Dilettante's Diary

June 2, 2022

Who Do I Think I Am?
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Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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How Fiction Works
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Head to Head
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

Reviewed here: Free Love (Novel); Belfast (Movie); A Better Man (Essay); Falling for Figaro (Movie); Our Friend (Movie)

Free Love (Novel) by Tessa Hadley, 2022

When you pick up a Tessa Hadley novel, you know you're in for a good read. You also know you're going to meet some respectable, decent people who get themselves into a lot of trouble.

In Free Love, the person we're focussing on mostly is Phyllis, a wife and the mother of two kids. Their family isn't rich, exactly, but they lead a comfortable, prosperous life, thanks to her husband Roger's career in the diplomatic service. (Echoes of their years in Egypt come to the surface now and then.) You could say they're upper middle class, what with their nice house in one of the better parts of London, their sophisticated friends and their appreciation of the arts and culture.

Almost from the outset, we can see what kind of trouble Phyllis is going to get into. (No need for a spoiler alert here, given that the problem becomes apparent in the early stages of the story.) The family is preparing to receive a dinner guest, a young man who is the son of a friend of Roger's and who has come to London to try to establish himself as a journalist. As Phyllis getting dressed, applying her makeup and perfume, she's peeved about being obliged to entertain this upstart; she's expecting it to be a tedious evening. As you might guess, however, it doesn't turn out that way. And you can probably guess what kind of a fix Phyllis soon finds herself in. If you suspect that there may be a touch of irony in the book's title, you're not wrong.

To give Phyllis credit, she's not unaware of the moral implications of what's happening. She tries to pray for guidance, for the strength to make the proper decision. But the over-riding factor is that she's enjoying herself so much; she can't resist giving in to what's sweeping over her. If any sort of exculpation could be considered, there's the fact that marital sex had become routine and unexciting for her; she and Roger never really experienced the kind of passion she's discovering now.

Early on, Ms. Hadley makes it clear that this is happening in the late 1960s. That era has much to do with the way the story evolves. On the superficial level, the ambiance is established with references to the emerging hippie culture, the long hair and the floppy clothes. Phyllis is starting to hear expressions like "turn me on," "drop out" and "get high." What's more important, though, is the way the counter-cultural movement is impinging on her conventional values. She's beginnning to be sympathetic to protest movements. To her surprise, she begins to see how the "Establishment" is geared towards the enrichment of the privileged at the expense of everyone else. Such ideas begin to shake up her life almost more than her sexual adventure does.

One of the most interesting and admirable characters through all of this turmoil is Roger, Phyllis' husband. In the privacy of his own heart, he admits to being hurt and humiliated by what's going on but, throughout, he remains honourable, dignified, courteous and kind. He even makes what gestures he can towards forgiveness.

The turmoil is also having an effect on Colette, Roger and Phyllis' daughter, who is in her mid-teens. (Her younger brother, Hugh, who's soon heading off to boarding school, more or less tunes out the family's problems.) It's not surprising that a teen would be influenced by the way her mother's world is changing and we might well expect that the girl's feelings about it all would fit into a novel, but there were times when Ms. Hadley gives us so much of Colette -- especially when she's attending one of those all night rock concerts in a park --- that I began to wonder whether this novel was about the mother or the daughter.

About two thirds of the way through the novel, things take a sudden and startling turn in a way that might be considered melodramatic. In fact, one character actually admits that there's something like a "Greek drama" going on. If an author were not careful enough and judicious enough, this turn of events could come across as far-fetched or outrageous. But Ms. Hadley handles the narration with such masterly authorial skill that a reader can accept what's happening as believable and true to life.

Which can also be said for the conclusion of Ms. Hadley's novel. By no means a fairy tale ending, it's reasonable, realistic and relatively satisfying for the characters and for the reader.

Belfast (Movie) 2021. Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh; starring Jude Hill, Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Nessa Erikson and Lara McDonnell

What with the Covid restrictions and other events that tend to disrupt one's routines, we're a bit behind in our movie-viewing here at Dilettante's Diary. Here then, just a year late, is our report on this winner of many awards, including the 2021 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Sometimes what you're expecting from a movie -- or a book, or a play -- can interfere with your appreciation of it, at least at first. That's why I try not to know too much about any book, play or movie, before experiencing it on my own terms. In this case, I'd heard a lot about how good Belfast was, but not much detail except that it was largely autobiographical, based on Kenneth Branagh's early childhood in Belfast. So I was prepared for a sunny, nostalgic piece with lots of Irish humour, salted with whimsy and irony.

