Gripping, immersive and powerful: 1917 reviewed

Sam Mendes’s 1917 is the first world war drama that this week won the Golden Globe for best film and also best director and there is no arguing with that, ha ha. In fact there has been plenty of arguing with that. Some critics say that it feels like a videogame. ‘Turns one of the most catastrophic episodes in modern times into an exercise in preening showmanship,’ says the New York Times. I don’t know what film they were watching. True, 1917 is formulaic — it’s your archetypal man-on-a-mission story — but it is also gripping, immersive and powerful. It isn’t the closest you will get to experiencing the Great

O brother, where are thou?

Sunset is French-Hungarian writer-director Laszlo Nemes’s follow-up to his astonishing Oscar-winning debut, Son of Saul. This time round the film is set as the Austro-Hungarian Empire is on the brink of collapse, and it is confounding, but not in a good way, as it’s as turgid as it is baffling. I’ve seen it twice now, and it was as turgid as it was baffling on both occasions. Disappointing, I know, but on the plus side the backdrop is a high-end millinery establishment, so the hats are fab. Truly. It opens seductively enough, in bustling Budapest in 1913. It opens as if this were a Dickens or Dostoyevsky, but it’s not

How to fight Bolshevism

From 10 May 1919: The heart of the country is always for moderation. Nothing could show this more plainly than the recent by-elections. It was felt that the Prime Minister had been given too clean a sheet of paper to write his policy on, and that it would be good for him to feel that the country had criticism to offer, and was, moreover, able to put on the curb. But this balancing process was not, and never is, a violent swoop towards pulling down everything that exists. There was certainly nothing revolutionary in it.  

The invisible man | 2 May 2019

Tolkien is a biopic covering the early life of J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) and it is not especially memorable. I’m even forgetting it as I’m trying to remember it. Yes, it’s one of those. Come back, come back, I need to remember you at least until the end of this review. But, no, it’s fading, fading, fading. Still, I’ll do what I can before it is fully gone, which may happen any minute now. This is quite the race against time, in fact. So, quickly, quickly. The film opens in 1916, during the first world war, with Tolkien, then 24, on the front line at the Battle of the Somme.

Low life | 14 February 2019

My sister’s boyfriend is a solitary man and easily overwhelmed by another’s presence. On his rare visits he flits in and flits out again. On this occasion he was making his usual dash for the door when he saw me, remembered something, and handed me two battered old pocket diaries in that offhand, embarrassed way of his. ‘You’re interested in the first world war. I thought you might want to have these,’ he said. ‘If you can make any sense of them, good luck.’ I opened one and saw his surname, Smith, inscribed between the words ‘Gunner’ and ‘248 Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery’. The diary was for 1917. The

What’s That Thing? Award for bad public art 2018

Not a bad year for the award. Honourable mentions must go to the landfill abstractions of Oxford’s new Westgate Centre, to the bees that have appeared in Manchester’s streets to promote the ‘unique buzz’ of the city and to Gillian Wearing, a once decent conceptual artist who has taken to sculpture like a cat to water with her statue of Millicent Fawcett. Nothing, however, brought more mush to our towns than the first world war commemorations. As Simon Jenkins wrote in these pages, ‘reaching for a grand sweeping gesture, something “profound”, is too tempting’ in commissions about war. ‘The search for wishy-washy universals soaks up all the energy and bromides

Some day their prince will come

The Royal Ballet is a company in search of a prince. It has no lack of dancing princesses. You could search the kingdom and find no lovelier dancers than Marianela Nunez, Lauren Cuthbertson, Francesca Hayward, Natalia Osipova, Akane Takada, Sarah Lamb, Laura Morera and Yasmine Naghdi. But a true prince is as rare as a golden egg. Since Sergei Polunin went so energetically awol in 2012, the Royal Ballet has lacked a male principal with all four virtues of the leading man: classic handsome looks, height, faultless technique and some gift as an actor. Polunin had it all. He was dishy, dashing and dangerous. He had a fifth quality, too:

Just say yes

Narcos is back on Netflix, set in Mexico this time, with a cool, world-weary, manly voiceover swearily lecturing us at the beginning that if we smoked sensemilla in the 1970s, then we were partly responsible for the bloody, endless drug wars that went on to kill more than half a million people. Oh really? Sensemilla (derived from the Spanish for ‘without seeds’) is the kind of product of human ingenuity and free markets we should be celebrating, not decrying. It’s more compact than bog-standard weed, making it easier for entrepreneurs to ship, thereby increasing their profit margins. It affords a sweeter-tasting hit and a more euphoric high, thereby giving greater

Britten’s Blackadder moment

‘What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?’ We’ve heard a lot, lately, of the knell that tolls through the opening bars of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, and at Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral it was played on actual church bells. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s percussionist Graham Johns has had a set specially cast, and as he struck them video screens relayed the moment all the way down the cathedral’s length. The orchestra was a one-off, assembled half-and-half from the RLPO and the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover (the conductor Andrew Manze holds positions in both cities), and this was a major civic occasion, attended by gold chains of all sizes and preceded

Eclipse of the Sun King

Emmanuel Macron was elated when France won the World Cup in July. The photograph of him leaping out of his seat at the Moscow stadium showed a leader at the peak of his power. Or so he thought. Ever since then, he has been bumping back to earth. Last week, the French President took the unusual step of retiring to Honfleur for four days’ rest and recuperation. ‘His face has changed, he is marked by the weight of power,’ confided one of his team; another expressed concern about the President’s weight loss. Part of his deterioration is self-inflicted. Macron likes to boast that he gets by on four hours of

