Lucy Popescu

freedom to write, review, travel…

Film Review – Of Horses and Men

Posted by lucypopescu on September 30, 2014

Of horsesBenedikt Erlingsson’s acclaimed debut feature, Of Horses and Men (2013) is as unique and clever as its subject – the Icelandic horse. As well as their expressive faces, shaggy mane and tails, these small, sturdy beasts have two specific gaits – in between a trot and a gallop. Although pony-sized they are always referred to as a ‘horse’ so there is much comic potential to be had from pairing a long-legged Icelander with this diminutive equine exhibiting the very fast ‘flying pace’.

Set in a small rural community various stories overlap, each featuring a specific horse. Kolbeinn (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) proudly rides his new grey mare to have coffee with his neighbour, Solveig (Charlotte Bøving). They are clearly attracted to one another. This is reflected in the excitement her small black stallion displays towards his mare with disastrous consequences. Another Icelander grabs a wild horse and leaps into the sea to purchase vodka from a passing Russian trawler. One farmer’s partitioning of public land with barbed wire causes bad relations with a neighbour and ends in tragedy. A young Swedish girl proves her skills as a horse-woman and trainer. A Spanish tourist nearly dies after becoming lost in a snow storm. The farming community avidly follow their neighbours’ fortunes and failures, even going so far as to spy on each other through binoculars.

Although not all the four-legged creatures meet a happy end, Erlingsson’s film is a tribute to the fortitude and spirit of this trusty steed and, at the same time, offers a delightfully skewed portrait of his country and culture. By the end, the locals have forgotten their various resentments and unite for herding season. It’s a glorious spectacle watching them ride together in order to drive the wild horses into a corral where they are then hand-picked for breaking-in.

Throughout, cinematographer Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson trains his camera on the horses offering close-ups of their hair, mane and finally their eyes which reflect their owners and imply we are being given the animal as well as human perspective. Of Horses and Men is full of surreal tableaux – a horse mounting another while its owner is in the saddle; rider and horse swimming in the ocean; a young man emerging from the stomach of a slaughtered horse; and a couple copulating in a valley as their horses look on. The Icelandic landscape forms a dramatic backdrop to these memorable, blackly comic tales about love, obsession, and equine passions.

Originally published by

Posted in Films | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Theatre review – Ghost from a Perfect Place

Posted by lucypopescu on September 29, 2014

ghostYou can see why Philip Ridley’s Ghost from a Perfect Place would have shocked audiences at Hampstead Theatre when it premiered there twenty years ago. The play encompasses the sexual abuse of children, torture and murder among other examples of human cruelty. At the time, the Guardian‘s Michael Billington called it “degrading and quasi-pornographic in its use of violence”. This is its first major revival to date and Ridley’s searing drama has lost none of its power.

Mobster Travis Flood (Michael Feast) has returned to his East End stomping ground some twenty-five years after his hasty departure. He visits Torchie Sparks (Sheila Reid) in her dingy, fire-scorched flat with a view to meeting her grand-daughter Rio (Florence Hall). Back in the 1960s, Travis ruled the roost, extorting protection money. He was known for his sharp suits and the white lily he always wore in his lapel. His careful grooming was in sharp contrast to the casual violence meted out by himself and his gang. Travis clearly wreaked people’s lives but glorifies his past, proudly handing Torchie a book about his reign of terror.

Travis can’t recall having met Torchie before so she attempts to jog his memory with a series of anecdotes. Gradually her recollections become darker. The “heydays” of the past were not such a “perfect place”, after all, and Torchie is keen to tell Travis about her own share of heartache. Finally, she reveals how their lives were connected and remain irretrievably intertwined.

In the play’s second half, Rio, head of a girl gang, and two of her followers, Miss Sulphur (Scarlett Brookes) and Miss Kerosene (Rachel Redford), proceed to taunt Travis, who is now gagged and tied to a chair. As Travis is forced to receive a taste of his own medicine, Ridley drives home the point that violence begets violence.

