Darkest Hour

This is one of my shortest reviews. I don’t feel much needs to be said about this film.

I was imagining this as a war movie. It’s not, or, at least, it is another kind of war movie; this is not about the trenches, about shooting jerries, or going over the top into smoke filled wastelands. This film is about Churchill, and the decisions he had to make. Not even for a moment do we leave Westminster to see the ‘other side’ of Churchill’s actions, the battlefields and all that. In that directorial choice is something quite unique: we receive an uninterrupted, focused account of the political choices that define war.

In that, Darkest Hour has a gravitas the like of which I have not seen before. War shots and battlegrounds are more immediately evocative, but there is something strangely powerful about this film. In a sense it is closer to home; it is hard to imagine oneself on the battlefield in WWII, but easy to imagine yourself as a civilian, eagerly waiting for Parliament’s choices; for news, for hope, for battle, and for protection against Hitler, and the monstrosities he seeks to impose on the world. There is something noble in seeing a man, a normal man, old, wearied, disliked by many, with the weight of the country on his shoulders; a man who is responsible for the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and the potential collapse of Western civilisation.

This film is powerful because of our world, too; we are, one way or another, at war with various countries or forces. In the months and years to come, we will rely on the kind of decent, honest, and morally justifiable leadership that Churchill offered at that time. And so, a final note on Churchill in this film; Gary Oldman’s performance is magnetic. I did not appreciate the full power of his performance until the film had finished and I asked myself: why did he win best actor? The answer came when I realised that, for the two hour run time, I could not keep my eyes off him. I cared about him. Everything in this film comes back to Oldman’s performance; every look, word, and mumble he gave was drenched in a gentle importance; every actor around him were like poles of a magnet – attracted, repelled, but always moved, one way or another, by him.

Kirtag – a weekend wine festival in Vienna

Every summer, the wine producers in the 19th district of Vienna celebrate their harvest. It’s a quiet suburban place; they don’t get much business over the year. But, in late August, they flog it all with a large, happy wine festival. The wine producers are the heurigen – wide, stone faced buildings with a charming alpine feel.

The streets are buzzing. Thousands of people are walking about in lederhosen and dirndl. But it’s not cramped or uncomfortable. I had comparisons with Oktoberfest in mind, but this is different. It’s calm, happy, and family friendly. Or so I thought, at least, on the streets outside the heurigen, where people exchange heart shaped gingerbread biscuits, and children have their faces painted, and couples sit on benches eating schnitzel. Inside the heurigen is a different story. These large buildings are the centre of it all – and where the moods escalates out of a sleepy Viennese suburb, to a raucous Austrian drinking party.

I walk through the large wooden doors, and into a courtyard. Ahead there is a long, stone-floored garden, with bushes, little trees and walls giving it shape. It’s 5pm and there are hundreds of people. In the corner, a group of old men are arm in arm belting out an old Austrian song, accompanied by an accordion. In the centre people are crowding, dancing, moving around endlessly whilst people hustle by with trays of wine and wiener schnitzel. One young man is heroically cradling six bottles of wine through the hurly.

I follow the group to the table at the back of the garden, at the top of the incline – and by our table are grape vines, thick and green, rolling off into woods at the top of the hill. We sit down for all of five minutes, and then the Austrians are up.

We dart back through the crowd to get the stuff we’re here for. Inside, there are counters selling hot schnitzels and kartoffelsalat (authentic potato salad), and another one selling wine. I sidestep the schnitzels and head to the wine.

‘Zwei weisser spritzer, bitte,’ I say, in fractured German.

Behind the counter is a maidenly old lady in dirndl. She looks as bemused as I do.

She comes back with little glass tankards filled with white wine and soda water. This is not what we want at all.

After some hand waving and help from a nice Austrian chap, we land ourselves a collection of bottles – some with soda, some with the local wine.

Back at the table, we merrily chink our glasses and start drinking the fizz. The Austrians drink quickly.

The concoction is light, refreshing, and the soda takes the edge off what would be, otherwise, a harsh wine. Don’t forget – the wine is very new, and made all of five metres from where you’re sitting.

