Lucy Popescu

freedom to write, review, travel…

Film review – Rams

Posted by lucypopescu on February 4, 2016

RamsRams (Hrútar, 2015), Grimur Hakonarson’s award-winning tragicomedy (disappointingly not on this year’s foreign-language Oscar list) is an affecting feature about sheep which also speaks reams about the human condition.  Hakonarson focuses on two estranged brothers who share a passion for sheep farming. Set in a remote part of Iceland, Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) and Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson) own adjacent land but have not spoken to each other in decades. They keep to themselves and avoid any form of verbal contact with one another. Wandering ewes are wordlessly returned if they stray onto each other’s land. When forced to communicate, Gummi’s sheepdog is employed to convey their hastily scribbled messages. Women are noticeably absent from their farms and, over time, the men have grown as shaggy and unkempt as their sheep.

Every year there is fierce competition among the farming community to win the coveted prize for best bred ram. There is bitter disappointment when one brother’s pride and joy beats the other’s ram by half a point – both are from the same ancient lineage. Hakonarson is quick to exploit the comic elements of the brother’s rivalry: Gummi and Kiddi are instantly recognisable as siblings, sharing the same taste in jumpers and bushy beards. They are both stupidly proud of their rams, lovingly tending and grooming them, and similarly stubborn in the face of adversity.

Things come to a head when Gummi discovers that Kiddi’s herd has scrapie (a deadly and highly infectious disease). Attempting to contain the outbreak, the local vets immediately order the farmers in the valley to slaughter their livestock, burn the contaminated fodder, disinfect the sheds, and leave the land to rest for two years. The news is devastating for all concerned, the compensation inadequate, and many in the community realise they will have to abandon their traditional livelihoods. Kiddi takes to the bottle, his resentment against his mildly-mannered brother escalates, and threatens to end in bloodshed. In one scene Kiddi is so drunk that he falls unconscious in the snow outside Gummi’s farmhouse. Gummi picks up his brother in the front loader of his tractor and transports him, in this undignified manner, to the nearest hospital. Only when Kiddi discovers that Gummi has surrendered to his own weakness is there the possibility of a truce between them.

Like Benedikt Erlingsson’s acclaimed Of Horses and Men (2013), the Icelandic landscape provides a dramatic backdrop to Rams, and the opportunity for stunning tableaux beautifully shot by Sturla Brandth Grøvle, while the harsh, changeable weather serves as a formidable foe for both brothers and sheep. Hakonarson’s script offers an interesting take on the old adage that blood is thicker than water and his denouement is genuinely unexpected. Although shot through with humour, Rams is undeniably bleak. Don’t let that put you off. It’s captivating and one of the freshest films you will see all year.

Originally published by

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Book review – Under the Udala Trees

Posted by lucypopescu on February 4, 2016

Udala TreesChinelo Okparanta’s remarkable debut novel tackles big issues. It begins with a powerful indictment of Nigeria’s ethnic tensions and the violence of the Biafran war, and continues as a compelling meditation on a patriarchal, God-fearing society and the brutal suppression of same-sex relationships.

Under the Udala Trees is also timely. In January 2014, Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s then president, approved legislation criminalising gay groups and public shows of same-sex affection. It was already illegal to have gay sex in Nigeria but now same-sex couples face up to 14 years in prison. In the northern states, the punishment is death by stoning.

The novel follows the fortunes of Ijeoma, an Igbo girl from south-east Nigeria. After her father is killed during the Biafran war, 11-year-old Ijeoma is sent by her grieving mother to live with a family friend, a grammar-school teacher and his wife. Ijeoma becomes their house girl. In return, the couple promise to fund her education once the war is over. There Ijeoma meets Amina, an orphaned Hausa girl, whom she persuades to share the “hovel” that is her bedroom and to work alongside her.