Russell Bolam rises to the challenge of directing two very different halves. In the first, he uses the characters’ dialogue and their sly humour to create an atmosphere of Pinteresque menace. The tension is only unleashed in the second half with the girls’ high octane performances.

Ghost from a Perfect Place is about the fetishisation of violence. Ridley combines stark prose with allegorical flourishes: In a clever twist, he turns the memory of a dead teenager into a quasi-religious cult while the elements of fire and water are a recurring motif. Aptly this revival is at the Arcola, within spitting distance of the play’s setting.

Originally published by TheArtsShelf

Running at the Arcola until 11 October

Posted in Theatre | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Theatre review – Land of Our Fathers

Posted by lucypopescu on September 23, 2014

land of our fathersMARGARET Thatcher effectively destroyed Britain’s coal mining industry so it’s particularly apt that Chris Urch has set his acclaimed debut play down a collapsed mine shaft in South Wales on the eve of her rise to power. Given the recent mining disasters in Turkey and Chile, Land of Our Fathers also has a topical resonance.

An electrical explosion has left six miners trapped underground. As they await rescue, various tensions come bubbling to the surface. Urch perfectly captures the machismo and bluster of the old hands as they attempt to hide their fears from the younger men – Mostyn (Joshua Price) on his first day down the pit and Chewy (Taylor Jay-Davies) who dreams of being an artist and moving with his girlfriend to Hounslow.

We learn about their pasts and hopes for the future and the sheer hard graft of mining. The men sing to keep up their morale, tell jokes and share confidences, but as the pressure mounts their camaraderie begins to sour and allegiances shift.

Signe Beckmann has transformed Trafalgar Studio’s smaller space into a claustrophobic underground vault, cocooned in coal, allowing director Paul Robinson to exploit silence and darkness to great effect.

The play feels a tad long and the pace falters in the second half with too much unnecessary character exposition, but terrific performances from the ensemble cast more than make up for any flaws.

Running at Trafalgar Studios UNTIL OCTOBER 4

Posted in Theatre | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Book review – The Blue Room

Posted by lucypopescu on September 23, 2014

the blue room“I was never going to get out on my own,” says the narrator in Hanne Ørstavik’s searing portrait of a young woman’s sexual awakening, “someone was going to have to help me.” Given her dependence on and inability to separate from her mother, this is something of an understatement.

Johanne, a psychology student at Oslo University, wakes up to find herself locked in her bedroom. Through flashbacks we learn of her sheltered upbringing with her overbearing mother, Unni. They are both churchgoers and Johanne often sleeps with the Bible under her pillow. Two weeks earlier, she had met Ivar, a warm, laid-back musician who works in the university canteen, and experienced a dramatic transformation.

Ørstavik explores Johanne’s masochistic response to feelings of guilt. Because of her passive disposition, her attempts to be “good” and refrain from sin, Johanne is unnerved by the ferocity of her sexual desire. She feels God is forever “watching”, together with her mother, and the two become fused in her mind as she tries to please them both. Her repressed emotion manifests itself in intense back pain while her erotic fantasies of masculine domination become increasingly violent.

There are hints of domestic abuse in the family’s past and Unni is vociferously dismissive of men – a cutting pinned up in their apartment reads: “The Woman most in need of liberation is the woman that each man holds prisoner in his soul.” But this rings hollow. Unni is in a relationship with Svenn, a married man and, confident in her sexuality, often dresses provocatively. By contrast, Johanne wears long skirts and baggy tops that conceal her figure.

At first we see Unni as just a caring, over-protective mother worried about her daughter finding the right man. Using taut, spare prose, Ørstavik gradually reveals Unni’s controlling nature – through her sly comments about Johanne’s hair and weight, the plate of food she drops on learning about Ivar and the textbook she casually removes from her daughter’s bag. Johanne is strangely complicit in Unni’s behaviour; naively attempting to relate her academic studies to insights about herself and others, she remains blind to her mother’s oppression. Things come to a head when Ivar asks Johanne to join him in America for six weeks and she is forced to make the hardest decision of her life.

