Tuesday, February 27, 2018


Review by © Jane Freebury

This lovely, low-key, authentic tale of coming-of-age from Greta Gerwig, one of the most talented actresses in US indie cinema, has its own particular shock value. Awful behavior and poor attitudes are par for the course when teens behave badly. Here the shocks arise from angry arguments that seem to ignite in a flash, out of nowhere. On a scale of zero to ten.

Take the first scene in Lady Bird. It unspools before the credits even begin, where a mother and daughter are in the car together on a trip looking at local colleges. As the teen finds the discussion heading in a direction she rejects—that is, not endorsing her fervent wish to go to university on the enlightened east coast—she dives out the door of the moving car. We catch our breath.

Lady Bird is a loosely autobiographical drama, with Saoirse Ronan, the Irish actress a thoughtful choice, in the lead role as the eponymous heroine.

Writer-director Gerwig has brought excellent actors together for her film, her second as director, and inspired them to give her their best. Ronan, who has already made quite a name for herself in a long list of films, including Atonement and Brooklyn, has perfectly captured the ‘rebel without much cause’ heroine.

Little is made of the act of self-harm but we know that it wasn’t a youthful revenge fantasy, because Lady Bird appears in subsequent scenes with a jaunty pink cast on her arm. A similar striking moment of incandescent anger takes place when mother and daughter go to thrift shops to find a prom dress, though on this occasion the conflagration is quickly extinguished as they make up over a luscious, pink lace number that they both adore.

Will Lady Bird’s beau for the evening find her irresistible in this gown? Her latest, Kyle, played by Timothée Chalamet (who recently come to our attention in another coming-of-age, Call Me by Your Name), is gorgeous, but moody, self-absorbed and a bit of so-and-so. Lady Bird has only recently taken up with him since she found her former beau (Lucas Hedges, in another fine performance) on intimate terms with another boy.

If the boyfriends disappoint, the break-ups may have been lucky escapes, in fact, from the lie Lady Bird that she told each of them about herself, by not owning up to her ‘wrong side of the tracks’ background. It’s not only boyfriends she deceives, either. She has kept her struggling family a secret from the new best friend, also from a wealthy family.

If prom night doesn’t work out the way Lady Bird hoped and imagined, it becomes at least a watershed moment in which she realises which relationships really matter to her.

The problem for Lady Bird is that she would desperately rather be anywhere but Sacramento, in northern California, which is for her the ‘mid-west’ and all that implies. That’s too bad, when it seems her parents have her best interests at heart, supporting her in her senior year at a private Catholic school.
Unfortunately, the stakes have just risen because her programmer dad (Tracey Letts), has lost his job in IT and her mum (Laurie Metcalfe) has to double up on her shifts at the hospital, nursing in psych ward. Tracey Letts and Laurie Metcalfe are both convincing as the long-suffering parents, Larry and Marion, with Metcalfe outstanding.

Anywhere but here. It is the adolescent catch-cry, and it strikes a chord with everyone. Having discarded her given name Christine, she had insisted that everyone at home and at school address her as Lady Bird.

Gerwig has revealed that the name isn’t a reference to a former first lady, ‘Lady Bird’ Johnson, but drawn from a rather sinister little nursery rhyme ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’. Intriguing, but difficult to explain, as the ditty seems to speak to her mum Marion best of all.

Lady Bird is essentially about mothers and daughters. Even though they drive each other to distraction, the bond between them is rock solid.

Gerwig has received an Academy Award directing nomination for this film. It is also in the running for best film, though it seems unlikely to win a category that tends to go for the big vision rather than the small and intimate. Let’s however not Moonlight.

Were Gerwig to win best director it would be only the second time in the history of the Oscars that a woman has won the award. Indeed, it is only the fifth time a woman has even been nominated for an Oscar in 90 years.

Rated M, 94 minutes
4.5 Stars

Also published at Jane's blog and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Oh, What A Lovely War! - Canberra Rep

Review by John Lombard

Some of the most emotional moments in “Oh, What A Lovely War!” come from a PowerPoint presentation. 

