• 'The Lehman Trilogy'

    It took 150 years for the financial giant that was Lehman Brothers to be built, beginning with the 1844 arrival in America of Hayum Lehmann, followed by his brother Mendel and their brother Meyer. It all ended in 2008 and almost took the world with it, but this brilliant, sell-out play takes us back to that first moment when a German immigrant set up a store in Alabama and started to think of expansion…

    Co-incidentally or not, in the lobby of the National Theatre you can pick up a free copy of a financial newspaper containing an article about bullying, arrogant bankers before taking your seat. Over the next three hours Stefano Massini does much the same, rewinding history before fast-forwarding us through a century and a half of ingenuity, humour, honour and ambition later contaminated by avarice, contempt and ego. The journey is a thrilling one, as Hayum becomes Henry, Mendel becomes Emmanuel and Meyer joins them both in a land of opportunity.

    The title does double duty, describing the play’s three-act structure and sibling subject, but arguably takes in a third meaning as a trio of wars visit hell and damnation but also possibilities. As supplying goods to slaves and plantation owners turns into raw cotton trading, post-Civil War reconstruction opens new doors. Coffee and the railways move the brothers’ business into a new century, when communications and banking beckon. After that third conflict computers and electronic trading ally with less substantial products built with electrons, until the house of cards so made collapses.

    In the programme Ben Power succinctly describes the approach taken when adapting Massini, noting the attempt to preserve “his vision, his wit and his humanity”. Regardless of who wrote what line, the text that results – part thought, part narration, part speech – resonates with all three.

    At the very start, the newly-arrived Henry is awed by what he calls the “music box” of America where, for every door that closes, another opens. He sells fabric from his humble shop, by the yard but more often by the inch to even more humble clients. At this rate, he muses, his debt will take “three more years of inches” to clear.

    The language of money is heard throughout, though almost never the dust-dry technical terms – collateralized debt obligations, subprime mortgages – that would ultimately bring everything down. Instead the brothers yearn for the “zeros, zeros, zeros” they see at the New York Cotton Exchange, and “trust me” becomes their mantra over repeated generations. As their wealth and influence piles up, so do the phrases expressing this. “One runs Lehmans, the other a gold mine” comments one onlooker. Wondering which descendent would help out in another catastrophic situation, another ponders that “Noah had to save the world but at least he didn’t have competition”; and the world of finance is “a club for bankers”. But that humanity Power cited is there as well. “Growing old,” we hear, “is to inhabit a new land” quite different from one’s native territory, where a new language is to be learned.

    All of this is delivered by three actors playing – exceptionally well – not just the three brothers but also those same men at different ages, occasionally each other, and also their sons, grandsons, girlfriends, wives, clients and partners. It is brought together in an astonishingly fluid melange that moves between accent, vocabulary, point of view, gender, time and space with supreme facility.

    Each of the principals brings a unique talent to the production. Simon Russell Beale’s solidity and gravitas is necessary and effective as Henry builds his business and anchors the events to come. This is though nicely undercut from time to time: by Henry’s wonder on arrival in America, through a homely, proprietorial guided tour of the shop and – best of all – when Russell Beale inhabits the first of several female roles for the cast as the brothers find their wives. Ben Miles is superb as Emanuel, the “arm” to Henry’s head, with a powerful delivery that is also modified endlessly as he essays additional characters. A highlight sees him playing the three year old son of his brother, sitting on his father’s lap and tickling his beard. Here, too, is Massini and Power’s humanity. Adam Godley equals Russell Beale in versatility and perhaps outshines him in humour and energy respectively as he scrolls rapidly and utterly brilliantly through a gallery of potential women for Philip Lehman to date, and later maintains a manic, desperate Twist routine as the aging Bobbi Lehman who, like those around him, feels the need to keep up the “dance” of moving money.

    In a key scene in the final act, the senior Lehmans are old and frail, the startlingly clever but coldly calculating son Philip keen to exploit this and move the bank into new areas that they simply don’t understand. “You have employees to do the work,” he tells them, “you just have to sign it off”. It is the moment when the old world gave way to the new, and when the insistent greed that is portrayed in the later stages of the play future took root.

    The play is performed in a space of beguiling simplicity but also hidden complexity designed by Es Devlin. Elevated slightly on the Lyttleton’s revolve is a rectangular box of slim steel beams and – for the most part – floor to ceiling glazing. Within, one large and three small rooms are minimally furnished: office chairs, a long conference table, a chrome lamp, an umbrella stand. It is a corner of a Wall Street tower from the middle of the last century, a slice of Miesian Modernism whose perfection is marred only by boxes – a few dozen white cardboard boxes, of the kind we in Britain call archive boxes but which are properly known as bankers’ boxes – a sly touch. These, moved by the cast as needed, are combined props and flats. They serve as seats, counters, pulpits and more even before their final, moving appearance as themselves in a recreation of the eponymous bank’s final day. The ceiling of this ‘office’ provides almost all of the lighting, varying at need from spot to flood, colour to monochrome, bright to dark, and the entire construction turns on cue, revealing and concealing as the story unfolds, the music box of Henry Lehman’s mind brought to life. Behind, a panorama sweeping around the entire rear of the stage receives projected images, still and moving, that complement the action. It is the final entry in another trilogy, after Devlin’s remarkable work on Chimerica and The Nether.

    Sam Mendes directs with a flawless eye for motions that move the actors and the audience alike. The former sit and stand and step and lie and walk effortlessly up and down, in and out, and around and about. In several scenes Mendes, surely drawing on his cinematic career, has his actors walk through the box as it rotates, keeping pace with its movement as it turns and thus effectively standing still, to create a kind of tracking shot.

    With only two scenes set in 2008, the first and the last, both achieving great pathos, The Lehman Trilogy takes the brothers and us forward and backward only to end up where we began. It is – or should be, and especially to those featured in that newspaper article – a salutary lesson, albeit beautifully delivered.

    The Lehman Trilogy, by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power, a co-production with Neal Street Productions, finishes tonight at the National Theatre but transfers to the Piccadilly Theatre, London W1 from 11 May 2019.

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  • 'Mission: Impossible - Fallout' (2018)

    Another year, another mission. The sixth Mission: Impossible film has been promoted as the biggest yet, with co-producer/star Tom Cruise actually flying a helicopter and undertaking a parachute jump for real, both on camera. But this entry in the series also has – for the first time – continuity of writer/director (Christopher McQuarrie) and supporting characters across consecutive films, which sets up additional expectations. Add in its leading actor incurring an injury that held up shooting for several weeks and apparent use of the IMAX family of formats once again for the filming itself, and the result has a more than usual level of expectation for the viewer.

