Reviews – November 2014
Broken in Brooklyn
Directed by Michaël R Roskam
Certificate 15, 106 minutes
Released on 14 November
Dennis Lehane writes grimy thrillers that imagine the American shadow in the form of broken men trying to escape the past. Two of these, Mystic River and Shutter Island, turned out to be among the best mainstream dramas of recent years. The Drop, the first feature film screenplay he adapted from his own work, continues the theme with James Gandolfini (in his last big screen appearance) and Tom Hardy eking it out as Brooklyn barmen under the thumb of the Chechen mob. There’s a crime to be committed – and atoned for – but the heart of The Drop is a character study about regret and denial, and that’s how it knits into the familiar Lehane moral landscape. Gandolfini and Hardy’s Marv and Bob might be seen as the shadow projections of Abbott and Costello, a comedy double act without the laughs; they’re vulnerable, but not without murk. Marv used to “be something”, but those days are behind him, and he’s reduced to whining that Bob should stop serving free drinks to a lonely old lady. They’re the kind of guys who like to think they wouldn’t really hurt anyone, but they turn a blind eye when their landlords torture and kill guys who get in the way.
The director, Michaël Roskam, paints a Brooklyn of slightly rundown neighbourhoods and quiet, sketchy streets – the antithesis of the current vibe loudly proclaimed by the borough: Hipster Central. Into the mix comes Noomi Rapace – she of the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movies – a coiled and insecure presence here, which is just right for a character who spends much of the film afraid of something (or someone). And for much of its running time also, The Drop is a compelling, slow-burn of a thriller. Hardy stands out in particular – his Brooklyn accent is as perfect as his Welsh accent in Locke, his frame sinking under what he has had to live with, and do, to get by.
Lehane’s protagonists mistakenly think that they’re the good guys, but he knows that real good guys – like good nations – eventually learn how to critique themselves. This is substantial entertainment that could have been one of the year’s best films, if not for the over the top Chechen mob stereotype, and the last five minutes, when unfortunately The Drop drops its own weight in a preposterous coda, reminding us that studios should learn self-critique too.
Gareth Higgins is a film writer and runs the Movies and Meaning festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Escaping the Holocaust
High up on Plateau Viverais-Lignon lay half a dozen villages and many hamlets. During the long winter months they are cut off from the rest of France by snow. In spring and summer, Le Tortillard – a small, slow, zigzagging train, brings visitors and ill children to the plateau to benefit from the clean air and nourishing food. It is against this backdrop that Caroline Moorehead recounts the history of France during the Second World War.
As the collaboration of Vichy France with Germany develops, the situation for citizens of Jewish descent grows ever more dangerous. First the “foreign Jews”, but later the “French Jews” too, are willingly handed over by the Vichy government for deportation to extermination camps. Although disbelief and denial cause at times disastrous outcomes, many welfare organisations recognise the need for action early on. Together they start rescuing Jewish children from the French holding camps.
Plateau Viverais-Lignon plays a crucial role in providing hiding places for these refugees. With half of its population being Protestant, its history is steeped in persecution and defiance; its ancestors were Huguenots; others are Darbyists or Ravenists. All are private and austere people of few words who simply do what they feel called to do. Centred on Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and its pacifist pastors Trocmé and Theis, a story enfolds which, decades after the war, would enable Yad Vashem to recognise the place as Righteous Among Nations.
Moorehead skilfully intersperses layer after layer of historical fact with narratives of deeply human stories. In doing so she manages to show the rich and complex involvement of different organisations and individuals working tirelessly together to save “undesirable elements” from certain death. Her admirable commitment to do justice, not only to the Protestant story but to all parties involved on the plateau, can at times cause a feeling of overload. That being said, it also demonstrates her extensive and careful research of the subject. This is a book that tells history by placing much emphasis on faithfulness in the face of opposition and persecution.
Henriette Wentink is a newly-ordained United Reformed Church minister
Meditation’s Christian roots
Nicholas Buxton is a parish priest in Newcastle who has a PhD in Buddhist philosophy and is an experienced meditation teacher; he brings these strands of his life together in this volume as he explores the importance of meditation in our busy lives, arguing that the practice is rooted in Christian tradition, as well as in the teachings and philosophies of other religions.
This is not a manual on how to meditate, although a few introductory paragraphs do explain how to start, with the caution that meditation “can be learnt in a few minutes, though it will very likely take a lifetime to master”. Subsequent chapters lead the reader to consider the nature of our (western) society and the pressures it places on us as individuals, especially on those of us trying to remain true to Christ-like values. Buxton uses copious Bible references to keep the discussion rooted in Christian teaching; he also helpfully affirms that the practice of meditation is not a new age fad, or solely a tool for self help – as some populist publications might suggest. The author does examine the mental health benefits, but takes his theme still deeper, to explore our connectedness to others, to the universe, and to God. In conclusion, we are reminded that our lives should not be about choosing between “doing” and “being”, but about bringing the two together in a harmonious whole.
I appreciated this book’s in depth approach; it made me think about how wordy our approach to worship and prayer life can often be – as the author points out: “It is much easier to talk about silence than actually to be silent.” Even Jesus needed to withdraw to be alone with God in order to maintain his equilibrium, yet, in personal or public prayer we often depend on words to help us experience our connection with God.
This is an accessible and thoughtful book for those looking to discover a new dimension in their spiritual life, or for those who already practice meditation and contemplative prayer and want to explore how it connects with Christian teaching and activism.
