Black Book (Paul Verhoeven 2006) – Review

Zwartboek (Black Book) (1996)

Paul Verhoeven’s latest is an interesting, if flawed story of the subject that is apparently closest to the director’s heart – the Nazi occupation of Holland. Verhoeven was a child during the occupation, but to a greater or lesser degree it has shaped every film he has ever made. There are even apocryphal stories of him directing films in full SS uniform. Certainly even his Hollywood output, particularly Robocop and Starship Troopers, shows a fascination with fascism and its superficial trappings that borders on fetishism.

So now that he has returned to approaching his subject directly, as in his early Dutch films, how does he fare? Interestingly, this is a film that sees a collision of his two styles, the earnest European filmmmaker and the Hollywood trash-monger. The first half hour or so is an impressive, almost worthy tale of the hardships of out plucky heroine Carine Van Houten as a Jew in hiding, attempting to escape the Nazis. She is reunited with her estranged family just in time for them to be brutally massacred in an SS trap that is just the first in an increasingly improbable series of double -crosses involving the Gestapo and the Dutch Resistance.

Surviving this, Carine becomes more deeply involved with the Resistance, disguising herself by bleaching her hair. It’s the point when you see her applying the same treatment to her pubes that you find yourself in more comfortably familiar Verhoeven territory, and by the time she goes to a party with top SS honcho Muntze and his cohorts Paul lets it all hang out. Literally, in the unwelcome case of paunchy SS goon Franken, who wanders blithely naked into the ladies’ room to cop a feel  of his redhead girlfriend and an eyeful of Carine, who obligingly flashes her tits at him. Yes, the Third Reich has met Showgirls!

To be fair, Carine’s illicit affair with Muntze ( who has discovered she is Jewish) is well realized, a typical Verhoeven plot of the innocent seduced into darkness. And the twisty, turny plot has more than its share of wartime action, impeccably photographed by Verhoeven with the experience of a director of Hollywood action films. The problem is, it’s all rather too polished, too gripping even. By making it a Dutch Resistance thriller -cum – action movie, Verhoeven distances himself from the realistic portrayal of the Nazi occupation he so obviously also wants to portray. Occasionally, hard-hitting details like the exhumation of a mass grave of SS victims are somewhat undercut by John Woo-style action face-offs between the resistance and disposable SS troopers. It’s a movie that doesn’t know quite what it wants to be; wartime action epic, or intimate portrayal of the effect of Nazi occupation on individuals (With gratuitous bits of muff thrown in)?

It does hold the attention very well, the two and a half hours fairly flying by, though by the end you’ll probably feel there’s been a betrayal (or eight) too many. It makes Where Eagles Dare look straightforward in its corkscrew portrayal of where its characters’ loyalties lie, and at times you’ll be asking yourself if anyone in the Dutch Resistance WASN’T secretly working for the Nazis.

Still, the compelling characters, well-observed details and impeccable sense of a tyrannical occupation in its death throes do make for a gripping movie, whose real failing is its frequent straining for a depth it doesn’t have. If you’re looking for a Dutch Schindler’s List, look elsewhere; however if you think Shining Through actually had the potential to be a good movie this could be the film for you.

Christmas Telly 2006

Due to the magic and wonder of modern technology in the form of Mr Murdoch’s Sky Plus machine, I’ve now just about finished digesting the rich, overripe feast that was Christmas 2006’s Tv extravaganza. And it’s halfway through January. O brave new world that has such gadgets in it!

And what did we discover? Firstly, Kim Newman is an expert in everything. A favourite author of mine, who has in the past occasionally popped up to express an opinion or two, this year Kim couldn’t be kept off the box. BBC4 had a multitude of documentaries about British sci fi, and Kim was on all of them, his pseudo-Victorian mug unchanged for the last ten years or so. He gave us his two penn’orth on subjects as varied as The Tripods, Blake’s 7 and John Wyndham. Fair enough, he likes the genre every bit as much as I do, that’s why I’ve always got on with his writing.

Trouble was, then he started popping up to tell us what he didn’t know. He gave us his enthusiastic opinion of Chris Boucher’s Star Cops, despite admitting to never having watched it until that very morning. Other shows he didn’t appear to have bothered to watch at all…

On all of these, Kim was credited as “SF author”. Then he cropped up in BBC4’s marvellous documentary about MR James, which was mostly fronted by pop culture academic extraordinaire Sir Christopher Frayling. This time around, Kim was “Horror author”. Fair enough I suppose, he’s written both and it was a show about a man who wrote superlative ghost stories. Standing in front of a blurry bookshelf on which one or two spines were nevertheless identifiable as pulp schlock that I own too, Kim waxed lyrical about James’eerie, psychologically twisted tales.

OK fine. But then, he started appearing on BBC4’s series of documentaries about the resurgence of boys’ adventure fiction, and a suspicion began to dawn that BBC4 had actually done a fairly small cache of interviews in which they’d asked their subjects about every subject under the sun, just in case a suitable documentary came up to fit them in. This suspicion was reinforced by the increasing ubiquity of other talking heads. Charlie Higson popped up several times on different docos, as did silhouetted former SAS bloke Andy McNab. All of the above then forfeited any right to intellectual respect by appearing on Sunday Sport editor Tony Livesey’s requiem for the 70s British macho man, Beefcake. By now, Kim’s opinions had begun to tire me, and I barely took in his opinion of Jack Regan’s antics, though Andy McNab’s sneering scorn of the Lewis Collins SAS action fest Who Dares Wins did raise a smile or two.

But it wasn’t just BBC4’s small collection of talking heads who got to be everywhere. Julie Walters, presumably by no fault of her own, got two big new roles. The domestically produced film drama Driving Lessons actually debuted on ITV before its DVD release, and showcased Julie in “loveable” mode. Doing a batty turn as an eccentric former actress apparently based on Peggy Ashcroft she charmed the viewer and by extension her young apprentice Rupert Grint (out of Harry Potter). Under her tutelage, Rupert matured, learnt independence, got a shag, yada, yada, yada… OK, it was really not much more than your standard rites of passage tale, but Julie gave it her all and it had a lovely Citroen DS estate in it. Although if I hadn’t passed my driving test, the last thing I’d want to practice in is a 35 year old French car with a zero travel brake pedal and hydraulic suspension…

Having taught Rupert Grint to stand up for himself, Julie was back, in “menacing” mode, to terrify Billie Piper in The Ruby in the Smoke. Piper, recently freed from the TARDIS, was taking the opportunity of this lavish Philip Pullman adaptation to showcase her skills as a leading lady. And she wasn’t bad, as orphan-caught-up-in opium-intrigue heroine Sally Lockhart. Her problem was competing with the thesps hamming it up madly left right and centre, as thesps are wont to do in anything set in the late Victorian era. Julie got to play the nefarious and murky Mrs Holland, a shady landlady with a murky past who’s a dab hand with a letter opener to the stomach. Her villainy was neatly summed up by the way she wore false teeth she’d nicked from her husband’s corpse, which she dunked in her tea at every opportunity. Clearly relishing every minute of this sub-Dickens grotesquerie, Julie was genuinely terrifying, and I had to yet again concede that she is an actress of impressive range. If only she’d allow anyone else some time in the scene…

Also gaining a multiple appearance credit was the increasingly ubiquitous Marc Warren. Marc, who did well in Hustle, State of Play and the weirdest epsiode of last year’s Doctor Who, didn’t get as much range as Julie Walters. Basically, he was the baddie both times. But what baddies! Marc is a talented actor capable of considerable subtlety, but the screenplay of Terry Pratchett’s The Hogfather didn’t really require that. This sumptuously produced realisation of one of the monotalented author’s increasingly repetitive Discworld tales was about two hours too long, revelling in its apparently untrammelled budget. A number of venerable thesps cropped up in bit parts, hammed, and went away again, although it has to be said Ian Richardson was a joy as Pratchett’s only consistently funny character, the Grim Reaper, or Death as he’s known.