As the clowns of the Merry Roosters Pierrot Troupe cavort and blunder their way through World War I, sobering facts and statistics about the conflict are projected on the rear wall: “Average life of a machine gunner under attack on the Western Front: 4 minutes.”

Joan Littlewood’s satire of World War I tells bleak history as a vaudeville revue, using absurdity to communicate tragedy.  Director Chris Baldock and choreographer Ylaria Rogers pack the performance with an abundance of ideas, everything from human puppets getting their invisible strings tangled to homefront sirens wooing the audience to enlist.

While there were a lot of good physical ideas, they did not always tell the story effectively.  The human puppets sequence was ambitious and entertaining, but an odd choice for a scene that was about miscommunication - especially when it would have been a perfect fit for one of the scenes that explored power and manipulation.  Sometimes, the clowning felt imposed on the script rather than an attempt to express it.

Between thick accents and some poor articulation, it was hard to follow the extremely dense narrative.  The mounting miseries and follies began to blend together, with the second act becoming a sludge of grief. 

But even so the play was often very powerful.  One particular highlight was a dramatisation of the famous Christmas armistice, a moment where the comedy and grief in the play came together as something transcendent.  A short scene where spies clown and bumble before the outbreak of war also captured the play’s fusion of absurdity and menace.

The dirty Union Jack set by director Baldock was excellent, except that the crucial rear projection was tucked into a small space almost as an afterthought.  The PowerPoint itself was of a strikingly poor quality, presenting grave facts with the gloss of an apathetic high school assignment.

Helen Drum’s clown costumes quite deliberately stripped the performers of their individuality, making the performers interchangeable and disposable.  However they also displayed unique talents, whether a beautiful singing voice or acrobatic skill, and the group had tremendous energy.

Musicals are by their nature demanding, requiring performers who can sing, dance and act.  This musical makes the additional demand that the performers also be deft clowns and acrobats: inevitably the production sometimes stretched the cast beyond their skill.  The mostly young cast uniformly approached the challenges of this demanding show with a high level of commitment, and messy or cloudy actions were balanced by genuinely beautiful moments of physicality.

The melodious music in the show - much of it drawn from period songs - built a contrast between the blithe home front and the horrifying battlefield.

Baldock’s “Oh What A Lovely War!” is a production that does not quite live up to its ambition, but is still both entertaining and moving, although the japery does give way to a deep seriousness about the cost of war.  I would have loved to see more of the Australian story of the war as well, but the Aussies only get footnote mentions.  Not always an easy play to experience, but a unique concept tackled with gusto.

THE NOSE - Opera Australia

Music and Libretto by Dmitri Shostakovich
Conducted by Andrea Molino
Directed by Barrie Kosky

Set and lighting designed by Klaus Grunberg

Costumes designed by Buki Shiff

Choreographed by Otto Pichler
Sydney Opera House February 21st until March 3rd 2018

Opening night performance on 21st February reviewed by Bill Stephens

Martin Winkler, Chorus and Dancers - Opera Australia's 2018 production of 
"The Nose"
“Why would anyone write an opera about a nose?” asked the Presenter (Antoinette Halloran) towards the conclusion of the performance.  Well, Dmitri Shostakovich did. He wrote an opera called “The Nose” in 1927, when he was only 20, in response to calls for the newly nationalised Soviet opera houses to update their repertoires with contemporary, topical works. Shostakovich obviously had great fun experimenting with orchestral and vocal sounds in the process and incorporated elements of music hall and circus as well as an eclectic mash-up of musical and theatrical styles including folk music, popular song and atonality in his work.

Martin Winkler (Kovalev) Sir John Tomlinson (Lakolevitch)

Drawing on a short story by Gogol for his libretto, “The Nose” follows the surreal adventures of an unfortunate public servant, Kovalev (Martin Winkler), whose nose is inadvertently shaved off by his careless barber, Lakolevitch (Sir John Tomlinson).  When Kovalev discovers that his nose is missing, he embarks on a series of surreal adventures in an effort to recover it.

