Tea with Sir Terry

The higher up the ladder of notoriety you go, the nicer the interviewee tends to be. The rule was cast in iron when I had the honour, privilege and career coup of sitting down for a long and absorbing chat with Irish broadcasting titan Terry Wogan. The news of his death this morning has flooded me with memories of that day. Of his grace and hospitality at his hillside home that summer morning in 2011. Of there being seemingly no ice to be broken between us as he greeted me like an old friend. Of his extraordinary generosity of spirit that made the following Sunday Independent feature a doddle to write up. I left with a jaw sore from bellylaughs and a mind happily processing what incredible people we have in our world. 

As 2016 continues to fell our brightest and best of popular culture, Wogan’s death marks an end to a golden age of Anglo-Irish broadcasting, an era of effortless charm and wit, oak-aged diction and class without the crass. 

To Helen and his family, my sincere condolences. HW

***

ON THE horizon, the turrets and battlements of Windsor Castle are unmistakable from the back garden of Sir Terry Wogan’s home. The sun is warming the Maidenhead fields and Wogan himself is apologising for the distant roar of overhead planes. “We’ll hold it,” he says pointing at the dictaphone and waiting. “What happens is they go over the Queen first and then they come over us.”

He doesn’t say if the pilots at Heathrow make a point of passing over the area’s most eminent residents, but the ubiquitous Wogan would certainly qualify were it the case. Even since his emotional retirement from his vastly adored BBC Radio 2 morning show in 2009, the 73-year-old finds himself unable to stay away from Broadcasting House.

“I’m sort of running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” he says with the first of many soft chuckles, “because ever since I gave up the morning thing life has become much more haphazard. You find yourself doing more casual stuff.” “Casual”, in this case, infers going back to the Auld Sod last summer to shoot Terry Wogan’s Ireland, commuting from there to London every Saturday for his hugely subscribed Sunday radio slot and planning more television documentaries such as an upcoming one about his beloved PG Wodehouse.

“So life still goes on, as it were,” he says of his so-called retirement. He goes on to say that he’s also fitter now than he has been for many years following some long overdue reconstructive knee surgery for an ancient rugby injury. He now walks and swims each day and no longer suffers from the chest and sinus problems exacerbated by years and years of 5.15am starts.

Wogan is not one for regrets though, nor was there ever an early morning when he thought “I could do without this today”. He puts this work ethic down to his education and upbringing – “good old Irish bourgeois and Jesuit discipline”. “It’s my job, it’s what I did. When I used to come across to do Late Night Extra years and years ago in the late sixties, sometimes twice a week, from Dublin, I used to stay with my close friends the Brownings. Although they never said it directly to me, I used to get on their nerves a little bit because I was too cheerful in the morning.”

This self-confessed “cheery disposition” is probably what lifted Limerick’s favourite son out of his brief tenure as a bank clerk in Dublin, into the fledgling RTE studios and then on to the BBC and broadcasting aristocracy. On radio, Wogan created a tone and style all his own, where cheeky prods were exchanged daily between the affable presenter and his legions of TOGs (Terry’s Old Geezers/Gals), who supplied him with comically masterful prose and verse. The Eurovision Song Contest’s descent into gimmickry and farce was also given a similar treatment during Wogan’s 37 years as the Beeb’s commentator/piss-taker-in-chief.

“I came over here and found there was far too much sycophancy going on,” he recalls. “People on the radio saying things like ‘we love your show’ etc. That’s not the way friends behave. Friends are more likely to tell you you’ve got a spot on your nose or you dress like the Pope’s mother or something like that. So that’s what I tried to generate, a kind of mutual badinage between us that was good natured.”

The result was a daily audience that was nearly twice the population of his country of origin, and made Wogan the one to beat in European broadcasting.

He wouldn’t be nearly brash and confrontational enough to make a career of it these days, he feels. “I was following in the footsteps of great broadcasters like Eamonn Andrews,” he reasons. “He wasn’t by any standards a fantastic broadcaster – great commentator and good presenter – but what he had was decency. And the British public responded to that because they knew they were dealing with an honest and straight-forward man. Possibly that kind of thing is a bit devalued now. You have to be of your time and I was lucky.”

