Fulfilling Expectations in “Small Pleasures”
For all the insightful and valuable ways in which the novel as an art form is conceptualized, studied, and discussed, for that slippery person, the “average reader”—whom all of us, including the most austere critic, represent—there is perhaps nothing so pleasing as an author who knows her audience and consistently delivers. Stylistic and formal innovations, experiments with story or plot, genre-defying books challenging the limits of the from—these are all rewarding and important members of the literary community, but a fresh release from a well-loved author can often be the most gratifying. It is in this light Claire Chambers, a writer who has established herself as a prominent and accomplished novelist with a wide audience, has come through once more with her latest book, Small Pleasures .
Chambers prides story above all else, and moves immediately into the action from the opening pages. Our protagonist, Jean, is a refreshingly original one. Nearly forty in the summer of 1957, she works as a reporter for the London-area newspaper North Kent Echo. Single and living with her demanding, overbearing mother, she experiences occasional pangs of regret about never having children of her own amid daily chores and mundane shopping trips. While she takes obvious pride in her work, at the beginning of the book Jean is a character classically hemmed in, both by her mother and the tightly-drawn parameters of her work with the newspaper. Chambers quickly and deftly establishes this state of affairs. Jean’s stable if unspectacular life is upended within the initial chapters when a woman writes to the newspaper claiming to have experienced a virgin birth. Moved off her typical work and supported by her editor, Jean devotes herself to researching the case and finding the truth, uncovering much about her own life in the process.
The themes here are quickly made apparent and brought to the fore. Jean’s ongoing spinsterhood is thrown into stark relief with the supposedly miraculous Mrs. Tilbury and her immaculately conceived daughter, Margaret. With the latter inspiring Jean’s thoughts on her own childlessness, Chambers smoothly positions herself to explore her concerns of domesticity, gender expectations, and motherhood. In tracking down the truth behind the story, Jean reckons with a society that frequently dismisses the opinions, thoughts, and assertions of women—one, in that way, all too familiar to our own age, seven decades notwithstanding.
Chambers’ straightforward and useful narrative patterning creates an accessible, relatable story that never allows itself to become sidetracked or drawn astray. Moving with the brisk pace of a London morning, we follow Jean across the plot from scene to scene, often opening with a specific moment before transitioning into exposition designed to inform the audience of the internal and external events since the last chapter. While it is an approach that takes few chances in style or form, it has an obvious and fulfilled purpose, clearing the narrative decks for Jean and the pursuit of her remarkable journalistic white whale.
Intertwined nicely with the central plot—and given a rather surprising, if welcome, amount of attention given the book’s overall ethos—is the geo-temporal location. 1957 England, London especially but not exclusively, is rich and vibrantly presented, paying off the extensive research Chambers even mentions in her acknowledgments. From the general tone and mood down to dress and colloquial speech—notably, the characters’ simple mentioning of “the war” feels especially authentic—mid-century England is a fine example of a completely drawn and theoretically sound backdrop; no historical time period for its own frivolous sake here, as is all too often the case. Instead, the setting of Small Pleasures is inexorably wound up in its plot, as Jean’s oppressing tensions—her conventional mother, the limits placed on her by social convention, and the challenges of working in a male-dominated industry—give life and propulsion to the book as a whole.
That readership Chambers enjoys as a result of her successful career will recognize and admire the clear-eyed prose and emotionally resonant storytelling that dominates the genetic makeup of Small Pleasures , her eight book. Jean’s dutiful nature, her inner preoccupation with custom and appearance, and her solid moral character juxtapose nicely with the central plotline. Beneath her quiet and tactful demeanor is a true drive for journalistic truth, and a determination to remain open to the facts, and a willingness to treat honestly everyone that serves her well in her journey. As the book progresses, and the story becomes ever more mysterious, Jean’s transformation is never far from the center, nor is her relatability as a protagonist in doubt.
Small Pleasures is, ultimately, a work that lives up to its title. Jean’s contrast between the simple, decorum-focused Edwardian world of her mother and the shrewd, insightful manner in which she navigates a male-dominated career space provide Chambers an organic opportunity to comment on the societal norms and limitations of both 1957 England and, by subtle implication, today. By never taking the little things in life for granted, and by focusing on the details, Jean both gives focus to a solid story and proves herself as an investigative journalist. The simple, straightforward approach is the right one, both for Chambers and her central character. Indeed, it is here where her highly accessible prose and eminently navigable narrative technique, while perhaps a touch too risk-averse and clean-cut for some, serve her well vis-a-vis the book’s raison d’être. By the end, the style used in Small Pleasures manages, much like the good journalist who serves as its heroine, to present the facts without getting in the way of the story, and makes for a book that will satisfy its audience.
