21 Jan

So, I was pretty sure Juno would be good. We were shown dozens of movie intros in film class, and this is one of the few that made me decide to watch the whole thing.

To be fair, film class could also be called “Spoil the ending of at least five movies per lesson” class, so I don’t have a huge amount of motivation to watch even the best-beginninged detective stories. But this actually hints at Juno’s best quality. While the premise is as simple as the movie poster – teenage girl with a big pregnant belly – this is a film that refuses to be summed up so easily.

So often with these types of films, you get a nuanced main character – or, at worst, loquacious-quirky that’s supposed to signify “unique” – and everyone’s place can be figured out from their first scene, usually based on said character’s reactions to them. As a topic, teen pregnancy is, well, fertile ground for stereotypes, from the slutty pregnant girl to the stupid conservative anti-abortion protestor. But the script (Diablo Cody) transcends this completely: you just can’t put characters in boxes, whether it’s their first appearance or their tenth.

In particular, Mark (Jason Bateman), the potential adoptive father, at first seems like the cool one against Vanessa (Jennifer Garner)’s upper-class poise and restrained desperation for a child. His relationship with Juno (Ellen Page) is endearing, then a bit worrying, before finally smacking us with the realisation that a potential parent should be at least as mature as the girl adopting out her baby because she feels she’s not ready. Likewise, with Juno’s parents, Bren (Allison Janney) and Mac (J.K. Simmons), their initial shocked (i.e. realistic) reaction to their daughter’s pregnancy does not disqualify them from playing a positive supportive role.

This brings me to an encouraging tendency I’ve seen in young adult literature and films: the increased attention given to role of parents. In real life, parents are still major influences for most teens, whether that influence is accepted or forms the basis for rebellion or, as in Juno and The Fault in Our Stars, comes when parents pitch in during a major crisis in their kids’ life. I’m not pushing a moral message here; I just feel that this shows more artistic attention to complex realities than “conveniently” absent or borderline-negligent parents.

Speaking of attention to detail, another lovely thing about Juno is the smorgasbord of visual and script detail. Every line zings, every set abounds in its own distinct style, whether it’s Juno’s busy poster-covered walls, Vanessa and Mark’s painstakingly cleaned house, or the colourful pharmacy of the opening. It’s that movie magic where the world is both relatable and heightened.

Having seen the opening months before I got around to watching the whole thing, Juno certainly doesn’t disappoint. Inventive directing, excellent performances from all the actors, and frankly beautiful set design bring Diablo Cody’s sparkling script to life.

Well, that was an excellent start to my film-watching year! Seen any good movies recently?

A Smashing Adaptation: Henry V by Bell Shakespeare

13 Nov
A picture of the Bell Shakespeare production of Henry V

Image: Michele Mossop (Bell Shakespeare)

Oh, theatre, once again you have forced me to start a post with, “I was skeptical when I heard the idea, but it was amazing.”

After seeing Bell Shakespeare’s Henry IV last year, I was a bit taken aback when they announced that their Henry V (directed by Damien Ryan) would be based on the true story of a group of kids who performed Shakespeare in a London bomb shelter during the Blitz. Even the pictures seemed kind of predictable: lots of battered books in hand and standing on tables.

You know where this is going, don’t you? This adaptation is brilliant, capably marrying Shakespeare with metatheatre, sublime acting, and breathtaking movement direction. It’s an absolute triumph at every stage – writing, directing, acting.

The intersections between the play and “real” life are genius at an acting-and-directing, as well as a thematic, level. The Shakespeare is made to situate the London events in a sort of timelessness, making the turn at the ending all the more heartbreaking. I confess, while I understood the scenes, I didn’t quite get the political thrust of the Shakespeare. But the hilarious sequence with the chalkboard map suggests that it’s the people, not the politics, that are the point.

The stylised Shakespearian battle scenes are a highlight for me, especially the creation of sound onstage with the drum and the slamming of bows. In contrast, the WWII bombings have an emotional authenticity, without being either overstylised or overliteralised. They don’t pretend that a theatrical experience, however vivid, could give an impression of what war is like, not the least since real bombs don’t adhere to the auditorium decibel limit.