Director,  Barrie Kosky,  has seized on the basic ridiculousness of Shostakovich’s premise, to have his own fun creating a riotous wet-dream of a production to push  the boundaries even further, adding chorus lines of bearded dancing girls and  tap-dancing noses to the parade of wildly improbable, hilarious characters,

Jacqueline Dark (Countess) Martin Winkler (Kovalev
Kosky’s production is playful, spectacular, deliciously subversive, and very funny.  Klaus Grunberg’s impressive grey setting provides the perfect foil for Buki Shiff's extraordinary and colourful costumes designs, and choreographer, Otto Pichler has dreamed up some weird and wonderful choreography which perfectly complements Kosky’s idiosyncratic direction.

A co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Berlin’s Komische Oper, “The Nose” requires a cast of more than 20 principal singers, 80 named solo parts, a chorus of singers and dancers and considerable orchestral forces, and while the production makes considerable demands on its participants, the cast embrace them obvious relish.

Sir John Tomlionson (Lakolevitch) Antoinette Halloran (Praskovia Osipovna)  
 Opera Australia has pulled out the big guns for the season, providing an all-star Australian cast, together with some of the original London cast, including Martin Winkler as the unfortunate Kovalev and Sir John Tomlinson as the careless barber, Lakolevitch.  Alexander Lewis, who made such an impression earlier this year in “The Merry Widow”, confirms that impression performing, among other characters, the Nose itself, the role he originated in the original London production.

Apart from Winkler as Kovalev, Jacqueline Dark as the red-wigged Countess, and Clifford Plumpton as the Cabby, everyone else plays multiple roles. Although this tends to become a little confusing as the opera progresses, any confusion quickly dissipates as the action becomes more and more preposterous.

Eva Kong and Sian Pendry 
Sian Pendry and Eva Kong, startlingly costumed as Podtotschina  and  her daughter ,  Antoinette Halloran, unrecognisable as the vicious Praskovia Osipovna  who discovers the nose in her bread mixture,  Kanen Breen as the district Police Inspector, and Gennadi Dubinsky, Adrian Tamburini, Warwick Fyfe , Benjamin Rasheed, Annabelle Chaffey and Dean Bassett, all revelling in a variety of bizarre characterisations,  impress with their ability to sing complex harmonies, while nailing the exaggerated acting style required. 

Having a penis attached to his face is only one of the endless indignities endured by Martin Winkler’s  hapless Kovalev ,  in a remarkable performance in which his superb singing combined with an innate ability to imbue his character with unexpected humanity, insured that Kovalev  remained the central focus amid the chaos surrounding him.

Similarly impressive was the way, in a number of roles, Sir John Tomlinson drew on his charismatic stage presence and consummate vocal skills to underline his complete mastery of Shostakovich’s extraordinary vocal colorations. 

Martin Winkler - Sir John Tomlinson and Chorus 
 While the spectacular  visual components of the production sometimes threatened  to distract from the music, another remarkable aspect of Kosky’s direction was the attention  he paid to insuring that  the impetus for all the action was driven by  Shostakovich’s remarkable score which was given a thrilling performance by Opera Australia Orchestra  responding the inspired direction of Maestro Molino.

Presented for a very limited number of performances, “The Nose” provides an extraordinary and memorable operatic experience.  While not everyone who sees it will enjoy the experience, for most, the rare opportunity to experience this brilliant realisation of an entertaining and rarely performed opera, is one to cherish for a lifetime. Thank you Opera Australia.

Martin Winkler - Alexander Lewis and company.

All Photos by Prudence Upton

This review also published in Australian Arts Review. www.artsreview.com.au

Saturday, February 24, 2018


By Theatre Workshop, Charles Chilton, Gerry Raffles and Members of the Original Cast
Directed by Chris Baldock
Canberra REP production at Theatre 3 to 10 March

Reviewed by Len Power 23 February 2018

Developed by Joan Littlewood and her ensemble at the Theatre Workshop in London’s East End in 1963, ‘Oh What A Lovely War!’ presents World War 1 as a theatre war game by a troupe of comic performers.  Littlewood, who detested the colour khaki and other military trappings, decided on the use of pierrot costumes for the company.  The costumes were to provide an ironic contrast with the more realistic hats and props of the war era.