Tears of Course: Satire and Sorrow in Lars Iyers’ “My Weil”
by Clare Chambers
Published on October 12, 2021
D. W. White writes consciousness-forward fiction and criticism. Currently pursuing his Ph.D. in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he serves as Founding Editor of L’Esprit Literary Review and Fiction Editor for West Trade Review. His writing appears in 3:AM, The Florida Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Necessary Fiction, and Chicago Review of Books, among several others. Before returning to Chicago, he lived in Long Beach, California, for nine years.
This sounds a little Anita-Brookner-ish; I like the sounds of the combination of propulsion with focus on everyday details. A quiet novel that’s maybe not entirely quiet.
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by Clare Chambers ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 5, 2021
Chambers’ tone is sweet, which is not the same as saccharine.
In the spirit of Barbara Pym's novels and the classic film Brief Encounters , Chambers provides an updated portrait of the vaunted British upper lip and its associated postwar values.
When the suburban North Kent Echo runs a story on parthenogenesis in small animals, it gets a curious letter to the editor in response: "I have always believed my own daughter (now ten) to have been born without the involvement of any man," writes Mrs. Gretchen Tilbury of Sidcup. When the opportunity arises to investigate this intriguing virgin birth, Jean Swinney is eager to take on the assignment; it will be a nice distraction from her usual humdrum work. Given the social patterns of 1950s Britain, Jean’s beat consists chiefly of feature pieces of appeal to housewives, money-saving tips, recipes, and the like. Jean’s personal life is equally nonstimulating, as she shares a joyless home with her agoraphobic and needy mother, and she finds a welcome respite in her growing attachment to the Tilbury family. As clues to the mystery of “Our Lady of Sidcup” gradually reveal themselves to Jean, she finds herself in a relationship that might provide her with a last chance at domestic contentment. An awareness of the high cost of that potential happiness weighs heavily on Jean, and a bittersweet aura pervades Chambers’ gentle sketch of an unassuming, highly intelligent woman daring to contravene convention. In a departure from similar, yet tamer, depictions of postwar English life, Chambers acknowledges a broad range of human experience. Jean’s foibles, along with those of her irksome mother and other characters, are presented with sympathy, but readers in search of comfortable solutions will have to reassess their need to tie everything up with a vintage-style bow.
Pub Date: Oct. 5, 2021
Page Count: 352
Publisher: Custom House/Morrow
Review Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2021
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2021
LITERARY FICTION | HISTORICAL FICTION | GENERAL FICTION
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by Kristin Hannah ‧ RELEASE DATE: Feb. 6, 2024
A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.
A young woman’s experience as a nurse in Vietnam casts a deep shadow over her life.
When we learn that the farewell party in the opening scene is for Frances “Frankie” McGrath’s older brother—“a golden boy, a wild child who could make the hardest heart soften”—who is leaving to serve in Vietnam in 1966, we feel pretty certain that poor Finley McGrath is marked for death. Still, it’s a surprise when the fateful doorbell rings less than 20 pages later. His death inspires his sister to enlist as an Army nurse, and this turn of events is just the beginning of a roller coaster of a plot that’s impressive and engrossing if at times a bit formulaic. Hannah renders the experiences of the young women who served in Vietnam in all-encompassing detail. The first half of the book, set in gore-drenched hospital wards, mildewed dorm rooms, and boozy officers’ clubs, is an exciting read, tracking the transformation of virginal, uptight Frankie into a crack surgical nurse and woman of the world. Her tensely platonic romance with a married surgeon ends when his broken, unbreathing body is airlifted out by helicopter; she throws her pent-up passion into a wild affair with a soldier who happens to be her dead brother’s best friend. In the second part of the book, after the war, Frankie seems to experience every possible bad break. A drawback of the story is that none of the secondary characters in her life are fully three-dimensional: Her dismissive, chauvinistic father and tight-lipped, pill-popping mother, her fellow nurses, and her various love interests are more plot devices than people. You’ll wish you could have gone to Vegas and placed a bet on the ending—while it’s against all the odds, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.
Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024
Page Count: 480
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2023
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2023
FAMILY LIFE & FRIENDSHIP | GENERAL FICTION | HISTORICAL FICTION
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by Barbara Kingsolver ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 18, 2022
An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.