Then there’s that voice. In the flesh, without filter or microphone, Wogan’s silken, sing-song purr is still a wondrous thing to behold, even when all he happens to be discussing is how many sugars my coffee requires (“Have some more. Sugar’s very good for you. I like sugar and salt. Stuff like that”). Like Morgan Freeman’s, it has a comforting quality to it, like happening across the theme tune to your favourite childhood TV show, or slipping into a warm bath.

He didn’t get to see any of “Jedward’s foolishness” at this year’s Eurovision, preferring to watch the tennis instead, but did spare a thought for “poor old Graham Norton” (“He has to go to Azerbaijan next year. They’ll probably put him up in a Yurt!”). Another Irishman, I posit.

“Well isn’t it strange? First there was Eamonn Andrews. Then there was Gay [Byrne] for a little bit – he decided to come back to Ireland. Then there was me. And now there’s Graham Norton. Despite the fact that he’s from Cork,” he adds after a comedian’s beat. “Extraordinary.  I’m very fond of him. He’s toned down the more outrageous aspect which I think makes him a family entertainer – for the first few years he was very far from being a family entertainer! But as you say, another Irishman. And I understand Ryan Tubridy’s coming to work for Radio 2, which is great. He’s a good broadcaster. I hope I get a chance to see him.”

Tubridy’s eight-week stint, Wogan ponders aloud, could be the first step in another name being added to the BBC’s venerable Irish lineage, but were he offered a similar deal in Montrose it would be declined. “For somebody like me, having succeeded here, it would be a mistake to go back and try and succeed there. But as far as Ryan’s concerned, it’s only pluses.”

You see, for the UK listener the Irish accent carries no bias, he explains; it’s not a Lancashire accent annoying someone from Yorkshire or a Northern accent annoying listeners from the South etc. It’s also classless, immune from being scanned for details of regionality, school or background. The difference between Wogan and his good friend Eamonn Holmes cannot be detected by your average UK ear, and it is this lack of baggage that sees the Irish in Britain do so well in business, he believes.

Days previously the Queen had visited Ireland and the relationship between the two states was undergoing a welcome revision. For someone with close links to both parties, it must have been especially fascinating for him.

“I got an invitation to go there for one of the dos, but such was the efficiency of whoever was responsible, I received that invitation on Wednesday here for Thursday in Dublin,” he laughs quietly. “Everybody was thrilled. I can only go by the Irish here who of course were thrilled that she received such a good reception. We were all a bit nervous that something stupid would be done, and I’m sure you were in Ireland as well. But I think that’s the best I have seen Her Majesty in terms of how sprightly she was, how she smiled. She did everything absolutely right. It was a triumph.

“Was I proud of Ireland? Well I expected Ireland to rise to the occasion. I felt more proud of the Queen really. She is a very nice woman. She’s a remarkable woman. I have been to dinner with them and I’ve always found her good company. And why wouldn’t the Irish behave well?  Why don’t we expect ourselves to behave well? Why do we think we’re the only ones that history ever happened to?”

Wogan’s insight into the English/Irish dynamic is understandable for a man who, although he won’t admit it, surely helped maintain a positive Irish image when relations were strained. “You always get accused of stage Irish stuff but I’ve never done that. I’ve never apologised for being Irish even though I’ve been here as a popular broadcaster every morning to a huge audience, and after the bombs going off, the IRA campaign in England made it very difficult for an awful lot of Irish people here. But I always made it clear that what was being done was not being done in my name or the name of the rest of the Irish Population.”

He agrees that distance provides perspective on his own people specifically. He’s very conscious of Irish history (“I’m as Irish as the next man; I can get emotional about all sorts of things like emigration and starvation”) and is quick to defend the motherland during moments of scrutiny in these times. Not having ever experienced a boom, it was natural and right, he says, that we gloried in the success, and that while it came to a “sticky end”, Ireland will recover. “I know that’s a facile thing to say because Ireland’s going through a really tough time now but, you know, if you can overcome the Famine and Cromwell, probably you can overcome most things. And the Irish people are resilient and intelligent and well educated – probably a much better educated population than here.”