The two girls fall in love. When their relationship is discovered, they are forced to part and, on returning to her mother’s new home in Aba, Ijeoma has to endure interminable Bible sessions aimed at proving that their act of love was an “abomination”. Her mother has her own interpretation of Lot’s story from the Book of Genesis, in which he offers his two virgin daughters to the men of Sodom to protect his guests, two (male) angels. “Everybody knows what lesson we should take from that story,” claims Ijeoma’s mother. “Man must not lie with man, and if man does, man will be destroyed.” Ijeoma protests: “It couldn’t have been because they were selfish and inhospitable and violent?”

Okparanta’s novel is a denunciation of intransigent religiosity. A narrow reading of the Bible, she suggests, is partly to blame for Nigeria’s vicious treatment of the gay community. In an endnote, she refers to the 2012 WIN-Gallup International Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism, in which Nigeria ranks as the second most religious country after Ghana.

In Aba Ijeoma encounters Ndidi, a confident young schoolteacher, who rekindles her desire. Ndidi introduces her to a group of fellow lesbians who meet clandestinely in a nightclub — ironically housed in a church. But after she witnesses a terrible act of violence, Ijeoma is also torn between following her heart and tradition.Okparanta also underlines how superstition can determine the course of ordinary lives. When Ijeoma and Amina are later sent to the same boarding school they attempt to revive their relationship; after experiencing a vivid nightmare, Amina deserts Ijeoma and, following convention, marries a fellow Hausa. Years later it is an equally potent dream that causes Ijeoma to leave her husband and risk public opprobrium. Describing a mother’s reaction to a baby born with a harelip, Ijeoma reflects: “More than likely he would be left to perish, unwanted and unloved. Because this was the nature of such things, of anything that was outside the norm. They were labelled with such words as ‘curse’ and wasn’t it wise to keep curses at bay?”

Nigerian-born, Okparanta emigrated to the US with her family at the age of 10. Her experiences informed the short stories in her first book, Happiness Like Water; one of the stories, “America”, was shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing. Under the Udala Trees confirms her talent, recalling the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in its powerful interweaving of the personal and the political. Okparanta’s simple, direct prose is interspersed with the language of allegory and folklore and is scattered with biblical references. The dizzying scope of her storytelling keeps you gripped to the end.

Originally published by the Financial Times

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Theatre Review – 4000 Days

Posted by lucypopescu on January 30, 2016

imgresIn Peter Quilter’s warm-hearted play about love and memory loss, Michael (Alistair McGowan) has been in a coma for three weeks. He’s watched over in hospital by Carol (Maggie Ollerenshaw), his widowed mother, and Paul (Daniel Weyman), his loyal partner. It’s quickly evident that Carol and Paul don’t get on.

On waking, Michael realises that 4,000 days of his memory have been erased. He recalls nothing of his 10-year relationship with Paul. Carol can barely hide her delight.

Dismayed, Paul sets about trying to resurrect their memories together. He plays their favourite CDs, brings in photographs and mementos and even arranges for a decade’s worth of Guardian papers to be delivered to the hospital room.

We learn that their time together has been far from ideal. Like any couple, they bickered. More damagingly, Paul had crushed Michael’s love of painting, encouraging him instead to take a job in insurance. “You painted him beige,” says Carol accusingly.

Michael sets about reclaiming his love of art by painting an ambitious mural in his hospital room. Gradually, Paul realises that if he loves Michael he has to let him go and allow him to start over.

Part of the joy of Matt Aston’s assured, slow-burning production are the three nuanced performances.

Ollerenshaw conveys Carol’s loneliness masked by a sharp tongue, McGowan is at his best when delivering Michael’s caustic one-liners and Wyman invests Paul with a terrific combination of devotion, hurt and bluster. Recommended.

Park 200 until 13 February
020 7870 6876 

Originally published in Camden Review

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Book Review – And Yet

Posted by lucypopescu on January 25, 2016

AN88540429And Yet by ChristThis final collection of essays is an eclectic mix of Christopher Hitchens’ literary criticism and his polemics on religion and politics, interspersed with some of his more humorous work. It’s an apt title for his swansong.