    Perhaps because of this, a nondescript night-time alley in what the screen captions as Belfast followed by Ethan Hunt (Cruise) receiving a lengthy briefing projected onto the wall of an empty industrial space is a curiously pedestrian starting point given the stunningly dynamic opening of #5, Ghost Nation. The exposition-heavy recording is nominally to prepare Hunt for his mission but its principal purpose is of course to set up the audience, and yet for me its attempts to introduce two main characters and the inevitable terrorist cell felt uncomfortably like stuffing too much into a single plotline even at this very early stage.

    The oddly quotidian mood continues when Hunt and the IMF team of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) appear in Berlin for an exchange of money and three plutonium bomb cores; despite these high-stakes items, the dull setting (another industrial setting, another night scene) and unambitious action (a shoot-out, and this confusingly presented) frustrate. Yes, the final sequence does link back to the franchise’s televisual origins (though also to a very specific episode of the Gerry Anderson puppet series Terrahawks (1983-86, interestingly) and raise the stakes somewhat, but by the time the latest rearrangement of Lalo Schiffrin’s driving theme tune begins I was already shifting in my seat.

    After the necessary introduction of new character August Walker (Henry Cavill), CIA “hammer” to Hunt’s “scalpel” and already nicely ambiguous in his loyalties, the first of those big action scenes unfolds as Hunt and Walker drop in on Paris’s Grand Palais exhibition venue via a military-style parachute jump. Both suit up and, after the mutual needling that serves as cinematic shorthand for their spiky relationship, leap out of the aircraft and enter a freefall… All very familiar, except that when Hunt, following the bullish Walker who has already jumped, runs toward the camera and both continue into thin air in the same shot, the plane they were in vanishing behind him into a twilight sky, we are actually watching Tom Cruise himself skydiving out of the back of a real C-17 jet transport several thousand feet over the United Arab Emirates, where the sequence was shot. A full-face helmet – the latter an absolute necessity in such circumstances, the former invented especially for this film – allows us to confirm that it’s the actor and not a stuntman (Cruise made over a hundred practice drops in training).

    The mid-air tussles that follow, again not original in themselves, are nevertheless impressively mounted given Cruise’s continuing presence as Hunt (Cavill did not take part) and the contemporary filming techniques used to record them. And yet I couldn’t help feeling that there was something lacking here, some subtle cue that would let my mind accept that that was a genuine improvement on, say, replacing a stunt person’s face with a digital image of the actor as was done a generation ago in Jurassic Park (1993). Churlish I know, but symptomatic of what was to come.

    The encounters that follow within the Grand Palais – itself introducing Paris as one of the major locations for the film – only served to cause more confusion as to the identity, motivation and relationships between the various characters introduced, including Alanna Mitsopolis/the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby). An impressive fight sequence holds the interest, not least thanks to the remarkable skills of stuntman Liang Ying, though once again it is both conceptually and aesthetically similar to an almost identical scene in True Lies (1995)

    One character and actress whose reintroduction is very welcome is that of Ilsa Faust as played by Rebecca Ferguson. The actress stole the previous film and her initial – surprise – appearance here with a snappy fight sequence coming soon after bode well. Similarly Solomon Lane, a disturbingly gimlet-eyed, tangle-bearded Sean Harris, also returns, though the manner of that happening disclose further misjudgements on the part of the makers.

    The violent armed rescue of Lane from a prison convoy is seen in soft focus and with muted sound, something also evident in earlier shots and used throughout to represent a memory, dream or other work of the imagination. It is employed here to reinforce one of the film’s many sub-plots, this one about Cruise’s empathy being a weakness rather than a strength. But given clips of this sequence without blurring (which was presumably applied in post) appear in the trailer and given the actual rescue that takes place in the story is rather different, it feels as though McQuarrie is having his cake and eating it, cramming in two action scenes for the price of one. In addition that definitive rescue involves yet another ‘loan’ from someone else’s work, since the manner in which Hunt places Lane’s prison van at the IMF’s disposal is taken directly from the Robbie Williams short film Rob By Nature (2001), effectively the music video for the single The Road To Mandalay.

    Admittedly this sequence debuts on film one of Paris’s most striking buildings highly impressively; the helicopter that carried Lane into the city earlier lands on the rooftop helipad of the Ministère de l’Economie et des Finances, which rises from the Seine itself, and the convoy that takes him into the streets from there accurately exits the ministry via its ceremonial doors. It is here, though, also that the mystery over the format used to shoot and exhibit Fallout comes to the surface.

    Aerial photography of that helicopter cries out for the 15 perf/70mm IMAX treatment (as indeed did the parachute drop, where it would have really helped sell Cruise as performer), and indeed various action scenes in Paris and London show clear differences in the framing, direction and stock used from those in the remainder of the film, but no information source confirms its use and in Britain at least the only IMAX presentations are – irritatingly – in 3D digital format. It is clear that more needs to come out about this, which is perhaps one other aspect of a slightly troubled production.

    Cruise once more does his own stunts in the car and bike chase that ensues, but the choice of locations now feels like a tourist board decision rather than an artistic one. There are, too, many incidents where both the geography and sense of a scene are less than transparent, including when Lane is clearly hit by bullets yet immediately afterward appears entirely unharmed and during a firefight in (yet another) dark underground vault that is hopelessly confused.

    In London, this same baffling obsession with anonymous, generic studio interiors poorly intercut with obvious, glamourous locations continues, with the very first shot in that city taking place in Paternoster Square, the next in one of those brick studio sets, and the rest across the rooftops of St Paul’s, Blackfriars station and Tate Modern including an admittedly breath-taking jump by Cruise that led to his accident (it is this shot that is kept in the film).

    The final act moves to Kashmir, and involves a hunt (pun intended) for twinned nuclear devices that must be defused simultaneously (this yet another rip-off, this time from an episode of the TV series Strike Back) and the inevitable countdown set piece. It is this that leads to the helicopter chase for which Cruise sent months learning to fly. It may seem churlish to criticise this too as unnecessary but despite many shots from interior cameras prominently and pointedly showing Cruise alone in the cockpit I barely noticed, thanks to the frenetic cutting, the absurdity of his being able to escape continuous machine gun fire from his adversary and the fact that whilst Cruise the actor may know how to fly, Hunt the character does not, as is made clear in the script, which renders the entire scene unbelievable and perversely detracts from the actor’s obvious achievement personally.

    In parallel, a different confrontation takes place on the ground which involves a level and type of violence – slow throttling, hanging – that left a very unpleasant taste in the mouth. Earlier another character stabs someone to death with a butterfly knife, and the tonal variances of these scenes compared to the remainder of the film sat uncomfortably with me.

    I’ve not even mentioned the return of Hunt’s former wife, the marginalisation of Ilsa Faust as a result and the casual treatment of her own storyline, all of which seem like unneeded complication in context.

    This film was a huge disappointment. Its plot is overly complex, individual beats do not form a coherent whole and there are too many steals from other works. Cavil is good, but many of the supporting characters – Lane, Faust – waste those parts and the actors inhabiting them. The direction and editing are choppy and there are evident mismatches in style and aesthetic between the grand statement scenes, the action done for real and the awkward interiors. The formulaic excess of the finale especially is simply absurd, and it is surely significant that McQuarrie has publicly admitted cutting at least one entire action scene from the film after preview audiences complained of too much action.