There was nothing funny about World War 1 and any production of this play treads a fine line between making fun of the war and the shocking death toll to point up the absolute horror of it all.  Director, Chris Baldock’s troupe of mostly young actors performs a rough and ready sketch version of the war, playing multiple characters and singing songs of the era.

Unfortunately, in spite of a director who’s shown he can do dazzling work in the past and an enthusiastic, bright group of performers who work at a frantic pace, this production is a puzzling disappointment.

Maybe the play itself is past its use by date.  It feels too long and laboured with some scenes continuing on well after we’ve got the point.  The set designed by the director lacks atmosphere and it was tiresome watching the two ugly towers being moved about awkwardly.

There seems to be no reason, other than as a nod to the original production, for the wearing of pierrot costumes which are derived from Commedia dell’arte and pantomime and usually indicate a certain playing style.  Here, the costumes and makeup just give the cast a bland look and remove any chance of individuality in performance.

To explain the progress of the war, the cast play a multitude of nationalities and heads of state using distinguishing hats and other items.  They shout too much and their diction isn’t clear enough to catch everything that is being said and we’re often not certain who they are representing.

A moment in the show that worked well was the Christmas Eve scene in the trenches where the opposing sides reach out to each other and share a Christmas drink.  It works because the cast played as real people at that point, not caricatures.

Music by Ewan and his onstage orchestra was well played and sung by the cast.

This was an important play in its day but with this uninvolving production it’s hard to see why.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s ‘On Stage’ program on Mondays from 3.30pm and on ‘Artcetera’ from 9.00am on Saturdays.

Friday, February 23, 2018


Photo by Richard De Chazal

Written by Terrence McNally
Directed by Adam Spreadbury-Maher
Produced by Andrew Kay
The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre to 24 February

Reviewed by Len Power 22 February 2018

Whether you were interested in opera or not, the name Maria Callas was known to everyone in the second half of the 20th Century.  Born in New York, USA, she received her musical training in Greece.  She made her professional debut in 1941 in Athens but her operatic career was subsequently established in Italy.  Her career was over by 1965, cut short many say by a weight loss regime that affected her vocal technique.

Callas was as famous for her beauty, her temperamental behaviour during and after her career, and her affair with Aristotle Onassis, as she was for her singing and acting of the great operatic roles.  She is still one of classical music's best-selling vocalists.

Terrence McNally’s 1995 play, ‘Master Class’, presents a fictional master class at New York’s Juilliard School by opera singer Maria Callas near the end of her life in the 1970s.

As Maria Callas, Amanda Muggleton shows every facet of this fascinating woman in later life.  She’s demanding of all around her, tough and intimidating on the surface and unintentionally funny at times.  As the play progresses, we begin to see the real woman underneath – a deeply unhappy person battered by the demands of her opera career and her personal life in the international spotlight.  Muggleton is quite simply extraordinary in the role and the effect of her performance lingers long after the show is over.

Kala Gare and Amanda Muggleton - photo by Dom Northcott
The three singers – or ‘victims’, as Callas refers to them - all give fine performances, too.  The two sopranos arguably represent the early, overweight Callas and her later transformation into a stylish beauty and the sexy tenor is a symbol of the men in Callas’s life.  Kala Gare nicely plays the modern, good-looking young soprano doing her best to please Callas.  Jessica Boyd displays excellent comic timing as the over-weight soprano in a flamboyant wedding cake dress and Tomas Dalton is a handsome, super-confident young tenor who thinks his maleness and over-familiarity will win Callas over.  All three sing superbly as well.

Jessica Boyd and Amanda Muggleton - photo by Dom Northcott
Dobbs Franks, who has had a brilliant career internationally as a conductor, gives a nicely quiet performance as the piano accompanist who copes well with Callas’s demands and Ben Howlett, in the small role of a stagehand, uses body language to good comic effect to display an uncaring attitude.