Had Hitchens led a cleaner life he might still be entertaining us today. And yet … it was perhaps his desire to live life to the full that fed his wit, cynicism and clarity of thought.

If you read the collection in the wake of the festive period, “The True Spirit of Christmas” (published posthumously in The Wall Street Journal) is particularly resonant. Well-known for his antitheism, Hitchens dreamed of writing “just one definitive, annihilating anti-Christmas column” that would run every December.

He never managed this, but the following passage perfectly summarises a secularist’s despair about “living for four weeks in the atmosphere of a one-party state … the same songs and music played everywhere, all the time. The same uniform slogans and exhortations, endlessly displayed and repeated. The same sentimental stress on the sheer joy of having a Dear Leader to adore.”

Displaying his trademark wit, and a rare humility, are Hitchens’ three pieces on “The Limits of Self-Improvement”. Hitchens checks into a health spa, only to conclude: “The trouble with bad habits is that they are mutually reinforcing … exercise is a pastime only for those who are already slender and physically fit.”

Persuaded by his Vanity Fair colleagues, Hitchens also attempts to quit smoking. He visits an Allen Carr-style guru and observes: “Sit me down across a table with an ashtray and a bottle on it, and cue the other person to make an argument and I am programmed by the practice of a lifetime to take a contrary position.”

Hitchens lived in Washington DC for almost three decades and wrote memorable pieces on US politics and foreign policy. He’s also capable of thoughtful, restrained responses to emotive subjects, for instance in his 2007 essay calling for support for Ayaan Hirsi Ali after the Dutch government’s proposed withdrawal of its overseas security provision: “If a prominent elected politician of a Western country can be left undefended against highly credible threats from Islamist death squads,” he argues, “what price all of our easy babble about not ‘appeasing terrorists’?”

One cannot help but wonder what Hitchens’ response would have been to Islamic State and the current refugee crisis – his final words (from a short piece in The Nation) are telling: “Internationalism is the highest form of patriotism.”

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday 

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Theatre review – The Long Road South

Posted by lucypopescu on January 25, 2016

The Long Road SouthS­et in the American Midwest in 1965, The Long Road South focuses on a white, middle-class family and their two black domestic servants.

Andre (Cornelius Macarthy) and Grace (Krissi Bohn) have worked the summer for the Price family and want their pay so that they can head South and join the civil rights marches. Ivy (Lydea Perkins), the family’s precocious teenage daughter, doesn’t want Andre to go and will do anything to keep him there. Her mother, Carol Ann (Imogen Stubbs) is so soused in rum she can barely walk and prefers to lounge around in her slip. When confronted about her alcoholism she responds: “I don’t drink…I imbibe.”

They all await the return of Jake Price (Michael Brandon), to see if he will pay the staff their wages and let them go. But Jake has problems of his own and is in no mood to negotiate.

Paul Minx’s bittersweet drama cleverly contrasts the self-indulgence of the Price family with the hard-working lives of God-fearing Andre and his girlfriend Grace, an articulate activist and budding writer. However, Minx concentrates on his characters’ personal passions rather than developing a more political perspective, which is a shame. Much of the play’s humour comes from Carol Ann’s drunken antics, exploited with gusto by Stubbs, and Ivy’s self-conscious attempts at seducing Andre.

Apart from an ineffectual fight scene between the two men, Sarah Berger’s production is well-paced and there is much to admire in the script and fiery performances.

King’s Head Theatre until January 30
0207 226 8561

Originally published by the Islington Tribune


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Book review – Laurus

Posted by lucypopescu on January 25, 2016

LaurusLaurus, the second novel by Russian writer Eugene Vodolazkin, has a vivid sense of time and place, as you might expect from an author who is also an expert in medieval history. Interweaving an impressive array of images, stories, parables and superstitions, Vodolazkin builds a convincing portrait of 15th-century Europe, a God-fearing place riven by disease and hardship. Yet he also conveys a very contemporary sense of the contingency of identity and of the malleability of time. Little wonder that he has been compared to Umberto Eco, whose The Name of the Rose (1980) cleverly melded postmodern sensibilities with a medieval setting.