    A calmer, leaner story with far less going on would have foregrounded what are actually worthwhile plot points, such as a notorious villain whom no-one has seen, consideration of whether a wrong done for the right reason is justifiable and inter-agency conflict, whilst letting those real-life action scenes shine. Perhaps a fitting conclusion is the irony of a film that is all about illusion and misdirection suffering from the fact that the pervasive use of CGI across the entertainment industry has made it almost impossible to convince an audience that what they are seeing is actually real.

    Mission: Impossible - Fallout remains on general release

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  • ‘Sicario 2: Soldado’ (2018)

    Some missions need an assassin – others need a soldier

    - Publicity

    A sequel to 2015’s superb story of personal revenge mixed with geopolitics set against the background of the US-Mexico drug and illegal immigration war was not required but has nevertheless arrived, again written by Taylor Sheridan but directed by Stefano Sollima rather than Denis Villeneuve. It begins with a twist on the people-smuggling theme of its predecessor that is as original and audacious as that film’s core plot point and is sufficiently rich with potential to carry proceedings on its own. Sadly, this promise is discarded quite quickly in favour of layer upon layer of additional ideas that eventually create confusion and implausibility in equal measure.

    Those opening scenes, as a new threat depressingly familiar to those in contemporary Europe slips into America under cover of an old one, are viscerally shocking and upsetting and set the tone for the first, strongest section of the film. They lead to a government cabinet member calling for action and bending the definitional rules to allow it, in turn releasing returning protagonist Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to act as the deniable instrument of state that such an order requires.

    A ‘shopping’ sequence as Graver matter-of-factly enacts his master’s wish is coldly stripped-down yet utterly compelling; the casual diner conversation between him and what appears to be a private military contractor over equipment and prices recalls the workaday realism of Steven Soderberg’s Haywire (2011), whilst the cynicism surrounding the next steps Graver takes is breathtaking. Here, one is watching a sequel that is worthy of comparison to the original yet takes it in a different direction, even if the occasional line of dialogue and thus crucial plot detail is lost to too-casual delivery and a downbeat audio mix.

    Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) also returns as a partner – or perhaps weapon – in this venture, which we now learn links to his motivation in Sicario. Again, though, this is unclear since the cartel boss is different in each case and the connection between them is only loosely alluded to. Since this particular storyline goes nowhere one could argue it doesn’t matter.

    The assassination and kidnap actions that follow are competently staged by Sollima in what is now the default filmic style of the 2000s – sharp, sudden and serious, with none of the flashiness that characterised product from the previous decade let alone the flamboyance of the 1980s. Isabela Moner, as old as the century more or less, impresses as Isabela Reyes, convincingly essaying a spoiled schoolgirl who is queen of her milieu one minute and a terrified victim of something much larger another.

    It is though here where I began to part company from the material. Geography began to feel ill-defined, with uncertainty over precisely who was where or heading to what and why, and small moments seemed lost, missed or undeveloped.

    Yes, a speeding convoy in a forbidding desert attempting the next move in a false flag operation is nicely handled with a growing sense of unease – “I hate dirt roads,” growls Graver as his airborne assistance begins to be compromised by dust – and the firefight that follows is snappy and brutal, but exactly who is attacking, how and from where remains unexplained and the editing of what happens now and immediately afterward leaves much to be desired if clarity is wanted.

    When Isabella and Alejandro are cast adrift on a quest of their own this dislocation is intensified, whilst things also become annoyingly sentimental if sometimes also affecting. Convenient co-incidence appears, surely unnecessary when a writer is so clearly gifted as Sheridan. That this returns repeatedly, especially in relation to a parallel storyline about young Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), soon becomes grating in the extreme.

    Having the rug pulled from under Graver and Alejendro decisively shifts perception of the overall source for the film – Tom Clancy’s Clear and Present Danger, also about a biddable yet cowardly politician spurred by an act of moral outrage – from obvious but acceptable homage to lazy derivation. And unlike Phillip Noyce’s 1994 film adaptation, which took pains to depict a realistic timescale for the reversal, here everything is rushed to the point of risibility. The film is thus simultaneously overlong and uncomfortably hurried – a television series would have given this approach room to breath.

    The finale insults the viewer twice, first with more sentimentality and then by replacing the weary inevitability recognisably of the real world that ended the first film with a crude hook for a ‘threequel’. Given the present instalment can best be summarised as occasionally gripping but ultimately maddening, it won’t be one I will be experiencing.

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  • Art, Past & Present: Part 3 of 3 - 'Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire'

    By chance, three different art exhibitions in London currently all engage with the same subject – how particular artists considered the old and the new. Specifically, shows looking at Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet and Thomas Cole explore how they each viewed societal developments in their own times, wondered what their work should look like in the context of that and whether they followed, built on or reacted against those practitioners who came before. Fittingly all three finish on the same date, so you have about five weeks to experience all of them. My own encounters concluded with the National Gallery’s Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire.

    Though clearly the least-known artist of the three for many, I was aware of his work through the Tate’s revelatory American Sublime exhibition in 2002. Alongside Fredrick Church (Cole’s pupil at the Hudson River School) and others, Cole – an Englishman by birth – was responsible for framing forever the Old World’s view of the New as a place of immeasurable, untamed wildernesses of unparalleled beauty and awesome splendour. But, as this major exhibition is at pains to point out, Cole actually took a very different view of the great American landscape and what it could be than his compatriots. And even if his US-set works don’t always make this clear, his magnificent Course of Empire sequence sets out his stall with power and elegance.

    Born in Bolton in 1801, Cole was an admirer of Turner and his portrayals of nature, but was also aware of how the controversial artist confronted modernity – especially technology – in his works. Both Turner and his contemporary Philip de Loutherbourg were awed by what the curators call the ‘demonic spectacle’ of forges and factories of the Industrial Revolution, and both drew comparisons between tradition and contemporaneity when including such sights in their pictures. Thus Turner’s Fighting Temeraire showed a derelict sailing ship towed to its grave by a steam tug, whilst in his fieryCoalbrookdale by Night, included here, de Loutherbourg placed discarded sections of manufactured iron pipe as if they were the columns and capitals of some vanished classical culture. The seeds of Cole’s work are seen in these artists and in John Martin, another English artist whose apocalyptic scenes of catastrophe and Biblical ruination evidently appealed.