Adam Spreadbury-Maher has directed the show with a clarity and simplicity of design, keeping the focus on the people.  Even if you’re not interested in opera, you’ll be as fascinated by Callas as we all were in the 20th century.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s ‘On Stage’ program on Mondays from 3.30pm and on ‘Artcetera’ from 9.00am on Saturdays.

Masterclass - Canberra Theatre Centre

Maria Callas (Amanda Muggleton) provides artistic direction

Review by John Lombard

Success in opera may require the torment of an inner demon, and Maria Callas (Amanda Muggleton) has a horde to spur her on.  As the music teacher of this Masterclass her focus is not on any drudgery such as actually teaching singing, but on inflicting inspirational torture.  For those who lack demons to drive them, she will become one.

But Maria Callas is a genial imp, her rapid changes too comic for her to feel menacing: even the students look like they are only playing at being terrified.  Amanda Muggleton is here reprising the role of Maria Callas, and is playful and comfortable in the part.  Callas is a monomaniac, unable to get a thought out of her brain unless it has first slipped through her mouth, and her diva-esque demands are always too petty for anyone to take personally.

Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher has emphasised audience involvement in this production.  The performance began with house lights up and Muggleton engaged the audience in light-hearted banter, even slipping into one of the crowded rows to directly upbraid a few fashion choices.  Muggleton trained the audience to expect feisty explosions: every time a student made a faux pas, there was a gleeful gasp from the audience anticipating the retort.

In a singing school Billy Goat's Gruff, we see Callas give lessons to three students in succession.  The first student is the adoring Sophie (a striking professional debut by Kala Gare), an adorkable soprano who lacks presence.  The second student is the gauche Sharon (Jessica Boyd), a brilliant soprano but hampered by hilarious affectation - she attends the singing lesson decked out for a ball.  The third student is a handsome and cocky tenor (Tomas Dalton), brilliant enough that he stirs Callas' grief over lost glory.

Playwright Terrence McNally's script sets a comic tone: rather than a demanding teacher breaking down and rebuilding hopefuls, the focus here is on the humour that comes from Callas not actually letting her students do any singing.  McNally also shows how Callas is trying to help them: singing isn't enough in this business, you need grit and panache as well.  If they can't get Callas to back off, they don't have a hope.

Callas does receive dark moments in the script (set to intense moments from classical opera), which focus on her tempestuous personal life.  Well-chosen black-and-white photographs projected on the background showed us the haunted eyes of the real Callas, connecting the play to the history that inspired it.

This performance had a charming coda: Muggleton apologised to members of the audience for some of the mean things her character had said, and then yielded the spotlight so the three talented singers could perform some tunes from classical opera.

The title "Masterclass" suggests a titanic battle of wills, but this play is a light, fun comedy that delves into Maria Callas' life in a means more interesting than a tribute show.  A play about a singer who can no longer sing, Masterclass relishes its ironies with brisk and lively playfulness.

Sunday, February 18, 2018


Photography by Emily Hanna www.eshphotography.com.au

Shakespeare by the Lakes. Directed by Duncan Driver and Lexi Sekuless. Tuggeranong Town Park on February 14 and 15, Glebe Park in Civic on February 16, QEII Park in Queanbeyan on February 17. 6.30pm.

Out door theatre can be a fraught business. In 1961 as a teenage Gertrude on the steps of the War Memorial in Sydney I found myself lunging for a mike on a stand every time I had a line. Things weren’t much better in 1980 at Leeds University doing Eurydice in an outdoor Antigone, although I think the courtyard acoustics meant we could do without mikes. (And the skinheads who haunted the dress rehearsal…)

From what I saw down at Tuggeranong technology has come a long way and except for the occasional pop and crackle the unobtrusive head mikes so long used by musical theatre supported the performance in a positive way in an flat outdoor venue that shows how much has been forgotten about ancient Greek theatre acoustics. (Go to Epidaurus and sit up the back while the guide talks quietly down on the performance area…) 

Shakespeare by the Lakes largely got the measure of the problems, and came up with a genially intelligent version of Much Ado About Nothing. A largish audience sat on the grass or on chairs at the back and was happy to have their space invaded by the odd cast member. especially since such invasions were gentle and unforced and very much part of the play.