Ørstavik is well known in her native Norway. Thanks to Peirene Press she is published in English for the first time. Psychologically astute and deftly translated by Deborah Dawkin, The Blue Room is a brilliant examination of a young woman struggling to own her sexuality, to break free from guilt and forge her own identity.

Originally published by The Tablet

Posted in Books | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Film Review – Before the Winter Chill

Posted by lucypopescu on September 23, 2014

Before the winter chillPhilippe Claudel’s noirish thriller, Before the Winter Chill, starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Daniel Auteuil, follows the fortunes of middle-aged couple who find their marriage threatened by a troubled young woman. Paul (Auteuil) is a successful surgeon, popular with the staff at his clinic and his patients. His wife Lucie (Scott Thomas) spends her days tending their impressively large garden, baby-sitting their grand-daughter and visiting her depressed sister.

When red roses start arriving for Paul at the clinic and at home, the cracks in their marriage begin to appear. Lucie is obviously bored and isolated by her husband’s career and long hours. Paul becomes convinced that he is being stalked by a beautiful young woman. Lou (Leïla Bekhti) works in a bar and claims that Paul once operated on her. He begins to see Lou everywhere: at a concert, in his clinic, on the street and at a local flower shop. Paul becomes increasingly irascible and after a melt-down during an operation he is signed off work and told to take a rest.

When Paul confronts Lou, she denies stalking him but appears keen to see and spend time with him. Paul is flattered by her interest and in return is curious about her Moroccan background and studies as an art student. They share confidences about their pasts. Increasingly, he finds himself drawn to her and gradually this turns to obsession. He claims to love Lucie but she feels betrayed.

The central metaphor of Before the Winter Chill feels a little trite – Paul and Lucie are in the autumn of their marriage and their watershed takes place as the trees’ leaves begin to colour and fall. Both Auteuil and Scott-Thomas have previously starred in films about couples in crisis so their roles feel familiar, but this doesn’t spoil our enjoyment of their performances. Scott Thomas perfectly captures the pain and fear of a faithful, loving wife who fears her husband’s betrayal. Auteuil is also convincing as a once confident man on the verge of losing his bearings while Bekhti is an alluring femme fatale who elicits both our sympathy and distrust.

Claudel ratchets up the tension and keeps us guessing about Lou’s true identity and motivations until the film’s chilling denouement. Before the Winter Chill is an affecting drama about male vanity, the comforts of love and the need to be desired even in old age.

Originally published by


Posted in Films | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Film Review – The Two Faces of January

Posted by lucypopescu on September 16, 2014

the two faces of januaryHossein Amini’s directorial debut, The Two Faces of January (2014), based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, is an atmospheric thriller set in Greece and Turkey during the early 1960s. Chester Macfarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his glamourous wife Collette, (Kirsten Dunst) are holidaying in Athens when they run into Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a young, Greek-speaking American working as a tour guide.

Rydal, we discover, likes to con clients unsure of the lingo or local currency. He doesn’t even draw the line at short-changing his date Lauren (Daisy Bevan), an American tourist. But Rydal finds he’s met his match when he becomes entangled in Chester’s shady affairs. Chester is on the run after making a fortune selling fake shares in the US. Things come to a head when he is tracked down by a private detective who demands payment at gun point. Rydal agrees to help the couple flee their luxury hotel and arranges for them to purchase forged passports. They decide to wait out the time it will take to prepare their documents in Crete.

