The Handmaid’s Tale (season 1)

handmaids tale poster

It’s been well over a decade since I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (and over 30 years since it was first published) but the power of the story stayed with me. It was enough to make me a little cautious about this adaptation, too: both for the usual reason (what if it’s not well done?) and just the feeling of not wanting to go into too dark a place with my viewing. I’m so so glad I gave this a go, though, as it’s one of the best bits of television from 2017!

Set in a not-too-distant future, attacks on America’s government have opened the way for a new regime: a back-to-basics, fundamentalist Christian one, with more than a few ideas that are very unsavoury. The Handmaids, for instance: faced with plummeting birth rates, fertile females are rounded up, tagged, and sent to breed with the most powerful men – whether they like it or not.

The Handmaid of the title is June (Elizabeth Moss, perhaps best known from Mad Men), who we follow as she is ‘placed’ in the home of Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love) and his wife (Yvonne Strahovski, formerly of Chuck), expected to produce a child for them. You’d perhaps think that she’d be well treated in between times, given the importance of her role, but she’s a prisoner and an object, and treated accordingly. Still, nothing quite as awful as is revealed in the flashbacks, explaining how this bizarre and awful regime not only gets started, but how on earth it can continue.

Although massively shocking, I think there’s actually a little less graphicness on the screen than there was in the books, which is a bit of a relief to be honest. That said, there is more than enough here to make anyone feel powerfully uncomfortable – and that’s kind of the point. The kicker for me wasn’t the horrendous treatment of women – not just the handmaids, but all the women – which I was expecting from reading the book, but that as the series progresses and we piece together all the flashbacks, that there is a perverse kind of logic in how this new political systems starts. Tying in things like climate change brings the whole thing more into the present day, only adding to the oomph factor.

Add in fantastic performances from the entire cast, high production values, and some amazing if un-flashy visuals, and this was just compelling from start to finish. It does end on a bit of a cliffhanger (as does the book, if I recall), but hurrah – we’re getting a second series! Bring it on!

First broadcast: May 2017
Series: 1 (renewed)
Episodes: 10 @ ~60 mins each

My rating: 9/10


Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

murder on the orient express poster

Famous detective Hercule Poirot has just solved yet another baffling case – the resolution of which we see at the start of this movie – but he feels weary and out of sorts. He’s a little love lorn, as it turns out, but generally just tired of being a famous detective. However, his planned vacation goes a little awry when one of the thirteen other passengers is murdered. Of course Poirot is called upon to use his skills: because they are now trapped on an avalanche-blocked train, high in the mountains, with a murderer.

I have absolutely no recollection of any previous adaptation of this, one of Agatha Christie’s most famous and lauded novels, which I have also failed to read. So, for me this was still quite the mystery, which really added to the experience – something that I’m not sure many viewers would have. However, I have a sneaky suspicion that I did at one time know the ‘whodunnit’, or the story was even less well handled as the who reveal was a little less than the stonking surprise it perhaps should have been.

That’s rather my general view of this movie: given the cast, the obviously generous budget, the pedigree of the material and the opportunity to put on the big screen something that hasn’t really been done for decades – why isn’t this just somehow better?

On the plus side, it looks absolutely gorgeous. The period detail, the scenery, the train itself – all wonderful. And yes, the cast is an amazing list of names to gather in one place: Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz… phew!! And, of course, director, theatre luvvy, and bearer of the most amazing moustache seen on screen this year, Kenneth Branagh.

And… that’s perhaps the problem. Or rather, Branagh himself might be. The movie gives so little time to any of these amazing actors, relegated to bit-parts and almost-cameos, that it’s hard to care as much as I think we should about their characters. Instead, we get a few too many self-indulgent moments with the great detective laughing oddly at Dickens, or sighing over a woman’s photo – trying, perhaps, to add complexity to his character when I’d suggest the detective should be the least well-rounded person in the story, to be honest.

So. Y’know, I’d still say go and see it. It’s lush and lavish, and the sort of thing I do rather wish they’d make more of. Okay, I’m a bit so-so on the idea of the end-of-movie hint at a sequel (it does bookend the story, which also starts with a different case), but I’d probably still go and see it, just for the spectacle. That said, I’m reliably informed that if you have fond memories of David Suchet in the role from back in the 1980s-90s, then this is going compare poorly. You have been warned!