Directors Lexi Sekuless and Duncan Driver headed the cast as Beatrice and Benedict making the most of the duo’s avoidance of what everyone else could see about their relationship. The Watch needed more of a sense of being a group and Helen McFarlane’s Dogberry could have used some toning down so that the full humour of the malapropisms came through. But she made a most enjoyably villainous Don John.

Hero can be played as a bit of a Muriel and Jo Richards went down this path with some energy. It’s always a wonder why she finally marries a man like Claudio  Izaac Beach) who is so ready to jump to the wrong conclusion. Beach conveyed an alarming youthful immaturity. But the play does not linger on their relationship.

Support from the rest of the cast was relaxed and focussed, with the play’s songs and some music for ambience gently done by musician Sunny Amoreena and her band and the whole thing finished up quite rightly with a jig. And if the Thursday night Tuggeranong crowd is anything to go by there’s a real appetite for more such events.

Alanna Maclean

MAMMA MIA - Capitol Theatre, Sydney

Alicia Gardiner - Natalie O'Donnell - Jayde Westaby

Photo: James D Morgan

Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus
Book by Catherine Johnson
Directed by Gary Young
Choreographed by Tom Hodgson
Musical Direction by Michael Azzopardi

Capitol Theatre, Sydney until 6th May 2018

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Australia has a love affair with the music of ABBA. We just can’t get enough of it. The stage productions of “Muriel’s Wedding”, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”, and of course “Mamma Mia!” all feature largely the same songs from these composers. Audiences, largely motivated by memories of how these songs reflect key moments in their own lives, flock to hear these songs again and again.  However, the magic of “Mamma Mia” is the wit with which the familiar songs have been interpolated into the sentimental and curiously contemporary storyline focussing on a young woman’s curiosity about the father she has never met, which motivates her to invite three possible candidates to her wedding and has the audience chuckling with delight as they recognise the cues heralding which song best suits the situation.

Director, Gary Young is perfectly aware of this, and even though his fresh, new staging of the show is at its best when the stage is given over to Tom Hodgson’s energetic choreography, he also keeps the storyline moving along neatly with a series of well-staged intimate vignettes.

Hodgson’s tightly drilled choreography provides the energetic young cast with plenty of opportunity to bust out their best party moves, and it doesn’t really matter that many of the lyrics are obscured by the clever musical arrangements. Most of the audience know these lyrics by heart anyway. But having reviewed this production in the smaller Canberra Theatre, watching it from the dress circle of the much larger Capitol Theatre, it was noticeable that on opening night much of the spoken dialogue was difficult to hear because the sound levels dipped between the songs and dialogue. No such trouble hearing the overture and entr’acte though. Both were played at ear-splitting level guaranteed to rupture a few hearing aids.

Although a little dwarfed in the Capitol Theatre, Linda Bewick’s versatile setting still looks as pretty as a picture, and Suzy Strout’s colourful costumes are perfect for a Greek island holiday. Gavan Swift has taken advantage of the bigger theatre to re-jig his lighting design to now include a spectacular rock-concert-style light show to begin the second act.

The playing of the comedy has now broadened with actors “being funny” rather than being funny as a result of the situations. Moves that previously looked like responses to the moment now look like direction. However none of this seemed to worry the Sydney opening night audience who were there for the music.

Stephen Mahy (Sky) and Sarah Morrison (Sophie)

Photo: Peter Brew Bevan

The attractive cast give it their all. Sarah Morrison and Stephen May  charm as the young prospective newly-weds, Sophie and Sky,  and Natalie O’Donnell, who played Sophie in the original Australian production of “Mamma Mia”, is now Sophie’s stressed-out mother-of-the-bride, Donna, who has her best moment in the dramatic eleven o’clock number, “The Winner Takes It All”.