Which means that I found the opening of the black-and-white movie jarring and disconcerting: all that violence! Bombs going off in the neighbourhood, people scurrying for shelter, mothers frantically dragging their kids inside. It takes a while to discern the cause of the high tension among the neighbours. Apparently, the Protestants are trying to drive out the few Catholics in the enclave. What makes this particularly problematic for one family -- presumably the avatars of the Branagh family -- is that the dad, although Protestant, doesn't fully support the terrorist activities of his fellow Protestants. There's talk of harm to his family if he doesn't contribute to the Protestant cause.

At about the mid-point of the movie, I was feeling that I wouldn't care if I didn't see any more of this story. It was so hard to grasp the dynamics of interaction, the implications of all the mayhem. Not least because the heavily-accented dialogue comes at you like bursts of gunfire. Even with the subtitles on our monitor, it was impossible to catch a lot of what was being said.

Eventually, though, the plight of this beleaguered family got to me. The mother and father are constantly beset by the question of whether or not they should leave Belfast. The dad has a good job in construction in England. It keeps him away from home for two-week periods but there's a promise of a promotion and much better living conditions if the family would join him there. But the mother has lived all her life here; she figures there's tremendous safety in being known by everybody. Their two boys, in so far as they're allowed to express any opinion on the matter, seeem to feel pretty much the same way.

I felt the mother (Caitriona Balfe) and father (Jamie Dornan) were both a bit too movie-star attractive for these roles. One wonders whether Mr. Branagh's parents could have been that good looking. It seems to me that the movie might have worked a little better if the parents looked like more ordinary people. We'd have bonded with them more because of their plight than because of their attractiveness.

As for their son, "Buddy" (the writer/director's childhood self), one wonders where they got such a natural, beguiling child actor as Jude Hill. Do they audition thousands of boys to come up with this perfect one? Or does he happen to be some kid they stumbled on, knowing at once that he -- with his crooked teeth -- was exactly who they were looking for? And, when it comes to naturalness and believability among child actors, special credit should also be given to Lara McDonnell, who plays the part of a friend, a bit older than Buddy, who has a knack for getting him into trouble. She brings a feisty, gritty sense of reality to the story. As kids, we all knew girls like that.

And even in such an anxious-making story, the Irish wit can't be completely repressed. One of my favourite quips comes when a guy responds to a woman's horrible rendition of "Danny Boy." What, he asks her, did you do with the money your mother gave you for singing lessons? And there's some amusing interchange between Buddy and others when they toss back and forth misinformation about weird Catholic things like confession.

Much of the movie's charm comes from Buddy's interaction with his grandparents. I found some of the romantic, whimsical play between the two oldsters a bit corny but they do bring a richness to the movie. The granddad (Ciarán Hinds), in his somewhat subversive style, has a way of taking the child into his confidence and offering some helpful tips on how to beat the system. But it was the grandmother (Judi Dench) whom I found more fascinating. We've all known for a long time that there's something magic that happens between Ms. Dench and the camera. And you see the liftetime fulfillment of that phenomenon here. Every time the picture focusses on her face, you feel the presence of a deep, warm, interesting human being.

Once I got used to the movie's black-and-white photography, I found it beautiful, particularly the contrasts of light and shade. The last shot of the move, a close-up of Judi Dench's face as the light fades on it, is one of the great final shots of all time.

A Better Man (Essay) by Michael Ian Black, 2020

Comedian and author Michael Ian Black has racked up great accomplishments in a world of culture -- tv shows and movies -- that's somewhat removed from my usual stomping grounds. I'm probably too old for the audience that he's reaching. But I was attracted to his work by a New York Times interview in which he revealed that, although an atheist, he's fascinated by the work of Dale Martin, one of America's pre-eminent New Testament scholars. (Which led me to my own perusal of Professor Martin's works -- to be reviewed eventually on Dilettante's Diary.)

This neat, compact book by Mr. Black is addressed as a letter to his son, Elijah, on the brink of his entering into the world as a man in his own right. Mr. Black, the dad, starting with desperate thoughts about the prevalence of mass shootings in the U.S., considers what it means to be a man in America today, what true masculinity is, how matters of gender imbalances can be addressed.