It’s good to talk

‘It was so unreal,’ said one of the first world war veterans about the long-awaited Armistice. It was the most striking thought I heard all week, and the most shocking. The sense that when the guns finally fell silent at 11 o’clock on 11 November 1918 (and both sides had continued to barrage each other until the very last minute), signalling the end of war, the arrival of peace, the opportunity to return home, to go back to ‘normal’ life — that all this was somehow ‘unreal’. But for the young men who had spent four years in the trenches, that life of fear and dirt and rats and mud

We will remember him

The story is part of family lore. How, during the Battle of Mons, on 23 August 1914, two long columns of men from the Royal Field Artillery passed each other. One column was withdrawing from the frontline, the other heading into what was the first action between the British Expeditionary Force and the German army in the first world war. A shout went up: ‘Is Mulholland there?’ A reply in the affirmative from somewhere along the lines; a swift exchange of greetings between two brothers, Danny and Patrick; a mutual exhortation to ‘look out for yourself’ — and then they moved on. In opposite directions. It was the last time

Low life | 25 October 2018

My reactionary first world war reading jag continues. The literature is vast, but so is my capacity and fascination. I began reading systematically, then went in search of thrills. Typing ‘my top ten first world war books’ into a search engine has also been a wonderfully fruitful source of leads. Space, and probably your boredom threshold, won’t allow me to list mine. I want to stick my neck out, however, and give a cheer for two books by liaison officers: one a Anglophile Frenchman liaising with the British, the other a Francophile Englishman liaising with the French. As one might imagine, both books are tragicomic. Emile Herzog was the son

A soldier’s-eye view

The first world war paintings of Paul Nash are so vivid and emotive that they have come to embody, as readily as any photograph, the horrendous, bitter misery of the trenches. His blighted landscapes represent the destruction of a generation of soldiers, men who were blasted apart as carelessly as the bomb-shattered mud in ‘The Mule Track’ (1918) or the reproachful twists of blackened wood and pocked land in ‘Wire’ (1918/9). These works are fixtures in our visual understanding of that war. It is strange, then, to see an exhibition of first world war art that excludes Nash, his brother John, and indeed any of the other artists we associate

An artist’s eye

There are moments in The Guardians when you can imagine you’re in the wrong art form. Time stills, the frame all but freezes, and the film seems to have taken a left turn into an exhibition of fetching French landscapes and interiors from the early 20th century. The camera hovers over the harrowed earth, admires the sturdy sunlit front of a farmhouse, lingers thoughtfully on a face. The running time of 138 minutes could easily have been slashed to 100 by a heartless editor. But this is un film de Xavier Beauvois, a specialist in painterly exactitude. The writer-director’s greatest success came in 2010 with Of Gods and Men. This,

The good, the bad and the ugly | 21 June 2018

Some disasters could not occur in this age of instant communication. The first world war is a case in point: 9.7 million soldiers died, 19,240 British on 1 July, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, alone. If all that had been seen on social mediaand rolling news threads, public opinion would have shifted immediately. A hundred years ago, however, the sheer awfulness of what was happening took more time to sink in. Aftermath, an exhibition at Tate Britain, deals not so much with the art of the war itself as with the shocked and grieving era that followed the cataclysmic conflict: post-war art. The horrors of

Low life | 14 June 2018

Last year the BBC radio drama department received 3,797 scripts from hopeful authors, of which just 33 were recommended to BBC radio drama producers. I came across this sad statistic when I was well into my first attempt to write an hour-long radio drama set in a trench during the first battle of Ypres in 1914. My chances of hearing my poor little play performed on the radio were reduced from slight to negligible when I then read that the BBC will be accepting no more drama scripts until the end of the year; and from negligible to zero when I belatedly looked into The Way to Write Radio Drama,

Man of war

‘Sunil Lanba, Salman Quaraishi, Omar Syed…’ Names play from a crackling gramophone. We hear what they were before the war. Teacher. Engineer. Dancer. And what they endured during it. ‘I put down telephone cables in the mud,’ says one man. ‘Voices in the mud. Half of them already dead, sir.’ Already dead repeats and repeats. A juddering stuck record. Akram Khan’s forgotten soldier — one of 1.5 million Indian men who fought in the trenches in the first world war — is also stuck. In Xenos, Khan’s last performance, though he will continue his career as a choreographer, a shell-shocked Indian sepoy has returned home in body — the Indian


From ‘The new crusade’, 25 May 1918: It is curious to think how great must soon have been the spiritual gulf between the new generation in Great Britain and the United States if the latter had remained in prosperous isolation. In five years we should have ceased to understand each other’s jokes, in ten we should scarcely have spoken the same language. But now the tide is setting just as mightily towards a complete and perfect sympathy. A whole generation of Americans will have been our brothers-in-arms… The possibilities of the new brotherhood are almost boundless. If anything could make us welcome the continuance of the war for another year, it

Low life | 1 March 2018

Poperinghe, Bailleul, Wytschaete, Gheluvelt, Ploegsteert, Messines, Zonnebeke, Passchendaele. The other week I grandiosely claimed that I have been reading about the first world war, on and off, all my life. What I ought to have added was ‘with little or no understanding’. Because it wasn’t until a fortnight ago, when I bought a 1916 Ordnance Survey map of Belgium (Hazebrouck 5A), and consulted it while reading Anthony Farrar-Hockley’s account of the First Battle of Ypres, that I began to fix these blood-soaked villages in my mind. The Second and Third Battles of Ypres were disputed over a few square miles. Stated objectives might be a slight promontory or a smashed