    After his family emigrated to America Cole began depicting the grand open spaces of his adopted country, with an evident love for its flora and fauna and the immensity of nature’s creations. Colossal valleys, winding rivers and bucolic scenes soon emerged from his easel, and did much to promote the early settlers’ belief in manifest destiny. Cole’s The Oxbow, recalling Constable in its thick clouds but showing a panorama of the Connecticut River Valleyrather than of the Thames and London, has become a touchstone of American art. And yet Cole was adamantly against the development of these places and their industrialisation, unlike Church who welcomed man’s impact on the natural world, and a hint of this is found in what was for me the most striking piece of the show. Utterly fantastical, Titan’s Goblet depicts a colossal stone drinking vessel hundreds of feet high standing on a rocky coast, “the imagined artefact of an extinct race of giants” as the caption puts it. Classical ruins surround the rim of this wonderful thing, complete with tiny aqueduct, and the spill from its lake-like bowl dissolves in the wind as it cascades over the side.

    Cole’s opinions found their greatest form, though, in Course of Empire, his five paintings of a fictional landscape showing its chronological discovery, exploitation and abandonment over the centuries. In the first, The Savage State, an unspoilt expanse of land at the mouth of a river is laden with greenery and inhabited only by natives. Human intervention begins with The Pastoral State – a stone circle, boat building, farming – but is in balance with nature. The weight of ‘culture’ has tipped the scales utterly by the time of The Consummation of Empire, in which a vast Romanesque city of marble, gilt and luxury sprawls across the valley; groaning with indulgence, its fate is sealed in Destruction when a brutal war ravages everything. I was struck by the bold imagery here; spattered blood, grey-faced corpses and attempted rape all feature. In the final instalment, Destruction, nature is reclaiming the ruins of what once was. Though retaining something of the imagination seen in the Goblet, this is a firmly human and thus relatable morality tale. Highly charged in its evening moodiness, that final picture is Cole’s Old World warning the citizens of the New.

    A welcome window into a less-well-known British talent who made his name abroad, this was an enjoyable show that rounded of a trio of fulfilling exhibtions.

    'Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire' continues at the National Gallery, London WC2 until 29 July 2018.

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  • Art, Past & Present: Part 2 of 3 - 'Monet & Architecture'

    By chance, three different art exhibitions in London currently all engage with the same subject – how particular artists considered the old and the new. Specifically, shows looking at Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet and Thomas Cole explore how they each viewed societal developments in their own times, wondered what their work should look like in the context of that and whether they followed, built on or reacted against those practitioners who came before. Fittingly all three finish on the same date, so you have about five weeks to experience all of them. My own encounters continued with the National Gallery’s Monet & Architecture.

    Forget, if you can, Monet’s water lilies. This exhibition is about his response to the built environment around him, in Normandy, Rouen, Paris, London and Venice, whether featuring incidentally or as the principal – sometimes only – subject. It looks at how painted architecture directly, and at how he used it as counterpoint to the natural world for which he is best known. It considers his selection of structures old and new, and it looks at repetition – how the same topic could be painted again and again yet be different each time.

    Beginning with Monet’s love for the traditional aesthetic of the picturesque allows simple scenes of village and harbour life to impress with their dancing light, bright colours and clever effects, such as the apparent blurring of grasses in the foreground of The Hut at Sainte-Adresse, although the captions are curiously silent occasionally on obvious points, such as the dramatically vertiginous viewpoint down a winding lane cutting through the centre of one picture of the same location even as its vertical orientation – surely designed to enhance this exact effect – is noted. A developing mastery of colour and composition is also seen, with the former employed to suggest weather effects (a View of Amsterdam appears as though seen through a rain-spattered window) and the latter starting to use architecture as a highlight or framing device. Both skills come together in the superb The Cliff at Varengeville, which is almost Pre-Raphaelite with its keen atmosphere, and the warmly coastal The Church at Vethéuil.

    Already the variation in Monet’s approach is apparent, and this is not always to the viewer’s advantage in my view. Many of his works are aggressively naïve or pointillistic, these last effective only at a distance. The exhibition is silent on this, disappointingly. Even when he takes this road however other sides of his technique impress, such as the almost monochrome Snow Effect at Giverney which nevertheless drew me in through its complex textures and implied motion, both of which reminded me of Rothko.

    The modern city was a touchstone for many late 19th century artists, including the Impressionists, but this show presents Monet as ambivalent to its charms. It appears that the cost of living an urban life – plus ça change – along with a lack of great interest from buyers in the works he produced eventually dissuaded him. The heavier, darker colours of his images of the Gare St-Lazare are an effective contrast with the earlier rural works and show a solid artistic response to a change of scene, but Monet’s true sympathies seem to lie in the quieter moments along quaysides, near bridges and – in one soft, subtle masterpiece – with a distant View of Rouen, where a row of slim trees is echoed by the tall mast of a barge and a chimney, and barely-there clouds and a slight pink sunset radiate evening calm.

    All three subjects include water, with Monet’s talent for reflection also well to the fore. His ability to differentiate one form of light from another in variant circumstances is seen in the spectacular The Boulevard des Capucines, where two men in top hats stand on a balcony (they are almost pushed off the edge of the canvas) and watch a teeming crowd of several hundred individually-painted figures on the street below with half the scene bathed in winter sunlight and half in shadow.

    Monet’s astonishing ultra-grainy close ups of Rouen cathedral done from slightly different angles and at very different times of day and his heavily atmospheric scenes painted from London bridges close this section. The first is perhaps the most powerful room of the show, with half a dozen frames reading as massively enlarged photographs from further away. The artist often had several canvases on the go simultaneously in Britain’s capital, storing them in rented or gifted rooms and adjusting each in turn at the relevant time of day to properly capture the shifts of light, colour and time, effectively caught with a trio of works featuring the Houses of Parliament from across the river in fog, a storm and at sunset.

    Late-period portraits of Venice’s palazzos and more – the term must be correct, since no people feature – close this excellent show. It is well-curated and superbly hung. The number and choice of canvasses and their considered disposition is a perfect fit for the basement Sainsbury galleries, working with their variety and the clever theming to ensure that things never become overwhelming. As something of a Monet sceptic, I am – just about – convinced...

    The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture continues at the National Gallery, London WC2 until 29 July 2018

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  • Art, Past & Present: Part 1 of 3 - 'Rodin and the art of ancient Greece'

    By chance, three different art exhibitions in London currently all engage with the same subject – how particular artists considered the old and the new. Specifically, shows looking at Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet and Thomas Cole explore how they each viewed societal developments in their own times, wondered what their work should look like in the context of that and whether they followed, built on or reacted against those practitioners who came before. Fittingly all three finish on the same date, so you have about five weeks to experience all of them. My own encounters began with the British Museum’s Rodin and the art of ancient Greece.

    The putative originator of modern sculpture visited the British museum repeatedly. He took direct inspiration from what he saw there, especially the Parthenon Sculptures or Elgin Marbles. Uniquely, this innovative show presents the visitor with more than half a dozen instances to examine the source alongside the result. Thus a plaster cast of The Kiss (plaster, we find out, was often the only medium a clay original was reproduced in, pending its commissioning in bronze or marble by a buyer) sits next to a pair of Parthenon goddesses from the workshop of Greek sculptor Phidias or Pheidias, believed to be the creator of the monument’s integrated sculptural programme. In both, the Museum contends, faces are subordinate to bodies – Rodin found the ancient figures “participants in something that we do not see” and also believed in the lyrical concept of ‘phantasia’, whereby the sculptor’s apparition of beauty resided in the mind and was revealed by the hand. In both cases this shaped stone into flesh.

