Lucy Popescu

freedom to write, review, travel…

Film Review – The Sea

Posted by lucypopescu on June 29, 2014

The SeaStephen Brown’s debut feature, The Sea (2013), is a compassionate rendering of John Banville’s Man-Booker prize winning novel. After losing his beloved wife Anna (Sinéad Cusack) to cancer, Max Morden (Ciarán Hinds) returns to the Irish seaside town where he spent summers as a child. He stays at a boarding house owned by Miss Vavasour (Charlotte Rampling) and shares mealtimes with permanent resident Colonel Blunden (Karl Johnson). He is utterly overwhelmed by grief and shows no signs of healing. “Fleeing one sadness by revisiting the scene of an old one doesn’t work”, he tells his landlady.

Max is an art historian and is supposed to be writing about French artist Pierre Bonnard. Instead he drinks himself unconscious, gets thrown out of bars, baits Blunden and walks at night along the beach while all the time reliving his last few months with Anna. Through flashbacks we learn of the childhood friendship he had with the Grace family. Led by their raffish and flamboyant father, Carlo (Rufus Sewell), they were everything his plain, hard-working family was not. The Graces rent an expense holiday home, while Max’s family live in a two room “chalet” with no proper toilet facilities. Max is bowled over by the Grace’s exuberance, their familial feuds and boisterous charm. He is proud to be taken into Carlo’s confidence, is secretly in love with Connie (Natascha McElhone), while shyly courting their daughter Chloe (Missy Keating). He is also insistently curious about their young minder Rose (Bonnie Wright).

Banville’s screen adaptation perfectly distils the essence of his novel’s main themes. It is no mean feat to capture the interior musings of one man on celluloid. The Sea is as much about the nature of memory as it is about loss and Brown has produced a quietly affecting film that is not afraid of using silence to great effect. In Banville’s script, often what is left unsaid is as important as what is spoken.

Brown is well served by a stellar cast – Hinds delivers a terrific performance as a man who falls apart and gradually puts himself together again. John Conroy’s superb cinematography, set against the dark roiling sea is also particularly memorable. The scenes from Max’s childhood are shot through with a sun imbued glow whereas the present is muted in colour reflecting Max’s perspective – he seeks solace in the past when faced with an uncertain future. The Sea is a poignant meditation on love, grief and loss, a slow burn of a film and an impressive debut.

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Film Review – Chinese Puzzle

Posted by lucypopescu on June 22, 2014

Chinese puzleCédric Klapisch’s lively romantic comedy, starring Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou, is the final chapter in his ‘Trilogy of Xavier’s Travels’, which began with The Spanish Apartment (2002). As the name suggests, Chinese Puzzle (2013) is a colourful mishmash of different characters’ stories, sub-plots and intersecting timelines. There’s also a clever meta-textual commentary running through the film.

Writer Xavier Rousseau is approaching 40 when his wife of ten years, Wendy (Kelly Reilly), announces that she is leaving him and moving to New York City with their children. Inconsolable without his family, Xavier decides to follow them to the Big Apple, where he hopes to finish his latest book. There he is offered a place to stay with his old friend Isabelle (Cécile De France) and her lesbian partner Ju (Sandrine Holt). Just to complicate matters, Xavier has recently donated his sperm to the couple and Isabelle is now pregnant.

Xavier’s difficulties begin when he has to find an affordable apartment near his children and learns that marrying an American citizen is the easiest route to live and work legally in the US. After saving a taxi-driver’s life, Xavier is presented with a willing Chinese-American ‘wife’ but they have to convince the immigration officers that they are for real. Then an old flame, Martine (Tautou), comes to visit and romance is once again in the air.