But like the Longford taxi driver I would meet later in Kilburn or the Carlow man who smiled knowingly at my accent in a Surrey electronics store that morning, Wogan is an example of an Irish national forging a comfortable life in England by ignoring the differences and embracing the similarities. He has said before that the Irish and the English are much closer than the English are with the Scots or Welsh, despite our fraught history. “We also, just like the English, apologise and thank people far too often.”

Nor is begrudgery endemic to Ireland, he insists. Instead, it is the symptom of other small populations such as Scotland, Wales and Denmark, where there exists an attitude of “well I knew his mother” and a sensitivity about their standing in the world. He had braced himself for such an onslaught for doing Wogan’s Ireland but it never materialised, he happily reports.

When I tell him that I can’t work out whether he’s sensitive or thick-skinned, he takes a little longer than usual before answering. “I’d say I’ve learned how to cope with criticism and abuse and I think you have to do that if you’re going to get through life. When you work in radio and television you’re assuming that everybody’s listening, watching and well-disposed to you. You have to; if you began to realise that probably 50 per cent of the audience are thinking ‘what’s that eejit doing’ you’d never do it, would you? I always say that it’s an extremely good training which I got in Ireland in the first place. Those of us who were on Irish television when it started became the first home-grown stars really, and you learned very quickly that everybody can’t bloody love you. It’s an important lesson to learn. People make up their minds about you the minute you walk into the room from the look of you so there’s no point trying to win people over. Not just in television or radio, in life. You cannot be all things to all men.”

Self-deprecation – but never self-pity – is perhaps what’s most likeable about Wogan. I begin one question about his skill as a writer (eight books published to date) by saying I had read Mustn’t Grumble, his laugh-out-loud 2006 biography. “God help us,” he quips. “I’m a tremendously lazy person,” he then sighs. “I’ve never knocked on anybody’s door looking for a job. Anything that’s difficult for me, I just don’t do. It just shows you how deeply trivial a person I am that I only do stuff that comes easily to me! Except golf; I think I’m temperamentally wrong for golf.” When he chats about the ins and outs of his honorary OBE and subsequent knighthood, it’s with a “god knows [it] was more than I deserved”.

You can see what his colleague Zoe Ball meant when she referred to him as “your naughty Irish uncle”. It’s an ever-ready, buoyant humour and a twinkle in the eye, like when he counters: “You get disappointed because you think ‘ah Christ, glamorous, tall, leggy bird, and she thinks I’m her uncle! That’s no good to me!” Another agreeable chuckle when he recalls the array of famous beauties his work brought him into contact with. “But I wasn’t available. Of course, as a man you’re going to respond to beautiful women – and so you should unless you’re a fool – but I’ve never had to slap a super injunction on anybody!”

For all Wogan’s experiences in life, it is family that has provided the most potent memories. Marriage is particularly important as it “helps you think of somebody other than yourself”. In Rathmines in 1965 he married Dublin model Helen Joyce (“We had a big crowd. The oul biddies around there followed us into the church because it was raining, and stood on the pews as we came down”).

Helen gave birth to Alan two years later. Mark arrived three years after that, before Katherine in 1972. His unconventional working hours meant they got lots of his time. Now, addicted to grandchildren, he laments that his own offspring didn’t get cracking earlier. “My eldest grandchild is six. You think, I’m never going to see them get married, and certainly never be a great granddad, so that’s a kind of thing that you think ‘ah it’s a shame’.” The only other drawback, he explains, is the “double worry” that comes when something is wrong with a grandchild and one automatically worries not just for grandchild but for child too.

Luckily, he concludes, he’s an optimist (“in other words, I don’t understand the seriousness of the situation!)” and has that rare ability to concentrate on what he has rather than what he is without. “I tend not to respond to failure; I tend to use it I suppose, but it doesn’t bring me down. I mean I’ve just had the most extraordinary, pleasant life,” he gasps merrily. “And now I’m, as it were, staggering towards the end of it but there you are. Make the most of it while I can.”