    Matching a dying Lapith warrior with Rodin’s The Martyr is also illustrative of this connection, as is a single figure in an extract from the superb cavalcade sequence – it is impossible to avoid cinematic terminology when describing this outstanding piece of ‘stop motion’ from 2,500 years ago, and indeed the curators note that a sense of movement might have been apparent when this frieze was seen through the screen of columns on the temple – and his The Age of Bronze. Rodin drew and had casts of such architectural elements to help him in his work, and recalled the “little mould makers” who sold convenient A4-sized replicas in the streets of European cities.

    Architecture is another link between these ages in and of itself, since not only did Rodin at one point go into business making architectural sculpture but The Kiss and many of his other works – including The Thinker, presented here in two very powerful versions including a terracotta – began as components of a vast pair of doors, the forbiddingly titled Gates of Hell, for a Parisian art museum. Patterned after the compartmented, richly-carved portal to Florence’s Renaissance Baptistry by Lorenzo Ghiberti, the doors were never made and the museum never built but for Rodin the detailed development work he undertook for the project acted as a kind of living sketchbook for the rest of his life. The exhibition takes pains to identify how those works derived from it made the transition to stand-alone pieces, including when Rodin decided to conjoin more than one source to form a new single form (that Rodin used the same fragments repeatedly but in different combinations is clear in the latest iteration of the wonderful Musée Rodin in Paris, where dozens if not hundreds of casts of arms, legs and torsos are displayed in cabinets, like a fin de siècle Airfix kit of Man awaiting assembly).

    For Rodin an ancient stone torso could seem as “real flesh [that] must have been moulded by kisses and caresses”, yet he also sought to prove that torsos in and of themselves, created as such from the start, could become valid artistic statements. This is shown when Lissos, a headless river god from the Parthenon, is put next to Rodin’s Ariadne, and Hermes stands adjacent to The Falling Man. With the first of these the Frenchman removed the head from a figure on the Gates, evoking an ancient sculpture eroded by time as the curators insightfully have it and so creating instant if self-assured comparisons with the past as well as supporting his thesis. I wondered at this point whether the distinctive cropping of statues in the paintings of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a near-exact contemporary of Rodin who also looked to the past for his subject matter, might have aimed for the same reading. Fascinatingly, Rodin collected items of sculpture, domestic artefacts and the like that COULD have been created by his hero Phidias as inspiration or for incorporation into his work whilst Alma Tadema carefully selected archaeological finds to be depicted in his paintings, even if he often then deliberately mixed-up or distorted materials, periods and scales for effect – he would frequently take say a Roman marble copy of a Greek sculpture and imagine the lost Greek original, or take a bronze bust designed for a room pedestal and enlarge it to Colossus size. Both men employed the modern technology or photography as an aide.

    Despite his clear love of the past, Rodin was no preservationist. He campaigned against restoration of the Parthenon, preferring to see it crumble, and felt that buildings in general should, like the human body, be born, mature and decay. Keen only to retain his library of inspiration, he looked to the future whilst referring to the past. This enlightening show shows both sides of his personality to good effect, and if it could have benefitted from a little extra layering – more context at the start, an audio guide, more on the techniques of past and present sculptors – and a slightly more intimate setting for some of the works than the cavernous unadorned black box of its new temporary exhibition gallery, it is still well worth seeing.

    Rodin and the art of ancient Greece continues at the British Museum, London WC1 until 29 July 2018

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  • High German

    Forty-five years ago, Travemünde on the Baltic Coast of what was then West Germany was at the very edge of the Iron Curtain. Sitting – appropriately – on the west side of the estuary that gave the hamlet its name (“Mouth of the River Trave”), the peninsular of Priwall jutting out from the eastern bank also fell within its boundary but only up to a point – the neck that attached it to the land beyond was cut by the Inner German Border. This line of separation then ran south, all the way to the Adriatic, as Churchill said. But in 1974, Travemünde residents were given a new vantage point from which to contemplate their former compatriots in the East with the opening of the 35-story-high Maritim hotel. With its period décor largely unaltered to this day, this remarkable addition to a genteel, Victorian seaside resort ironically if winningly recalls the architecture of the East.

    The hotel’s roots are firmly in the Federal Republic of Germany. Founded by Hans-Joachim Gommolla in 1969, the private Maritim group opened its first hotel not far from Travemünde at Timmendorfer. This was at the height of the Cold War, which had split the country in half and seen culture and the arts deployed on both sides in furtherance of opposing ideologies. By building along the Baltic Sea – a traditional German holiday destination but one into which the German Democratic Republic had pushed that divisive border – Maritim challenged its neighbour; by building so high at Travemünde, Gommolla arguably thumbed its nose at her, just as Axel Springer did with his towering publishing headquarters right on the Berlin Wall.

    As constructed by Hochtief from 1972, the Maritim Strandhotel Travemünde was to climb 119 metres into the sky and have 35 usable floors. In a further touch of showmanship-cum-assertive diplomacy, a rotating red shipping navigation light was mounted one storey higher. The hotel thus became one of the tallest lighthouses in the world, replacing the hamlet’s 16th century predecessor at its base.

    Resolutely Modernist in style, the hotel’s façade is defined by the projecting grid of concrete piers and beams that create its rooms and the continuous perimeter balconies that wrap the entirety of every floor. These last maintain a surprising horizontality that avoids the building’s height becoming overweening. Rectangular in plan, the hotel’s tower is oriented north west-south-east, giving all rooms views of the river, sea and land.

    As was common in this period, the hotel has a top floor eating and bar space that today – rather unaccountably – is restricted to daytime hours only. Located at the south-eastern end of the floorplate, it faces Lübeck further up the river.

    The base of the building takes the form of a wide, two-storey podium that is partially embanked and has a basement. This houses the main public spaces, which again reflect their time – lobby, restaurant, a bar, a ‘pub’ (so named) and a bowling alley, all with large windows and overlooking the water. A vast, double height and windowless conference/banqueting hall complete with mezzanine and its own dedicated foyer balances these to the landward side. The hotel was originally linked to a large indoor swimming pool complex but this was demolished and the land disposed of in favour of new resort buildings under separate ownership. A smaller pool now forms part of a spa for the hotel.

    No matter what their date, almost all hotels undergo regular refurbishment. Unless exceptionally notable, interiors seldom survive these periodic convulsions of taste. What distinguishes the Maritim Strandhotel Travemünde today is the fact that so much of what is clearly its original scheme remains intact, complete with rich materials and warm colours.