Inspired by David Copperfield , Kingsolver crafts a 21st-century coming-of-age story set in America’s hard-pressed rural South.
It’s not necessary to have read Dickens’ famous novel to appreciate Kingsolver’s absorbing tale, but those who have will savor the tough-minded changes she rings on his Victorian sentimentality while affirming his stinging critique of a heartless society. Our soon-to-be orphaned narrator’s mother is a substance-abusing teenage single mom who checks out via OD on his 11th birthday, and Demon’s cynical, wised-up voice is light-years removed from David Copperfield’s earnest tone. Yet readers also see the yearning for love and wells of compassion hidden beneath his self-protective exterior. Like pretty much everyone else in Lee County, Virginia, hollowed out economically by the coal and tobacco industries, he sees himself as someone with no prospects and little worth. One of Kingsolver’s major themes, hit a little too insistently, is the contempt felt by participants in the modern capitalist economy for those rooted in older ways of life. More nuanced and emotionally engaging is Demon’s fierce attachment to his home ground, a place where he is known and supported, tested to the breaking point as the opiate epidemic engulfs it. Kingsolver’s ferocious indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, angrily stated by a local girl who has become a nurse, is in the best Dickensian tradition, and Demon gives a harrowing account of his descent into addiction with his beloved Dori (as naïve as Dickens’ Dora in her own screwed-up way). Does knowledge offer a way out of this sinkhole? A committed teacher tries to enlighten Demon’s seventh grade class about how the resource-rich countryside was pillaged and abandoned, but Kingsolver doesn’t air-brush his students’ dismissal of this history or the prejudice encountered by this African American outsider and his White wife. She is an art teacher who guides Demon toward self-expression, just as his friend Tommy provokes his dawning understanding of how their world has been shaped by outside forces and what he might be able to do about it.
Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2022
Page Count: 560
Review Posted Online: July 13, 2022
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2022
LITERARY FICTION | GENERAL FICTION
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Book Review: Small Pleasures by Claire Chambers
Posted October 8, 2021 by WendyW in Blogging , Book Review , bookblogger / 5 Comments
1957, south-east suburbs of London. Jean Swinney is a journalist on the local newspaper, caring for her truculent mother and - unmarried in her mid-30s - considered a spinster of her parish. This limited existence of tedious chores and small pleasures is suddenly cracked open when a reporting assignment takes Jean into the intimate lives of the Tilburys: Gretchen Tilbury has made the sensational claim that her daughter Margaret is the product of a virgin birth and Jean is determined to uncover the truth. But as the initial medical tests seem to confirm Gretchen's version of events, Jean is surprised to find her life has become strangely (and not unpleasantly) intertwined with that of the Tilburys: Gretchen is now a friend, and her quirky and charming daughter Margaret a sort of surrogate child. But it is Gretchen's husband, Howard, who exerts the greatest gravitational pull on Jean: she doesn't mean to fall in love with him, but Howard surprises her with his dry wit, his intelligence and his kindness - and when she does fall, she falls hard. But he is married, and to her friend - who is also the subject of the story she is researching for the newspaper, a story that increasingly seems to be causing dark ripples across all their lives. And yet Jean cannot bring herself to discard the chance of finally having a taste of happiness... But there will be a price to pay, and it will be unbearable.
Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers is a beautifully written fictional story of ordinary people, who lead ordinary lives until unusual circumstances change their lives forever. The writing is so beautiful and simplistic, and I was drawn into the story and into the character’s lives quickly and I couldn’t stop until I was done with the book.
The main story focuses on Jean, a very ordinary small-town journalist who discovers a woman, Gretchen, who claims to have given a virgin birth to her now 10-year-old daughter, Margaret. The book revolves around Jean, doing the research to try and find the truth to her claim. In doing the research, Jean becomes very involved with Gretchen and her family. Gretchen’s husband, Howard knows about the circumstances surrounding Margaret’s birth and he believes his wife’s claim. Jean also takes a liking to the daughter, Margaret, the outcome of the virgin birth, and she eventually feels very protective of her.
I liked that this story gave a realistic view of a time in the past. So many books romanticize a time period, making it sound heroic and gives a nostalgic look at the time period. The author here gave the reader a very realistic glimpse at life in Kent in 1957 for an average person. The book is full of normal and mundane details of the time, giving the reader a real sense of what life was like and how people managed their daily life and chores during that time period.
