TELEVISION: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, ‘Ghosts of Illyria’ (dir. Leslie Hope)

It’s hard to overstate just what a delight Strange New Worlds is. As opposed to the heavy serialisation, unbalanced ensemble work, and narrative laziness of so much of Discovery and Picard, Strange New Worlds is giving its vibrant, fun crew a different mission every week which allows the writers to imagine different kinds of challenge and, crucially, rotate the narrative around its crew. By episode three, the pleasingly TOS-sounding ‘Ghosts of Illyria’, the series has already settled into a compelling pattern, and this week it’s Number One’s turn.

Number One and La'an sit in a bar together.
Where’s Guinan when you need her?

‘Ghosts of Illyria’ is a classic ‘away team bring back a disease’ episode, and inevitably this feels timely in the COVID era, especially as Una – left in charge of the ship when Pike and Spock are trapped on the surface, in an instance of such poor mission planning that it becomes the episode’s one jarring note, a narrative expedience that should have been avoided – orders a full lockdown and confinement of the crew to their quarters or essential workplaces. The disease that is affecting the crew after they’ve visited a destroyed colony of Illyrians starts making the crew do desperate and self-harming things in the pursuit of brighter light, but for some reason – after an initial manifestation of symptoms – Una seems to be fine.

By removing the captain and science officer from the equation, the rest of the crew get more to do, and it becomes immediately clear that there are a lot of secrets in play. Dr. M’Benga has been a quiet presence so far, but it becomes clear that he’s hiding something when he gets antsy about Chief Engineer Hemma checking the medical transporter. Una herself is hiding something. And Security Chief La’an is dealing with her feelings as a descendent of Khan Noonien Singh about coming to a planet of aliens who were rejected from the Federation for their experiments with genetic augmentation, showing deep anger and prejudice towards the colonists.

Alongside this, Pike and Spock are hanging out on the surface, riding out a deadly ion storm, and researching to see what happened to the colonists. As some energy beings start emerging from the storm, initially seeming to attack them but eventually preserving them, it starts to become clear that what happened to the colonists was much more complex. The prejudice of Enterprise’s crew towards genetically augmented people is understandable, given Earth’s history with the Eugenics Wars, but the Illyrians had a much healthier relationship with the idea of genetic modification, working to align themselves better with nature, to transform themselves rather than their homeworlds, in ways that the crew gradually in this episode come to realise are more benign.

The big revelation is that Una is herself an Illyrian, who has been keeping this secret from everyone as this would have banned her from joining Starfleet. She’s always been impressive, but as the crew fall apart, Una starts revealing the true extent of her strength and prowess, easily beating a frenetic La’an in a fight when La’an puts the ship in jeopardy. The idea of a virus that travels via light is very cool, and there’s plenty of Science that goes into saving the crew as they work to create a blackout, but seeing Una show what she’s physically capable of is also a thrill, with some great fight choreography. And the whole episode is complicated further by the revelation that M’Benga is keeping his terminally ill daughter in transporter stasis until he can find a cure – but in doing so, put the rest of the crew’s life in danger.

The episode is, in classic Trek fashion, about prejudice. Una offers to resign her commission, but Pike not only refuses but also promises to defend her if Starfleet ever comes looking. Una then pays this down to M’Benga, working with him to find a safer solution to preserve his daughter. And the crew go on their way happily, with a more positive disposition towards people with genetic modifications. But in the best bit of writing, Una’s closing log entry – which she immediately deletes – reflects on how hard she works to prove herself, and on whether she’d have been accepted if she hadn’t saved everyone else’s lives. Star Trek has often slipped into the model minority mode, with exceptional individuals treated as transcending their species. Una’s wistful reflection here – on something which can never truly be known – sets Strange New Worlds up as a much more thoughtful approach to the issues it wants to tackle.


FICTION: Naomi Novik, ‘The Golden Enclaves’ (Del Rey)

After two books confined with The Scholomance, The Golden Enclaves blows open Naomi Novik’s wizarding world and, in doing so, reveals what the underlying plan was all along. While, in some ways, the final book in this trilogy enters more generic territory – this is, in many ways, a retelling of The Deathly Hallows, and follows a more traditional globe-trotting adventure structure – it also brilliantly builds upon what’s been subtly laid in the previous two books to make this a potent warning about capitalism and global catastrophe, in which constant expansion without consideration of the costs nearly destroys the world.

Cover of The Golden Enclaves
Floaty eyes

El has escape the Scholomance after being pushed out by Orion, but she can’t get back into the school to rescue him. And so, she sets about recruiting a team to get back in, just as the magical world stumbles into an Enclave war. El is very quickly in demand to go and help the magical cities which are at risk of destabilising and falling into the void – many of which are also under attack by maw-mouths sensing weakness – but is also conscious of the prophecy that says she will destroy all the Enclaves, even as the people she’s rescuing become suspicious of her power.