Marc’s role was the odd-eyed psycho assassin Mr Teatime (pronounced Tay-a-tim-ee), and in keeping with the rest of the cast, he made a right old meal of it. Equipped with a black cloak and one of Shirley Temple’s old wigs, he affected a peculiar American Voice somewhat like Truman Capote if he’d been a bit less butch. The effect was oddly chilling rather than comic, which I consider down to Marc’s talent rather than that of the director who made it all look tremendously rich but lacking any sense of urgency, menace, or originality. Though that could just as easily have been the fault of the unjustly lauded Mr Pratchett. If ever the emperor had no clothes…

Still, not to be put off, Marc was back, biting off more than he could chew as the title character in the BBC’s odd new version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Fans of the novel were perhaps rightly put out at the liberties taken (although they don’t usually seem to mind what Hammer got up to with it). This time, the venerable count was summoned to England by an entirely superfluous Satanic sect in the employ of Lord Holmwood (the rather luscious Dan Stevens, late of The Line of Beauty). In a rather modern, deliberately shocking twist, Holmwood needs Drac to cure his inherited syphilis. Covered in fairly good make up, Marc put in a good show as the Count in the traditionally good bit in his castle where he menaces then kills Jonathan Harker (who barely appears in this version), but when he gets to England, rejuvenated  into a sort of Balkan Oscar Wilde-lite, he looks rather less menacing. It doesn’t help that his rather laboured mittel-Europe accent gradually disappears throughout the course of the thing. He teeters rather between Byronesque seductiveness and a slightly comical persona, and it doesn’t help that he’s plainly very very short compared to Dan Stevens, who’s hardly Robert Wadlow himself. Still, Sophia Myles puts in a great turn as that perennial fin de siecle party girl Lucy Westenra, and David Suchet is a trendily bonkers Van Helsing. The unexpected hero this time turns out to be Dr Seward, ably portrayed by cleft-palated but dishy Tom Burke. Eschewing the novel’s overlong chase back to Transylvania, he stakes Drac in the basement of his London townhouse, though whoever told the production team the heart was on the right side of the chest perhaps needs a refresher course in human anatomy.

Tom Burke too was back in BBC4’s admirably restrained adaptation of MR James ghost story Number 13. Playing the drunken young lawyer next door to our hero’s (Greg Wise) hotel room, he was still rather dishy. The plot followed the usual MR James formula; stuffy academic dabbles in ancient secrets best left alone, to be hounded by sinister apparitions from outside the world. But it was extremely well realised, and subtly too, with none of the flash period details of Dracula or The Ruby in the Smoke. The ghosts too were wisely kept to the background, as James intended; a sinister force looming over the story rather than appearing in it.

Last, and in some ways best, Matt Lucas was on a few times too. OK, the Little Britain “special” Little Britain Abroad was a thing of sporadic mirth. Highlights included Dawn French popping up as Vicki Pollard’s mum and Tony Head’s increasingly homoerotic Prime Minister making a state visit to an equally homoerotic President of the USA, but the rest was  fairly laboured, an increasingly dull extension of characters and scenarios that really need to be laid to rest.

However, Lucas was on absolutely top form in a terrific adaptation of one of my favourite English tales, The Wind in the Willows. Commanding a zealous fanboy loyalty perhaps comparable only with Lord of the Rings, Kenneth Grahame’s ostensibly childrens’ story of anthropomorphised woodland animals is a risky thing to realise. Some surprise then that Rachel Talalay, director of the execrable Tank Girl, pulled off probably the best adadptation I’ve seen of this most quintessentially English of tales. The key, I think, is to get the cast right, and here they did very well. Matt Lucas is perfectly cast as Mr Toad, his slightly unhuman appearance and insane exuberance perfect for the character. Likewise, it’s hard to believe no-one ever previously thought of casting Mark Gatiss as Ratty. Played as a variant of Gatiss’ most English characters, particularly Dr Chinnery, he absolutely nailed it, his oversize teeth lending that polite grin an air of mania. The increasingly dependable Lee Ingleby was lovely, shy and cute Mole, and whoever had the idea of casting old cockney sweat Bob Hoskins as Badger deserves a medal. Of course a host of other actors of similar merit popped in and out of this charming production, though the only bum note was struck by the odd decision to cast American indie icon Michael Murphy as the Judge and then dub all his lines with the voice of Tom Baker.  I’ll grant that Murphy’s American accent might have grated with the exaggerated Englishness of the whole thing, but since he was almost unrecognisable under that wig, why not just cast Tom Baker in the part and be done with it?