Jean’s research into Gretchen’s claim gives the book a bit of mystery as we wonder if Gretchen’s claims are true and if so, how did Margaret’s conception occur? The details of the medical tests and Jean’s search for the women who lived in the convalescent home where Gretchen was a patient during the time she became pregnant with Margaret are interesting and give some insight to care for the very ill during this time period.
Small Pleasures is a book that you’re going to love, or possibly dislike, as it’s not glamorous, or filled with exciting scenes, but it’s so ordinary and simplistic that it’s beautiful. I received a complimentary copy of this book. The opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
5 responses to “ book review: small pleasures by claire chambers ”.
Nice review Wendy. I have been waffling about this one, but don’t think it is for me even though it sounds like it was very well written.
I think I agree with you Carla. As much as I enjoyed it, I’m not sure I’d pick it up again to read it.
Great review Wendy! This sounds fabulous and is going on the tbr.
Hmm…I’m torn on this one. I’m not sure it’s one I would like…but maybe?
I don’t know either. It was very different, and mostly character driven, not a lot of action in this book.
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BOOK REVIEW: SMALL PLEASURES
A word like parthenogenesis would usually send me to Google in search of a quick and easy definition, yet having read Clare Chambers’ new novel Small Pleasures , I feel rather nostalgic for a time when such easy answers were far harder to come by. For in taking this concept – which in layman’s terms means virgin birth – as its premise, the novel is essentially a detective story with a twist, a tale in which the mystery lies not in finding out who did the deed but in discovering whether or not the deed ever really happened at all.
Inspired by a real-life claim to immaculate conception, the book is set in the suburbs of postwar Britain and at times can feel rather quaint. Front gardens are carefully mowed, brass door knockers polished, the engines of cars as carefully oiled as gentlemen’s collars are starched. The central character is Jean, an unmarried journalist who works for the local paper. She lives at home in rather drab predictability with her elderly mother, taking pleasure in furtive moments of snatched irreverence: eating standing up, or smoking a cigarette spreadeagled on the sitting-room sofa. These pleasures are small not because of any lack in their intensity but because they occur in secret, when someone’s – in this case Jean’s mother’s – back is turned. Everything changes when Jean is assigned to the story of Gretchen Tilbury, a young dressmaker who claims to have conceived her now ten-year-old daughter entirely on her own. As Jean researches the story for the paper, she becomes increasingly embroiled with the Tilbury family, implicating herself inextricably in their lives. It soon becomes clear, however, that far more is at stake than simply proving or disproving the veracity of Gretchen’s claim, for as Gretchen herself observes, “everyone has a secret sorrow.”
Indeed, what really matters in this engrossing and extremely enjoyable book is all that is concealed – the secrets hidden behind those carefully polished front doors and neatly tended lawns. Indeed, with every stone that Jean’s investigation upturns, a new and uncomfortable truth is exposed. This play of concealment and revelation works well thanks to Chambers’ beautifully crafted representation of 1950s Britain, which demonstrates the very deep-rooted concern with appearance by which the era was marked. It is a concern that sees Jean shocked, for example, by Gretchen’s unconventional friend Martha, with her unkempt home and sink full of greasy dishes. More importantly, it is a concern that extends into a preoccupation with propriety and moral conduct that is often a source of considerable misery and frustration. This is typified when Gretchen’s daughter falls ill, leaving Jean to go alone with her husband Howard on a visit to his elderly Aunt. Jean is rather hesitant to go, fearing that Aunt Edie will disapprove of an unmarried woman travelling alone with somebody else’s husband. This reluctancy underscores the conservatism of society at that time and implies that the need to keep up appearances was very closely tied to an awareness of the judgement of others.
Chambers has said that the novel deals with notions of duty and self-sacrifice, and these are themes that depend on such a detailed evocation of postwar society. Jean cares devotedly for her housebound mother, working full-time whilst performing a whole range of now nearly extinct domestic tasks entirely on her own: “clearing out the larder,” “sewing worn sheets sides to middle,” and putting “elderly tea towels to soak in borax.” Her selflessness is exemplary to the point of frustration, the reader watching helplessly as each brief instant of happiness she is offered disappears almost before it has begun. As a model husband, Howard is similarly frustrating in his self-denial and respect for social mores. He admits to marrying Gretchen because “there was a certain amount of urgency” to provide her daughter with “a father and a respectable upbringing.” And as his feelings towards Jean deepen, he feels bound to honour his vows and avoid falling into the “shabby behaviour” of adultery, even when his wife quite openly chooses to abandon such standards herself.