Speaking of the auditorium, the venue is the Opera House Playhouse, rather than Bell Shakespeare’s usual digs at the Drama Theatre. The clever lighting design (Sian James-Holland) and stage design (Anna Gardiner) make stunning use of the open stage front, surrounding the action with deep shadows that paint a menacing and uncertain world outside the bunker. The atmosphere this creates is really hard to describe; suffice to say my eyes roved around, trying to read something in the darkness.

As always I love it when props are repurposed awesomely, and you couldn’t ask for more of that. It’s an unbelievably physical production; the movement amounts to a three-dimensional dance, amidst a set that the actors reconfigure every few minutes. I assumed this had the same movement director as The Dream, simply because I couldn’t believe there could be two so unbelievably good (I was wrong: The Dream’s movement director was Nigel Poulton; this was Scott Witt). Given the at times heavy emotion, there’s also good use of silence and stillness.

If I was impressed by the vision of the direction and adaptation, I was amazed by how flawlessly the actors performed it. In fact, the acting was so uniformly strong that there were no particular standouts, and I mean that in the absolute best sense possible. The performance was clearly demanding on a physical level, and I can’t even imagine the characterisation one, and without exception the cast achieve it brilliantly.

Once again Bell Shakespeare have blown away all my expectations. The overwhelming sense I got from this production was that I was watching top-tier theatre, from beginning to end, every step of the way. Smashing adaptation, genius vision, skilfully realised. Stop reading my blog and go book your tickets.

Henry V is on at the Sydney Opera House until November 15.

Macbeth (Sydney Theatre Company)

18 Aug
I don’t normally peruse others’ reviews before I blog. With this Macbeth, though, it was unavoidable. The actors had barely left the stage before the audience had their say on the rather “cozy” seating which apparently for someone constituted “the worst two hours of my life”. A lady behind me had moved on to “And the other thing I hated was…” before I’d even left my seat.
On a more cheerful note, the Sydney Theatre Company’s Macbeth was the highlight of my year so far. I’m a huge fan of Macbeth/Macbeth in itself, so I was bound to go from the second I heard someone was doing it. The news that it’d be “inside-out” – the audience sitting on the stage, facing the empty house – only added to my excitement, but if I’m honest, also made me a bit nervous. The potential for awesomeness was matched only by that for gimmickry, and, sidling up like the third Weird Sister, the possibility that awesomeness would be neutralised in an effort to avoid gimmickry.

However, it works pretty well and avoids all three pitfalls. The director, Kip Williams, uses the unique environment to set up an interesting spatiality. That remaining part of the stage not occupied by the audience becomes “here” – Dunsinane castle. The attack on Banquo (Paula Arundell) takes place in the stalls (with some exciting climbing-over-seats action), while Macduff (Kate Box) and Malcolm (Eden Falk) exile themselves to the dress circle. (It’s not entirely consistent: the heath scenes also take place onstage, perhaps because of the potion scene, which seems to inevitably call for mess – I’m not sure STC would be thrilled at having grape juice, flour, flowers, and… whatever that white stuff is… thrown all over their seats.)

In terms of relevance to the play, this spatiality is the most striking effect of the auditorium reversal. The sense of exile, scattering, and of a large kingdom (is the auditorium a kingdom ruled by an actor? Eek, the whole thing gives me that could-write-a-thesis-on-this feeling!) dovetails nicely with the play’s emphasis on the political chaos caused by the assassination of Duncan.

In a world where passengers are shot out of the sky and ISIS creates refugees by the hundred-thousand, this focus on disorder and alienation is up-to-the-minute. Duncan’s (John Gaden) murder (onstage, albeit in an abstract form) is followed an awesome, eerie thrumming – actually the cast banging their hands on the trestle tables that form the backbone of the set. This heralds the appearance of a huge amount of stage fog.

“And when they brought out all that smoke, I thought I was going to choke…” So said post-show whinger #326. But even I have to admit that the effect is visceral. Shot through with orange light, its most innocent likeness is that of a bushfire smoke – that singular realisation that the borders of shadows just aren’t quite right today. After that there’s no shortage of referents, even as you know (though can barely see) that you’re in a theatre (though the wrong part of it) and that stuff would have to be certified non-allergenic.

