Barracuda

blogbarracudaI loved the Christos Tsiolkis novel about the young swimmer who trains to be a champion only for his dreams to be shattered when he reaches for the top.  I was eager to see the Australian television version and had the opportunity to watch it when the BBC made it available.

Now, watching any film or television version of a book you love can be problematic.  When it is handed over to a team of writers, directors and actors it can be fantastic or quiet drastic.  In this case, I was bowled over by the production which brought out the drama of a young man who has greatness in his sights only to see it all slip away.  The production was of four parts, with the first showing his first steps into the elite private school that welcomes him only because of his swimming ability.  The final part was the most affecting.  Here Danny Kelly has turned his back on swimming and tries to find meaning in a life robbed of its central purpose.

The series works well.  Some of the grittier elements of the book have gone, including a spell in prison, but the portrayal of the main character by Elias Anton is spot on, emphasising the thin line between determination and self- absorption and playing Danny as a conflicted youth who is both excited and disgusted by what he sees at the elite school.  Frank Toma, the Hungarian coach who takes Danny under his wing, is given a greater role in the television version and it works.  In the book we have to wait for a coda to see how much coach and swimmer meant to each other.  Here, it is played out for us but done with such affection that it never becomes sentimental.  Matt Nable was brilliant as the coach with high standards.

Television wins with the visuals of the pool and the excitement of swimming events.  The book gives us what the television doesn’t: a first person glimpse inside the head of Danny Kelly, promising swimmer who could have had it all.

I’m glad I read the book first, I’m glad I saw the television series.  Both are in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Chariots of Fire

I love the films that take true events which are little known and turn them into stories which illustrate a larger theme.  ‘Chariots of Fire’ is one such film.  I saw it while a student in Oxford and, partly because of that time and place, it has fixed itself in my memory.

The tale of two runners who come from very different backgrounds to compete for Britain in the 1924 Paris Olympics is a compelling one, especially as it is the story of two outsiders who enter the heart of the British establishment.  Eric Liddell is the Scottish son of missionaries who believes running is one way he can show his love of God.  Harold Abrahams is an outsider because of his Jewish religion.

Both men are selected for the team, alongside members of the aristocracy and graduates of Oxford and Cambridge.  The team is the cream of the establishment’s sporting class and the film shows the difference between those born to rule and those who earn their place through effort and talent.

When Liddell and Abrahams run in the same race, Liddell wins causing much anguish to Abrahams.  He takes on a coach, a move that offends some as beneath the dignity of a sporting gentleman.  The true drama takes place in Paris, though, when the Olympics are staged.  When Liddell learns that his race is to be held on a Sunday, he withdraws on faith grounds. Despite strong pressure from the Olympic committee and the Prince of Wales, he refuses to race and it looks as if he will forego the opportunity to win a medal.  The day is saved, though, by Lord Lindsay who offers to stand aside so that Liddell can race on a Thursday in what would have been his heat.

It is well documented that both Liddell and Abrahams won gold medals but the manner of their winning makes a great film.  Ian Charleston played Eric Liddell and Ben Cross played Harold Abrahams in a film written by Colin Welland and directed by Hugh Hudson.

‘Chariots of Fire’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

 

Moments to Remember 2016

blogucicycleIn March I went to the World Track Cycling Championships at the Velodrome in London o the Olympic site. It was an amazing morning watching cyclists of many nations compete against each other.  Seeing Laura Trott in action was the highlight of the day but watching all the cyclists was amazing. I cheered for Britain most of all but joined in  the fun by supporting other nations as well; Japan was my second choice when I needed an alternative.

 

Watching sport live restored something knocked out of me at school when all sporting endeavour was accompanied by abuse (from teachers as well as peers).  It also made me realise that it is possible to be proud of being British without that meaning distrust, disdain or contempt for other nations.

It was great to be part present at something so positive, especially in this year when so much to do with nationhood has been negative.

 

Moments to Remember in 2016

This has not been my favourite year!  Politically, I have been very depressed by what has happened and by who has triumphed.  However, there were bright spots and the Olympics were a large part of what made me proud to be British in 2016.

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Jack Laugher and Chris Mears won Gold at the Rio Olympics. Their event was the synchronised 3m diving.  This was Britain’s first diving Gold so was an amazing achievement.  I watched it all with a growing sense of excitement when it seemed that the pair would actually win despite the best efforts of the Chinese and the Americans.