The best parts of the book, for me, are the sections where Mr. Black talks about his own life, his experiences, his upbringing, his mistakes and his successes. His parents divorced when he was very young. His mother came out as a lesbian and young Michael and his two siblings then lived with her and her female partner. His father died suddenly at the age of thirty-nine as a result of a head injury and an allergic reaction to surgery. Mr. Black makes no secret of the stressful home life he experienced. His mother and her partner exposed the children to a constant tirade about the perfidious male nature; men were seen as toxic, the source of all that's wrong in society. His mother's partner, in particular, seemed to be boiling over constantly with rage against the male version of the human species. Given such an upbringing, it's no wonder that Mr. Black had trouble trying to discover the virtues of being a man.

I didn't always find Mr. Black's more wide-ranging philosophical and sociological observations as engaging as some of the more personal material. The writing can be a bit discursive and repetitive at times. A lot of what he says about the ills of our society, in terms of gender expectations, needs to be said. But a lot of it has been said and is continuing to be said. I don't recall finding any startling new insights here. But one can understand how a dad would feel a need to say these things to his son on a one-to-one basis, especially the sections where the dad clearly lays out the guidelines by which a guy needs to make sure that sex is always truly consensual.

By way of emphasizing how ridiculous the concept of machismo is, Mr. Black recalls a Saturday Night Live sketch in which contestants had to decide -- rightly or wrongly! -- which of two actors was the most macho. To claim that there could be a right answer to such a question shows just how subjective the concept is. Mr. Black, while acknowledging the importance of traditionally recognized manly qualities like strength, courage and reliability, says that the time has come for men to learn to show vulnerability and empathy, qualities that were once thought to be exclusively feminine. For him, a true sense of his own manhood came with the responsibilities of parenthood.

As might be expected from Mr. Black, humour is never far from the surface of the text. The book's subtitle is "A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son." I didn't find any of the jokes thigh-slappers but I suppose it was necessary to include a fair sprinkling of them simply for the purpose of being true to character. A book without any humour from Mr. Black would seem as false as a book by another writer who tried -- against character -- to include humour.

In one of the most candid and revealing sections of the book, Mr. Black offers a realistic and humble assessment of his own success. His talents, he says, are modest; he's not by any means an extraordinary person. It was largely good luck and privilege that got him where he is today. The life insurance payment that came to him after his father's death enabled him to attend a good university where he met the people who had the contacts and the know-how to help initiate his showbiz career. Similarly, he says, Elijah benefits from all the advantages that come with being a white male from a relatively prosperous family. That doesn't mean that he has to be some sort of hero when it comes to righting all the wrongs in society but he should do what he can to help improve circumstances for the less privileged, his father believes.

One part of the book caused me some distress. In discussing the war-like tendencies of the human male, Mr. Black questions whether our training of little boys turns them inevitably into soldiers. Or is the propensity to violence inherent in the human male? To that point, Mr. Black cites three incidents when he, while still a young child, inflicted gratuitous violence on other children who were relatively defenceless. He describes the incidents in such detail that they made me cringe. I wished I hadn't had to read about the events. And yet, shouldn't Mr. Black be commended for being so honest at his own expense? After some reflection, I decided that it would have been better if he had told us that three such incidents did occur but didn't describe them in such detail. Full marks for honesty on the part of the writer then, and less anguish for the reader.

Falling for Figaro (Movie), 2020. Written by Ben Lewin and Allen Palmer; directed by Ben Lewin; starring Danielle Macdonald, Hugh Skinner, Joanna Lumley, Shazad Latif, Ian Hanmore, Gary Lewis.

Millie, a young American woman who has a fabulous job as a fund manger in the financial world of London, gives it all up because she wants to become an opera singer. On the recommendation of a friend who knows the music business, she heads to the highlands of Scotland to study singing with a renowned teacher. Mille's dream: taking a one-year fast track on the operatic studies, she hopes to launch her career by winning Britain's grand "Singer of Renown" competition.

Only problem -- the Scottish teacher, a washed-up former diva, turns out to be something of a gorgon. She's contemptuous, rude, dismissive, impatient and disappointed. Her only reason for taking Millie on: coming from the financial world, Millie's able to pay the exorbitant fees that the teacher demands.

Oh yes, one other problem for Millie: the teacher has just one other student, a baritone who has been trying to win the big competition for the last four years. He works as the chef and server in the inn where Millie has to stay. Worn down and depressed by his inability to realize his operatic dreams, he's frosty towards Millie, abrupt, sullen and uncommunicative. Not that the bad vibes from him bother Millie particularly, given that she has an enthusiastic boyfriend (Shazad Latif) who's comfortably ensconced back in London's financial world.