Klapisch’s has created a nuanced portrait of one man’s mid-life crisis and his complex relations with three different women. The four characters have a shared history, having first met as students in The Spanish Apartment and then reconnected in Russian Dolls (2005) and there’s a wonderful honesty about their interactions with each other. One of Chinese Puzzle’s main themes is the characters’ different response to aging and parenting as they approach forty. There are some lovely comic scenes such as when Xavier meets Wendy’s new partner who towers over him and is wealthy, handsome and completely charming. Another memorable moment is Martine’s work presentation in perfect Mandarin to a group of Chinese businessmen.

Inevitably, Chinese Puzzle will be compared to Richard Linklater’s ‘Before Sunrise’ trilogy. It’s lighter in tone but what raises it above the average romcom is Klapisch’s playfulness with form and visuals. At the same time as trying to sort out his new life, Xavier is pursued by his publisher who comments on the action and questions where the plot is going. Xavier also enjoys some fantasy conversations with philosophers such as Hegel and Rousseau. Inspired by photographer Alex Webb’s work, Xavier’s chaotic lifestyle is conveyed through imaginative framing and the clever manipulation of colour and image. Entertaining, uplifting and visually arresting French fare.

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Theatre review – The Roof

Posted by lucypopescu on June 22, 2014

The Roof

For their latest show, The Roof, presented by Fuel as part of the London International Festival of Theatre, choreographer Frauke Requardt and David Rosenberg (co-founder of artist collective Shunt) have transformed the open air car park across the road from the National Theatre into a thrilling performance space.

As night falls, we are led into a round stony pit. Designer Jon Bausor has created an urban skyline that encircles the audience. We quickly discover that we are in the middle of a live video game. But we are merely observers, unable to predict or change the outcome. An avatar (Danilo Caruso) dressed in a red jump suit pops up out of a box and attempts to leap across a chasm. He is met by a yellow-masked monster and falls. He has two lives left, we are told. The next time he makes it round the circuit leaping across chimney pots, negotiating sloping roofs, and scaling gables and all the time having to dodge would-be assailants. He is allowed to move up a level.

The creative team make some interesting connections between the avatars in a modern video game and the wanderers of antiquity. I was reminded of Odysseus and the various monsters and obstacles he had to overcome in order to return home. The drum majorettes that entice the avatar are like the Sirens and the different masks of the monsters he encounters recall Hercules’ struggle with the many-headed Hydra. During one level, the avatar has to surmount the doubting voice of his mother, in another he has to meet brute force with violence. The circular nature of a daily routine, interspersed with random encounters and events, small triumphs and feats of endurance, is cleverly evoked.

The Roof lacks a coherent narrative and carries no central message but that is partly the point. For one hour, we can immerse ourselves in a multi-sensory experience. We are given Binaural headsets, through which we are fed a commentary of sorts, music and sounds that are brilliantly synchronised with the action (Dave Price), while the visuals and acrobatics, set against a darkening sky, are equally stunning.

Although it loses momentum slightly towards the end, the main power of The Roof lies in the way it blurs the boundaries between theatre, performance art and screen images and invites multiple readings. The colourful balaclavas and twerking are reminiscent of Pussy Riot’s acts of protest. The lone woman enclosed in a glass box suggests a character trapped behind a computer screen. At one point I thought I was watching a film projection of rabbit-eared dancers and then realised it was live performance. Playful and provocative.

Running until 28 June at 9.30pm
Additional performances Fri and Sat 7pm
Doon Street Car Park
Opposite the National Theatre, London SE1
Book via

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Book review – Syria Speaks

Posted by lucypopescu on June 19, 2014

Syria speaksSyria Speaks is essential reading for anyone interested in human rights or a better understanding of the current conflict. Comprising essays, stories, poems, songs, photo- graphs and cartoons, this impressive collection shows how artists and activists operate under repressive regimes and how their work can become “tools of resistance” in war.

Four decades of rule by the Assad family has wreaked untold havoc on Syria and its people: dissidents describe horrific methods of torture and claim that the testing of chemical and biological weapons on political prisoners was routinely practised by Syria’s Air Force Intelligence.