The breakneck pace of The Golden Enclaves largely works in its favor, not allowing El the chance to sit and reflect at any point. The main casualty of this is El’s mum, a wonderfully drawn character who is so good and wise and powerful that the book has to find ways to keep El away from her for as long as possible, few of which are convincing. More than anything else, this is where the series’ reliance on El’s stubborn resistance to help feels its most strained; it seems unfeasible that El wouldn’t ask for help from her own mother, and it’s hard not to get frustrated at her self-sabotage. Thankfully, she’s otherwise much better at asking for help now, and it mostly comes from Liesel, who not only takes on a welcome larger role in this book – her German efficiency is always fun – but who even starts up a physical relationship with El. The awkward tension of their relationship is perhaps the most surprising element of the book, and a welcome distraction for the reader as well as for El.

There’s also a wonderful amount of world-building, especially as El travels to London, New York, Beijing, Dubai, India, Portugal, and more. Everyone believes that there’s a maleficer going around destabilising the Enclaves, though no obvious candidate presents themselves. Orion’s mum in New York turns out to be an especially evil witch, though, and gradually the state of play of this world comes into focus. Each Enclave was built on a sacrifice of a pure wizard; El’s unease at the Enclaves has also come from sensing the corpse at the literal foundation of the sanctuary. Further, the spell cast by Enclave councils to kill the wizard is what creates maw-mouths, which roam the world separately, the consequence of creating safety for a few. But the maw-mouths remain connected to the Enclave, so that when El has been killing maw-mouths, she’s been destroying the Enclaves that created them. Further, in the most devastating revelation, Orion’s mother created Orion himself as a living maw-mouth; his ability to destroy comes from exactly the same power, leaving El with no option (apparently) but to kill him before he can be used as the ultimate – and ultimately unstoppable – weapon against wizardkind.

As these revelations slowly emerge, Novik’s imaginative skill comes into ever-clearer focus. The young people are charged with creating a better world, one in which Enclaves are built through harder, purer work and through protecting everyone rather than a few. But while El’s solution is so much clearer and kinder, the Enclaves understandably resist – because giving up comfort and privilege is never easy, even if it means you’re condemning the rest of the world. And so, Novik wraps up the current environmental catastrophes being faced by the world with the selfishness of capitalism, pointing squarely to the problem – it’s not any one evil individual, but an entire civilization of often good people, for whom changing the way things have always been done and giving up a sense of personal safety and entitlement is too much of a change. The book’s sober conclusion offers hope but also makes clear the uphill struggle that the world faces if it’s ever going to commit to change.

Ideologically, this is a brilliant book. Writing-wise, it’s the weakest of the tree, the larger scope sometimes leading to odd leaps in time to allow Novik to skate over narrative inconvenience, while at other times slowing down (an interminable magical mystery tour in the void spaces under London feels like it could have been a footnote). And El’s constant rage, while understandable, feels even more out of place here; at least in the Scholomance, with no-one to turn to, her anger made sense, but here, without the same constraints, there’s a stronger sense of her needing to get out of her own way. Nonetheless, the scale of the stakes makes this a continually compelling read, and an important and empathetic one.

NON-FICTION: Islam Issa, ‘Shakespeare and Terrorism’ (Routledge)

The ‘and’ in Islam Issa’s Shakespeare and Terrorism does a huge amount of work. This is a lively, vibrant, deeply intelligent book, which offers many rich and rewarding readings of both Shakespeare and of the idea of terrorism. Yet often these readings seem to happen near one another, rather than in direct conversation; that is, this seems to be a book about Shakespeare and about terrorism, but in which the connection between the two terms is variable. The result is a study which is methodologically diverse and often moving in its creative juxtaposition of materials, but where a central thesis sometimes gets lost in the ingenious association-making.

Cover of Islam Issa, Shakespeare and Terrorism
Feathers fly

The material on which Issa draws seeks to make a variety of connections between Shakespeare and terrorism. His long first chapter traces the implications of a handful of instances in which contemporary Shakespeare productions – usually of comedies in places like Qatar and Afghanistan – were targets of terrorist attacks, exploring the implications of what Shakespeare comes to represent. Then, he switches tack entirely to a close reading of Hamlet in which he diagnoses Hamlet with many of the core facets of terrorism, exploring Hamlet as an inspiration for terrorism. Terrorism itself has a slippery identity here, covering various kinds of threat and violence from random religiously inspired acts against a general population to political assassination, a flexibility which allows for deftness in coverage but also, perhaps, sometimes a lack of clarity. By the third chapter, the book has turned to broader discussion of symbols, at which point Shakespeare and terrorism start becoming more tenuously connected; Issa switches to the question of quotation, where ‘To be or not to be’ as a phrase used by extremists becomes key, and where more specious – even glib – associations of a killer with bloodied hands are read as resonant with Lady Macbeth. And then a fourth chapter shifts to the question of assassination and the reappearance of plays such as Julius Caesar in the terrorist repertoire, going back as far as the Gunpowder Plot.