Speaking of all things Doctor Who, Torchwood wound its way to a limp conclusion, as a sub-Sapphire and Steel McGuffin about Captain Jack being stuck in the 1940s led weird-mouthed git Owen to piss about with Cardiff’s very own time rift, thus loosing a badly realised CG version of Godzilla loose on the town. Or something. In truth, there were some very good ideas screaming to get out here, smothered under the deadwood of Chris Chibnall’s awful writing and a cast of characters who’ve been unlikeable and unsympathetic from the get-go. The collision of time zones was fairly well realised, with murderous Roman legionaries turning up in present day Wales and Black Death victims starting minor epidemics, and the story had an interesting villain in the enigmatic, skeletal Bilis Manger, who was manipulating events to bring about Armageddon. The trouble is, when you dislike the characters this much, it’s rather hard to care. At the end of the story, the TARDIS appeared offscreen to whisk Jack away. One can only imagine he was breathing a sigh of relief.

At the other end of the scale, it was a breath of fresh air to welcome back 70s Who companion Sarah Jane Smith, recently seen sharing angst with David Tennant and K9. Finally given her own series (or at least a pilot) she was given a chance to shine on CBBC. And shine she did, in a show about a million times as likeable and enjoyable as the po-faced Torchwood. OK, the plot -aliens trying to take over the world with a big company making brainwashing foodstuffs – was about as original as a 1973 Jon Pertwee Who story, but it was done with such verve, gusto, and above all clever scripting that it was still great fun. Sarah Jane was given a supporting cast of juveniles who were likeable and appealing, (if a little annoying in one case), and she got to be all Doctor-like confronting a bunch of baddies led by the scenery chewing Samantha Bond. Who’d have thunk Miss Moneypenny could be so deliciously evil? The only real disappointment in a show of this kind was the rather perfunctory cameo of K9, somehow stuck in a cupboard and sealing a black hole. While it was great to see him, one can only hope his creators will relent and allow him to be featured in the series proper.

And so, the big one, Who-wise. Yes David Tennant was back on our screens, fulfilling a tradition of Doctor Who Christmas specials that goes all the way back to, ooh, last year. And, sad to say, it wasn’t that great. Writer Russell T Davies had obviously developed an equation to feed into his computer which distilled the ingredients that made last year’s special so good. The trouble was, just spewing them out willy-nilly doesn’t work in the same way. Last year, the alien robot Santas were creepy; this year they already felt like a staple of Christmas, not remotely menacing. It didn’t help that the Doctor was accompanied by catherine Tate, in a role Davies apparently wrote based on all her most irritating comedy characters. I should point out here that while I don’t like her comedy show, I actually think Catherine Tate is a pretty good actress, but she wasn’t well-served by a script that offered a pale imitation of her own characters. The frustrating thing was that every once in a while, you got a glimpse of how good she could have been if the script had been consistent. Her final scene with Tennant was a doozy, with one of Davies’ best lines about the Doctor -“You need someone to stop you”.

As usual, Russell’s computer spewed forth a safely menacing alien that caused no casualties to ruin Christmas. Sarah Parish did well in a giant spider suit as the Empress of Rachnoss, though it was clear that no matter how much she waved her legs around the costume had her rooted to the spot. But her plot to bring back her children from the centre of the Earth was pure nonsense, as was the rather convenient solution of draining the Thames to drown them. Flood barrier or not, wouldn’t that involve draining the whole English Channel, and thence the Atlantic, and so on? While Russell T Davies undoubtedly loves a good set piece, he really needs to work on framing them logically in some sort of plot.

The saving grace of a show that I badly wanted to love was David Tennant. Throughout last year’s season of Doctor Who barely an episode went by where I didn’t want to just slap him at some point. But this was a measured, intelligent performance, which perfectly balanced the humour and the drama of the character. That, if nothing else, bodes well for next year’s series of Doctor Who.

So, Crimbo, then. The good, the bad, and the written by Chris Chibnall. Now at last, I can get back to that backlog of DVDs…