When Dr Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father in July 2000, he appeared keen to modernise Syria and expressed a desire for “creative thinking”, “constructive criticism” and “transparency”. The “Damascus Spring”, was short-lived, however. As the accounts and artwork in Syria Speaks amply demonstrate, Bashar has not only matched but far surpassed his father Hafez’s brutality in the past three years alone.

Given the silence that followed Hafez al-Assad’s devastation of Hama in 1982, it is fitting that the anthology begins with a veiled photomontage of victims of the massacre. Since the start of the revolution in 2011, many artists have revisited the events of 1982 in their work and compared the killing in Hama with current atrocities. A poster from the anonymous arts collective The Syrian People Know Their Way, depicts a child underlining the words “It will not happen again” next to a waterwheel, a landmark symbol of Hama. This also powerfully recalls the fact that it was the arrest of schoolchildren for painting anti-government graffiti in the southern city of Deraa that sparked the first protests in March 2011.

The difference between the uprising in Hama and the current conflict is that ordinary Syrians now have access to mobile phones and the internet. However, people quickly become inured to images of violence and, as the academic Miriam Cooke observes, the opposition needed to find new ways to retain the outside world’s attention. Many Syrian artists have risen to the challenge. After one massacre, the filmmakers’ collective Abounaddara posted a piece that depicted corpses wrapped in shrouds and joined by flowers. Artist Sulafa Hijazi vividly contrasts life and death in her illustration of a pregnant weapon.

Interviews with former political prisoners sit alongside work from the raft of citizen journalists who have come to the fore in recent months. Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a prominent writer imprisoned for 16 years, compares the role of the intellectual then and now. Meanwhile, the Syrian activist Assad al-Alchi talks to co-editor Malu Halasa about the role of local  co-ordinating committees. This network grew out of the early protests in March 2011 and serves to teach activists non-violent civil disobedience.

Much of the writing explores the effects of imprisonment and torture. Especially poignant is “Lifetimes Stolen” by Yara Badr who was imprisoned like her father before her. After listing “the dictionary of torture techniques” she describes what it means “to live on the verge of death … you are lost, as though drifting in the sea, waiting for the wind to bring you a sail that will take you back to life”. Her husband, Mazen Darwish, remains in detention and Syria Speaks includes an extract from his “Letter for the Future” smuggled out of jail, in which he wishes his torturers “happy lives for your children, with no fear and no torture”.

The anthology also documents the importance of revolutionary songs as a means of resistance – the popular Syrian singer Ibrahim Qashoush was murdered after inspiring crowds in Hama with his song “Come on Bashar, Get Out!”. As one activist explains, folk music has largely escaped censorship and “has therefore become a means by which street protesters have proclaimed their Syrian identity in the face of government claims of an ‘international conspiracy’.” Similarly, cartoons and comic strips can convey “subversive narratives” and, like mobile-phone images, are easily uploaded to social media sites.

This then is the central message of Syria Speaks. Artists and activists have had to find new ways to communicate and protest from the frontline. One of the most humorous and imaginative creations must be the popular internet series “Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator”, available on YouTube and described as a “modern-day morality play”. It’s reminiscent of the British satirical television series Spitting Image, although far braver – finger puppets are used so they can be smuggled through checkpoints. Syria Speaks pays tribute to many extraordinary acts of courage and shines a light on the dark deeds of a brutal regime.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday

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Book Review – In the Name of the People

Posted by lucypopescu on June 14, 2014

In the name of the peopleIn 1961 Peter Benenson, a London lawyer, launched a worldwide campaign calling for the release of six political prisoners. One of them was Agostinho Neto, an Angolan poet and doctor held without charge or trial by the Portuguese authorities. This action led to Neto’s release and the founding of Amnesty International. Neto went on to become Angola’s first president after independence in 1975. His then-Marxist party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), had the support of the Soviet Union and Cuba, while the United States and South Africa backed its rival, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

Neto swiftly established a one-party state and the MPLA continued to have close links with Cuba. On 27 May, 1977, Neto’s government brutally suppressed a demonstration, claiming that it was an attempted a coup by ‘factionalists’ led by the former interior minister, Nito Alves. Thousands of Angolans were executed in the aftermath – estimates range from 2000 to 90,000 – leading to a culture of silence and a fear of protesting that persists today.