When they won, of course, they were delighted and their hug showed the level of excitement. What a shame then that Britain’s Daily Mail, the house journal of the small-minded, could not help but make a point about the fact that this was two men hugging! Good for Mears and Laugher who showed that you can hug your friend and colleague even if you are a man!

 

 

Gallipoli

There are only three films that affected me so much I returned for a second viewing the next night.  This is the first. In fact, so important to me was it that I returned four times in one week and took a different friend each time.

This isn’t the greatest film ever made and it doesn’t appear in many lists of the best films of all time but it makes it onto a list of films that had a profound effect on me. The year was 1981 and home cinema was an unknown concept to students like me so I had to rely on the ABC Oxford.

The film starts with a young man, Archie, practising sprints on the farm in Australia.  He is a gifted runner and is being trained to compete in prestigious finals in a nearby town.  When there, he runs off since he is determined to enlist to fight in the war.  He races against a slightly older man, Frank, and beats him but when the two meet up again they team up. Frank is not interested at all in fighting a war for the British since his heritage is Irish.  However, they head for Perth and join up.  Archie joins the cavalry, his farm background in Western Australia helps him here but Frank ends up in the infantry with three of his friends from the railways where he used to work.

In Egypt, Frank and Archie are reunited and Frank transfers to the cavalry to join his friend.  Unknown to the two young men, they are heading for the Gallipoli peninsula and will be in trenches and not on horses. However, their athletic skills prove useful and, for one of them, lifesaving.

I knew nothing of the place of Gallipoli in First World War history and knew nothing of its importance to Australians and New Zealanders so I was not prepared for the most dramatic of endings.

Mel Gibson before his Hollywood career played Frank and Mark Lee played Archie.  The Major was played by Bill Hunter, a most amazing actor.  It was directed by Peter Weir, a director who went on to even greater success in later years.

I had the poster on my college room wall for some years and it moved with me several times before it found its way into the attic.  The image shows clearly what happens at the end.  Nevertheless, it is still the most monumental shock when it happens.  ‘Gallipoli’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

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The Dark Horse

It is rare to see two (or more films) at a festival and think they are both equally strong but this happened this year when I went to the Salisbury Festival to see two films from New Zealand set in Maori communities.  For me, a film has to resonate weeks after seeing it for it to enter my hinterland.  ‘The Dark Horse’ along with ‘Boy’ has stayed with me.  I saw them together, one after the other, and was blown away by them both even though they have different styles and are from different genres.

In ‘The Dark Horse’, director James Napier Robertson tells the story of how some people in communities reach out to other people in need.  In this case it is based on a true story of Genesis Pontini, a brilliant chess player who has bi-polar disorder.  As his life crumbles, he finds purpose through teaching chess to others.  Specifically, he supports a group of underprivileged young people by teaching them chess and coaching them for a tournament.

What could have been a ‘feel good’ movie was given grit by the context and circumstances. In this Maori community, many of the young people feel the hopelessness of the adults around them and inherit the poverty of aspiration.  It is also violent, at times, as the nephew of Genesis finds out.  He is called Mana and is played by James Rolleston, who was so affecting in the film ‘Boy’.  Older now and in a completely different role, he plays Mana as a frightened youth trying to project a confidence he thinks he needs to survive; obviously he trusts no one.

Genesis brings Mana into the chess group and the boy discovers not just a talent but a person to belong to.  This provides the conflict of the film since Mana’s father has intentions to bring him into the gang culture he inhabits. His intentions are not entirely malign since he fears for his son and needs to know he is part of a protective group. Genesis may be a champion chess player but he is also homeless and without a support structure of his own.

James Napier Robertson brings this story to a fitting ending without resorting to the usual sporting cliches of film.  You would expect the poor kids to triumph over the rich ones at the tournament and you would expect the sporting metaphor to bring a happy ending. Instead, the director concentrates on how the game of chess provides order in a chaotic world and how strategy allows people to take some control of their lives.

In Cliff Curtis, Robertson has an excellent Genesis and in the film’s most touching moment, James Rolleston and Cliff Curtis give a masterclass in acting.

‘The Dark Horse’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?