Rachel Poolman is warden of St Cuthbert’s Centre, Holy Island
This book is a version of the Gifford Lectures that Rowan Williams delivered to the University of Edinburgh in 2013; it explores whether the way human beings talk tells us anything about God. The argument turns upon a distinction between “description” and “representation”. Description attempts to depict or imitate something in language. Representation attempts to re-present something by pressing words and images into oblique modes such as metaphor, poetry, parable, and prophecy. Williams’ argument is that oblique representation may convey the truth or reality of something (or someone) better than accurate description.
The biblical writers, aware of the prohibition against images, were reticent about describing God so instead used metaphors such as rock and fire. Jesus too, rather than describe God and his Kingdom, told parables. We would not imagine that the Unjust Judge in the parable would be promising material for representing God, yet, by the end of the parable we are left in little doubt about the nature of God’s generosity. Williams argues that Jesus used “carefully calculated shocks” like this to represent God more effectively than description could achieve.
In the course of his argument, Williams touches upon the thought of numerous theologians and philosophers, as well as Buddhist meditation, autism and Welsh poetry. There are not many works of academic theology that have moved me to prayer, but I was so moved by Williams’ brief discussion of Augustine inviting us to imagine what speech would be like without evasion or self-serving, if our speaking were “entirely transparent to eternal reality” and “overwhelmed by God’s grace” by being “nothing but confession and adoration”. Our language, if it is to represent God, is not a mere “reproduction of data” but a “faithful alignment” with the “generosity of the threefold divine life”. Literal language about God may appear to be faithful and safe, but the riskier forms of prophecy and poetry – even, paradoxically, silence – may convey God’s Word more eloquently and powerfully.
This is a scholarly work and not an easy read, but it will repay the reader interested in exploring what human language reveals about God and about humanity.
Julian Templeton is a United Reformed Church minister serving in Highgate and New Barnet, London
Radical Christian vision
Approaching the End: Eschatological reflections on church, politics and life
In this collection of essays, Stanley Hauerwas offers a radical account of what the Church should be about in these final days of Christendom. Like a master mason, he constructs a wall of large interlocking theological ideas; these – in particular the doctrine of the end times – provide a foundation for the Gospel’s ethical imperatives that he has championed throughout his teaching career. As one of the leading Christian thinkers of our times, Hauerwas deals not with secondary matters or passing religious concerns but with major issues confronting the Church.
His mode of operation can be illustrated from the first essay. Hauerwas is a committed pacifist; he is so because he holds to a social ethic that is based on the life and teaching of Jesus and not on natural law or on our common creatureliness. Hauerwas defends this position by arguing that creation is not an end in itself, but has the Word of God as its proper goal – for the doctrine of the Trinity requires that creation and redemption be bound tightly together.
This means that the divine creative act must be understood in the light of its redemptive conclusion. In short, the final purpose of all creation is to be found in Jesus. We discover then that creation itself requires that all our theological thinking, including our ethics, be shaped by the person of the Son. And Jesus was a pacifist.
Hauerwas is not just a builder; he continually subverts or undermines alternative ways of looking at things. This approach succeeds because Hauerwas digs so deeply, meaning that his writing – gracious and fair though it may be – is always polemical and always political. Through his engagement with concepts like witness and sacrifice, character and habit formation, death and suffering, Hauerwas presents a challenging contemporary vision of Christian life and faithfulness. Approaching the End is certainly a book for our times and is an illuminating read for any who are interested in the coherence of the Christian story and are open to its radical implications.
Alan Spence is a United Reformed Church minister working for a cluster of churches in Thanet, Kent
Next Fall explores the nature of love and faith; set in New York, it centres on the long-term relationship between two men: Adam (Condu), who is an atheist, and Luke (Delaney) – the kind of Christian who thinks about the Rapture and creationism a lot.
Despite the couple’s differences, they move in together and get by; but there are a few niggles. Luke won’t come out to his family. Adam finds Luke’s idea of heaven and the Rapture preposterous and offensive. Luke loves Adam, but thinks he’ll go to hell for not accepting Christ and needs to pray after lovemaking. These tests could be the end of most relationships, but somehow they muddle by, until tragedy strikes and Adam finds himself stuck in a room with Luke’s friends and family, unable to truly express his fears or the nature of his relationship with Luke.
Told in the present and through flashbacks, Next Fall is a domestic exploration of the atheist/religious debate and the gay/Christian debate; it is more kitchen-sink-drama than political theatre, and in many ways all the better for it. A few years back I saw On Religion at the Soho Theatre – a theatre essay written by AC Grayling and Mick Gordon; it was a polemic on atheism versus religion told through the conflict between an atheist/humanist academic and her son who has become a priest. Although it was an interesting and balanced piece, it was coldly intellectual, and as one reviewer said, it needed “a little more theatre and a little less essay”. Next Fall, despite the stark aesthetic of the set, does not suffer from cold intellectualism; it is warm, intimate, full of bright humour – very American. This has its drawbacks: The conservative Christianity displayed is of a kind not commonly practiced or encountered in the UK.
Next Fall does not set out to ridicule or disprove conservative beliefs, instead, through its action, it looks at the nature of love: Religious, physical, romantic, parental and platonic. And it asks questions of both atheists and Christians alike: Is it loving to accept that another person will go to hell whilst you go to heaven for your beliefs? Is it loving to deny the love of someone who thinks they are sacrificing their soul to be with you? Through the skilled cast of lovers, friends and family, we see myriad expressions of self denial and compromise, each painstakingly expressed.
What this play explores is the truth about the debates around atheism, Christianity and sexuality: Played out in reality, ideas can be painful. It costs to love, accept and live with all the contradictions of spiritual faith and physical love. I hope this production will have a life beyond its run at the Southwark Playhouse.
Celia Meiras is a freelance journalist and actor
This article was published in the November 2014 edition of Reform.