Gay Byrne’s going strong, I point out. “Yeah, he’s still battling on I see,” Wogan says with a dry smile. “Poor old soul!”

First published in the Sunday Independent

Wishbone ah here

While I generally enjoyed this new short story collection from Aidan Mathews, I occasionally found it too clever for its own good. Here’s my Irish Independent review.

***

Charlie Chaplin’s Wishbone
Aidan Mathews
Lilliput Press

THE ascent of the short story format is as attributable to faster lives and a market for bite-size fiction as it is to the proficiency of its master exponents. Time is of the essence, so a short tale by Christine Dwyer Hickey or Kevin Barry offers a more intravenous narrative hit than a Franzen doorstop.

Aidan Mathews – the poet, playwright, novelist and RTÉ drama producer – does not fit this bill with Charlie Chaplin’s Wishbone and Other Stories. Look elsewhere if you are seeking for a yarn to pass the commute with. For these pieces, which are mostly set in the Dublin of the rare ould times (1960s), language is made to sweat in a gymnasium to perform acrobatics and muscular workouts. That is not to say that his first prose publication since the early nineties (‘In the Form of Fiction’ appeared in The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories 2006-2007) is not worthwhile, because when Mathews does decide that the story is king, he is electrifyingly good.

‘Barber-Surgeons’ observes two seemingly different men bond over Bond and a shared professional heritage as Dr No hits the big screen. A cinematic sheen also burnishes ‘Northern Lights’, a deliciously slippery cut from the streets of Troubles-era Belfast. There is an almost unnerving undertow to ‘Access’ and its look at a father processing his daughter’s first steps into womanhood. ‘Cuba”s youthful apocalyptic dread is wonderful.

Dermot Bolger recently dubbed Mathews “the Christiano Ronaldo of linguistic stepovers” but there are times when you’d proffer that Vinny Jones might be a more suitable ­comparison.

By the age of 20, Mathews was already garnering awards for his poetry so it is perhaps no surprise to find the 59-year-old going off-piste as he sees fit and expecting the reader to dutifully tag along.

‘Information For The User’, a radio drama transcript built upon exhaustingly pompous and esoteric dialogue sprawled about between wilfully obscure micro-essays, is unwisely included here. Mathews’ need for self-indulgence also nearly ruins ‘Waking a Jew’, an otherwise worthwhile portrait of an Ashkenazi in the winter of his years.

We get dexterous, inversive rifforama: “He could hear the trucks clearing their throats, gunning the motors to blot out boots and shouting, the garbage chucked like children into the stainless steel of the pig’s snout”.

Never far away, however, are potholes of smart-Alec ego appearing like whack-a-moles: “Survival is not strength. Survival is length. Length is no yardstick.”

“His accent mentored and tormented them,” the author quips to himself elsewhere in ‘Barber-Surgeons’.

Synecdoche, alliteration and nearly-anagrams elbow narrative flow into the ditch as Mathews insists on his word-games taking centre stage. Yes, yes, very clever. Now please get back to the story.

There is nothing wrong about literature that requires a firm grip by the reader and a recess or two to deconstruct its layers. Mathews has said he is more in thrall to images and metaphors than character and narrative, and many of these chronicles just about balance the two realms.

If only a little consistency and restraint had been applied to this uneven volume.

First published in the Irish Independent

Not short on quality

Don’t ask me today what a collateralised debt obligation is but The Big Short gave me enough of a crash course during it to keep up. And if nothing else, kind reader, that is an achievement in itself.

 ***

The Big Short
Cert: 15A

FOR all the Inside Jobs or Margin Calls Hollywood serves us, we’re still not done revising the calamitous economic crash of 10 years ago. Indeed in this country films like The Guarantee told of the shifty corporate goings on that led to financial ruin for the ordinary man. Despite providing an autopsy of the machinations of the disaster, the dearth of human morals is still hard to swallow.