Lara Pawson, a former BBC correspondent, seeks to unpack and understand this ‘climate of terror’ which helped to shape modern Angola. She discovers that Cuban forces participated in the crackdown, killing dissident members of the MPLA, and argues that respected British journalists have remained silent on the subject because of their socialist sympathies.

Part of what makes Pawson’s account so compelling is her continual questioning of her own motivation for wanting to write about events little known outside Angola, that happened long ago and which have, in large part, escaped substantial, objective scrutiny. She meets various witnesses, from those who lost relatives in the purges to those who survived. She also interviews fellow journalists, including Ndunduma Wé Lépi, former director of Jornal de Angola, who fanned the flames of violence in a series of inflammatory articles exhorting readers to ‘strike while the iron is hot’. Writing about a massacre is always a difficult undertaking but Lara Pawson’s conversational tone, her musings and lively descriptions, make In the Name of the People as engaging as it is informative.

Originally published in the TLS








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Book Review – Decompression

Posted by lucypopescu on June 5, 2014

DecompressionAt first glance, Juli Zeh’s latest novel could not be more unlike its predecessor, The Method, a chilling vision of a dystopian future where the state is obsessed with health and mass surveillance. Sven, a German expat, and his partner, Antje, run a diving business on the island of Lanzarote. Sven has enjoyed a comfortable existence for 14 years, but when new clients, Jola von der Pahlen and Theo Hast, arrive their fractious relationship threatens to destroy his serenity. Jola is the beautiful star of a German television soap and the daughter of a rich and powerful tycoon. She needs to perfect her diving skills before auditioning for the film role of Lotte Hass, a pioneering female diver and underwater photographer. Jola is convinced the part will boost her career. Theo is a writer, father-figure and, it transpires, a serial abuser of Jola.

Diving requires discipline and composure but Theo and Jola play a dangerous game, allowing their abusive relationship to spill out during their expeditions. They push each other around with near fatal consequences – at one point, Jola disconnects Theo’s oxygen supply. Sven surveys their antics with exasperation but finds his fascination with Jola hard to suppress. She flirts outrageously with him, while Theo’s behaviour becomes increasingly menacing.

Much of the suspense is generated underwater. When things come to a head, after an intense diving experience, Sven describes himself resisting Jola’s sexual advances. However, pages of Jola’s diary, threaded through his account, suggest a different, rather more sinister, story.

Zeh plays with our expectations throughout. Initially she builds tension around the love triangle, but gradually we realise that Decompression is going in another direction. Zeh is adept at describing the carelessness and perversities of the rich and famous. Like The Method, this is a story about obsession – this time with status, looks, and celebrity culture. Jola is a damaged woman and Zeh writes perceptively about emotional abuse, sadomasochism and self-loathing.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday

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Film Review – Omar

Posted by lucypopescu on May 31, 2014

OmarHany Abu-Assad’s Oscar-nominated film Omar (2013) is a gripping political drama about a young Palestinian baker and freedom fighter (Adam Bakri), who is forced to become an informant. Set in the occupied Palestinian Territories, we first see Omar successfully scaling the impossibly high separation wall, a forbidding construct covered in graffiti, only to be shot at as he reaches the top. Omar has to cross the barrier in order to visit his childhood friends Tarek (Iyad Hoorani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat). He is in love with Tarek’s sister Nadia (Leem Lubany) and each time they meet for coffee, the pair covertly exchange love letters.