Alicia Gardiner and Jayde Westaby play Donna’s best friends, Rosie and Tanya, with Westaby practically running away with the show as the glamourous cougar who takes on the cheeky Pepper (Sam Hooper) in the marvellously staged number, “Does Your Mother Know”. Ian Stenlake, Phillip Lowe and Josef Ber are a handsome trio of prospective fathers, each with a fine singing voice, and sufficient charisma to keep you wondering which really is Sophie’s errant dad.  
Sam Hooper (Pepper)  and Jade Westaby (Tanya) 
"Does Your Mother Know ?"

Photo: James D. Morgan

But in the end it doesn’t really matter because the show ends with irresistible mega-mix guaranteed to have you dancing in the aisles and humming ABBA songs for the next week.

 This review also appears in Australian Arts Review   www.artsreview.com.au


Review by © Jane Freebury

There are probably plenty of exceptions to the adage that happy endings belong in fairy tales, so it may not be fair to pin it all on the stories we tell our young kids. Lots of characters do get their just desserts, or worse, in fairy tales. Just think of the work of the Brothers Grimm.

Fairly or unfairly, the movies have long worn a reputation for stories with a happily-ever-after ending long since the practice stopped being stock in trade, and filmmakers have left the last act of their stories fashionably open, or with the next sequel in mind. Reputations do, however, have a habit of sticking…

Since Hidden, The Piano Teacher and Funny Games, we definitely have not expected a happy ending in anything directed by the filmmaker, Michael Haneke, the scion of misanthropic cinema. An Austrian with a reputation for bleak, uncompromising, brilliant films, he knows this, we get it, and he plays up to it. On this occasion his film is, however, also surprisingly wickedly funny.

For his latest film, the Cannes Palme d’Or and Oscar winner gives us the Laurent family, who live in Calais. They run a thriving business in construction that was established by the patriarch, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). They are wealthy and unremarkable.

On the face of it, Georges and his two adult children, Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and Thomas, a doctor (Mathieu Kassovitz), are pillars of society in the city by the sea. Underneath the surfaces, however, there are murky, disturbing things going on. So it’s business as usual for Haneke.

Anne’s son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) has an inconvenient drinking problem and isn’t doing a competent job at work in the family business either. The ageing patriarch Georges is developing dementia and confides in his granddaughter that he wants to die.

He had better watch out because Eve, the film’s main character, cheered on by elements she has found online, appears to be developing the characteristics of a psychopath.

A critique of social media from Haneke is timely, and consistent with the position he has taken in his films on recording devices, film and television, and mass media generally.

His view that audiences watch the screen uncritically, seems rather dated now that unpicking film texts for what they really say is common practice.

Eve has just entered the family home after her mother, Thomas’ first wife, suffered an overdose. On the brink of adolescence, she is at a tender age, but has already joined the shock troops of the Internet. She talks into her mobile about her mother in ways that give you the creeps, and then observes the effects of antidepressants on her pet hamster. It is a stunning, chilling performance from young Fantine Harduin.

The Laurent family drama plays out against real-life events in Calais, which is, of course, the last stop before the tunnel to England. There is a large encampment there known as ‘the jungle’, a way-station for refugees from Africa and the Middle East. While not foregrounding this situation, writer-director Haneke has deftly inserted the plight of refugees into the narrative tapestry.

French cinema has a long and venerable tradition of shocking the bourgeoisie that Austrian writer-director has gleefully and energetically signed up to. The family event that concludes the film truly is a gem. It takes place at an elegant restaurant beside a sparkling sea, with a palette uniformly white, beige and pale blue—until unexpected guests arrive. This also provides cover for the elderly guest of honour to leave.

This is a clever, dark satire but what has endeared me to  Michael Haneke's latest film most is the black humour.

If it is, as they say, that the only thing that improves with age is one’s sense of humour, then at 75 years Haneke must be at his peak.

Rated M, 1 hour 47 minutes

4 Stars

Also published at Jane's blog, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7