Released: 3rd November 2017
Viewed: 6th November 2017
Running time: 114 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6.5/10

Victoria and Abdul (2017)

Victoria and Abdul poster

Everyone knows that Queen Victoria had a huge romance with hubby, Albert, and found a little relief from her loneliness following his death with ghillie, John Brown. In fact, Judi Dench played the monarch in the movie, Mrs Brown, showing us their friendship. It’s a nice touch, then, to have her back in the role for this next episode.

For the Queen’s golden jubilee, two men from India were rather randomly chosen to present the Empress of India with a token from her Indian subjects. The aging monarch took a shine to one of the men, Abdul (Ali Fazal) of the title, and recruited him first as a general servant, and then as a teacher – ‘Munshi’ – in the Urdu language, the Koran, and Indian culture in general. However, the rest of the court are far less keen on this ‘brown man’ taking a place so close to the elderly Queen, suspecting him of currying (hah hah!) favour, and her of losing her mental faculties.

One thing that shone through very well from the movie was a great grounding in making these unlikely events seem very plausible. Victoria was a willful woman, by all accounts, but also lonely and forced to maintain her regal duties well beyond the point where a quiet retirement would have been far kinder. As she dragged herself through her later years, the chance to relieve some of the boredom was presented in the form of an exotic young man who could fill her head with marvellous tales and new concepts.

There’s absolutely no faulting Dame Judi here, of course. She’s “willful and stubborn and overly attached to power” every beat of the way. Ali Fazal is charming as the young clerk, although I was ever so slightly ‘hmm’ about the way his character arc is portrayed – a flaw, I suspect, of being based on the man himself’s own journals. Still, it’s a lovely friendship, as much about age as class and culture.

I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. It was sweet and heartwarming, with enough bite from the Queen’s stubbornness in the face of her court, filled with a stellar supporting cast. It’s a lovely companion piece to 1997’s Mrs Brown, although its cosy Sunday afternoon vibe is a little let down by the inevitably slightly downbeat events at the end.

Released: 15th September 2017
Viewed: 28th September 2017
Running time: 112 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 7/10

American Gods (season 1)

I’d long thought American Gods was probably my favourite Neil Gaiman book, so an on-screen adaptation made me both excited and nervous. Would it translate from the page?

Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is released from prison when his wife dies. As he tries to make his way home for the funeral, he’s repeatedly approached by the rather shady Mr Wednesday (Ian McShane) – who seems to know more about Shadow than he should. In Wednesday’s company, Shadow meets an array of very very odd… people. Some are keen to have Shadow turn against his new employer, others are – well, not exactly friendly, but at least not trying to kill them. Yet.

Meanwhile, somewhere in America… for every race that travelled to this melting pot of a country, another god made the journey with them. From fertility goddesses to djinn, the old gods are still there – but now there are new gods, too: media and technology, and more. So, who’s side are you on?

This was not an easy story to try to portray on screen, methinks, and as such full kudos to the production team for managing it so well. I’d recently reread the book in preparation for watching this, and mostly that did help a lot with understanding what was going on – there are more than a few strange parts that must have been utterly bonkers without that background. However, a few strands ARE changed – notably around Laura Moon, Shadow’s (ahem) dead wife – which did leave me scrabbling for just a little bit (I’m still not sure I understand the fly spray), especially as we hit flashbacks.

Overall, though, this is a tad bonkers but very worth the watch. The casting in particular is fabulous, with so many famous names and faces, including Gillian Anderson (in so many fab guises!), Emily Browning, Peter Stormare, Orlando Jones, Corbin Bersen, Kristin Chenoweth – I could go on! The range of deities and oddities on show is just as packed as the book, and I loved the way the ‘Somewhere in America…’ sections translated.

I’m disappointed that so little of the story could fit into one series, though, so ideally I’d love to have binged all – I dunno, three, six, ten or however many we’re going to get. Bring it all! 🙂

First broadcast: May 2017 (UK)
Series: 1 (and already renewed)
Episodes: 8 @ ~50 mins each

My rating: 8/10

Gifted (2017)

Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is guardian to his niece, Mary (McKenna Grace), who just happens to be a mathematical prodigy. Theirs is a really lovely relationship: they clearly dote on each other, he talks to her like a person, and she is clearly flourishing in the laid-back parenting.

However, when Mary turns seven with no friends her own age, Frank decides it’s time she socialises with other school kids. Despite warnings, she’s unable to cover up her genius and soon the attentions of the authorities and her previously absent grandmother are threatening to break the duo apart.