The fog is somehow perfectly judged so the audience can see the upstage area but not downstage (for simplicity I’m using those terms as though we were in our “usual” seats), allowing the action to continue coloured, but undisrupted, by this smoky visitation. Characters emerge from the haze, for a disorientating rendition of the Porter and “Ring the alarum bells” scenes. Here the visual obstruction allows the cast to give the impression of a large-scale panic of voices.

This is a highly-effective sequence, not only for its sensory excess, but also the unity of its thematic vision. However, I guess I should qualify my earlier praise of the play’s political focus by saying that such focus is evident mostly through its sustained emphasis in these three or four scenes. And this is a bit of a problem with the production; there’s a lot of good stuff going on – great acting especially, and cool staging – but there seems to be a lack of an overall vision thematically.

At various points the play is seemingly invested with some overarching directorial meaning – an effort to unify the production through an aspect of the text – at others more or less straightforwardly (though brilliantly, of course) acting the characters. This disconcerting alternation feels like it should be one or the other.

I also gleaned from the program that there is supposed to be some significance to changes made at the end. Macbeth (Hugo Weaving) and Macduff don’t actually engage each other in combat – though maybe I missed something when I had my eyes closed during the strobe light scene. I liked the strobe-lit swordplay in Bell Shakespeare’s Henry IV (well, I also had my eyes closed, but I appreciated the effect). However, here it doesn’t really work, because there have been no previous intimations that the action is actually taking place in a nightclub.

I don’t really know what it’s supposed to signify. Macbeth’s fantasy of himself as a super-masculine warrior? This is the only possible connection I could see to the next scene, in which Macbeth lies on the ground and allows Macduff to kill him. Despite its randomness, this is really awesomely staged and acted, and makes up for the annoying tendencies earlier in the scene. The short remainder of the play focuses on the ascension of Malcolm. Life goes on.

What’s surprisingly not emphasised is Lady Macbeth (Melita Jurisic). I didn’t really like this take on her – she seemed sort of like an old cat lady from the start. I’ve an inkling we can’t entirely blame Jurisic, though, as the costuming and unkempt hair/make-up* so strongly reinforced this odd character interpretation that the only thing odder would have been if Jurisic had gone against it. Case in point: The scene where she and Macbeth meet up and try to be all lovey-dovey is a bit painful to watch.

In general Mrs Macbeth (it made me think of that – Mrs Macbeth) is given much less prominence than is usual, in our culture and our stagings. The ‘Out damned spot’ scene becomes almost an intrusion on Macbeth’s agony. There is no doctor to medicalise Lady Macbeth’s anguish; even the audience is distracted enough to not quite appreciate it. The desensitisation and normalisation of her anguish harks back to the earlier focus on Scotland’s state of political and social disorder – and trauma.

But the other reason it’s a tad hard to focus at this point is that Hugo Weaving as Macbeth is so amazing. His Macbeth gradually takes on the Lady’s hysteria in a way that’s much more compelling to watch; indeed, almost to the point that you want to look away. Rather than an accumulation of mental anguish, each horror – Banquo’s ghost, Lady Macbeth’s death – strikes him anew such that there’s no recourse even to retrospection, only a visceral response to the latest happening.

The news of Lady Macbeth’s death is particularly beautifully done, with confetti, lighted to look silver, forming in a curtain. In a long moment of silence, we hear it falling. This rain or snow goes on until the end, though it reaches its epitome in the silent scene and after that the visual effect alone becomes a slightly irritating scrim.

On a characterisation note, I really love Kate Box as Macduff and John Gaden as “Duncan/Old Man/Young Macduff/Apparition”. Box is convincing and emotionally engaging, and seems more a touch more realist (if that term can have any application to Shakespeare), especially in the scenes in the dress circle. As his credit in the program suggests, John Gaden plays a range of roles, all brilliantly. I appreciate the startling and moving take on Young Macduff as a sweet old man who mistakes his daughter(-in-law?) for his mother, while Lady Macduff (Paula Arundell) comforts him as a child. Arundell also brings a nice dynamic to the role of Banquo – whom I’m reminded must be somewhat outdoorsy and energetic, taking off for a ride with his son before dinner.