The book’s eponymous hero is a healer who, in the course of his life, becomes a pilgrim, holy fool and hermit; in each of the four sections, he takes on a new identity. He is born in Rus in 1440 and christened Arseny. After losing his parents to the plague, he is raised by his grandfather, a herbalist who teaches the boy about the healing power of plants. They enjoy a quiet, simple life, and Arseny learns to read and write.

After his grandfather’s death, 15-year-old Arseny remains in rural seclusion, serving as the village doctor. His feelings of emptiness are relieved only by the arrival of Ustina, a young woman carrying the plague. He cures her and they enjoy a brief but intense happiness until her death in childbirth. Unmarried, and wishing to keep her existence a secret because of their “living in sin”, Arseny had refused to find a midwife to help Ustina deliver the stillborn child. Grief-and guilt-stricken, he travels from village to village treating people through prayer and his healing hands.

Divine idiocy is a recurring theme in Russian literature, where the distinction between sanity and madness is deliberately blurred. On reaching Pskov, in the far west, Arseny resolves “to forget everything and live from now on as if there had been nothing in my life before, as if I had just appeared on earth right now”. He becomes a holy fool, residing in the town cemetery for 14 years — “the earthe as a bed, the heavens as a roof”. He throws stones at pious people’s houses — he can see the devils gathered outside, unable to enter — and kisses the walls of a sinner’s home, by which the exiled angels shelter. As Vodolazkin wrote in a 2013 essay, “Contemporary Russia desperately needs people who can pelt devils with stones, but even more, it needs those who can talk with angels.” Perhaps the jury that awarded Laurus Russia’s prestigious Big Book Prize in 2013 felt the same.

Throughout the novel there is an impending sense of doom. Many of the characters Arseny encounters believe that the apocalypse is nigh. One of those attempting to calculate the exact date is Ambrogio, a young Italian whose passion for history is matched by his startling visions of the future. Ambrogio meets Arseny in Pskov and they become travelling companions on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Sharing an emotional and intellectual bond, they survive encounters with highwaymen, a trek through the Alps and a storm at sea.

As an old man, Arseny, now named Laurus, muses that “life resembles a mosaic that scatters into pieces”. Vodolazkin’s work is a similar montage of scenes. Humanity, history and culture collide, observed from different perspectives. He also writes with wry humour about his fellow countrymen. “You Russians really like talking about death,” a merchant chides Arseny and Ambrogio, “And it distracts you from getting on with your lives.”

Given such complexity, the fluidity of Lisa Hayden’s English translation is commendable. Though some readers may be deterred by the archaic flourishes and sometimes fable-like narrative, Laurus cannot be faulted for its ambition or for its poignant humanity. It is a profound, sometimes challenging, meditation on faith, love and life’s mysteries. Laurus spends his last years in a forest cave near the Rukina Quarter, his childhood home. Here, he loses all sense of time, aware only of the passing seasons; indeed, he concludes that time is discontinuous, that its “individual parts were not connected to one another, much as there was no connection between the blond little boy from Rukina Quarter . . . and the gray-haired wayfarer, almost an old man [that he now is]”. The sense of fracture is reflected in Vodolazkin’s style, which blends archaisms, modern slang and passages from medieval texts.

Originally published by the Financial Times

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Theatre review – African Gothic

Posted by lucypopescu on January 25, 2016

imgresIn South African Reza de Wet’s gruesome drama Sussie (Janna Fox) and Frikkie (Oliver Gomm) live on a derelict farm with their black nanny, Alina (Lesley Ewen).

Their parents are long dead and so are their crops. The incestuous pair sleep most of the day and when awake share memories and stories, playing out key scenes from their childhood.

