Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on José Saramago, Jacek Hugo-Bader and William Rees-Mogg.

Cain by José Saramago

Nobel prize-winning author José Saramago's last novel, Cain, is published posthumously in English (Saramago died in June 2010). Ian Sansom in the Guardian notes that Cain is "a rewriting of the biblical story...Cain gets to enjoy his endless exile, ambling aimlessly through a number of other biblical episodes and scenes." Cain concludes from his travels that God must be mad. "[T]he only alternative explanation -one already mooted in Saramago's Gospel - is that God might be 'evil pure and simply'", writes Ángel Gurría-Quintana in the Financial Times.

Sansom praises the novel as a "fitting conclusion" to Saramago's career: "Cain's is the story of mankind, and Saramago was one of those authors much concerned with the plight of mankind". While Gurría-Quintana observes that, "Saramago takes great pleasure in pointing out the gratuitous cruelty of the Old Testament's God, and the idiocy of the priapic patriarchs who committed atrocities in his name."

Allan Massie writes in the Scotsman that "Every page of this novella, translated with a fluent and light touch by Margaret Jill Costa, has its charm. Every page raises difficult questions. That over the centuries we have found no satisfying answer to these questions...doesn't make them less compelling."

White Fever by Jacek Hugo-Bader

Based upon a road trip across Siberia, Polish journalist Jacek Hugo-Bader's White Fever is about "a society in moral and social breakdown" reports Luke Harding in the Guardian. It also includes "plenty of unexpectedly joyous moments",

White Fever, Harding argues, shows that after Communism's fall, "Russia has failed to come up with a new national idea...While some Siberians have turned to mysticism in search of meaning, others cling to the old Soviet faith ... The strength of this book is that it dwells on human stories that lie outside the parameters of conventional newspaper reporting." Harding also praises the translation from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones as "pitch perfect".

Carl Wilkinson writes in the Financial Times that White Fever is "a funny, enlightening and thoroughly engaging piece of reportage. Hugo-Bader eschews grand descriptions in favour of brilliant vignettes of his encounters with the people who live there." "

Memoirs by William Rees-Mogg

William Rees-Mogg has been editor of the Times, vice-chairman of the BBC and "has known every British Prime Minister since Anthony Eden...and most Popes and American Presidents," notes Allan Massie in the Scotsman. Peter Preston's review in the Guardian describes Mogg's memoirs as "thought-provoking...a voice from the recent past still resonant beyond the columns he writes for the Mail on Sunday and the Times."

"Most of the main political questions between the 1950s and the present are examined dispassionately and lenient judgments pronounced," finds Paul Johnson in the Spectator. "What distinguishes his memoirs is a lack of malice. There are no unpleasant stories". Mogg has a "distaste for sharp personal criticism. This gives his book magnanimity, to put it mildly, but it makes for dull reading." By contrast, Massie finds that "There are many amusing anecdotes and observations...The passages about his family background, education and home life are full of charm and interest."

Disney
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Pirates of the Caribbean’s silly magic still works – but Johnny Depp doesn’t

This fifth sequel makes no sense, but my former teenage heart still jumped. It’s Johnny Depp who’s sunk. [Aye, spoilers ahead . . .]

“One day ashore for ten years at sea. It's a heavy price for what's been done.”

Ten years ago, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), having replaced the sprawling villain Davy Jones as captain of the Flying Dutchman, spent his only day on land before leaving his bride, the incumbent King of the Pirates, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), for ten years, to fulfil his cursed fate and bring the dead at sea to their eternal rest. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) was sailing away to new adventures, again running after his beloved ship, the Black Pearl. It was 2007, I was 14, and the trilogy I had put all my teenage heart into was ending with the third instalment, At World’s End, on a bitter-sweet and loyal salute to the series.

But whatever the posters said, that wasn't quite the end, and what came after was awful.