I was wary of this move, afraid that it was going to end up in one of those corny Britain's-got-talent things. Still, the lure of the opera pulled me in -- with some satisfying results, I'm happy to say. We get to hear a lot of opera, although not many complete arias. The singing [who by?] isn't the greatest ever but it's good enough. I also enjoyed the discussion of singing technique, the exploration of the world of opera and the backstage dynamics.

Danielle Macdonald is charming in the role of Millie. To give her and the moviemakers credit, although she's beautiful, she doesn't have the physique of the typical starlet -- more like that of a typical opera singer, appropriately enough. I found Hugh Skinner, in the role of her baritone competitor, a rather one-note actor. (No pun intended.) His stern, straight-lipped expression is frozen on his face. He smiles so seldom that you only see his teeth once or twice in the whole movie. As for the Cruella Deville teacher, while her negativity might seem a bit over the top, Joanna Lumley does manage to give us a couple of glimpses of the more sensitive, caring person hiding under the crusty exterior.

After lots of drama and suspense, the ending isn't as corny or as schmaltzy as I was afraid it might be. It's true-to-life -- which is as much as you can ask of any movie.

Our Friend (Movie) 2019. Screenplay by Brad Ingelsby, based on the Esquire article by Matthew Teague; directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, starring Jason Segal, Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson, Violet McGraw and Isabella Kai

A young woman, the mother of two girls, finds out that she has terminal cancer. Her husband, a journalist who's often away from home on exciting assignments, has to curtail his career somewhat to look after her.

A typical "weepy," a real tear-jerker, right?

Yes, except for what makes it unusual: a man who has been a friend of both the husband and wife since they were younger moves into their house to help out and to look after things when the husband has to be away. The way this friend integrates himself into the household, the way he interacts with the spouses and the kids -- that's what the movie is all about (although we never do lose track of the underlying tragedy). What's going on with this guy? Is he really as altruistic as he seems? How is any man going to manage such a situation?

Fortunately, it's Jason Segal who's playing the role of Dane, the friend. Lots of actors would probably have loved to have the job but Mr. Segal's uniqueness gives the movie a special quality that it wouldn't have with anyone else in the role. This is an actor who can keep you constantly wondering what he's up to. Mr. Segal is a good-looking man, not to say Hollywood-gorgeous; he could play leading man, romantic types, but he seems to have found his gift in playing men who are a bit odd, who don't fit into the familiar patterns for men, whose personas seem to lie somewhat off the beaten track.

For instance, watch him making sandwiches for the girls and insisting that they think of him as a "grandma." Little is said about the arrangements for his presence in the house. There's one shot of him pumping up an inflatable mattress to sleep on. That's all you need to know: he's trying to be present, helpful, but unobtrusive. And how is it that he can take this time out of his own life? Answer: his career isn't exactly sky-rocketing. Apparently not very ambitious, he seems to feel the world isn't going to be any worse off due to his absence from his job in a sporting goods store.

What prevents the movie from becoming treacly and sentimental is the chippy relationship between the two men. The husband, Matt (Casey Affleck) truly cherishes Dane's friendship but there are times when Dane's good intentions rub him the wrong way. One of the best scenes in the movie takes place at some sort of neighbourhood picnic or family fun fair. The two men are sitting on a picnic table when Dane tries to give Matt a bit of kindly advice about being a better father and husband. Matt's withering response shows just how spiteful one human being can be towards someone who wants nothing but good for them.

In the role of the mother, Dakota Johnson is beautiful -- and wan when necessary -- but her character isn't particularly interesting. As in so many movies dealing with such subject matter, she never really looks sick enough to be dying. Her older daughter (Isabella Kai) has a particularly searing moment when her dad, as per his usual behaviour, keeps her waiting a long time before picking her up after school. He says he knows she's angry because she's going to lose her mom. She lashes out: "No, I'm angry because I'm going to be stuck with you!"

Towards the end of the movie, I was beginning to wonder if it was a true story. Not sure what prompted that idea. We do eventually learn -- quite late in the day -- that the movie is based on an article that Matthew Teague was writing about his family's situation and that was published in Esquire. Instead of coming as a disappointment (on grounds of a lesser creative achievement), it gives the heart a bit of lift to know that such a scenario actually played out among real human beings.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com