I started off my review talking about the weird and awesome staging of this play, but I’m glad to see it’s taken off in lots of other directions. The brilliant acting and interesting directions (however inconsistent in their execution) are what make this production much more than a cool new physical perspective on a big stage. Yet the development of the spatial dimension allows the unique space to be used in a focussed way, without gimmickry or the fear of it intruding upon the production.

Finally, someone else pointed out that there isn’t much of a conceptual reversal happening. Despite our physical position, the audience is still the audience, passive and separate from the action. I agreed at the start. And then: curtain – with everyone inside!

The cavernous auditorium is transformed into a most intimate space, dominated by a crowded crowd. Macbeth is trapped alone, yet not alone, in a narrow band between the audience and the wall of curtain. At this one moment, sitting on a wooden chair at the foot of the stands, Macbeth seems aware of the crowd who sit in judgement. The guy seated next to me nudges me out of the way so he can get a better look at the tyrant (I, in turn, have blocked his view by leaning forward in fascination). Are we his countrymen, then, a sort of jury? The 99 per cent?

As you can guess, I loved the experience of this Macbeth despite its odd lapses in directorial focus.  I’ve mentioned before, but it bears reinforcing in more emotive than analytical terms: Hugo Weaving’s acting is absolutely sublime. The staging is unparalleled. I could natter on about it for days but I’ll leave you with this: within the apparatus of the stage, space shifted around us – the auditorium backdrop, the hazy post-assassination landscape, the close little curtained room, each was created and dismantled with the simplest of technical changes.

And the seating that the other patrons were complaining about? I kind of liked it. Perhaps it’s just that I catch too many trains and crowded buses, but I’ve always found it sort of surreal that you can sit literally against someone else for an hour, travel for miles, and then disperse without ever seeing their face. How much more so when the journey is through a play as exquisite as this Macbeth?

*I also question the wisdom of hair design that largely obscures the actor’s face.

The Sydney Theatre Company’s Macbeth is playing until 27 September. I believe the regular tickets are sold out now. There is info about other ticket options on STC’s Macbeth page (look in the grey side panel), or like their Facebook for updates. I highly recommend getting a ticket if you possibly can! 

A Brief Commentary on Commentaries

23 Apr

Whether out of curiosity or a simple desire to get my money’s worth, I’m one of those irritating people who feels the need to watch every special feature when I buy a DVD.  And now I’m about to get even more irritating by analysing audio commentaries.

This all started when I found out that the Sherlock series 3 DVD doesn’t come with any episode commentaries. The general feeling online seems to be that it’s hard enough to get the actors together to film the episodes, let alone for a commentary. The problem is, the way I see it, an audio commentary isn’t only an opportunity to enjoy an extra 90 minutes of Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice (not that I’d be complaining about that…)

Actors can give real-time commentary on their acting decisions or character interpretations, which is engaging even for someone with my passing interest in the craft of acting, and would probably be very interesting, even instructive, for aspiring actors. But I’m disappointed by this assumption that we must have actor commentary or nothing.

To date, the commentary I’ve most enjoyed – and the one that got me hooked on commentaries – is the one for the original Matrix, where they talked to the director and, I think, someone who was responsible for special effects. In retrospect, probably just whoever was there at the time. I also just listened to the absolutely awesome commentary for THX1138, with the writer/director George Lucas and writer/sound designer Walter Murch.  .

Directors are awesome people to hear from in real-time, because they can point out the visual imagery and mise-en-scene which would be difficult to describe in a regular interview (“Hey, what I was trying to say with the Biblical imagery at 1:05:32… you remember how he’s–? Never mind…”).

Writers can also be great.  Because they’re not always on set, their commentary is less prone to becoming only set trivia. Not that I’m some killjoy – trivia is entertaining when balanced with analysis. But if you’re not going to show us the blooper reel, please don’t taunt us by all laughing together over that one take where the actor totally stacked it!

I also think that when the writers have been interviewed extensively elsewhere, they don’t always bring much new material to a commentary. The writing is most directly seen through the dialogue, which is usually muted during commentaries, so they’re limited to describing how they came up with particular scenes or twists, which really doesn’t need describing in real-time.

Producers often bring interesting anecdotes on the logistics of particular scenes and what decisions were made, for example, on what to film and where to use CGI. Speaking of which, why not hear from the “focus puller” or one of those other credits I don’t even have a clue about? Or specialists who’ve been brought in for one episode or film – animal trainers, science advisors, a guest actor?