Issa’s creative play with words and ideas is the book’s primary strength. His close readings of Shakespeare’s plays are often beautiful to read, and the strongest chapter by far is that on Hamlet, offering a deliberately resistant reading to conventional understandings of the Danish prince. Issa draws on a wide base of historical, literary, philosophical, and theological knowledge to draw interesting connections, while also grounding much of his writing in anecdote and literary flair (he is a successful broadcaster as well as scholar). The predominantly literary-political mode of analysis is sometimes a little restrictive; the actual theatrical labour of productions becomes illustrative rather than a subject in its own right, and some adaptation theory or quotation theory might have supported the book’s ambitions to intervene in questions of reception. But this is a book which reads all of human activity as text, and in doing so is often scintillating and powerful in the connections it makes. Crucially, Issa’s work is interrogative of Shakespeare as a cultural reference point, and by destabilizing Shakespeare himself (as well as the works) in his analysis, Issa crucially challenges the absolutism that leads to the dichotomized readings of good/bad, right/wrong, true/false that inspire both fundamentalism and fundamentalist responses.

The book seems paradoxically both unusually expansive and unusually restrictive in its frames of reference. On the one hand, Issa draws on a wealth of material from non-anglophone traditions; the book engages deeply with Muslim philosophy and political thought, historical and more recent, and also with non-scholarly voices in constructing a deep and empathetic account of the complex situations in which particular kinds of high-profile terrorist activity occur. This is especially important when the bogeyman of the Muslim Terrorist so often goes uncritically examined, and by tracing the actual patterns of thought – whether going into Bin Laden’s writings, or exploring the underpinnings of the anti-Shakespearean remarks of fundamentalist Islamist leaders – Issa is able to offer his most important work in accounting for the multifaceted ways in which Shakespeare becomes both an icon of value and a representative of ‘decadent’ Western values, both an inspiration and a target.

On the other hand, Issa’s critical frame of reference is very often surprisingly limited. The book returns repeatedly, again and again, to Stratford-upon-Avon, and the reference list is overwhelmingly made up of Issa’s own collaborators in the Birmingham-Stratford network of Shakespeare-related institutions (Ewan Fernie, in particular, is a very dominant voice). For a book which is very assertive about the importance of listening to different voices, the actual Shakespeare scholarship drawn upon is overwhelmingly that of white men (and sometimes white women); the absence of Critical Race, global performance, or postcolonial scholars when discussing white supremacism, terrorism informed by colonial relations, international theatre performances, or power structures feels very marked. This means that, while the book contributes a lot, much of its conclusion feels like a retreading of ground (particularly in Issa’s advancement of an idea of resistant reception) that has been central to huge swathes of unacknowledged scholarship in Shakespeare studies for some time. This is not to denigrate the achievement of this book within its particular scholarly models, especially as inspired by Fernie’s work on theorizing Shakespeare and freedom; but a topic as expansive as Shakespeare and terrorism feels like it might have productively benefitted from a much wider set of reference points.

To wit, while the book feels exhaustive in its treatment of terrorism in the context of tensions between the Islamic world and the West – that is, the context within which contemporary media most discusses terrorism – there are also significant gaps. Ireland and Northern Ireland get no mention (perhaps surprising when domestic political violence in the British Isles has had a major influence on Shakespearean production); there are missed opportunities to engage with other international arenas in which Shakespearean characters have been reimagined as terrorists (as in Vishal Bhadwaj’s Haider, for instance); and while the book importantly draws attention to far-right, white supremacist terrorism, the focus on Confederate flags in Stratford-upon-Avon feels like it barely scratches the surface of the American context of armed militias, uprisings, reprisals against Black Lives Matter protesters, and the armed vigilantism threatening voting stations, in which ‘terrorism’ is taking on a very differently terrifying shape (the book was published in the same year as Mike Bartlett’s The 47th, which uses Shakespeare as a vehicle to play out what American terrorism in the year 2024 might – will? – look like). The closing idea of Issa’s book – that Shakespeare does indeed explore the human condition, and that this has led to him being an inspiration for those looking to destroy as well as those looking for peace – is a bracing and important one. But perhaps the most important thing to take away from Issa’s book is that no one book can do it all, and that Issa’s reading here exposes the potential for Shakespeare to be used for harm, in ways for which we now all need to take responsibility.

FILM: Rosaline (dir. Karen Maine)

Towards the end of Rosaline, the titular hero (Kaitlyn Dever) asks her new boyfriend Dario (Sean Teale) if, when this story is told centuries from now, whether their names will be even mentioned. ‘Honestly, I couldn’t care less’ replies Dario. It’s indicative of some of the tonal and thematic confusion of Rosaline that it’s the guy who gets the concluding moral, with which Rosaline somewhat flatly agrees ‘Me neither’. For all that Rosaline so very desperately wants to be a ball-busting, feminist, anti-canonical riposte to Romeo and Juliet, it weirdly disempowers and conventionalizes its own central figure, who goes from trying to disrupt the known story of Romeo and Juliet to being the person who props it up, and along the way ends up in a place where she finishes by politely agreeing with the pretty man who defines her own happy ending. Reminiscent in some ways of 10 Things I Hate About You, this throwback 90s-style teen comedy never really makes a case for why it would want to be remembered.

The Nurse puts a mask on Juliet.
Hide me.