The Big Short is the latest and snazziest of the sub-genre, and sees Anchorman director Adam McKay line up a fine all-star cast to remove the fourth wall and unveil the seediness of US banking to Oscar-nominated effect. Michael Lewis’s 2010 book provides the real-life source material.

Narrating is Wall Street wolf Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who happens upon a theory by brilliant hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale); the US housing market is set to pop and purchasing “shorts” against the market will equal a huge payday when it does.

Vennett approaches hedge fund manager Michael Baum (Steve Carell) and convinces him to move on the potentially lucrative gamble. Meanwhile, two young up and comers also look to get in on the action with help from Brad Pitt’s beardy retired bankman.

If you’re sketchy on subprimes and CODs, cameo asides from Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain give dummies’ guides to the jargon. These and the snappy pace make for a lively, if slightly smug, crash course. McKay, however, balances the laughs with high-stakes drama and remorse.

4/5

First published in the Sunday Independent

Plot bailer

If Hou Hsiao-Hsien hadn’t binned the plot then The Assassin would be a fine film. As is, it’s just a very pretty one. Here’s the Sunday Indo review. 

***

The Assassin
Cert: 12A

IF WE take it that making a feature film is a little like baking an elaborate cake, you’d imagine then that the cast would be the flavour, the cinematography is the icing, and the editing might be the oven temperature. The batter would surely therefore be the story, the fundamental building block upon which the entire recipe will either stand firm or collapse.

On the back of The Assassin, you’d also have to assume that lauded Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien wouldn’t win many bake-offs. While extremely deft at presentation – The Assassin‘s enigmatic visuals and breeze-blown pace are undeniably striking – he drops the ball when it comes to telling its tale of combat and honour in 8th Century China.

As an exercise in “wuxia” (a genre of Chinese period martial arts adventure), it very much looks and sounds the part. Shu Qi is still waters running deep as Yinniang, a deadly hitlady of few words who is set a test by her doubting mistress. To prove her worth, Yinniang is assigned to take out her cousin and former fiancé, now a powerful military leader back in the region where she herself originated.

The brief action scenes are the only punctuation between lots and lots of beautiful, meditative atmospherics and mood shots that are in no hurry to go anywhere. Similarly, the colour palette that Cannes-winner Hou works off – metallic blues, golds and deep terracottas – is magical to behold. If only we had a clue what was going on in the glacial, disjointed plot which is treated as an incidental.

3/5

First published in the Sunday Independent

Nominated: Beara treasures

This Sunday Independent travel feature I did last year on the Beara Peninsula has nabbed me a nomination at tonight’s Travel Extra Travel Journalist of the Year Awards. Fourth time lucky? We’ll see. Competition is massively stiff but it’s always a good night out.

***

Finding the Beara necessities of life

THERE are little kingdoms, to quote a Kevin Barry book title. They exist on this island in abundance, especially on the jagged, sea-hewn south-west coast where those five long fingered peninsulas of ours jab out into the ocean.

Beara stretches out in the middle, a little kingdom of west Cork mystery. Often bypassed for famous cousins in Dingle, Cahersiveen or Bantry, its time had finally come for us. Instead of living in ignorance, we would make the long winding journey down to Cork and then out, out and out through winding roads lined with Scots pines that twist along the water’s edge of Kenmare Bay.

If we ever found the place, we’d be in deepest, darkest Co Cork so there was nothing for it but to swing by the People’s Republic itself and stock up. But there are stocks and then there are stocks, and from what we knew of our destination and the luminaries it had housed over the years, only top-drawer fare would do.

Just as well we’re in Cork then. An excuse is found for lunch in the English Market’s Farmgate Cafe before we hit the vendors; Hegarty’s cheddar and Crozier Blue from On The Pig’s Back, pork belly from Tom Durcan and fish procured under the royalty-wooing grin of Pat O’Connell.

Our second, albeit more scenic and squiggly, half of the journey could begin.