Better known as the screenwriter of The Wings of The Dove and Drive, Amini proves his skills behind the camera in The Two Faces of January. It’s beautifully shot and Amini exploits his locations to the full – key scenes takes place at the Acropolis and the Cretan site of Knossos while the denouement is played out in the winding back-alleys of Istanbul. There is also careful attention to detail from Collette’s figure hugging dresses and the timeless appearance of the Greek tavernas to the endless cigarette smoking and consumption of Ouzo. The Macfarlands’ cream suits perfectly complement the Grecian columns.

The best scenes in the film involve the shifting affinities between the three main characters. Amini is adept at drawing out the tension between the two men as they compete for the notice and affections of Collette. Rydal is evidently attracted to Collette but keeps us guessing at to whether it money or loves that he really wants. Although this ambivalence works well to build suspense, Rydal’s motivations for helping the couple, at risk to his own freedom, are rather less credible.

As the title suggests, The Two Faces of January explores notions of duplicity and double identities. January is names after Janus, the god of transitions, beginnings and endings, and is often portrayed with two faces, one looking to the future and the other to the past. The tension so carefully built up in the film’s first half falters, however, when the two men are reduced to playing a game of cat and mouse with one another and it becomes fairly predictable how things will end.

Originally published by



Posted in Films | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Theatre review – Eye Of A Needle

Posted by lucypopescu on September 16, 2014

Originally published by

Posted in Theatre | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Film review – Tracks

Posted by lucypopescu on August 19, 2014

TracksTracks (2013) John Curran’s award-winning film, starring Mia Wasikowska (Lawless, Stoker, Jane Eyre), tells the true story of Robyn Davidson, a young woman who in 1977 trekked across almost 2,000 miles of Australian desert with only four temperamental camels and a dog for company. Adapted from Davidson’s bestselling book, Marion Nelson’s screen adaptation opens with Robyn attempting to find work training feral camels. Her plan is to earn her own dromedaries for the trip. She also needs to be financed and this comes in the form of a deal with National Geographic magazine who agree to fund the trek in return for exclusive photographs. These are taken by American Rick Smolan (Adam Driver) who meets Robyn at various stages of her journey and manages to irritate and comfort her in equal measure.

Robyn’s mammoth, nine-month journey takes her from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. She encounters various obstacles including dehydration, sunstroke, a dust storm, loneliness and the near loss of her camels. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn of her tragic past— the death of her mother at an early age and Robyn’s ambivalent relationship with her father who was also an adventurer. Asked about her reasons for the trek Robyn claims “I just want to be by myself.” She is clearly wary of close human relationships and prefers the company of her beloved dog Diggity.

It’s a rite of passage of sorts as Robyn comes to terms with bereavement and discovers that she needs human companionship and the support of others as well as having to draw on her own inner strengths. Rick proves surprisingly sensitive and thoughtful, depositing vital water canisters along her route, and offering her encouragement when she becomes overwhelmed by doubt. Driver and Wasikowska work exceptionally well together on screen. The aborigines Robyn meets also prove kind and helpful. There’s a wonderful encounter with one, Mr. Eddy (Rolley Mintuma), who accompanies her part of the way across sacred ground and scares off some overly inquisitive tourists. It’s Wasikowska’s film, though, and she carries it with panache.

Inspired by Smolan’s photographs, Tracks is skilfully shot. Mandy Walker’s cinematography perfectly captures the parched terrain and heat haze of a desolate landscape. Her framing of massive expanses of red earth is contrasted with close-ups of Robyn’s blistered, sun-burnt face while the aerial shots of the scorched environment serve to accentuate her isolation, the hazardous nature and true scale of her endeavour.

DVD released 18 August 2014

Originally published by

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Book Review – Literary Freedom

Posted by lucypopescu on August 19, 2014

literary freedomHeather Katharine McRobie’s political-philosophical exploration of “literary freedom” is a worthwhile addition to a lively debate. McRobie begins by framing literary freedom as a cultural right that “entails a conceptual shift away from the classical liberal, negative liberty approach…[and] the rights of the individual”. The main thrust of her argument is that civil and political rights cannot be adequately protected without economic, social and cultural rights.