The plot is actually closer to another classic teen Shakespeare, Get Over It. As in that film, the lead is trying to get back together with their ex after being unceremoniously dumped; as in that film, the lead’s stealth break-up mission ends up being replaced with the realization that the person they’re spending their time with is actually The One. Here, Rosaline is the subject of Romeo’s (Kyle Allen) night-time balcony poetry recitals. But she’s also in the process of being married off by her father, and during one boat-based date with latest suitor Dario, she misses a masked ball, during which Romeo meets her younger cousin Juliet (Isabela Merced) and falls in love, leaving Rosaline watching another woman be the recipient of the same flourishing verses.

The premise is a lot of fun; the actual film isn’t. The three primary comic strategies all get tired very quickly: Dever’s Rosaline sneering at the plot machinations of Romeo and Juliet (‘that’s the dumbest fucking thing I’ve heard in my life’ to Juliet when Juliet explains her plan to take a potion); Dever getting wet or pratfalling; and some hackneyed stereotypes (Paris (Spencer Stevenson) as gay best friend! Messenger Steve (Nico Hiraga) as an unreliable stoner!). The real problem is that, while Dever certainly has energy, her entire personality is rooted in her peripherality. She wants to be a cartographer, which would have been a fun thing to actually build more of the plot around rather than being a superfluous detail; but otherwise, she’s predominantly defined by her sassy attitude towards everyone and her attempts to not get on with her life. Given that her primary mode of defiance is rejecting arranged marriage (which might have made this a more interesting film if set within a culture with more parental pressure on marriage) in favour of hanging out with a boyfriend she seems largely indifferent to, her life feels like it’s wheel-spinning anyway, and the film defers to a thinly sketched romance with Dario to actually give her something she seems to meaningfully want.

This is also no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in that the film doesn’t pursue the interesting constraint of keeping the plot of Romeo and Juliet itself intact. Romeo and Juliet court for a while, but Rosaline’s plan involves pretending to mentor her cousin while telling her that Romeo has wooed lots of girls and taking her out to bars to meet other men, all while writing to Romeo herself to try and win him back. Romeo and Juliet’s own story is conventionalized in order to fit Rosaline’s own conventionality: Romeo and Juliet are tense with one another, then get back together and get married. When Romeo kills Tybalt in the street – after Tybalt intercepts a letter from Rosaline to Juliet telling all and attacks him – Juliet publicly declares her love for Romeo in the street, and the two are pulled apart by their fathers. The effect of all this is to massively shift the stakes of the Montague-Capulet conflict, which is allowed to continue even after the fathers discover that Romeo and Juliet are married, which then results in their (feigned) deaths – at which point, it is the mothers who snap into life and tell their husbands that they are stubborn fools. The death of Tybalt and the grief of the households gets remarkably short shrift, and the comic treatment of the grave scene – during which Juliet wakes up, and then feigns getting poisoned by Romeo’s lips to die again in front of her family – is extremely anti-climactic.

The anti-climax seems in keeping with the film’s detached irony throughout. Some of the best jokes feature Paris, who at least seems to know what kind of film he’s actually in, as he follows Rosaline’s wish to put himself forward to marry Juliet in order to get Rosaline’s rival off the table. Minnie Driver as Rosaline’s Nurse is also fun and snarky, and indeed the only person who really seems to call out Rosaline’s bullshit. But for the most part, as Rosaline strives against narrative inevitability (which would be even more compelling if the narrative of Romeo and Juliet had been retained more closely), her actions seem pointless – and that’s not an especially compelling arc for a heroine. Teale, meanwhile, gets to be pretty and sensitive and to stand up for himself as Dario, but his role here is precisely to have no character. Perhaps what’s most frustrating here is that this should be a really fun film, but – unlike Berke in Get Over It – Rosaline herself seems pretty half-hearted about the mission she has set herself, and coupled with the film’s undertone of ‘Ugh, Shakespeare, why should I care?’, the film gives surprisingly little for its audience to care about.

If nothing else, Rosaline is at least funny in its send-ups of romantic convention, from Rosaline (and later Juliet) getting bored of Romeo’s self-impressed delivery of his poetry, to Rosaline introducing Juliet to porn, to Romeo and Juliet getting a nice mid-credit scene stranded on a boat together and trying to get to know one another, only to find they have almost nothing in common and are actively repulsed by each other’s food preferences. But in de-romanticizing the romance, holding back on the comedy, and ironizing everything, the end result is, indeed, something that no-one would particularly think to care to remember.

FILM: The Lost King (dir. Stephen Frears)

The 2013 documentary Richard III: The King in the Car Park made an unlikely star of Philippa Langley, the Ricardian and amateur historian who was the driving force behind the discovery of the remains of Richard III in a Leicester car park. In that documentary, confronted with an imagined reconstruction of Richard III based on his skull, it looked for just a moment like she might actually kiss the facsimile of the man with whom she was obsessed. And while The Lost King is based on Langley’s own book – and thus gives the most sympathetic account of her possible – there are moments in Stephen Frears’s film which seem to acknowledge something of the unhealthiness of an obsession which led to an extraordinary discovery, but might quite easily have not.