    In that lobby, veined white marble columns, tremendous polygonal chandelier light fittings and the inevitable veined-gold mirrored glass walls survive, as does an attractive metalwork grille to a retail unit. Padded leather half-moon door handles are first seen here and recur elsewhere in different colourways – cream, burgundy, dark green.

    The double doors to the restaurant are a highlight – their insides and outsides, as well as a frieze-like panel above, are feature beaten metal bas reliefs illustrating a mediaeval feast. Slightly naïve in style, they are nevertheless utterly charming. Inside, the serving area is backed by a delightful metalwork screen on an appropriately nautical theme.

    The foyer of the function hall has many more of the chandeliers, as well as sconces in a matching style. An attractive staircase flanked with deep, padded leather side rails leads down to the lower level of the podium.

    Unexpectedly, the guest rooms also show elements of this original scheme. The crystalline light fitting over the full-length mirror, built-in wardrobes with recessed handle, bedside radio controls and hardwood window frames with bronze handles all recall the early 1970s in winning fashion.

    That this hotel has not succumbed to the latest trend is not entirely a surprise. Even today, as new apartment blocks are carved out of the ground across the water, Travemünde is an old fashioned kind of place and a popular retirement destination. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that some of the more positive aspects of that time many decades ago are still with us.

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  • ‘The City & The City’ (2018)

    China Miéville’s 2009 novel The City & The City is an outstanding depiction of the structures, conventions and customs that comprise a modern city, as well as a solid police procedural. I have read the book several times and referenced it repeatedly in my architectural writing, lectures and tours, and yet was cautious when I heard it was being brought to the small screen by the BBC. The actual plot – intricate but conventional – appeared to present few difficulties, but the adaptation would also have to address a key conceit: the studious 'unseeing' of the other city required by citizens of both Besźel and Ul Qoma. The real surprise of the resulting serial, which has just finished its broadcast run, is that the former is more of a failure than the latter, yet in truth the entire enterprise must be regarded as misjudged from the outset.

    In the narrow context of that difficult social custom, then, so disarmingly simple to describe in prose yet presenting obvious challenges when rendering it visually, early signs were promising.

    Beginning, as the book does, in down-at-heel Besźel, the home of protagonist Borlú (David Morrissey), we encounter a place rendered in sepia tones. The more prosperous Ul Qoma, when it appears, is in metallic blues and reds. Explained in publicity material (though not, revealingly, in the screenplay) as the result of competing street lighting systems, this is a straight lift from the novel. What is new is that everything in Besźel is crisp and in focus, whilst everything in Ul Qoma – which, of course, Borlú and thus the audience in these first-person scenes is required to unsee – is smeared and blurred. It’s an ingenious device that is deployed sparingly at first and enhanced by occasional subtlety, such as when a Ul Qoman child’s fidget spinner lands at Borlú’s feet but he is unable to return or even look at it.

    But it soon becomes apparent that the truly intimate separation of the two cities described in the book, whereby alternating buildings in the same terrace or two people at a single table can be in Besźel and Ul Qoma respectively, has been radically simplified for television. Ellen E. Jones, previewing for the Guardian, described this as like “two maps, one placed on top of the other, then held up to the light”, but such delicacy is absent here.

    Yes, the differences of alphabet, vocabulary (a linguist was actually employed to formulate Illitan, the language of Ul Qoma, using the real-world Georgian alphabet as a base), food and clothes given in the book are all picked out, but they are segregated behind a straightforward linear border, depicted most obviously in a shot of cars driving either side of a wide road, the one stream in the one city, the other in the other, even if a momentary lane-jumper causing concern also borrows from the original.

    This is a disappointment. Perhaps the production felt that a more nuanced approach would confuse the prospective audience, despite the obvious appetite for complexity amongst speculative fiction adherents, or perhaps it was founded in the same budgetary restrictions that prevented filming in Eastern Europe (Manchester and Liverpool substitute, on the whole successfully). Regardless, it does betray a certain lack of creativity. For example, even the way in which citizens walk and carry themselves varies between cities, something which attains crucial import at the climax of the novel, yet it does not appear to have occurred to the makers to employ as extras two groups of trained dancers or movement artists who, suitably costumed in the colours of the two cities and properly rehearsed, could walk ‘through’ – without seeming to notice – each other.

    In fact not only is the split less shaded than it should have been, extra emphasis has been added to the idea of a physical boundary by clumsily laboured parallels with East Germany before the collapse of Communism and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Thus posters and unrelenting public address system announcements injunct “When in Besźel, see Besźel”, passengers on a train suddenly shut their eyes en masse to avoid The Other and even Morrissey is required to theatrically frown and rub his forehead almost every time he ‘unsees’, as though he has been caught in possession of samizdat. And then there is the crude portrayal of Breach. Truly unseen in the novel, and far more effective a threat as a result, it is depicted as a Staasi-like secret police force with yet more posters warning that its operatives “look like you”, its activities recalling Nazi-era scientists behind the scenes and other characters signing off conversations with the warning “Be safe”. Admittedly their appearance when they take Borlú at the end of episode three is somewhat effective, but even here they loom hammily out of the night as if in an Expressionist film rather than emerge instantly from the crowd, always ‘there’ but never seen.

    The serial fails to honour its own rules, too, in a way that surely insults the viewer. In a scene that, done properly, could have been a perfect representation of the novel, Borlú and his aide Corwi talk on mobile phones, each in separate cities and each framed in separate shots. As their conversation climaxes the camera pulls back to reveal that they are sitting on the same bench, allowing Corwi to leave a wrapped parcel containing a gun that Borlú then picks up – that is Breach, more blatant that any seen or avoided so far, yet an act that passed entirely unnoticed by the supposedly omniscient watchers in order that the story can advance.

    That scene does not come from the novel, and nor do many, many others. Its detective protagonist needed neither a missing wife nor a Difficult Last Case, but writer Tony Grisoni unaccountably lumbers Borlú with both, themselves shown mostly in torpid flashbacks by director Tom Shankland. Much of the remainder of Miéville’s work suffers conflation, inversion and distortion. It is especially depressing to find the construction of Borlú as a convincingly flawed hero so lacking that he cannot, in this version of the story, be permitted to shoot a killer dead without immediate provocation.

    Changing the sex of Dhatt, Borlú’s opposite number in UI Qoma, from male to female works better than I had expected thanks to Maria Schrader’s world-weary playing, though retaining Dhatt’s wife and thus making that character gay probably says more about the straining-to-please mores of today than any flaws in Miéville’s writing. It is, though, bitterly ironic that in seeking to improve the representation of women in these ways (Borlú has two girlfriends in the book but neither speaks) the only decent female character of the novel, Corwi, has been destroyed thanks to an excruciating performance by Mandeep Dhillon as kind of 'gor blimey cockney' and the decision to centre the manifestation of Breach with her.

    It is commendable that an adaptation was commissioned, but hugely disheartening that the outcome is so confused and confusing and burdened with so many additional complications that add nothing and indeed take much away.

