the doors flung wide open, Char and her uncle Aaron (Paul Reid) are inclined to assume the worst, even if it is indicated that this is not an isolated incident.

Angela returns, however, in weirdly irrepressible form, cooking and performing unhinged dancing around the kitchen. Granny keeps pace with her daughter’s strangeness, muttering and fashioning strange amulets.

For much of its impressive duration, Dolan’s film blurs the line between family friction, bipolar disorder and the supernatural. Mother’s lithium dose doubles as a magical sleeping elixir and as a poison. Mysterious mutterings among neighbours mark the family out as outsiders without any particular substance.

Meanwhile, away from Char’s drab home, malevolent peers await. As Halloween approaches, their tricks turn nastier. Thin spaces may await. Die Hexen’s score adds to the post-Carpenter seasonal menace, as does Narayan Van Maele’s lurking camera.

Dolan skilfully escalates her heroine’s predicament even if the final muddled mythological explanation concerning doppelgangers and changelings and fire punctures the effect during the final act. There’s enough here, however, to mark Dolan out as a film-maker.

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Film Review: “Rose Plays Julie” is “The Parent Trap” with teeth

Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor take a familiar long-lost-family story – and add a dark, vengeful twist.

By Ryan Gibley

The story of an adult searching for the biological parent who gave them up at birth is played as screwball comedy in David O Russell’s Flirting with Disaster and as wrenching melodrama in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, both from 1996. The discordant mood of Rose Plays Julie, from the Irish writing directing team of Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, offers none of the comforts of those genres.

The spadework has already been done before the film begins: Rose (Ann Skelly), a veterinary student with a pale, haunted face, knows that her birth mother is an actor named Ellen (Orla Brady), but calling her and hanging up is as far as she has got.

Rose watches footage of Ellen playing a cop, opening fire on a young woman who morphs into a snarling fanged ghoul. The clip strikes a chord, and not only because she has just come from a lecture entitled “Euthanasia and the Healthy Animal”. Perhaps she sees herself as monstrous, too, and liable to be put down – or as someone who was lucky to escape such a fate.

Posing as a potential buyer, she visits Ellen’s house, and encounters her own adolescent half-sister. As she creeps from room to room, Rose seems like a potential cuckoo in the nest – though it’s truer to say that she is the fledgling booted out of the tree, come to claim her rightful place

It isn’t confrontation she desires, but acceptance, clarity, love: “Do you ever think about me?” she wonders. When Ellen takes her into the middle of the woods – a classic fairy tale setting – she gets an explanation she hadn’t bargained for. Rose had imagined herself as the product of a besotted but panicked young couple. In fact, Ellen was raped. As Rose hears this, Skelly indicates from beneath the cover of her arctic expression the collapse of everything she thought she knew about herself. Birdsong fills the air, making no concession to her torment.

Having put her energies into that bid for maternal recognition, Rose is now compelled to find her father, too. All these years later, Ellen still can’t say her attacker’s name, so she types it into Rose’s phone. There is a jolt of grim humour when the word “Peter” produces the suggestion “Andre”. Good old autocorrect, always hopeless at reading the room. Except for when Ellen starts to key in Peter’s surname (“Doyle”) and it helpfully offers “Fouled” instead.

Peter (Aidan Gillen) is a celebrity archaeologist who has published a book called Below the Surface. “What I’m most drawn to is unlocking the past,” he says. Rose has the same mission. Having always felt her identity to be amorphous, she has no trouble pretending to be an actor called Julie (her birth name), who wants to join Peter’s dig as research for a role. The wig she wears for the task adds a femme fatale touch.

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Film review: “Ali and Ava” is an understated triumph

By Peter Bradshaw | The Guardian

There’s a tremendous human warmth to this love story from writer-director Clio Barnard, a social-realist tale that you might compare to Ken Loach’s Ae Fond Kiss (though Loach might not have made the landlord the good guy). It’s a drama of autumnal love conquering the divisions of race, the disillusionments of middle age, the discomfort of parenthood and grandparenthood, and the tensions of class.

Adeel Akhtar is Ali, a likable, happy-go-lucky British Asian in Bradford whose family is well-off. They own properties and insofar as Ali has a job, it is going around collecting rent, and he is a genial friend to the tenants and their families. Ali sees himself as a frustrated DJ and a musician: his house has a converted basement “mancave” where he keeps his extensive vinyl collection. But Ali has a terrible secret: his wife Runa (played by the excellent Ellora Torchia) has outgrown her puppyish husband intellectually and they are separating. Rather than confess this shaming fact to his family, the couple are still living together.

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