Reading the novel today, one can’t help but wonder if our society is still as bound by moral imperatives of the type that Chambers describes. It is tempting to see the 21st century as the era of the “self,” in which the fulfilment of individual desires has become paramount, a world in which personal interest all too often takes precedence over any sense of duty towards others. The postwar setting is, therefore, the ideal place from which to critique our current state, teetering as society then was on the brink of quite massive change from which glimpses of the future could be briefly caught. Jean somehow intimates this while eating lunch at an Italian restaurant with Howard. “Everything about the meal was foreign and unsettling,” she reflects, her surprise at the lack of vegetables and the tiny cups of coffee, “suggesting that there were, just possibly, different ways of doing things.”
This excellently researched portrayal of the 1950s is rich with nostalgic charm and lends the work a very innocent, rather naïve feel, well-suited to a topic that relies so heavily on credulity to work at all. Yet despite its religious associations, what is important in Small Pleasures , is not the question of truth or faith but rather the very notion of mystery itself. It suggests that sometimes things are better simply taken as they are, that the contemporary obsession with definitive answers offers a narrow and rather limiting approach to the world. This is no doubt why I suddenly feel quite nostalgic for those pre-Google days, when some things remained secret and unknown and mealtime conversation didn’t end up in frantic reaching for a phone.
Small Pleasures By Clare Chambers 368 pages. Orion Publishing
About Jane Downs
Having grown up in the south of England, Jane went on to study Arabic at university, travelling extensively in the Middle East and North Africa before putting down roots in Paris. Her work includes short stories, poetry, reportage and radio drama. Her audio drama "Battle Cries" was produced by the Wireless Theatre Company in 2013. Her short stories and articles have been published by Pen and Brush and Minerva Rising in the US. In August 2021 she joined the Litro team as Book Review Editor, commissioning reviews of fiction translated into English. Other works can be found on her website:https://scribblatorium.wordpress.com
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Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers review — an almost flawless novel
W hen John Major evoked an England of spinsters cycling across misty village greens, he might have had someone like Jean Swinney in mind. Jean, the protagonist of Clare Chambers’s sixth novel, is only 39, but she has long been overlooked. A local newspaper reporter, she is unmarried, childless and lives in one of those invincible green suburbs in Kent with her housebound mother. Hers is a life of “small pleasures”: “a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch; a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week; a newly published library book, still pristine and untouched by other hands”.
Heading that list is the “first cigarette of the day”, which best captures the way Jean copes with her “limited life”. Her modest treats have served
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Small Pleasures : Book summary and reviews of Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
Summary | Reviews | More Information | More Books
by Clare Chambers
Published Oct 2021 352 pages Genre: Historical Fiction Publication Information
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About this book
Now available in the US - the dark horse literary novel that has taken Britain by storm! In the best tradition of Tessa Hadley, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ann Patchett - an astonishing, keenly observed period piece about an ordinary British woman in the 1950s whose dutiful life takes a sudden turn into a pitched battle between propriety and unexpected passion.
Longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 1957: Jean Swinney is a feature writer on a local paper in the southeast suburbs of London. Clever but with limited career opportunities and on the brink of forty, Jean lives a dreary existence that includes caring for her demanding widowed mother, who rarely leaves the house. It's a small life with little joy and no likelihood of escape. That all changes when a young woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth. Jean seizes onto the bizarre story and sets out to discover whether Gretchen is a miracle or a fraud. But the more Jean investigates, the more her life becomes strangely (and not unpleasantly) intertwined with that of the Tilburys, including Gretchen's gentle and thoughtful husband Howard, who mostly believes his wife, and their quirky and charming daughter Margaret, who becomes a sort of surrogate child for Jean. Gretchen, too, becomes a much-needed friend in an otherwise empty social life. Jean cannot bring herself to discard what seems like her one chance at happiness, even as the story that she is researching starts to send dark ripples across all their lives…with unimaginable consequences. Both a mystery and a love story, Small Pleasures is a quintessentially British novel in the style of The Remains of the Day , about conflict between personal fulfillment and duty; a novel that celebrates the beauty and potential for joy in all things plain and unfashionable.