Westwards we wound, through Macroom and Kenmare. We should count ourselves lucky – the architect Robin Walker made this journey many times in his life long before the arrival of the M8. From 1970-72, one of this country’s great modernists selected a steep oak-filled hillside just outside Ardgroom as the setting for his family bolthole and temple to friendship, Bothar Bui. We crawl down an elusive canopied driveway and find his vision glowing in the fading light, a bundled settlement of historic and modern buildings linked by paving stones and mossy verges.

Inside, artworks by Patrick and William Scott, Christo and Gerard Dillon hang casually on the walls like they have nowhere more important to be. Seamus Heaney, a friend of Walker’s, was among many icons of arts and politics to stay here over the years, and even reflected through verse on the “athletic sealight on the doorstep slab, on the sea itself, on silent roofs and gables / Whitewashed suntraps, hedges hot as chimneys”.

From the huge studio loft at the top of the site, sundowners go down particularly well, accompanied by a view that tricks you into believing you’re the only souls for hundreds of miles. Across the bay, Glanlough, Sneem and the Kerry Reeks are painted amber and purple by an Atlantic sunset.

When you awake, you see other things, or at least you think you do. Out through ceiling-height bedroom windows in our chalet, layers stack up perplexingly like a Scully painting – treetop, water, cloud, land, more water, more cloud, more land. As the mists clear, it makes more sense from the breakfast patio, the view shared with friends and dogs and the local hawks and swallows up above.

We emerge to find a nation of humans and cars occurring outside Bothar Bui and decide to explore it. There is much to see and more to walk in this endless coastline of undulations, textures and sharp angles where treasures hide. The wind is a little brisk for the cable-car crossing over to Dursey Island this day, so we walk the coves and slopes around Billeragh Head. The signposts say “The Beara Way” but we encounter only young ravens and the odd wheatear picking among the daisy-lined drystone walls.

If all this was not soothing enough for the city-singed brain, there is always the Dzogchen Beara Centre, a Buddhist retreat offering free daily sessions at their secluded clifftop perch. We prefer our meditation in noisier surrounds and make a committee decision to drop into Castletownbere to find MacCarthy’s Bar, the legendary battle cruiser of Pete McCarthy’s bestseller and the setting for that chapter about an impromptu “all-night hooley”.

While landlady Adrienne may have McCarthy’s Bar on sale here along with the rollicking memoir of her war-hero father Aidan, MacCarthy’s does not sell itself as some curio on the tourist trail. Groceries are sold in the front bar and Spanish fishermen gabble away down the back on a stopover at this bustling fishing port. “You can come in here sometimes and not hear a word of English spoken,” Adrienne chirps as she adds the finishing touches to a pint.

On the pier, the sun is settling in for the afternoon. At the far end, next to a slip by a little inlet, sits the converted stone warehouse that is the Sarah Walker Gallery. It is bright and airy and a fine space to show off works by its owner as well as paintings, prints and ceramics by other artists.

If this building and the woozy energy of Walker’s art seem somehow genetically related to Bothar Bui it’s because they are. Robin is, of course, Sarah’s father, and along with architect brother Simon, she would have spent a chunk of her life in that house absorbing its unique philosophical and geographical outlook.

The sting is taken out of our farewell on the bottom half of Beara as we skirt along a shoreline that proves once and for all that Ireland in the sunshine is unbeatable. Off to our right, the water is turquoise tinfoil sheeting around the islands of Bere and Whiddy. It remains thus on that meandering road through Skibbereen, the stunning estuary lands of Timoleague and on to our final resting place in Kinsale.

It’s a summer wonderland of paddling infants and cheerful bikers as we sit on the pier at the Bulman, looking back on Kinsale. Beara feels like a different continent that we cannot shake from our minds as we sip icy cider. For all the magnificence of what Robin Walker designed 45 years ago, it would be nothing without that architecture of topography that harbours Bothar Bui. That perfectly haphazard natural design that cannot be drawn up in an office and only half makes sense in Nobel prize-winning verse. Every broken line and wild arrangement of that little kingdom.