First, the third film’s traditional post-credits scene showed Elizabeth waiting for her husband’s return, a ten-year-old boy by her side. She, the King of the Pirates, who in the same movie had just led a fleet to defeat the East India Company, had been sitting on the sand for ten years, raising a kid, instead of sailing, even while pregnant, to save Will like a fictional Ann Bonny? I was furious. Then, in 2011, Disney released On Stranger Tides, a sequel so hideous that even this former fan could not bring herself to like it. Bloom and Knightley had moved on, and without the original lovers’ duo, Johnny Depp’s legendary Sparrow had no substantial character to balance his craziness. Somehow, it made money, leading Disney to plan more sequels. Hence the fifth story, Salazar’s Revenge (Dead Men Tell No Tales in the US) hitting theatres this weekend.

Admittedly, it didn’t take the fourth or fifth movie for Pirates of the Caribbean to stop making sense, or just to be a bit rubbish. After the surprise success in 2003 of The Curse of the Black Pearl (young man associates with pirate to save young woman from more pirates and break a curse, adventures ensue), Disney improvised two more stories. Filmed together, there was 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest (couple’s wedding is interrupted, curse threatens pirate, fiancé wants to save his father from said curse, adventures ensue) and 2007’s At World’s End (everyone goes to the end of the world to save dead pirate while piracy is at war with East India Company and man still wants to save his father, adventures ensue). Chaotic plots, childish humour, naively emphatic dialogue and improbable situations quickly lost much of the audience.

Yet I’ve loved the trilogy for it all: the swashbuckling, sword-fighting and majestic ships on the high seas, the nautical myths, the weird magic and star-crossed love story. Everyone knows the main theme, but there are more hidden jewels to Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack. “One Day”, the melody to the couple’s last day together, is a beautiful backwash of nostalgia, as they embrace in the froth. Detailed costumes and stylish sets (At World’s End had stunning shots, such as a Chinese junk navigating the icy waters of the world's end) worked their magic every time.

As expected, there's little subtlety in Salazar’s Revenge. It’s over-the-top comedy and loud action, unnecessarily salacious jokes and copied scenes from the original. Its villain, Capitán Salazar (Javier Bardem), is a parody of a nightmare, but then not everyone can convey terror from under layers of CGI the way Bill Nighy could. It is a story of sons and daughters – Turner’s son Henry is following in the family tradition, trying to save his father from a curse – usually the sign that a series is dangerously lurking into fan fiction (here's looking at you, Harry Potter’s Cursed Child). Praised for being a feminist character, the new female lead Carina (Kaya Scodelario) spends half the film being sexualised and the other half defending the concept of women being smart, where previous films let Elizabeth lead a fleet of men without ever doubting her sex.

But the promise has been kept. Exactly ten years after leaving in a flash of green, Will Turner returns and brings some of the original spirit with him: ship battles and clueless soldiers, maps that cannot be read and compasses that do not point north. Zimmer’s theme sounds grand and treasure islands make the screen shine. The Pearl itself floats again, after disappearing in Stranger Tides.

Yet the one bit of magic it can't revive is in the heart of its most enduring character. Johnny Depp has sunk and everyone is having fun but him. Engulfed in financial troubles and rumours of heavy drinking, the actor, who had to be fed his lines by earpiece, barely manages a bad impersonation of the character he created in 2003. Watching him is painful – though it goes deeper than his performance in this film alone. Allegations of domestic violence against his ex-wife Amber Heard have tarnished his image, and his acting has been bad for a decade.

It should work better, given this incarnation of his Jack Sparrow is similarly damaged. The pirate legend on “Wanted” posters has lost the support of his crew and disappoints the new hero (“Are you really THE Jack Sparrow?”). The film bets on flashbacks of Jack’s youth, featuring Depp’s actual face and bad special effects, to remind us who Sparrow is. He is randomly called “the pirate” by soldiers who dreamt of his capture in previous movies and his character is essentially incidental to the plot, struggling to keep up with the younger heroes. He even loses his compass.

Pirates of the Caribbean 5 is the sequel no one needed, that the happy end the star-crossed lovers should never have had. It is 2017 and no one will sail to the world’s end and beyond to save Depp from purgatory. But all I wanted was for "One Day" to play, and for the beloved ghosts of my teenage years to reappear in a sequel I knew should never have been written. The beauty was in that last flash of green.

And yet the pirate's song sounds true: "Never shall we die". Pirates of the Caribbean has, at the very least, kept delivering on that.

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