McRobie writes about International PEN’s commitment to free speech sitting uncomfortably with Slovakia PEN’s condemnation (in April 2009) of the publication of Serbian ultranationalist Radovan Karadzic’s poetry. She suggests that “the incident – in which an organisation that campaigns for literary freedom called for, in effect, censorship – opens up the conundrums and unresolved tensions latent in the concept of ‘freedom of literary expression’.”  The solution, McRobie argues, is to adopt the capablilites approach developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. This outcome-oriented view determines that “substantive freedoms”, such as education, the ability to live to old age, and participate in political activities, can only be secured “by enabling true access and participation, not merely through state abstention from persecution and the denial of civil and political rights”.

Literary Freedom emerged from McRobie’s research into Karadzic’s poetry and hate speech literature at the University of Sarajevo. As well as the capabilities approach, McRobie draws on the work of Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, among others, and analyses various theoretical strands, from the importance of culture to the state funding of “high art”. She makes a good case for substituting censorship of hate speech with a “contextualisation” of it and fostering a culture of “speaking back” in order to neutralize its affects.

Although her book is diligently researched and insightful, some of the threats to literary freedom that McRobie examines have been overtaken by new, more pressing issues for writers. For example, many Mexican journalists now self-censor for fear of being murdered by members of a drug cartel while citizen journalists in Syria are at risk of being silenced by terrorist agents. Nonetheless, the author’s central thesis is sound: by safeguarding the freedom of the writer we ensure freedom for wider society.

Originally published in the TLS


Posted in Books, Freedom of Expression | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Film Review – Who is Dayani Cristal?

Posted by lucypopescu on July 25, 2014

who is dayani cristalMarc Silver’s award-winning documentary, Who is Dayani Cristal? (2013), co-produced by and starring Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, explores the identity and tragic fate of one economic migrant after he attempts to forge a life for himself in the United States. Every year, thousands of Mexicans, Central and South Americans illegally cross the Mexican-US border in search of work and at considerable risk to their own lives.

One of the most inhospitable terrains that the desperate migrants have to navigate is the Sonora desert in Arizona, known as ‘the corridor of death’. Here, decomposing corpses or body parts are regularly picked up by the border patrol. A team of experts then have to set about trying to identify the victims in order to notify their families and return the bodies to them. This is no easy task – sometimes they have only bones and of the 2000 bodies recovered from the desert over the last decade, 700 remain unidentified.

When yet another anonymous body is brought into the Medical Examiner’s Office in Tuscon, Bernal and Silver decide to follow and record the forensic investigation and their attempts to discover the man’s identity. The only clue is a tattoo on his chest bearing the name ‘Dayani Cristal’.

After the man’s origins come to light, the film’s team use the testimony of his family and friends, to retrace the dead man’s journey. Bernal joins a group of migrants travelling across Central America before they attempt to cross the notorious Mexican-US border. The cinematography is superb. The reconstruction of the journey includes breathtaking imagery of the harsh landscape the migrants are up against as well as stunning footage of young men riding atop a train known as ‘La Bestia’. Footage from their journey is combined with interviews with various border officials and the forensic experts who are clearly determined to discover the identities of the dead.

At the heart of this moving film is a firm rebuttal of the demonisation of migrants and the usual rhetoric surrounding ‘aliens’ and ‘illegals’. The US border officials are unexpectedly compassionate, focusing on the humane rather than political issues, and the dedication of the forensic team is truly impressive. Silver and writer Mark Monroe draw out the universal themes of hope, aspiration and love and underline the fact that the majority of impoverished migrants, like the tattooed ‘Dayani Cristal’, risk their lives on a daily basis to provide for their families.

Wisely, they choose to reveal the man’s origins, his personal story and reasons for travelling north only at the end. This is documentary filmmaking at its best – one that delivers a definite message and packs a powerful punch.

Originally published by


Posted in Films, Mexico | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.