King Richard and Philippa Langley sit on a bench together.
Looking for Richard

The Lost King is deeply fuzzy on some of its allegiances. Langley is played warmly by Sally Hawkins and made sympathetic from the outset. She’s ill with ME, and the time she has had to take off work is being used by her boss as an excuse to hold her back from promotion. Her ex-husband is dating other women but still on the scene, and Philippa seems to be struggling for any kind of professional or personal fulfilment. And so, her obsession with Richard initially emerges as a projection, a wish-fulfilment, an escape. After seeing a young actor (Harry Lloyd, in a neat nod to the Richard-aping Viserys who he played in Game of Thrones) playing Richard and feeling angered by Shakespeare’s depiction of a man with a disability as evil, Philippa becomes determined to clear Richard’s name.

There’s a film here that is critical of Philippa. She quits her job and forces her family to rebuild their lives around her new-found quest. She ignores her responsibilities (at one point, one of her kids pointedly says that, if he had two kids, he’d make sure they got fed before going off searching for a dead king). She’s emotionally manipulative. And she’s talking to an apparition of Richard who exists purely as a vehicle for her own self-reassurance. The more interesting film which I rather wish Frears had dared to explore offers a serious critique here of the choices made in pursuing a dream that has no basis in reality, of a woman who is ill and who has been let down by all of her support systems, and is now making damaging choices.

But that isn’t this film, because this is a film about triumph. The frustration here is that there’s no real moral lesson because so much of it plays as fantasy. While this is a remarkably unlikely true story – the dig really was this fast and lucky in finding Richard – the use of the apparition to mystically keep pointing Philippa in the right direction frustratingly rather undermines just how hard she and the team around her worked in the set-up. The moral seems to be ‘follow your dreams’, but of course, everything Philippa does is done for the wrong reasons, at least from any kind of external logic – the fact she was right doesn’t mean her methods were. But the film is more interested in her as a kind of social justice activist, trying to prove that Richard wasn’t evil and wasn’t disabled – and then latterly, arguing that his disability doesn’t make him evil. In many ways, the film massively plays down Langley’s own ableism – her desire to prove that Richard wasn’t disabled is mentioned several times, but played down in favor of a retroactively imposed alignment of Langley’s disability with Richard’s own as an argument for the rights of disabled people.

The other, perhaps more important, narrative here is the shockingly forthright calling out of Leicester University for first underfunding the research team, then jumping onto the project at the last minute, then trying to claim the find as a Leicester University victory. The British research impact agenda gets fully excoriated here, with university research administrators portrayed as the parasitic, money-and-headline-grabbing hypocrites that they are. While the university has already condemned the film as a misrepresentation, the damage is done here, and even if the facts turn out not to be true, the spirit of them is. Doing research in the British university climate is something that happens despite the university these days, rather than because of it, and the attack on Leicester here is a righteous attack on a funding and management climate that hurts the enthusiasm and joy of discovery.

It’s hard not to enjoy this version of Philippa Langley, given such empathy and verve by Hawkins. But it’s frustrating that the film builds its investment around a woman who is either delusional or is actually being guided by higher forces, rather than around a woman who conducted a ton of independent, rigorous research and had the gumption to raise money to commit to her vision. In some ways, by adapting Langley’s own memoir, the film has become more interested in Langley’s own self-mythologizing than in the more humble but more powerful narrative of determination, fandom, and sheer bloody luck of the messier true story. But even if the film is muddled, the story it tells is still one of the most bizarre and fascinating of recent times, and an object lesson in the pitfalls of contemporary research culture.

TELEVISION: Sherwood, season 1 (dir. Lewis Arnold and Ben A. Williams)

A year on from Sherwood‘s debut, it remains one of the best mini-series of recent years, so complete unto itself that the announcement of a second season is somewhat worrying. As an integrated dissection of a community’s traumas, the six-episode series (written by James Graham, doing wonders for naturalism with his trademark overlapping dialogue) creates an extraordinarily deep pool of characters and a deeply felt lived history over two time periods. While at times it veers into melodrama and improbable action, it’s a compelling picture of a small ex-mining village trying to heal its wounds while also reckoning with a murderer in their midst.

A woman sits at a table speaking on the phone.
Do you like scary movies?

The history is real. This small Nottinghamshire village was home to a community of miners in a union that didn’t participate in the strikes of the 80s, thus being condemned as scabs by striking miners. The tensions in the town between those from different unions, those who did strike and those who didn’t, continue decades later, resulting in rifts within families. But in the first episode, one of the most antagonist former strikers is shot dead by an arrow, and the archer runs off into Sherwood Forest. And as the police descend on a town traumatised by its experiences with the police decades earlier, the community begins fighting its old battles once more.

What sets Sherwood apart is the realistic messiness of this show. In the second episode, an impromptu murder that has nothing to do with the serial killer archer throws everyone into a confusion of conflicting trails. The revelation that a spy cop went rogue and stayed within the community seems to be a motive, only for that to become murky. And all of the other long-held secrets in the community start to spill out, as police and former miners alike reckon with guilt over things that happened many years ago.