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"[A]ffecting...Chambers does an excellent job of recreating the austere texture of post-WWII England. In Jean, the author creates a character who strives admirably to escape her cloistered existence. Chambers plays fair with Gretchen's mystery, tenderly illuminating the hidden yearnings of small lives." - Publishers Weekly "In a departure from similar, yet tamer, depictions of postwar English life, Chambers acknowledges a broad range of human experience. Jean's foibles, along with those of her irksome mother and other characters, are presented with sympathy, but readers in search of comfortable solutions will have to reassess their need to tie everything up with a vintage-style bow. Chambers' tone is sweet, which is not the same as saccharine." - Kirkus Reviews "An irresistible novel—wry, perceptive and quietly devastating." - Mail on Sunday (UK) " Small Pleasures is an almost flawlessly written tale of genuine, grown-up romantic anguish. Written in prose that is clipped as closely as suburban hedges, this is a book about seemingly mild people concealing turbulent feelings." - Sunday Times (UK) " Small Pleasures is a tender and heart-rending tale that will draw you in from the first page and keep you gripped until the very end. Exquisitely compelling!" - Ruth Hogan, author of The Keeper of Lost Things "A very fine book...It's witty and sharp and reads like something by Barbara Pym or Anita Brookner, without ever feeling like a pastiche." - David Nicholls, bestselling author of One Day
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Clare Chambers is the author of six adult titles, published by Century/Arrow. She won the 1998 Romantic Novel of the Year with Learning to Swim .
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Book Reviews on...
By clare chambers, five books review.
An uplifting tale of an apparent virgin birth in 1950s England that’s been a word of mouth hit;
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War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
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Small Things Like These review – Cillian Murphy’s piercingly painful Magdalene Laundries drama
Murphy plays a man who witnesses Ireland’s church’s abusive workhouses for unwed mothers in an absorbing Dickensian story based on recent history
A s producer and lead actor, Cillian Murphy has brought to the screen a piercingly painful and sad story with a very literary intensity, juxtaposing the detail of the present with flashback memories of the past. It is about Ireland’s notorious Magdalene Laundries : the church’s homes for unwed mothers who were made to work in an atmosphere of wretchedness and shame and had their babies taken away and sold to foster parents. Enda Walsh has adapted the much admired novel by Claire Keegan and the director is Tim Mielants.
This subdued but absorbing and eventful film is rather different from Peter Mullan’s extravagant The Magdalene Sisters – which also featured Eileen Walsh in its cast – and different also from Stephen Frears’ bittersweet dramedy Philomena . Murphy shows us once again his sightless stare of fear and pain, as the witness to something terrible not just in the real world but within himself. He plays Bill, a coalman in County Wexford in the early 80s; a soft-spoken, thoughtful man who has built up a good business through years of hard work, though money worries are never far way. He is married to Eileen (Walsh), and they have many daughters whose education comes courtesy of the church and whose future weddings will doubtless cause more worry and expense.
One Christmas, good-hearted Bill appears to be on the verge of a midlife breakdown. Long submerged memories are rising to the surface, and he is in the habit of getting up in the middle of the night to make tea and gaze out of the window. He stops his van one day to talk to a poor boy who is pitiably collecting sticks, claiming only to want them for his dog but obviously, in the most un-Christmassy way, gathering winter fuel. Bill is assailed by his own memories of Christmas poverty: getting a hot water bottle for a present instead of the longed-for jigsaw puzzle.
And then the film shows something breaking his gloomy pain into the open, a terrible revelation that he has somehow been expecting. Delivering coal to the church laundry – a place from which locals avert their eyes, as if from Dracula’s castle – he walks straight in and sees the terrified girls for himself, like abused serfs. Each of them, he realises, resembles his own poor unmarried mother, who would assuredly have ended up in a place like this had she not been taken in by a wealthy local woman. The church sister – a dead-eyed performance of cool bureaucratic tyranny from Emily Watson – is icily aware that Bill is now in possession of a secret that could damage her and that, as a man, his (possible) objection would carry far more weight than one from the town’s women. But she has his daughters’ educational future in her hands.
There is something very Dickensian in this story, signalled by Bill’s boyhood ownership of David Copperfield, though with a fierce pessimism and anger that Dickens might not have favoured. And the ending is deeply strange; is it actually happening or not? I was so rapt, so caught up in this film, that I wasn’t aware that it was going to be the ending until the screen faded to black. It is an absorbing, committed drama.
- Berlin film festival 2024
- Berlin film festival
- Drama films
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‘The 2024 Oscar Nominated Short Films’ Review: Small Running Times, Large Themes
Many of this year’s films take a darker turn, but there is some levity among the bunch.