All I’m trying to say is, it’s awesome to get a commentary from the star of the show. But actors – and, often, writers – have lots of opportunities to discuss their work. Other perspectives can be equally engaging, and give us nerds heaps of new material to mull over while we wait for the next film/season. So please, Special Features DVD Compilers, don’t ditch the audio commentary just because the star actor can’t make it to the recording.

And bring back blooper reels!

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

17 Apr
tree with sun

What if at sunset… the sun didn’t set?


*SPOILERS AHEAD* I’m not quite sure if this book fits into the genre where spoilers are an issue, but anyway, you’ve been warned. :)

This will be a brief review, and perhaps my opinion of the book can be best illustrated through the reason for my brevity: I just saw some orange boots at a book & clothing swap and the only thing I have is this book, so I need to bang out a review before someone else nabs the boots! So boots > keeping this book forever. On the other hand, they’re pretty nice boots.

The premise of The Age of Miracles is intriguing: Earth’s rotation slows down, steadily increasing the length of both day and night. On a side note, this edition features some of the blandest and most awkward back-cover blurb writing I’ve ever seen. Which is a shame, because Thompson Walker explores this premise is an interesting way which avoids all the usual pitfalls of speculative writing.

As the blurb manages to convey, The Age of Miracles deals mostly with the social effects of “the slowing”, specifically upon the protagonist, eleven-year-old Julia. In many ways the novel emulates a regular female coming-of-age, with familiar episodes like bullying, family dramas, friendship woes and the first bra purchase (though interestingly, given the explorations of cycles and circadian rhythms, no first-period scene). Tellingly, when the phrase “the age of miracles” appears, it refers to children having grown quickly or hit puberty over the summer.

Sometimes I felt that “the slowing” plot disguises the fact that the growing-up elements aren’t particularly unique. But this impression faded as I read on. Thompson Walker’s portrayal of Julia is nuanced enough to be realistic, and skilfully navigates the portrayal of such a young protagonist. Julia is neither stupid, nor invested with an excessive amount of knowledge – though the past tense allows her narration the benefit of hindsight, which I think is an excellent writing decision.

What really stood out to me – or rather, in a good way, didn’t – is how Thompson Walker weave in the slowing itself. Note “the slowing”: one word, no caps. Even my favourite speculative fiction authors fall into the trap of giving New Technology, or sometimes, inexplicably, even existing stuff, Fancii Nyoo Naymz. In contrast, Thompson Walker is effortlessly convincing with terms like “clock time” (the maintenance of the 24-hour day despite the changing sun time) and “white nights”. These, along with a thousand other subtleties of writing, beautifully build up a world in which a sunlit night is as eerie – and believable – as a starlit day.

One thing I don’t like so much is the latter part of the book. I usually love it when speculative fiction writers plunge gleefully into the logical consequences of their premise. Thompson Walker masterfully builds up gradual anxiety as the long periods of dark wreak havoc with crops. Then at the end, radiation and solar storms suddenly start up, a ploy which switches the social pressure to that of survivalism. Given how it sets up a focus on interpersonal pressures, I felt like wrapping the book up with accelerating physical effects was kind of a cop-out. It wasn’t until I’d finished the book that I noticed its epigraph, a quote that strikes a poignant chord with the ending:

Here in the last minutes, the very end of the world, someone’s tightening a screw thinner than an eyelash, someone with slim wrists is straightening flowers…

Another End of the World, James Richardson

In light of this expectation, Julia’s relationship with her family, her social struggles, and her relationship with Seth take on a new turn. However, in this respect I think that the book ends too late. After Seth leaves, Julia leaps out of her family-focussed narration to summarise worldwide events up to the “present” from which she narrates. On a related note, while the narration’s description of the slowing is wonderfully realistic, the portrayal of the media is much less developed. Sure, Julia’s not old enough to be on social media, but despite the fact that it’s set in the future, everyone gets their news exclusively from TV?

Despite these few gripes, I highly recommend The Age of Miracles despite a few gripes. I cannot fully describe the beautiful and convincing way that Thompson Walker develops this “slowing” premise and its impact on Julia and her family. She has a knack for this speculative genre. I don’t know if I’ll ever re-read it, but Id’ put this book high on your buy-even-if-just-to-read-it-once list, and if you can get it at a library or book swap – do it! I’m looking forward to see what this author writes next.

Okay, it wasn’t that brief. And for anyone who’s wondering…

Orange boots

Secrets and Lies Series Review

14 Apr

Spoilers for the WHOLE of series 1.

From my episode 1 review:

Eva – I’m not saying she did it, but is her absolute insistence of her father’s innocence simply childhood loyalty, or does she know something else? On a meta-level, Piper Morrisey’s acting is so fantastic that I’m sure they cast this part to become a more major one later in the series.

Got it in one! That’s true of a lot of my initial thoughts on Secrets & Lies, Channel 10’s crime drama miniseries. The title does not get less annoying with time, I still love its non-stereotyped depiction of Australian life, the acting is great, the writing keeps going with the emotional punches, and I continued to be bemused by the periodic close-up shots of insects. A hint that we shouldn’t overlook the little ones, perhaps?

If you’re reading this far, you know that It Was Eva Gundelach. If this is because you actually watched the show, and not because I just told you, you’ll also know that this possibility wasn’t even raised until the final ten minutes of episode six. I’m not sure how to feel about this. Obviously from my above blog excerpt, you could see some oddities in Eva’s behaviour from episode one. But a lot of these actually diminished in later episodes – even her insistence on Ben’s innocence.

While mysteries don’t have to be audience-“solvable” to be interesting, the web content for Secrets & Lies set it up this way. So it’s frustrating when in Eva’s confession we get all this brand-new information – she was at the “weird guy” house? We never saw her around there. Did we even know what Kristy and Ben were arguing about the night before the murder, let alone that Eva knew?

On the up side, Eva’s confession scene is wonderfully directed and acted, with seamless movement between narration, flashback and, most starkly, Corneille’s reaction. I wish they’d gone with a bit more emotion from Eva – blank creepy child is a tad cliché, though it makes for a jarring contrast with her fake-niceness in the flashbacks.

Speaking of directors, the visual aspect of the show is noticeably more elegant from episode four onwards. The scenes in the abandoned house are a special stand-out, with even, saturated light creating an intense eeriness. Come to think of it, another thing I noticed in that scene are the scrawls of what is obviously a tween girl on a door, made creepy by their abandonment. More foreshadowing?

Another thing that improves around mid-series is the internal tension of each episode. After the first couple of episodes, I was curious about who did it, but impatient because I didn’t really care how we found out. But this is changed by a ramp-up of shorter-term tensions. The abandoned house scenes are one example; the other that springs to mind is Ben under the house with the torch, and also Eva’s disappearances in episode five.

Overall, regarding the ending, I didn’t really like how they found out that Eva did it. There was no real build-up: Eva just disappears again, Corneille shows up with yet more evidence the audience never had a chance to hear about, and Ben coincidentally discovers Eva’s bloodied shoes at the exact same time. The acting, particularly in the final scenes, is really outstanding from all involved.

Regarding series two, I think it could work. Although he’s mostly seen through Ben’s justifiably-indignant eyes, I’ve always sympathised with Corneille. The writing and acting, as well as the webisodes, have encouraged this. And any new series would of course have to follow Corneille, unless it switched genre to focus on the devastated Gundelach family (I do wish we’d had a few more minutes of that, just to wrap things up). Corneille’s just an ordinary guy doing a very difficult job, and it’d be interesting to explore the impact that it has on him, especially in contrast to the more dominant trope of the stoic, detached TV detective.

To some extent, this show falls between two (make that three) stools, not quite realising itself as a family/neighbourhood drama, a detective-focussed story, or a solvable whodunit. But with commendable acting, writing and directing, Secrets & Lies has enough elements of all three to make a satisfying and interesting watch.

Coming up next: a review of The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker.

The Hit by Melvin Burgess

12 Apr

I love a concept-driven book, and this one’s almost unique in its conception. The author, Melvin Burgess, was commissioned to write an idea brainstormed by a philosophy class. And it’s a good premise, too: what if someone invented an amazing recreational drug, whose side effect was certain death after a week?