The pair’s routine is interrupted by the arrival of Grove (Adam Ewan), a lawyer who has come to inform them of the death of an aunt and their inheritance.

Unnerved by their feral and infantile existence, Grove tries to leave. But strangely, his car won’t start and the phone line is dead. After attempting to reach the nearest farm across terrain populated by jackals, he decides to wait for daybreak with Sussie and Frikkie. The siblings circle their prey like wild animals and we know there’s going to be a violent denouement.

Although the pair’s explosive emotions lack subtlety, de Wet brilliantly elucidates the dehumanising effects of isolation.

Nancy Surman’s terrific set evokes a dilapidated farm in the midst of a drought. The Park’s studio feels suitably hot and oppressive, adding to the claustrophobic atmosphere.

De Wet’s gothic horror tackles big subjects – incest, child abuse and superstition, as well as the decline of Afrikaaner dominance – perhaps too many to absorb in just 80 minutes.


Box office: 020 7870 6876

Originally published by Camden Review

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Film review – Mia Madre

Posted by lucypopescu on December 27, 2015

mia madre
Italian auteur Nanni Moretti (The Son’s Room) is well known for his bittersweet explorations of love, loss and mortality. Mia Madre (2015), his beautiful, humane portrait of bereavement is his best yet. Film director Margherita (Margherita Buy) finds it hard to accept that her mother Ada (Giulia Lazzarini) is dying. Ada has been hospitalised with an enlarged heart and yearns to go home. Margherita and her brother Giovanni (Moretti) can’t bear to tell her that there’s nothing more that can be done. Margherita envies Giovanni’s composure after he calmly decides to leave his job in order to spend the last weeks with his mother unhampered. Instead, she seeks solace in her work.

Margherita’s latest film is about striking factory workers and their attempts to save their jobs. John Turturro plays the entrepreneur who is responsible for laying them off. Turturro’s character, Barry Huggins, is a self-absorbed, Hollywood actor unable to remember his lines. He drives Margherita to distraction but also diverts her attention from her mother’s weakening state. Huggins acts as a foil to Margherita and his buffoonery helps leaven the pathos.

In the film within the film, Margherita’s steely side is revealed as she berates her crew for their choice of extras and rails at Huggins for not being able to speak his lines at the same time as driving a car. Margherita on set is completely different from Margherita by her mother’s bedside, although in one memorable exchange her anxieties spill over into frustration at Ada. However, it’s the personal, rather than the political, that is Moretti’s main focus and this is evident in the intensity of the hospital scenes contrasted with the increasingly emotional vacuity of the film set.

As much as it is a profound meditation on mortality, Mia Madre is about Margherita’s existential crisis, revealed in her interactions with those she is closest to: The mother she is terrified of losing, the boyfriend she dumps so coldly, the brother she comes increasingly to rely on and the love for her daughter Livia (Beatrice Mancini) whom, she realises, she has neglected. Throughout Margherita’s subconscious anxieties are brilliantly visualised by Moretti in his use of flashback and, in one scene, are given an extra layer of meaning by a Leonard Cohen anthem.

Those who have experienced the loss of a parent will immediately connect with Mia Madre. Others will be moved by Moretti’s sensitive treatment of a difficult subject. Losing a loved one often produces a sense of hyperreality. Margherita’s nightmares and memories compete with reality; often the boundaries are deliberately blurred and she is left questioning all that she thinks she knows. Buy delivers a winning performance as a woman bereft, on the edge, and this is perfectly complemented by Turturro’s exuberant comic turn.

Originally published by


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Book Review – The Horse

Posted by lucypopescu on December 3, 2015

the horseIn her engaging, comprehensive study of equine evolution, the science journalist Wendy Williams combines a love of horses with a keen interest in natural history. Fossils and cave drawings demonstrate that an emotional bond between horses and humans existed long ago. Williams suggests that the domestication of horses “became the foundation on which human civilisation was built”. For horses allowed our ancestors to traverse vast stretches of land more swiftly than they could on foot.