Getting there

Travelling from Cork, Castletownbere is approximately a two-hour drive. Bothar Bui is situated about five minutes outside the village of Ardgroom (around 20 minutes north of Castletownbere). It is available to rent year round on a self-catering basis with a minimum stay of two nights from €115 per night and sleeps 12+. Botharbui.com

First published in the Sunday Independent  

Reviewing The Revenant

Extraordinary filmmaking once again from Iñárritu, but it is to DiCaprio, who for years I harboured question marks, that I ultimately doff my cap. Here’s my Sunday Independent review.

***

The Revenant
Cert: 16

SOME men have all the luck. Others, like Leonardo DiCaprio, are preyed upon by man, beast, element and Alejandro González Iñárritu. In The Revenant, the Birdman director put DiCaprio, his co-stars and the crew through such endurance feats that there was talk of breakdowns and walk-outs on set.

Iñárritu’s steel has paid off, however, because this mud ‘n’ blood survival-revenge epic is a genuine masterpiece of 2016 and deserves any further awards coming its way after its Golden Globes rout.

DiCaprio is Hugh Glass, the real-life son of Ulster immigrants who we meet as one of a band of weather-beaten Montana fur traders in 1832. Glass came back from the brink to wreak revenge on a colleague who had left him for dead after a mauling by a grizzly bear. It turns out to be only the start of Glass’s woes in the frozen wilderness, and when he hauls himself out of his shallow grave, he has bitter cold, marauding Indians and a busted body to consider.

What he does have on his side, though, are survival skills, a knowledge of the terrain, a grasp of native language and a grim thirst to fix the wagon of the dastardly John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy in evil hillbilly mode). None-the-less, you’ll squirm over how much one character can take.

The matted, grubby human strife and graphic violence is strikingly countered by Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Together, they turn a landscape of creaking, respiring forests, white water and alpine hilltops into a central character, full of symbolism and spectral wonder. When it is interrupted, it is done so by Hardy and an equally muscular cast that includes Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter.

This is DiCaprio’s film, however, and for his sheer grit, vigour and dexterity, another Oscar snub would be a huge injustice.

5/5

First published in the Sunday Independent

Creed’s clear revival

“It’s a Rocky film, Jim, but not as we know it. This is way, way better than it has any right to be. Have a watch.” “I dunno, aren’t all those boxing films basically the same?” “Do as you’re told, Jim.”

***

Creed
Cert: 12A

IF THE Rocky franchise taught us anything over its six films, it’s the idea of mind over matter. Forty years after Stallone KO’d the world by writing, directing and acting himself into public consciousness as the loveable blue-collar pugilist, a seventh chapter has arrived that – whisper it – could be the best of the lot. You’d think the brand had surely been exhausted.

Writer-director Ryan Coogler impressed with his feature debut Fruitvale Station (2013), and it is to him that the Rocky baton is passed. Coogler surrounds himself with talent – co-writer Aaron Covington, cinematographer Maryse Alberti, Fruitvale… and The Wire star Michael B. Jordan, Stallone himself – and proceeds to revamp the title while also keeping the spirit of the original intact.

Jordan plays Adonis Creed, the estranged illegitimate son of Apollo who is adopted into opulence by the late boxer’s widow. He leaves his high-paying job to scratch an unquenchable itch to become a boxer, decamping to Philadelphia and training day-in, day-out. His desire for greatness brings him to Adrian’s restaurant and its owner, Rocky Balboa (Stallone). After much nagging, Rocky agrees to coach the young fighter ahead of a bout with a trash-talking world light heavyweight champion.

All the obligatory boxing film ingredients are thus present and accounted for, but Coogler’s film reveals a level of sophistication that is arresting. For starters, Adonis’s love interest Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is not just a supportive babe in his corner and instead has her own ambitions and demons. Adonis’s roots eat away at him and provide grist to his mill, especially when word gets out about who his father was. The excellent fight scenes actually feel being in a ring with real boxers.

Lo and behold, a point arrives in Creed where you feel are less watching another Rocky film than the sequel that should have been made years ago. Stallone, who has just received his first Oscar nod since Rocky itself, is a revelation. You can tell the character still means a great deal to him all these years later.

4/5

First published in the Sunday Independent