Sunday 21 February 2016

The Night Manager

Freely adapted from prolific spy scribe Le Carre's 1993 novel, this quickly gets going - and gripping - but is every bit as far-fetched as a Bond movie.  Ex-army officer Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) is a night manager at the swanky Nefertiti hotel in uptown Cairo.  During the Arab Spring, the beautiful mistress of a dodgy local playboy entrusts him with a document implicating famous businessman/philanthropist Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie) in arming terrorists.  When he leaks it to Simon Ogilvy (Russell Tovey) at the British Consulate, the consequences for them both are shattering.

This has all the right ingredients: glamorous locations, a good-looking cast, subterfuge, violence, sex, good vs. bad and so on.  It's engrossing in the same way as a well-put-together, handsomely mounted Hollywood movie.  The slight glitch for an English audience is the self-same cast.  Hiddleston is a great hero, but an unlikely night manager, while we kept expecting Laurie to reprise his goggle-eyed Regency Prince from 'Blackadder' and Tovey to be the cheeky chappie he usually plays.  Horribly unfair to the actors, who turn in top-class performances, along with Olivia Colman as gutsy intelligence agent and mum-to-be Angela Burr, and several other staple Brits besides.

Escapist and a good ad for the intelligence services if you are reckless.  It isn't after all the governments who wield the power and pose the threat these days.  Businessmen are rather less exposed.

Wednesday 17 February 2016

One Child

China's culture, history and current situation seem rich with dramatic possibility.  Unfortunately this is a rather poor offering.  Mei is a student of astrophysics in London who gets a message one day from a journalist claiming to be a friend of the mother who gave her up for adoption in Guangzhou in 1992.  Her mother subsequently had a son, Mei is told, and the young man is now in prison under a death sentence for a crime he didn't commit.

The first problem is that we know from the beginning, through a long sequence in a nightclub, that the boy is innocent, so there is far less tension and moral ambiguity than there might have been.  The second problem is the TWNH of the premise: apparently the journalist tracked Mei down via the adoption agency because her western upbringing meant she might have connections.  Rather unlikely.  Anyone who has dealt with Chinese officialdom in any capacity is likely to agree with Mei's adoptive parents that foreign interference is not welcome, and the best thing Mei could do for herself and everyone else is to stay out of it.  She goes to the British Consulate who unsurprisingly won't help a local citizen, having no mandate to do so.  The third problem may seem like a minor detail to a western viewer, but it's set in south-eastern China (and apparently filmed in Hong Kong), where the local dialect is Cantonese.  The official language may be Mandarin, but Cantonese is spoken everywhere.  During the whole hour, everyone spoke Mandarin or fluent English.  Mei's mother may be from Yunnan province, but the locals speak only Mandarin too.  Overall, a disappointment.

Tuesday 16 February 2016

The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

Watching 'The People v OJ Simpson' is, if you'll pardon the pun, a game of two halves.  For the People, we have a solid team of clenched-jaw DAs, including divorced mother Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) and her boss Gil Garcetti (Bruce Greenwood).  They are going into bat in much the same way as their counterparts in 'Law and Order' and other US legal dramas.  Then there's OJ, 'The Juice', Simpson, whose life is a surreal circus of strung-out hangers-on, overblown dramas and facially re-arranged alpha males.  If this is to be believed, Simpson had the best PR ever, since behind the smooth celebrity charm was a hysterical, immature and pathetic man.

This is a curious piece of television, the first in the UK of the 'American Crime Story' trials, dramatising this one notorious case over ten hours and featuring a diverse cast that almost enhances the farcical nature of proceedings on OJ's side: Cuba Gooding Jr is the carpet-chewing OJ, lent support by David Schwimmer's Robert Kardashian (now best known as Kimmy's daddy) and John Travolta's shark lawyer Robert Shapiro.  Travolta also produced this, based on the book by Jeffrey Toomin, so you wonder, as a fellow celebrity, whether his stance on Simpson's guilt or innocence is going to be revealed.

Entertaining, yes, and the ex-Mrs. Simpson's friends and family don't fare too well here either, but it's sometimes a little too easy to forget that Nicole Simpson and her fellow victim were brutally murdered, possibly by an all-American hero, stirring up the racial and economic divide that remains at the heart of America.

Sunday 14 February 2016


Extreme Scandi alert!  Danish heavyweights be warned - the Icelanders are on the case.  Sharp-eyed viewers may recognise the ship's captain from both 'The Killing' and 'Borgen' but you know Iceland must be small if Denmark embodies the big, bad, criminal nation.

The latest in the BBC4 foreign drama slot is no advertisement for the cold little country, however.  Not only does a dismembered torso turn up in some fishing nets (check your fish finger sandwich very carefully) at the same time as a Lithuanian trafficker who bears an uncanny resemblance to Rasputin, but the kind of storm is blowing which has even the hardly Icelanders looking doubtfully at their snow chains and opting for a cuppa.  Grumpy bear of a policeman Andri (Olafur Darri Olafsson) is called in, and in the best tradition of crime dramas, he has a troubled private life to think about, with his estranged wife showing up for the weekend with a new boyfriend.

The title presumably refers to everyone being trapped in the small coastal town - even the pathology team are trapped in comparatively comfy Reykjavik - so if claustrophobia is your thing, you can wallow in ten episodes shown in five parts.  Sort of like a very long drawn out Agatha Christie.  It manages to keep up the tension over the first two episodes, but not without some TWNHs on the way.  Would a prisoner be allowed out of the cell to go to the toilet, with only one guard?  Wouldn't there be facilities in the cell, or two on duty?  No prizes for guessing what ensues....  And would the children run off in a snowstorm when it's dark and the weather is so bad they can't see a yard in front of them?  It all feels a little contrived to drag the thing out.