It’s unfair to pick out individual performances, really, but on this rewatch I was most struck by Adeel Akhtar’s extraordinary turn as Andy. This widower dad to a young man who is marrying the local Tory candidate is slowly being shut out of his son’s life, and in a moment’s fury, he kills his daughter-in-law. What sounds like a horrific plot, though, is given extraordinary humanity in an unflattering, committed, shaky performance of the kind rarely seen on television. But across the ensemble there’s not a weak link. The two coppers forced to work together despite their deeply different histories with the strikes; the grieving widow and her family; the outcast family on the edge of the village; the feuding ex-miners on different sides of the ideological divide; every character is given nuanced life, without ever undermining the complexity of the longstanding feuds and the inability to forgive.

What’s perhaps most thrilling is that this is a BBC series absolutely unafraid to call out the conservative government that broke the country. In a number of scenes – including a somewhat stagy final community meeting in the last episode, and an earlier meeting with an NUM lawyer – Graham’s screenplay dismantles the fictions of contemporary British political life, squarely calling out Thatcher’s government for provoking a war with unionized industry in order to crush it and privatize much of public life. The country was changed forever, and part of the point of Sherwood is to remind viewers of just what has been destroyed and lost in the last few decades.

But what this series does have is faith in people. Some of the characters will never forgive or forget, and the show has sympathy for them, even as it gently criticises intransigence as what leads to further conflict. But what characterises the series is people finding empathy across all kinds of divides, people finding capacity to forgive, people finding the things that matter in the wake of tragedy. For this reason, Sherwood feels like one of the most respectful depictions of working-class life in recent televisual history and, as the current Conservative government continue to gut communities and dismantle public services, one of the most urgent.

FILM: The Quiet Girl (dir. Colm Bairéad)

The title of The Quiet Girl draws specific attention to something that might otherwise be missed – the quietness of Cáit, the nine-year-old at the heart of the film. She’s a sweet kid, who speaks almost entirely in Irish and doesn’t draw attention to herself. But her quietness speaks to significant issues, perhaps even abuse in her brief past. She’s not silent – she speaks when spoken to, she smiles, she finds enjoyment in things. But there’s an existential quiet that lingers about her, and which makes her an enigma that others either want to solve, or want to ignore.

A young girl runs down a path framed by trees.
Peace in running

Cáit’s feuding parents are about to have another child, and for an unspoken reason – so much of the film is unspoken – she is sent away to stay with distant relatives Eibhlín and Seán on their farm. We don’t get an enormous amount of Cáit’s home life, but the tensions between her brusque, English-speaking gambler of a father and her quiet, weary mother are palpable, and Cáit seems to be bullied or at least neglected at school too. The family are poor, the father repeatedly claiming that Cáit is eating them out of house and home – which, given that we almost never see her put food into her mouth while sitting at the dining table, seems hardly likely.

Upon arrival at Eibhlín and Seán’s farm, though, Cáit starts slowly coming out of herself. At first she is anxious – when Eibhlín suggests they visit the well, Cáit asks if it’s a secret, and Eibhlín has to reassure her that there are no secrets and no shame in this house. Later, Cáit wets her bed, and Eibhlín gaily passes it off as the mattress weeping. Whatever has happened to Cáit in her past, her new guardians are insistent on making her feel safe, and very gradually, little Cáit starts moving more confidently around the world.

The film’s heart, though is the relationship between Cáit and gruff old Seán. Seán initially shows zero interest in the young girl, not even turning around to bid her goodnight, and leaving her in the care of his wife. But when Seán has to take her out to the farm when Eibhlín is unavailable, they slowly start to bond. Seán starts playing with the young girl, getting her to run, giving her a treat, and gradually warming up and softening. The bond between the two is earned so slowly and achingly that it’s a treat to see; it feels like love is forming in real time.

All of this, of course, is a healing process over past trauma. As is heavily hinted early on, and revealed later by an awful old gossip from the village, Eibhlín and Seán lost a child some years ago, and have never got over their grief. They don’t speak of it themselves, and most of the information we get is from a very unreliable source. But when Eibhlín and Seán learn that Cáit has been told about their lost son, Eibhlín slips back into grief. Cáit has been wearing their dead child’s clothes, and she clearly is becoming a replacement, filling in a space of loss. But because Cáit herself doesn’t have a meaningful relationship with her parents, it’s a mutually constructive one, in which this newly forming family does one another good, both adults opening up as Cáit herself starts learning the ways of the farm.

It can’t last, of course, and soon the letter comes for Cáit to be returned home. Cáit doesn’t want to go back, and Eibhlín and Seán don’t want to lose her. The scene in which they return her to neglectful and cruel parents, who show almost no gratitude to Eibhlín and Seán and barely any interest in Cáit, is hard to watch. But as Cáit runs down the driveway and throws herself into the departing Seán’s arms, whispering ‘Daddy’ to him, it feels like there’s some kind of hope here, some possibility that these three broken people have learned again how to love.

TELEVISION: What We Do in the Shadows, ‘Go Flip Yourself’ (dir. Yana Gorskaya)

This episode of Go Flip Yourself sees twin home renovators Bran and Toby visiting Staten Island to take on their biggest challenge yet – a crumbling gothic mansion that smells of rotting corpses. Still, they’re up for the challenge, and set up their usual ‘home ambush’. Only, as soon as they run in, a vampire drops from the ceiling and kills Toby, while Bran runs into super-fan Laszlo, who welcomes his favorite TV team to his house. Except – well, they’re hardly a team anymore.