It is supposedly drunk with soda to keep you hydrated in the sun – and also because necking barely chilled, young wine in 35 degrees isn’t fun for anyone.

After a few hours, when the sun has settled below the horing roofs, people begin to head in for schnitzels. Soon every table smells of crisp, fried breadcrumbs and vinegary potato salad. I’ve had many schnitzels, and its variants; but nothing comes close to these. They’re thin, and crispy, and the crust has bobbled off the meat – apparently an indicator of quality.

Revived, we head into the next stage of Kirtag. It’s about 8pm, and the 50:50 wine-soda ratio is ignored. People are pushing the soda to one end of the table, and slurping the wine quickly, chinking glasses and demanding a comrade.

And, then, more schnitzels, and we head outside around 11pm. All the men buy gingerbread hearts for their loved ones, and the first-timers, customarily, have to get a tattoo spray painted on. We head down the dark, cobbled street, and off into Vienna to continue the festivities.

And that is it, until the same thing happens on Saturday, and Sunday, if you are so inclined.

 It was a great long weekend. Importantly, I didn’t queue for the food, I didn’t queue for a drink. The litre of wine is 15£ – the schnitzel and kartoferlsalat £10. This event can be whatever you desire; there are grandparents and children waltzing in the streets, and there are riotous men and women of every age getting squiffy in the sun. But, if you fancy a bit of both, and some amazing food, in an inexpensive, authentic, and unspoilt place, I can think of no better way to spend a long weekend in August.


Review – Flora Goodwin’s exhibition, unnamed

Flora Goodwin’s show is striking for a number of reasons. Firstly, the exhibition has no name – she states, ‘I feel strongly that I do not want to put these artists under one umbrella hence there is no title for the exhibition’. Despite the fact that the artists on display are all female, mostly British, and people that Flora ‘has known and collected for a long time’, there is no theme to the work, or at least none stamped upon them with a name. That reservation is telling, and all too rare a thing; there is often much made of the artist’s story, the fact that they may, or may not be, female or male, that we lose touch, even if minutely, with the art itself. This is art Flora admires, and it just so happens that the artists are all female, and predominantly British. More so than most, Flora had good reason to label the exhibition, but her desire to refrain is interesting, because it puts the art first. This inverts most gallery styles, in which the focus is placed on the artists; and even when a gallery starts the story with the artwork, and then finds a common theme in the artists, it is that theme that presides, takes the title, and inevitably canopies our interpretation of the work.

Secondly, Flora distinguishes her exhibition from others in her setting – her apartment. This ‘domestic setting’, as she calls it, is ‘where the restraints imposed by a gallery context dissolve’. Galleries are intimidating places, especially for the uninitiated. Usually echoey white rooms, full of silence and shuffling feet, art galleries often create a kind of distance between the viewer and the artwork. Having them at home means you can sit, have a coffee, and just soak in the art; and, as a result, you get to see new things, new meanings and suggestions in each work. Most importantly, you get to experience what it would be like to live with this piece of art. Any piece you buy will be with you for many years, you hope; it seems to make sense that you test run it in a home environment, where you walk and sit and drink, talk and shuffle, glimpse and gaze, forget and return; that’s how you’re going to find a piece worth the commitment.

There were eight artists on display, showcasing fourteen pieces in total. It is just as well no name was given to this exhibition, because there isn’t really a unifying theme. But all the pieces are beautiful in their own right.

Alba Hodsoll’s work is colourful, offering clear lines, and nothing clear in the subject. It is all suggestion. ‘You know you’re looking at a body part,’ assistant Ayesha Shand says to me, ‘but you’re not really sure what’. There’s something sensual, familiar, and tactile about the pieces. You never feel threatened or teased out of thought – the work is simply lovely. The artist takes familiar outlines, shapes – mere suggestions of flesh, more the essence than the thing itself, and distills and disrupts, making you gaze with wonder, and think with the wordlessness that makes truth feel closer.

Katya Lewis’s work is less colourful, and one step further into abstraction. One piece, A tiny try (fails/ falls), I was told, was a meditation on memory. There’s something vaguely ethereal about it, almost bruised, with light brush strokes and a paled palette. Her other piece, Cover, covered, is, as the name suggests, full of layers. Here, there is beauty in the depth, or idea of depth; the deepest layers sometimes come to the front with detail and texture, and then fall away to the shadowy outlines you gaze through.

Lydia Gifford’s work is a perpetual play with texture. Her piece, Landing (VII), is again full of layers; over the creamy canvas a piece of muslin has been draped, and then, at the bottom, picked up and pinned in a small peak. There are suggestions of hand marks, of brush swishes,  and patters all across the painting. You feel the role of the artist is coming into play, and, as Flora says, her ‘work grows from an inquiry into the physicality of painting’. The line between painting and sculpture is questioned, if not crossed; and the works ‘takes on sculptural volumes’.

I have never experienced an exhibition quite like this one. I think there is something to be learnt from Flora’s curation; the art is more important than any theme you could hope to shackle the pieces together with, and the home is, perhaps, the best place to display art, whether you hope to sell it, or just to admire it.


Published also in Arteviste, here.

How to enjoy The Cinque Terre

The towns of the Cinque Terre are beautiful to look at, but horrible to be in.

In Riomaggiore, the southern most village, you get off the train with a few hundred Americans and walk below the tracks to the high street, along which are little shops that serve bad and expensive food. There are billboards with pictures of Greek-looking pizza. You can smell tinned olives and dried up oregano. One shop is playing a loud Justin Bieber song. Waiters stand on the streets and wait for people to grab.

The towns get better as you go north, climbing to Corniglia, a mid point rather than a destination, and then on to Vernazza; but then you reach Monterosso, which is the worst of all. The train track is twenty metres from the sea and it follows the length of the town so that there is no escape from the rattling trains. On the thin beach are more bad restaurants that serve frozen pizzas, and iceberg salad with bottled Heinz dressing.

In the Cinque Terre you must walk, and not stop walking. That is the sole purpose of this place. But it is easy to assume that the towns will be quaint and beautiful and worth some coffee-time – as I did on my arrival. Save yourself the trouble, and leave the towns behind.

The good news is that the towns stop abruptly. You pass the last building, and the last wall, and then you’re out. The walk is beautiful. The traverse holds close to the sea, and you always have that breeze and freshness that makes even mid-August jaunts a possibility.

There are no dull bits. Whether you are at the top of the hill or climbing down does not matter because it is all beautiful; the cliffs move in and out to create headlands and coves so that you are always looking at something interesting.

The paths are not challenging, and although many of the passers by wear Northface and Solomon shoes with climbing poles and zealous little backpacks with water tubes, you can do it in a pair of trainers. The entire path is about twenty miles, and can be done in one day, or split up with a night in the middle of the walk. Vernazza or Corniglia are best. Make sure you eat Pesto in the Cinque Terre.


American Honey

“I’m not going to make an apology for the length. I don’t even mind if people go to the toilet in the middle of it. It’s fine’.

It’s true, you could walk out for five minutes and not be any worse off. There isn’t really a plot. You would struggle to piece together a beginning, middle, and end, because it all blurs into one long journey, a journey that, far from thinking was too long, I never wanted to finish.

Read more – (Arteviste – Official Publication)

Cafe Society

– ‘I can’t imagine being larger than life’

– ‘Sure, it’d be fun for a while. I think I’d be happier being life size’.

This is a film that will challenge you, but in the Woody Allen sort of way. It’s light-hearted and self-effacing, but I doubt you’ll laugh out loud; the humour is taciturn, and always curbing the edge of something sadder – something you cannot quite put your finger on. The film opens with a black tie party, filtered through a sleek blue light. It’s quite Luhrmann’s Gatsby in feel. But whereas Gatsby slides off discreetly to take a phone call, Phillip Stern makes an announcement to the group: ‘I’m expecting a call from Ginger Rogers’. From the outset, expectations are formed about what kind of film it is, and what kind of world it’s showing us: Hollywood and all its beautiful and damned.

… Read more at (Arteviste – Official Publication)