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By Jeannette Catsoulis , Maya Phillips and Ben Kenigsberg
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The Oscar-nominated short films are being presented in three programs : live action, animation and documentary. Each program is reviewed below by a separate critic.
Whatever your takeaways from the live action section of this year’s Oscar-nominated short films, a good laugh is unlikely to be among them. Suicide, abortion, bereavement, discoloring corpses — they’re all here, in a deluge of downers that only the Danes (and, depending on your tolerance for extreme preciousness, Wes Anderson) can be trusted to alleviate.
Those Danes, though! In Lasse Lyskjer Noer’s magnificently morbid comedy, “Knight of Fortune,” two grieving widowers bond over toilet paper and the trauma of viewing a loved one whose flesh — as warned by a pair of ghoulish mortuary attendants — might be the color of a banana. Although, bathed in the sickly spill of the morgue’s fluorescents, no one’s complexion here is exactly glowing.
If “Knight of Fortune” is a gentle nudge to the ribs, Misan Harriman’s “The After” is a two-by-four to the gut — and not in a good way. Trafficking in the kind of forced sentiment that can break you out in hives, this handsomely shot movie, featuring a garment-rending David Oyelowo, follows a London ride-share driver in the wake of a shocking personal tragedy. A trite, bullying soundtrack herds us toward the histrionic climax of a film that doesn’t trust us to get there on our own.
6 Films Our Critics Are Talking About
Land of Bad
R | Action, thriller
Fighters on the ground are assisted by drone pilots, including one played by Russell Crowe, half a world away.
Read our full review.
R | Comedy, romance
Camila Mendes plays a broke assistant posing as an art world bigwig in this slyly charming romantic comedy.
R | Mystery, thriller
Lily Sullivan plays a podcaster investigating a supernatural mystery in this thriller.
The Space Race
Not rated | Documentary
The days of shooting for the stars are interpreted through the stories of people of color whose aspirations were thwarted.
God & Country
PG-13 | Documentary
This film follows the rise of Christian nationalist voters and argues that they threaten pluralism and democracy.
This experimental nonfiction feature aims to reflect on travel and tourism in Laos.
More restrained, and infinitely more resonant, “Invincible” observes the final 48 hours in the life of a 14-year-old boy (Léokim Beaumier-Lépine) as he struggles to corral his emotions and earn release from a center for troubled youth. The acting is impressive and the direction (by Vincent René-Lortie, drawing from a painful real-life memory) is bold and intuitive. Subtly intimate photography by Alexandre Nour Desjardins does much to enhance a movie that understands when it comes to emotions, less is often more.
For Wes Anderson, less is rarely an option. As “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” flits through a forest of intricate sets, a flurry of famous faces (Benedict Cumberbatch, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley) and multiple story lines, its 37 minutes of virtually nonstop narration can feel like as many hours. Changing character onscreen and speaking directly to the camera, the actors navigate an ever-shifting story ( adapted from Roald Dahl’s original ) and constantly shuffling surroundings. A gorgeous, ingenious and finally exhausting exercise in puzzle box moviemaking.
Even allowing for Anderson’s flash and fame, Nazrin Choudhury’s “Red, White And Blue” — the only one of this year’s entries that’s overtly political — is the program’s clear standout. Wrapping the cold steel of its message in velvet-soft packaging, this beautifully acted, warmly photographed observation of financial precarity follows a desperate single mother (Brittany Snow) who must cross state lines to terminate a pregnancy. Painstakingly constructed from small, telling details, the movie ends with the kind of sting that lingers longer than any news report. JEANNETTE CATSOULIS
This year’s Oscar-nominated animated shorts — sobering tales of war, assault, trauma, identity and regret — ask the question, what tools can filmmakers use to tell a poignant, but not exploitative or gratuitous, story about trauma?
The novel technique the directors Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess use in “Ninety-Five Senses” is the story structure: An inmate (voiced by Tim Blake Nelson) eating his last meal anecdotally reflects on each of his senses, telling tidbits of the life he had (and the life that could have been). Each sense is illustrated by different artists, in a different style, creating a kind of 13-minute anthology of a life — but that makes this understated film also feel a bit incoherent, with the vignettes lacking the build to bring the film to a satisfying emotional conclusion.