    The City & The City, a Mammoth Screen production for BBC Two, is available on iPlayer until the end of May

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  • 'The Peripheral'

    Thirty years ago I was exposed to the sub-genre-defining work of William Gibson, the writer who coined the term ‘cyberspace’ to define the then nascent digital realm in which information flows and – as he presciently saw it – societal change is effected. His multi-award-winning 1984 novel Neuromancer was the platform, bought in paperback from the original Forbidden Planet shop and read with astonishment. Its depiction of a mid-21st century America characterised by gritty street life seamlessly intertwined with glossy high technology was utterly winning, especially as this was allied to a lean yet rich writing style where every word counted and conveyed something of the milieu in which its protagonists moved. The pace was fast, the ideas fascinating and the world-building absorbing.

    Two further books – Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive – broadened and deepened these ideas and, along with the first, became known as the Sprawl trilogy. Two more trilogies followed, and I soon began to feel that as Gibson’s style matured his actual content became less and less innovative, not helped by his decision to set the third trilogy in the present day and to eliminate almost all of the technological strands that had made his work so distinctive. Abandoning the Blue Ant trilogy part way through, therefore, was disappointing but not difficult.

    This did, however, mean that I missed Gibson’s next book, 2013’s The Peripheral. Which – it turns out – was a mistake. Complex, densely-layered and detailed, it is a gripping page-turner that flips between two timelines and attempts to tell us a little about our recent past and possible future. Near-future America and further-forward London are both well realised, not least through one of Gibson’s other skills: the ability to write different characters in convincingly different voices. Coupled with an in media res opening this does require some dedication to initially, but once the reader’s eye (and brain) is in, the narrative skips along very briskly indeed though in fact this is Gibson’s longest book by far. And, uniquely for Gibson in my experience, it is a novel where the characters – and thus Gibson’s thoughts – are very explicitly political, in a context that immediately resonates.

    For long-term Gibson fans who yearn for his earlier works there are plenty of references to the that pioneering first novel. The description of Operation Northwind, a war-themed online game, more than echoes that of Screaming Fist, the failed mission that nevertheless kick-starts the world of Neuromancer; chameleon-like camouflage squidsuits have been encountered before as mimetic capes in that same book; the neurological weapon nicknamed Party Time parallels the similar Blue Nine, and opposing power blocs remember the two artificial intelligences who war around lead character Case. Elsewhere in The Peripheral there also ex-soldiers both regretting and missing their service, the atmospheric importance of softly-spoken foreign tongues and even an electric buggy at a crucial moment.

    Overarching all is the titular peripheral, an autonomous or inhabited humanoid complete with the telepresence and AI by which it gains motive power (and motivation) and sensory capacity. It is presented as a method of virtually experiencing space and time and events. This has concerned – even dominated – Gibson’s fiction for decades, from the Apparent Sensory Perception modules of his 1970s short stories to the SimStim of the Sprawl saga and the augmented reality of Virtual Light. Even media firm Blue Ant might be deemed another iteration, ‘agency’ having a double meaning in the context of those three books.

    With The Peripheral, however, the idea moves from McGuffin to central tenet. From the reader’s point of view it occasionally feels intrusive, more so than Freeside, the vast orbiting colony and the closest pure SF object equivalent in the Sprawl books, but even this is not the limit of Gibson’s imagination. Peripherals work in conjunction with the more audacious – some might say outrageous, for a Gibson story – era-bridging mechanism that connects both timelines and makes the entire book possible. Entirely unexplained beyond an absurd throwaway reference or two to “a Chinese server”, its presence at the heart of the narrative is though crucial as it permits a kind of retrospective benevolence whereby the inhabitants of what one reviewer called the novel’s second future (the one in London) are able to help those of the first (America) by transmitting technology and information back in (across?) time. Gibson’s far-future Londoners thus equate to the intervening aliens of Carl Sagan’s Contact or, perhaps more relevantly, Arthur C. Clarke’s bittersweet Childhood’s End.

    In truth this is handled so deftly that the lack of any actual explanation for how it’s done actually feels surprisingly unproblematic, and one anyway should remember Gibson’s well known opinion that he himself is something of a ‘techno innocent’. This may be disingenuous, but yet another far-out feature of the book – the absurdly powerful, nano-scaled ‘assemblers’ that can instantly dissolve or reform matter at scale – does give this view some weight.

    It is then refreshing to find The Peripheral confirming that the mid-level tech of the street is where Gibson seems the most comfortable, and here he makes a welcome return to the best aspects of those early forays. Brilliantly envisaged items, systems and products are scattered subtly yet convincingly through his text. By focusing on real-world advances, Gibson essays concepts ranging from the amusing to the terrifying, such as cardboard cars, chain store 3D printing, veritable swarms of drones and brutally effective orbital weapon systems. Invented consumer brands such as Hefty and Coffee Jones sit comfortably amongst actual names like eBay. The book was coloured by wider cultural happenings, of course.

    The cloaked cars that prowl future London must surely have been inspired by 2012’s Bond film Die Another Day, whilst the ranks of super-tall towers that puncture the skyline of the same city have their own contemporary inspiration (“they’re called shards” explains one character to another). Russian oligarchs (or ‘klepts’) living in the British capital tune in to another anxiety that remains live five years later, as does one such man’s massively extended townhouse and its seemingly endless basement garage where much of the action of the London-set chapters takes place. Here is to be found what is for me Gibson’s star invention at this more intimate level of tech: the Mercedes Gobiwagen (it is never clear whether this is its formal or nickname), a lorry-sized, ultra-luxurious “land yacht” built for comfortable cruising in the desert. With motorised furniture, a robot bar, bathroom and rooftop observation dome, this fabulous vehicle might seem futuristic but has an ancestor in the customised, leather-lined six-wheel-drive Range Rovers and the like that specialist British coachbuilder Tickford and other companies produced in the 1970s and 80s for Arab customers.

    Indeed it is Britain and especially London that appears to have particularly stimulated Gibson’s imagination this time around, generating plenty of neat extrapolations and perhaps predictions. Many are architectural or topographical twists on familiar places, including the central conceit of Oxford Street turned into a vast linear park, thickly wooded and grown out of the ruins of its current buildings. Perhaps inspired by the Blitz, and if so forming another link back to Mona Lisa Overdrive’s holographic commemoration of the Battle of Britain, this also suggests numerous post-apocalyptic domestic works. It also allows for Selfridges to become a domestic residence, a striking image. As with Mona Lisa Overdrive, though, characters inhabit a London seemingly altered as much by Gibson’s (mis)understanding of the real city as deliberate authorial decision. It therefore feels a little ‘off’ in places, with a meeting offered at one of the “guildhalls” (‘Livery Halls’ seems meant) and implied jurisdiction of the Metropolitan police over the City, this last particularly odd given the plot thread mentioned below. That oligarch’s house, though, sees Gibson returning to the Notting Hill that final Sprawl book and is thoroughly sound as a conception.