The vampires sit on a sofa surrounding a man gesturing at a laptop.
This could be . . . your house!

It’s always fun when a TV show pretends to be a different show for a bit, and What We Do in the Shadows commits thoroughly to the pastiche of a home improvement documentary called Go Flip Yourself, up to and including the creation of full opening credits featuring plenty of happy home-owners encountering their transformed homes. It’s a great frame through which to get a different view of What We Do in the Shadows, albeit not quite as radical as it might seem given that the shaky camera documentary style is already the show’s primary mode (it feels like the episode could have leaned much more heavily into a glossier look). Right down to the creation of ad break cliffhangers, pre-credit buttons, and more, the episode has a lot of fun getting the vampires to perform to a different kind of camera.

It’s also a nice way to look more closely at the house which is the setting for the vast majority of this show. Issues with the house have been a through-line, but they’re very rarely addressed. Here, the question of the house becomes central. Bran – hypnotized to forget that his brother has been murdered – shows off dazzling renovations of the mansion, to include a man cave for the boys, a golden toilet for Nadja, a walk-in closet with hat displays for Laszlo. The fact that all of these designs include bright daylight, and that the garden renovations will involve digging up the garden, is a red flag for Guillermo – once more the only one who thinks through the consequences of anything – but even his head is turned by the revelation that his room will need to be greatly expanded as part of the redesign.

For much of the episode, the fun comes from the parodying of the genre. In a particularly entertaining subplot, Nandor gets fixated on the idea of the man cave because he’s bored with Marwa and likes the idea of having somewhere to escape to without him. Except, in a nice twist of his wishes so far, as she now likes everything he likes, she also likes the idea of having somewhere to get away from him. And so, she designs a glorious man cave, and then locks herself in it, much to a crestfallen Nandor’s displeasure. Elsewhere, Nadja’s pretensions are as predictably appealed to as ever (‘a queen must have her throne’ is the line that gets her excited about the gold toilet), and Guillermo’s desires for a bit of status even lead him to become incautious.

And cautious is what they should have been because, of course, it’s all been a scam – though perhaps not the obvious one. For Bran is in fact Simon the Devious, in disguise in order to get access to the vampires’ house so he can once more steal Laszlo’s cursed hat. It’s a great twist, reviving a storyline that hasn’t been touched on for a long time, and allowing for the humour both of Simon’s joyous victory (compounded by him bringing in all of his tedious crew), and of Simon’s continuing ineptness, especially as the curse on the hat immediately takes hold and prevents him from even flying out the window as a bat.

More importantly, this episode is a reminder of the vanity of the vampires and of Guillermo – easily tricked by the appeal of free attention. Yet attention is a double-edged sword, as Nandor is discovering with Marwa, and as the tensions among the household are showing. These vampires have been living together for decades if not centuries, but they still haven’t learned how to – and the next person who appeals to their vanity is likely to have more malign purposes than Simon.

FILM: Emily (dir. Frances O’Connor)

Emily feels inspired by Greta Gerwig’s reimagining of Little Women, ostensibly exploring the literary beginnings of a young female writer in relation to that writer’s home life. It also evokes Becoming Jane, with that film’s retconning of an author’s biography to fit their most famous novel repeated here in relation to Emily Brontë. Given that, then, it’s surprising how little writing actually fits into Emily. By the time Emily gets around to writing Wuthering Heights, it’s completed in a matter of seconds of screen time, the actual writing itself just a postscript to the life that inspired it. Indeed, this film is so disengaged with Emily Brontë as an author that she’s shown receiving books with her real name on them, despite the fact that – as even a casual familiarity with the authors’ histories surely knows – the books were published under pseudonyms in their lifetime.

A soggy Victorian lady walks across a barren hill.
Sing with me! “Out on the wild, windy moors . . .”

Instead of engaging with Emily as a writer, this film creates a fictional backstory for her to imagine where Wuthering Heights came from. The imagination is pretty limited here, slipping into the trope that authors write about what they have personally experienced, and thus creating an Emily who is a gothic, Wednesday Addams-like waif who wanders across the wild, windy moors, peers into other people’s windows, steals her brother’s opium, and hides in closets when it all gets a bit too much for her. Juxtaposed with strait-laced sister Charlotte, Emily is presented as the family’s outcast as a way of explaining Wuthering Heights‘s own tempestuous mood.

Emma Mackey is decent in the lead, at least. She looks far, far more modern than everyone else in the film, but she has an intense presence – communicated particularly through her eyes – that is genuinely unsettling. Early in the film, in the most effective flight of fancy, the siblings and a couple of friends are playing a parlour game with their mother’s death mask in which they pretend to be a resurrected figure and each guess who the other is. But when Emily – reluctantly – takes a turn, she channels the spirit of her dead mother, in a quite frightening incident whose truth is wisely never made clear, as Emily begins wishing her ‘daughters’ well and then the storm blows the windows in. Mackey’s uncanny presence makes Emily genuinely interesting, and her wry, outside view of Yorkshire society sets her up as a reworked Kathy, someone temperamentally different to the world around her, and who seeks different kinds of fulfilment.