Travelling across continents to talk to equine ethologists, palaeontologists, animal behaviourists and fellow horse-lovers, Williams discovers that the modern horse is descended from 56-million-year-old ancestors, “dawn horses” with three toes. Fossils suggest that they resembled dogs. With regard to Darwin’s theory of evolution, Williams claims that these tiny animals became bigger and faster over time not as a form of progress but “because the world around them changed. Tectonic plates collided. Ocean currents shifted. Mountains rose. Mountains eroded. The world became hot. The world became cold.”

Williams is fascinated by the evolutionary resilience of horses. Why did they develop only one toe – four hooves? This increased their speed, enabling them to escape predators but, more importantly, Williams believes, it allowed them to travel further in search of fresh fodder once the planet warmed and grass plains began to flourish.

A horse’s teeth are just as important for providing crucial information about their adaptability. Fossils and tooth fragments show us the changes in their diet and lifestyle.  As their teeth got larger, reflecting their increased grass consumption, the position of their eyes also changed, moving closer to the ears.

Interspersed with the research are Williams’s musings on her own horses: Whisper, who learns to open his stable door with his lips and turn on the water tap with his hoof; and her trusty workhorse, Gray, who, one day, sees a monster instead of a pony and buggy and bolts. She debunks a few myths along the way – it is the mares, rather than the stallions, who make the major decisions in the small bands of horses that continue to roam freely on this planet – and offers gems of trivia that support the evolutionary science. Why do France’s Camargue horses have grey coats? Because lighter hair protects them from the horseflies that proliferate in the hot humid region they inhabit. While the Garranos of Galicia have moustaches to help protect their lips from the tough gorse they thrive on.

It is such delightful snippets of information that ensure The Horse, a historical and “scientific travelogue”, is such an accessible read and a gift for horse lovers.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday

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Posted by lucypopescu on December 3, 2015

DianaIn Diana and Beyond, Raka Shome, a cultural studies scholar, analyses media images of Princess Diana and other privileged white women in the Global North, and demonstrates how they have become linked to issues of nation and national identity. Her main contention is that representations of white femininity often “produce new, or rearticulate old, formations of racism and classism”. She examines the relation between white femininity, particularly that represented by Diana, and the nation, in the context of Labour’s New Britain. Shome believes Diana and Blair’s government found “symbolic strength in each other”. Exploring the intersection of fashion and white femininity, she claims that a false image of a multicultural, Asian-friendly Britain emerged when Diana and Cherie Blair were photographed wearing saris during specific moments aimed at promoting cultural cohesion.

When Diana is positioned as a maternal figure in photographs, Shome argues, she is made to glow, allowing her to be presented as “the best mother the world has ever seen, the model we should all follow”. When she is photographed with the undernourished children of the Global South, “the camera angles and lighting are often organised to inspire awe and stature towards her body while the bodies of the native children are visually diminished”.

Shome also examines the representation of white female celebrities who, after adopting children from underprivileged parts of the world, are lauded as “global mothers”, as bringing light to the “dark continent”. Shome argues that “this obscures the real reasons children are abandoned or deprived in the Global South”.

Images of white femininity are often used to “contain and pathologize the Muslim man and render him a threat to the nation”, as exemplified by the hype surrounding Diana’s love affair with Dodi Fayed. Shome suggests that media representations of the Fayeds served to reinforce age-old motifs: “the trope of the play-boy sheikh, the theme of perverse Muslim male sexuality, and the madness of Muslim men”.

She claims the 1990s were not a particularly propitious time for Muslims. However, I disagree that the Rushdie affair, and the response to what was clearly a free expression issue, “expressed a fundamental fear and loathing that the British society already had towards Muslims”. Furthermore, Shome incorrectly labels Victoria Beckham as upper-class. Class is a loaded term in Britain. Beckham is privileged by money and her celebrity status, not by birth.

Otherwise, this is a valuable study of white femininity and how it impacts on geopolitical and global currents.

Originally published by the TLS

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