At night, the three friends train as freedom fighters and plan to kill an Israeli solder. After they commit their first act of violence they are betrayed and realise that they are forever marked men. The following day Omar, is chased through the streets, caught, imprisoned and tortured. He is tricked by Agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter), into incriminating himself with the words ‘I will never confess.’ In order to secure his release he has to agree to work as an informant and hand over Tarek to the Israeli forces, even though it is Amjad who killed the soldier.

Free again, Omar pursues his relationship with Nadia and asks for Tarek’s permission to marry his sister. He is surprised to learn that Amjad has also asked for Nadia’s hand. Mistrust blossoms as the trio realise that they have been betrayed by someone within their circle. Abu-Assad prolongs this tension throughout the film. We are left guessing as to who has betrayed whom and if Omar is really working for the Israelis or remains loyal to his friends and their cause. There are some wonderful chase scenes through the narrow passages of the West Bank and across roofs. The stark landscape and brutal concrete structures that separate the friends from each other and imprison Omar is brilliantly captured by cinematographer Ehab Assal, reflecting the political and sociological barriers to peace in the region.

Omar’s love for Nadia adds an extra layer to the plot and serves as a reminder of his sensitivity and humanity. Even after being scarred by violence, Omar attempts to behave honourably. But after his second detention and early release, Nadia begins to doubt him and Omar finds his choices increasingly restricted. It is as though Agent Rami has put a noose around his neck and is gradually pulling it tighter. This is political cinema at its best; intelligent, thought-provoking and utterly absorbing. Bakri is a star in the making and delivers an electrifying performance.

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Film Review – Inside Llewyn Davis

Posted by lucypopescu on May 28, 2014

LLewyn DavisThe Coen brothers are in fine form with Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) a brilliant portrait of a struggling folk singer (Oscar Isaac) loosely based on the life of Dave Van Ronk. It’s 1961 and Llewyn is trying to make a go of it as a solo artist after the death of his musical partner. He drags himself from bar to stage, cadging off friends and family and living between Greenwich Village, Queens and the Upper West Side. His first, eponymous solo album is not selling and the only gigs he can get are at the Gaslight café. To make matters worse, he’s got a female friend pregnant and has to pay for the abortion.

Llewyn is part of a dedicated coterie of musicians, including the fresh-faced duo Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), who regularly play the Gaslight. Desperate for money, Llewyn agrees to a studio session with Jim and fellow folk singer Al Cody (Adam Driver). He ends up recording a novelty single called ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ that he clearly detests. Llewyn then decides to try his luck in Chicago and hitches a lift with another musician to audition for the club impresario Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham).

Isaac delivers a stunning performance. He perfectly captures Llewyn’s self centeredness and arrogance – the carelessness with which he treats women, his expectation of a free couch for the night, the constant scrounging and his mocking of other musicians – without ever losing our sympathy. The circularity of his life is beautifully evoked by the Coen brothers’ clever framing of the narrative.

Although the mood of Inside Llewyn Davis is predominantly melancholic, echoed in the film’s soundtrack and lyrics, there is also plenty of humour. This is largely down to a terrific array of characters, all with their own obsessions and flaws, and an hilarious sub-plot involving a ginger cat. As well as glorious cameos from Driver, Mulligan and Timberlake, other star turns include John Goodman as Roland Turner, an obnoxious jazz man permanently off his head, and an off-screen contribution from associate music producer, Marcus Mumford, who duets with Isaac on one number.

What’s so poignant about Llewyn’s failure to hit the big time is that he’s not a bad musician. He’s evidently talented and obsessively committed to his art but is just not getting the breaks he needs. The surprise success of ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ adds insult to injury but just when we think nothing can save him, the appearance of a young Bob Dylan (Benjamin Pike), in the film’s closing moments, offers a glimmer of hope for Llewyn’s future career.

DVD release 26 May

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Theatre review – Incognito

Posted by lucypopescu on May 24, 2014

IncognitoNick Payne’s terrific new play explores the nature of existence and how memories help to define us. He perceptively interweaves three loosely connected stories and is well-served by a first-rate cast.

