Film review: X-Men – Days of Future Past (2014)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2014 by Mistlake

X-Men Days of Future Past 0

X-Men Days of Future Past 1

X-Men Days of Future Past 3

Director: Bryan Singer. Writer: Simon Kinberg, based on the comic book story by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. Starring: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage, Ellen Page, Evan Peters, Josh Helman.

In the future, Bolivar Trask’s (Dinklage) unstoppable Sentinel robots are targeting and killing mutants, who are now on the verge of extinction. Professor Xavier (Stewart) and Magneto (McKellen) send Wolverine (Jackman) back in time to 1973 to prevent Mystique (Lawrence) from assassinating Trask, whose death by mutant hands convinced the US government to fund the Sentinel project. Wolverine will, however, also have to cooperate with the younger versions of Xavier (McAvoy) and Magneto (Fassbender), which is in itself no easy task.

As part of the X-Men film franchise, this movie negates the events of X-Men 1 through 3, unless you want to get into branching parallel realities, which you’ll have to just the same in order to explain away the paradoxes inherent in any time travel story: if the horrible future never occurred, then no one was sent back to correct it, which means it occurred anyway, which means the nice future didn’t happen, which means the horrible future happened instead, in which someone was sent back to change it into the nice future where no one was sent back, and so on ad nauseam.

So perhaps we’d better disregard paradox, the parallel worlds and/or the sudden redundancy of the original trilogy, and just look at X-Men: Days of Future Past as a separate effort. Based as it is on one of the comic book’s most classic stories (although much has been changed), it has a great plot to work with, one which the script serves well, giving it just the right level of complexity without skimping on the special effects set pieces. It is a plot based rather than action based movie, and that makes for a nice change from the hollow spectacle of many other blockbuster films. Not everyone may appreciate the scenes of Trask’s political maneuverings, or the attempts by Wolverine and Xavier to reason with Mystique and Magneto, but just like its predecessor X-Men: First Class, this is one picture that feels all the better for being grounded in some narrative solidity.

The other really great thing is the period: the 1970s look and feel brings a different flavour to the movie, and Wolverine’s serious mutton chops fit right in. Dinklage looks great too in his big hair and massive mustache, but it’s more than just hair and clothes – the whole era is just right for corporate intrigue and cloak-and-dagger scheming, and it’s perfect how President Nixon ends up playing an important part in the story. It’s actually a bit reminiscent of the 70s vibe in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, only with the X-Men movie having the advantage of actually taking place in the decade in question.

Action-wise, you’ll get all could reasonably need, but as I’ve said, Days of Future Past is somewhat lighter on fighting and booming than previous installments. To me, the most impressive FX showstopper is the pièce de resistance where Quicksilver (Peters) rearranges an entire contingent of armed guards so that they will take themselves out – one of the most inventive things I’ve seen in a while, and uproariously entertaining. The expected stuff is there too, like Magneto tossing buildings at people and Wolverine messing up people who just won’t understand that every once in a while you come across someone you shouldn’t have fucked with.

On the negative side, there’s too little of Trask, who should perhaps have been emphasized a bit more as he’s the only major villain. