Clemency Burtonhill

Clemency suggests

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January may traditionally be the year’s grimmest month, characterised as it is by broken resolutions, misery-inducing detox diets and frightening reminders from the Inland Revenue, but at least there are some artistic treats around the corner to beat the blues (until the Arts Council get their way, that is...)

The Royal Ballet is in the best shape it has been in for years, not least because of the presence of the young Australian Steven McRae. Hailing from the suburbs of Australia, this effervescent 21-year old fell into dancing quite by accident, but having nabbed the prestigious Prix de Lausanne aged 16, followed by a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School, he has been tearing up the stage at Covent Garden for the past two seasons. Last Autumn, McRae stepped in at the last minute to play Romeo – an unthinkable honour, for someone other than a Royal Ballet principal to take an opening night lead on that most revered on stages – whilst preparing simultaneously for three other ballets. Redolent of a young Anthony Dowell, or even Nuryev, McRae was a thrilling Nutcracker last month and I cannot wait to see his interpretation of Chroma in early February. McRae, by his own admission, is ‘not the most patient person’, but if his career so far is anything to go by, patience is the last thing in the world he’s going to need. A star is most certainly born.

Don’t be put off by the reviews that say it is too long, too slow and too mahjong-heavy: Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution is a terrific film, superbly shot and wonderfully acted. Set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in the early 1940s and centring around the story of a young Chinese girl who must seduce a traitor in order to trap and kill him, the film’s sinister atmosphere of fear and paranoia is tempered only by the intense fragility of the love affair at its heart. Complex, subtle and deeply compelling, with a spine-tingling Alexander Desplat score and gorgeous cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, the film left me utterly dazed. It also reminded me that, when it comes to dark stories of forbidden love, the director of Brokeback Mountain just can’t be beaten.

Enjoying that film so much, I was delighted to learn this week that its leading actress Tang Wei has been nominated for the BAFTA Rising Star award. With the Golden Globes cancelled and even the Oscars under threat due to the ongoing Writers’ Guild strike in America, the BAFTA ceremony on 10 February looks set to take centre stage during the 2008 award season. Wei’s pitch-perfect performance must make her a frontrunner for the prize – which was last year won by Bond girl Eva Green – but she also faces some stiff competition from Brit contenders Sam Riley and Sienna Miller, not to mention Canadian Ellen Page, who is totally brilliant in the charming comedy Juno, released here on 8 February.

Talking about charmers, despite his questionable opinions and the sort of hubristic arrogance that occasionally makes me want to hurl his latest volume across the room, I have to confess to being gripped by Martin Amis’ The Second Plane. The question of what chaos September 11 and its ensuing war on terror have wreaked upon the Western literary imagination (quite apart from anything else) is a pertinent one. This collection of essays, short stories and reportage varies in quality and purpose, but the overall effect is to detonate a bomb under Terry Eagleton (Amis’ current sparring partner)’s assertion that a novelist’s interpretation of such events is essentially useless. Read him and loathe him, read him and disagree with him, but read him, nonetheless.

If you missed it previously, Anthony Minghella’s ravishing Madam Butterfly returns to the Colisseum on January 31st until early March. One of the most sumptuous English National Opera productions I have ever seen, the Oscar-winning director’s take on Puccini’s tragic masterpiece hits all the right notes and is aesthetically breathtaking. For something a little cheerier, though, I’m also looking forward to John Eliot Gardener’s Beethoven triple bill with the London Symphony Orchestra on 22 Jan – they’re doing his joyous Second and Eighth Symphonies. And if that can’t put a smile on your face during this gloomy month, then quite frankly, you may as well stay in bed with your tax return, because nothing will.