    There is little indication that Gibson has ever intended a satirical reading of his work, but it’s hard not to think that must be the case in certain passages of The Peripheral. In future London calls are taken on surgical implants – a send-up, surely, in and of itself, but also enabling a wonderful double meaning to the otherwise entirely organic line “he’s had to have his phone removed”. Having this London run by a menacing cabal comprising the police, the City of London’s Livery Companies and Big Business, headed by the sinister (and, again, real) Remembrancer, might also produce a wry smile from those familiar with the Square Mile’s peculiarly individualistic yet highly effective present-day power structure. And although almost all of this appears directed at the British end of the plot, the eponymous peripheral reducing or at least distancing social interaction to a virtual experience must be counted as social commentary, at the very least, on American society today.

    This is a terrific return to form from Gibson, even if the abrupt and unsatisfactory ending dissolves logic and tension as brutally as those assemblers attack walls. It would seem to confirm his fit with things to come, rather than things that are. And another trilogy appears to have begun.

    William Gibson’s new novel Agency, which continues to explore the world created in The Peripheral, is published later in 2018 by Berkley Books/Penguin

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  • ‘The Final Year’ (2017)

    We’ve all experienced that feeling of not having enough time left to get a series of jobs done, or hoping that we can complete something that we’ve started because we know it will make life better. But imagine how Barack Obama felt in 2016, as time ticked away until the end of his constitutionally-mandated second and final term as President. Curbing the nuclear ambitions of Iran, normalising relations between Cuba and the US, a super-power-backed war in Syria, the apparently endless bloodletting over domestic gun violence and the knotty problem of affordable healthcare at home all vied for attention in these last 12 months. His team, too, felt that pressure, and film-maker Greg Barker along with his own team were there to capture it in remarkable detail for this gripping and sobering documentary.

    A zippy beginning complete with split-screen, colour-toned titles evoking movies made in another time of political optimism and early scenes showing some of the featured participants forgetting their phones or getting clumsily caught on bag straps might set a tone of comic observation, but it soon becomes apparent that theirs is a business that is deadly serious. We follow the final year through the endless corridors (and car interiors, and airport runways, and office lobbies) of power and the eyes of three principals: Secretary of State John Kerry, Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, with occasional contributions from the latter’s boss, Susan Rice. POTUS himself appears often but speaks to Barker’s camera only sparingly, a device both pragmatic and effective.

    The film could have been titled ‘war and peace’, since those are the concerns that most often drive events. The Syrian disaster prompts Power to describe her time addressing it as “pained and fraught”, and her face sometimes confirms this; in one of several powerful moments Rhodes terms the Russian government’s presumed airstrike on an aid convoy there coupled with its repeated attempts to deny this “fucking sick”. Kerry, responding in the UN, is visibly angry as he berates the Russian delegation and suggests that diplomatic judgements must be based on facts, not fiction. Immense symbolism arises when Kerry, famously both a veteran and critic of the Vietnam War back in that optimistic age, visits Hanoi and Saigon and when Obama meets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Hiroshima peace memorial. Security is ever-present, from bomb-sniffing dogs working the seats within the United Nations chamber to the half-a-foot-thick doors of armour-plated limousines.

    Frustration at actions that can’t be countered and attitudes that should have been loom large. A US military response in Syria is deemed impossible thanks to the black stain of Iraq, a lack of consensus and the sheer complexity of the situation, whilst Rhodes’ contention that Russian president Vladimir Putin acts only for himself and not (even) for his country acquires a horrible prescience when media coverage of the pending Republican convention decision to elect a candidate throws up a certain burly New York property developer.

    As hinted, Barker is good on the daily slog of representing the most powerful country on earth. When a brief sequence shows the same view out of the window of another official plane alternately in sun, gloom and at night, the endless hours at 30,000 feet are fully felt. Arguments, disagreements, mistakes and regrets all make an appearance. But this is balanced by a kind of weary joy when things go right, such as the historic Cuba and Iranian agreements. We are never allowed to forget the risks in such efforts, either, as with a desperately ironic incident where a seven-year-old boy – about the same age as Power’s son – is accidentally knocked over and killed by a car from her motorcade during a negotiating trip to Africa.

    This is a very young team for the most part, we are reminded (Power is 45, Rhodes not even 40 when the election takes place), and one with the same concerns in rare off-duty moments as the rest of us. Power plays with and talks to her children, Rhodes retreats to a grim semi-furnished basement under the West Wing to seek quiet and walks home wearing a rucksack and with his own son on his shoulders.

    Feelings of another kind are on display in the most emotional portion of the film. The rangy, flame-haired Power makes a speech to a group of newly-sworn US citizens that begins as you would expect and adds a few words of thanks to her Hispanic nanny who is one of them. But it then takes a different turn, revealing Power’s own status as an immigrant to the country after a childhood in the Republic of Ireland and leading to some crying from her and others.

    There are tears, too, from President Obama when announcing yet more gun-enabled massacres throughout the year. Obama will of course be the main draw for many. Off-duty, insofar as that status is possible, he is relaxed, natural, humane and generous, as when joining in with a joke at Rhodes’s expense over the latter not getting to Stanford; “Me neither”, the President immediately adds. In the footage of him meeting and greeting, in carefully-assembled montages of stills, and on hearing that voice, his ‘official’ qualities are as obvious as they are lacking in his replacement. Rhodes may write much of those speeches as part of his job description, but it is his Commander in Chief’s message and the enthusiasm, sincerity and articulacy when delivering them drives the point home. Throughout the entire film, the establishment of a legacy is the clear goal of Obama and his team; the locking in of a range of agreements, initiatives and laws that hey believe will make a genuine and positive difference to the people of the USA and of the world. By the end of the film the looming threat of that replacement and his likely response to such effort ceases to loom and instead seems to smirk in our cast’s faces. That the year that followed only confirmed Donald Trump acting “like an ill-tempered child kicking over a stack of wooden bricks”, as reviewer Philip Kemp despairingly noted in his own review of Barker’s film, only makes one more depressed.

    Fortunately for this slice of reality at least Obama has the last word, and Barker frames it masterfully. Obama’s round of global diplomacy ends where the film does, in Greece. This is the literal home of democracy, and Obama demonstrates his clear understanding of the concept’s roots by stating that the most important office within that system is not the leader but the citizen. It is what one or many citizens can do with their lives, working within a wider community, that has always been his passion. Over a selection of images showing him at the Parthenon and at other historic locations round the world, including Petra, Jerusalem and Nepal, Obama talks of those places and the civilisations that made them as a chain of history. Each age has its own responsibility, he says, to ensure we leave something for the next. In other words, “we do our best,” Obama explains, “with the link in that chain that is handed to us.”

    The Final Year, A Dogwoof release with Passion Pictures and Motto Pictures for Home Box Office and directed by Greg Barker is on current release and is also available through a variety of platforms

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

L

Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own full-colour, collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443

£14.99

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