The first strand follows the fortunes of Thomas Stolz Harvey, the real-life American pathologist who performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein in 1955. Thomas steals the brain in order to carry out a series of tests and so, he convinces himself, advance scientific knowledge. The second story begins in England in the 50s and focuses on a young epileptic, Henry who, after brain surgery, can’t remember anything for more than a minute and is stuck in the moment just before the operation as he prepares to go on honeymoon with his beloved wife Margaret. The final story, set in the present day, involves Martha, a recently divorced, neuropsychologist, and her attempts to find love and stability.

Payne poses a number of interesting questions, not all of which are answered. At one point Martha suggests that the brain ‘is a storytelling machine’ that ‘builds a narrative to steady us from moment to moment but it’s ultimately an illusion’. She revels in the idea that amnesia can be liberating because ‘if you can’t remember who you are then in a way you aren’t really anyone.’

INCOGNITO is beautifully staged by Joe Murphy and the shifts between scene and location are presented like changes in thought. It’s also superbly performed by Paul Hickey, Amelia Lowdell, Alison O’Donnell and Sargon Yelda, who take on various parts and an impressive range of accents.

There are no changes of costume and it’s an artful device to have us work at remembering who is which character and when, so we become aware of how our memory functions as the play progresses (as well as the actors’ craft). The stories and connections are gradually revealed like pieces of a jigsaw. This is theatre at its best; gloriously intelligent, funny, poignant, and enlightening. Unmissable and fully deserving of a West End transfer.

At the Bush Theatre until 21 June 2014

Review originally published by Theatreworld


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Film review – Kill Your Darlings

Posted by lucypopescu on April 27, 2014

Kill your darlingsJohn Krokidas’s ambitious debut feature is about the early years of the hedonistic group of American writers who became known as the Beat Generation and the violent murder that nearly derailed their literary movement in its infancy. It’s autumn 1943, and World War II is raging, but the battlefields seem a million miles away from Columbia University where freshman Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) meets sophomore Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) for the first time.

Ginsberg is immediately drawn to Carr’s subversive energy and his love of such unorthodox writers as Henry Miller and Arthur Rimbaud. Carr, recognising a likely partner in crime, draws the naïve Ginsberg under his wing and introduces him to his older friends from St Louis – William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) – as well as the best drinking dens and jazz bars in New York.

After Ginsberg discovers Kammerer has an unhealthy sexual obsession with Carr, the two begin to compete for his affections. Carr needs Kammerer to write his essays for him and so tolerates his jealous tantrums. However, he refuses to be tied down to either and is quick to shift allegiances as and when it suits him. Carr’s easy, debonair charm also attracts new friends, like Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and his partner Edie Parker (Elizabeth Olsen).

Kill Your Darlings is at its most engaging when Krokidas slows down the frenetic pace and focuses on specific incidents. Burroughs, Carr, Ginsberg and Kerouac form a rebellious band, the Libertine Circle, dedicated to challenging the literary establishment, pushing against conventions, and dabbling in different drugs. One of the best moments in the film is when they break into the university library at night and fill the glass display cabinets with subversive, erotic and banned literature.

It’s a rite of passage for Ginsberg, in terms of sex, drugs and writing, while Carr undergoes a more sinister life-transforming experience that also proves his salvation. Kill Your Darlings is entertaining enough, but Krokidas’s attempts to recreate the unruliness of their lives feels rushed and it’s sometimes hard to process all the visual clues and signifiers he gives us.

The occasional incoherence of the narrative is redeemed by the acting. Despite looking disconcertingly youthful, Radcliffe and DeHaan both convey a smouldering intensity on screen and Hall is suitably menacing as Carr’s stalker, but Foster, Huston and Olsen’s characters are less developed and disappointingly under-used.  Like the Beatniks’ early work, Kill Your Darlings is memorable, often eloquent, but also flawed.

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