As always with a concept, the next focus is on the conscious decisions that frame and explore it. Burgess has gone with young adult – the protagonist, Adam, is a high school student, and much of the action is seen through his eyes and those of his girlfriend, Lizzie. Perhaps Burgess recognised (as do I) the eager uptake of speculative fiction among the YA demographic.

It’s certainly interesting – and disturbing – how the opening chapters explore the disturbing blur between the thrill-seeking teenage impulses and outright suicidal intention. However, I don’t feel that Adam’s reasoning – or alternatively, impulsive, reason-less state of mind – are portrayed well enough to make believable his decision to take Death.

This is partly because of a sense I had that I didn’t quite understand Adam’s wider situation. The story is set in an ambiguously futuristic Britain, in the third decade of the current recession. A political upheaval combines elements of the Occupy movement, the London riots and the Arab Spring. On the other side, the government doesn’t seem especially repressive: the Internet isn’t censored, state-funded school exist, and nobody’s starving that we see. Closer to home, there’s also this common YA socioeconomic set-up where the country’s rich list go to the same high school as the kids of blue-collar workers*.

I’m not denying that inequality, or a longer working day, could lead to protest, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear sense of why a change of government would help, to the extent that protesters are willing to risk their own and others’ lives. The whole political plotline is only vaguely connected to the Death drug by the assumption that knowing the value of life would drive people to revolt, despite the fact that plenty of non-“Deathers” are protesting already.

To some extent, I can understand Burgess’s decision with the setting: it would be at best insensitive, at worst dangerous, to write a story where an apparently mentally healthy character decides to commit suicide on the sole basis of modern-day family and relationship problems. However, the alien political context takes us away from the book’s central question – what would happen if this drug suddenly existed, now?

However, the most serious plot problem in this book is that a lot of it is unrelated to either the Death drug or the politics. Adam’s girlfriend, Lizzie, allows herself to be abducted by Christian, an apparent schizophrenic and son of the major “villain”. While she does this in pursuit of an antidote for Death, the remainder of the story is focussed on the details of Christian’s extreme possessiveness and violence, and Adam’s attempts to rescue Lizzie. Of course, controlling relationships like this one can be a subject of intense stories. But the central focus of The Hit is a philosophical idea. Instead, it becomes a survival-based story dictated by Christian’s random psychotic urges.

So what’s good about this book? Firstly, as I’ve said, I love a concept-driven work. Despite all its flaws, I did get more out of reading it than if I’d just read the blurb and thought about the concept myself. There’s enough identification with Adam that we can feel his rising panic that he’s thrown away his life. But the sense of urgency, while in keeping with having a week to live, prevents the reflection and backstory that contributes to a book character’s “real-ness”. For this reason I actually think this book would work much better as a movie. The characters’ thoughts don’t bring much to light that we couldn’t draw from the action. Seeing the characters’ emotional responses would work where the sometimes-grating prose descriptions don’t.

I think Burgess, too, senses this. Take for example this cinematic description of the container-yard scene: “If Adam could have… taken a view of the park from above, he would have seen… a number of people moving about in between the boxes, each hidden from the other, like rats in a maze” (p. 273). Even this somewhat cumbersome description makes a cool picture in the mind – it’d work amazingly in a film. The odd, omniscient style of narration (of which this excerpt is an example) would also translate nicely to visuals, I think. Given it is currently a novel, however, wish it’d been given a bit of polishing at the most basic level — there are a lot of repetitive and awkward sections of prose.

Overall, The Hit is an awesome idea that’s been realised in the wrong medium. The novel form doesn’t do much for this plot that couldn’t be achieved visually, and it can’t achieve many things that could. Given he was commissioned to write a novel, not a film, I think Burgess can’t be entirely blamed for the inherent failings of the text. I could easily see the Death-drug concept, with the bones of this plot and characters, succeeding as a screenplay like Blade Runner.

*Sure, Adam has to change schools after an accident prevents his dad working, but more to the point, how could they even afford that school in the first place? And somehow they can still afford it for Adam’s brother even with his dad out of work. While Lizzie isn’t the richest kid around, her family is: her teenage cousin has unlimited access to luxury apartments whenever it’s convenient to the narrative.

Coming up next: review of Channel 10’s Secrets and Lies series as a whole, and thoughts on the possible future season.


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