“Our Uniform,” a 7-minute selection from the Iranian director Yegane Moghaddam, packs a lot into a succinct reflection on her school uniform and the ways her culture’s restrictive fashion rules shaped her understanding of her gender and autonomy. Like “Ninety-Five Senses,” the narrative of “Our Uniform” is plain and direct, but the latter shows the most creative animation concept of the group; illustrations move against a backdrop of various fabrics, with characters running around buttons and along seams.
In the quiet but harrowing French short “Pachyderme,” from the director Stéphanie Clément, a young girl tells of her summers with her grandparents in the country. The robust art style — each shot is as beautifully shaded as a painting — and sedated narration create the sense of a Grimm fairy tale, showing how seemingly innocuous details can hide something menacing beneath.
The unspoken monster in “Pachyderme” mirrors the ever-morphing monster in the breathtaking “Letter to a Pig,” directed by Tal Kantor. In the film, a Holocaust survivor tells a classroom of young students about the pig who saved his life. Though the movie never details the atrocities of the war, it paints just as chilling a picture through incisive visual metaphors. The animation, which morphs from bare-bones line drawings in black and white to fleshy watercolor pinks to 3-D realism, creates a sophisticated, heart-wrenching account of a tragedy.
Juxtaposed with such a remarkable war story, Dave Mullins’s “War Is Over! Inspired by the Music of John and Yoko” feels pat. In an alternate World War I, soldiers on both sides find a way to connect. A telegraphed death and the idealistic crooning of John Lennon and Yoko Ono make this the least impressive of an otherwise strong category of films about the darker parts of humanity. MAYA PHILLIPS
Only one documentary short nominee this year has the full balance of human interest, social relevance and aesthetic appeal that tends to make a winner.
It’s “The Last Repair Shop,” directed by Ben Proudfoot, who won two years ago, for “The Queen of Basketball,” a New York Times Opinion production, and the composer Kris Bowers, who was nominated with Proudfoot for “A Concerto Is a Conversation,” another Times Opinion documentary. This time, both have made their documentary with The Los Angeles Times. But it’s a better movie, and it happens to have a Los Angeles subject.
The repair shop of the title fixes instruments for the city’s school district; according to the opening text, that service has been offered to students for decades. The movie presents the recollections of four specialists (in strings, brass, woodwinds and piano), who share their experiences of immigration, of coming to terms with being gay and even of opening for Elvis in a bluegrass band, a long-term payoff of buying a $20 fiddle at a swap meet. Schoolchildren further testify to how music affects their lives. The generational contrast gives “The Last Repair Shop” a pleasing shape and helps it make an uninflected case for the importance of financing music education.
Sentimentality in “Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó” is a given. Directed by Sean Wang, who received his Oscar nomination just as his debut feature, “Dìdi,” was becoming a Sundance darling , the short profiles Wang’s two grandmothers , who are so close they even sleep in the same bed. Wang depicts them as cut-ups (he films them arm-wrestling, watching “Superbad” and generally being goofballs), which is sweet, but the subject is a bit too easy. The doc never transcends being a professional-grade home movie.
It is also no trick to wring pathos from a centenarian World War II widow speaking out against a censorious Florida school board — something that happens in “The ABCs of Book Banning,” directed by the longtime HBO documentary chief, Sheila Nevins, now at MTV. The heart of the film is children talking about books that authorities have removed or considered removing from schools. While using kids might seem cheap, they are unfailingly thoughtful. “It’s like you’re trying to slow down children’s reading,” says a fourth-grader named Ruth Anne of those who would remove books from shelves.
John Hoffman and Christine Turner’s “The Barber of Little Rock” centers on Arlo Washington, who started a barbers’ college and then a nonprofit fund with the specific goal of helping underserved Black residents of Little Rock, Ark. The short splits the difference between observing Washington and his fund at work and presenting polished interviews with him and others. The first approach is more effective than the second.
Finally, “Island in Between,” a Times Opinion documentary by the Taiwan-born director S. Leo Chiang, explores questions of national identity through the lens of Kinmen, islands that are governed by Taiwan but geographically closer to mainland China. It’s the least pushy, least resolved title in the lineup, which means it barely stands a chance. BEN KENIGSBERG
The 2024 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live Action Not rated. Running time: 2 hours 31 minutes. In theaters.
The 2024 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Animated Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes. In theaters.
The 2024 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Documentary Not rated. Running time: 2 hours 33 minutes. In theaters.
Maya Phillips is an arts and culture critic for The Times. More about Maya Phillips
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In the documentary short “Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó,” the filmmaker Sean Wang chronicles the inner lives of his grandmothers. Now, the film is nominated for an Academy Award .