For Emily, this comes in the form of the new curate. While Charlotte initially fancies him, Charlotte and Anne are soon sent off to school (Emily had gone, but her unsociability – coded here as a kind of neurodivergence – led her to be sent home again), and Emily starts looking for different kinds of connection. She finds it first in her rebellious brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), who encourages her to explore herself creatively, takes her on adventures, and helps her free herself. When he gets them into trouble, though, he falls into a spiral of substance abuse that gradually separates the two. The narrative here is particularly valuable, though, for its awareness of the different kinds of support that a neurodivergent person might benefit from – while Charlotte and their father repeatedly try to push Emily towards conformity, it is actually Branwell’s rebellion that gives Emily the language she needs to define herself.

She then falls in love with the curate, with whom she got off to a bad start during the possession sequence, and who she takes a dislike to on account of his devotion to the Bible. But gradually the sparks start flying. This feels like the most inevitable part of the film, and the most predictable, and in some ways it would have been a more interesting film if the love interest had been more like Heathcliff; the conflict here feels very forced, with the curate getting into a full-blown sexual relationship with Emily and then just stopping, before coming to regret his choice when Emily leaves for Brussels. What the relationship does serve, though, is Emily’s growing confidence, leading her to snark at the smug (but virginal) Charlotte about her superior life experience.

What’s weird, though, is that – because Wuthering Heights itself is only written right at the film’s end, the film’s actual climax is that, immediately following Emily’s death, Charlotte starts to write. This feels like an odd insight, especially given that Jane Eyre was published before Wuthering Heights, meaning that the film has actively chosen to make Charlotte’s moment of inspiration to write her own great work the climax. And because the film shows no interest in writing, despite only existing on account of the lead character’s legacy as a writer, the film struggles to really justify its existence. Emily is a mood, and Mackey is compelling in producing it – but it’s not enough.

TELEVISION: What We Do in the Shadows, ‘The Night Market’ (dir. Yana Gorskaya)

One of the most fun things about seeing Nadja become a nightclub owner is that she’s always so clearly going to be a horrific boss. ‘The Night Market’, among other things, stages a series of labor disputes in its three separate plots, and in doing so captures just how anachronistic the vampires’ sense of the modern world is.

Nandor and Guillermo stand on a subway train - a hooded figure with glowing eyes watches them from behind.
You never know who you’ll meet on the underground

Nadja’s club is going well, with Baby Colin Robinson doing tap-dancing routines that are bringing in a vampire AND a human audience. But the problem is the staff. The Wraiths are simply not good at their jobs, and in the last week they have accidentally killed five customers which, even though four of them were human, is still not good for business. It turns out, as The Guide intimates to Nadja, that the Wraiths have organized, and have demands which they bring to her.

Nadja’s outrage is palpable. She has given them a supply closet to sleep in, AND they get a few minutes off every day. She also has no patience for the idea of treating them with some basic respect, and so she throws the lead Wraith, Xerxes, out of her office. The reaction here is typical and very Nadja. Her sense of entitlement is what makes her so fun to watch, but she also cannot handle the idea that the concessions she makes are anything less than modern and enlightened and so, instead of listening (it’s fitting that the Wraiths are silent), she storms out and instead comes up with her own plan to get something from the Night Market.

It’s always fun to see the gang go on an excursion, and the Night Market is a great way to showcase the wider variety of creatures who exist in this world. Laszlo is fed up of Baby Colin Robinson reading fairy tales, and so he takes the opportunity to show off fairies (who hang out in a dumpster eating shit), gnomes (who are only still because they’re frozen with fear) and a Pinocchio (‘it’s a medical condition’). One of the interesting things here is that Laszlo is categorically opposed to indulging in the whimsy of parenthood. Colin Robinson is here to work, performing for the club’s punters, and so he slams down the dreams of his protege.

Meanwhile, Guillermo and Nandor get drawn into a series of street fights between familiars. Nandor eggs on Guillermo to fight the other familiars, and Guillermo’s vampire-killer superpowers mean he easily bests all of them while never laying a finger on any of them. But then Guillermo is scheduled to fight against a vampire, at which point Nandor steps in and offers to fight Guillermo himself. This is the second big one-on-one battle between the two, which starts as a charade but then becomes dark, as Guillermo finally bests Nandor, who offers to be killed in shame at not having beaten his own familiar. While Guillermo instead gives Nandor a respectable out, by pretending to let Nandor win, once more it’s clear that the power relationship is shifting.

Nadja, meanwhile, procures an ancient Egyptian elixir which relieves the suffering of Wraiths. Rather than capitulate to the union, she instead seeks to break the union by offering Xerxes all of the elixir for himself as long as he gets the other Wraiths in line. She’s triumphant, capital having won out against the workers. Except, Xerxes’s colleagues object to the arrangement and kill Xerxes, forcing Nadja to capitulate to only a six-day week and to some new supply closets. It seems that the subservient forces in the vampires’ world are finally learning how to fight back.