This is a very gentle, sweet kind of a movie, told in a very gentle kind of a way. I was really impressed by the handling of the court case: no shouting and screaming, as would be Hollywood-norm, just two adults (Frank and his mother, played by Lindsay Duncan) trying to do what’s best, and capable of having a rational if bittersweet conversation from either side of the argument.

Which isn’t to say there’s no tension in this movie – there certainly is, it’s just done in a matter-of-fact, low-key way that I found really refreshing. The story unfolds with layers of revelation that you might not even notice as such, as they’re just ‘life’, not shoved in your face.

I was just as impressed with the acting. Mckenna Grace is a rare thing: a genuinely gifted (as an actor, I make no claims for her real life maths skills!) youngster who provides zero irritation factor. And if you think Chris Evans is nothing but bulked-up superhero fodder, his gentle portrayal of a brother, uncle, son, and human being in his own right might surprise you – the character of Frank, too. Heck, I didn’t even mind that he doesn’t take his shirt off! 😉

I wasn’t exactly raring to go see this movie, but as it worked out I am really glad that I did. I’m guessing it’s not going to set the box office on fire, but it’s an impressively mature and sensitively-told story that will reward viewers willing to let go of the need for fireworks.

Released: 16th June 2017 (UK)
Viewed: 12th June 2017 (preview)
Running time: 101 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 8/10

Colossal (2016)

When alcoholic party fiend Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is kicked out by her boyfriend, she has little choice but to move back home. Old school friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) takes her under his wing, offering a job and social circle – perhaps a little unfortunately in a bar. Waking up with yet another hangover one morning, Gloria is shocked to see a godzilla-like monster has been terrorising Seoul – and even more shocked when she starts to realise that she may just be connected to the creature…

While there’s some fun to be had with the link discovery scenes, Colossal very quickly turns out to be a much darker beast than the premise and the trailers had led me to believe. In fact, the whole monster thing is almost a red-herring, as the tone takes a swift downturn into the more psychopathic human monster territory.

With themes of alcoholism, abusive relationships, obsession, and perhaps a more overt than usual example of facing the consequences of your actions, this is not a light and fluffy movie, and it’s actually a bit of a shame that the trailers portrayed it as such as it did leave me a little jarred rather than enjoying what was actually presented. The odd mix of tones is a little strange, but I applaud it all for trying to do something a bit different. Just, ignore the trailers and go in with some more realistic expectations.

Released: 19th May 2017
Viewed: 31st May 2017
Running time: 109 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6.5/10 – probably deserves more, but was a bit mis-sold

Big Little Lies (series 1)

“A perfect life is a perfect lie.”

Life in Monterey is pretty perfect. Great schools, great beach, gorgeous weather, gorgeous people. How irksome that Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) has to deal with her ex and his new partner, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), having a daughter in the same class as her youngest. Her best friend Celeste (Nicole Kidman) – gorgeous, filthy rich, and sickeningly still in love with her twins’ father (Alexander Skarsgard) – joins her in befriending newcomer and single mom, Jane (Shailene Woodley), especially after mutual ‘frenemy’, Renata (Laura Dern), starts a feud on day one of school.

So far, so mundane, right? Except, all of the above – and the bulk of the series – is actually told in flashback. In the ‘now’, we get snippets of police interviews, the other residents of Monterey sharing all the dirty gossip, all the little lies that led up to a shocking murder…

Ooh – can we say tension?! I freaking loved this TV show, not least because of the way the story is told, keeping you guessing right til the end the who, the how, and the why.

The initial draw had been that cast, and they are awesome. I’ve since heard interviews and the fact that these are ‘older’ (!) actresses getting super-meaty roles should not go unnoticed. Mostly I’m a plot person, and the edge-of-the-seat, need-to-know is still what impressed me most, but quite frankly those pitch-perfect performances, each with their own dark issues and web of lies surrounding them, would see me happily watch it all again even now I know the answers!

Now, usually I will choose to read the book before watching an adaptation, but for one reason or another I started the TV series first – but picked up the book a few episodes in. I’ll review the book shortly, but I have to say I love the way the story is subtly altered to ramp up the tensions even more.

It’s not exactly an easy, cheery, watch – this is one very dark show about all the secrets of marriages and relationships – but absolutely worth the time. And read the book, too – the alterations are a masterclass in storytelling, just as an added bonus!

First broadcast: March 2017 (UK)
Series: 1 so far, talks about a second series reported
Episodes: 7 @ ~50 mins each

My rating: 9/10