Beast of Eden: Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter set up camp in the Galapagos Islands in 1929
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Death in paradise: Ryan Gilbey on The Galapagos Affair

Drawing largely on home movies shot by the subjects in the 1930s, the picture pieces together the circumstances that led to several unexplained deaths. 

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden (cert TBC)
dirs: Dayna Goldfine, Dan Geller

A brief internet search for the Galapagos Islands produces images of never-ending blue skies upstaged only by the unruffled azure seas and unblemished beaches spread out beneath them. The makers of The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, a documentary set on the archipelago, suffered rotten luck, if the footage they brought back is anything to go by. The tourist board won’t thank them for shots of coastlines tangled with barbed-wire creepers or clouds stacked like dirty dishes on the grey enamel horizon. The Galapagos tortoise, no party animal at the best of times, looks suicidal. I think it’s fair to say that this effect was deliberate. Limbo-dancing and pina coladas wouldn’t have suited a film that is, as its title suggests, more Agatha Christie than Thomas Cook.

Drawing largely on home movies shot by the subjects in the 1930s, the picture pieces together the circumstances that led to several unexplained deaths. In 1929, Friedrich Ritter leaves Germany to start a new life with Dore Strauch. He is a doctor, she his devoted former patient. They love each other. Or rather, she loves him, while he suspects she might be a cut above most “weak and cowardly” women. They are well matched in their physical oddness: Friedrich with his features squashed into the lower half of his face, exposing a steep, brainiac forehead, and Dore with her thick eyebrows like two lines of distant tanks. They have both had it up to here with society, that “huge impersonal monster . . . [chasing the] valueless”, as Friedrich calls it. For their unspoiled home, they choose Floreana, an island 60 miles from its nearest neighbour. Cate Blanchett reads from Dore’s writings in a voice stern but almost trembling: “Life can make a poor end of fine and admirable beginnings.”

The first problem that the couple encounter is one another. He is brusque and unloving; she is lonely. A nearby donkey provides companionship and a shoulder to cry on but have you ever asked one for relationship advice? In desperation, Dore longs for another human being to materialise, even a cannibal or a buccaneer.

Enter the Wittmers. They are admirers of Friedrich’s writing and have come to Floreana from Germany after learning of his move there. But while he is pursuing a Nietzschean ideal, their aspirations stop at The Swiss Family Robinson. Friedrich helps them to establish a home and grudgingly delivers their baby but he finds
them insufferable. “We shall resolutely resist the establishment of any community,” he declares, his words spoken by an actor, over footage of him and Dore waving to camera. The film stock is scarred with imperfections, as though the celluloid were breaking out in boils.

Next to put down roots is Baroness Eloise Wehrborn von Wagner-Bousquet (everyone calls her simply “the baroness”, though they’re not sure if she really is one). She has two handsome young blades in tow and plans to establish a swanky hotel on the island. “We’ve hardly been here two months,” grumbles Papa Wittmer, “and already there are unwelcome neighbours living next door.” (And that’s before she washes her feet in his drinking water.)

Gossip trickles from the islanders’ letters home and into the German media, which run the story complete with bodice-ripping illustrations. There was already eccentricity, isolation and exoticism. The baroness adds the ingredients necessary for a potboiler: class, money, envy and desire.

From the start, the directors Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller alternate between stoking the sense of foreboding and snickering at it. Not that they don’t take the material seriously; they just know how easily it could lapse into outright campness. They get in there first with a squall of excitable violins on the soundtrack, or doom-laden fades-to-black after some pointed remark. The wealth of letters and journals, read by a strong cast that includes Diane Kruger and Connie Nielsen, provides an instant emotional charge. Why the directors bother to include latter-day interviews with the offspring of their subjects, wrenching us away from the action, is a mystery almost as great as the whodunnit at the film’s centre. Still, its heat and strangeness endure. When the baroness agrees to star in a silent swashbuckler filmed on Floreana, it is as though she knows they are all being swept up in a melodrama beyond their control, like swimmers stolen by the tide, and is signalling for help. She’s not acting, but drowning.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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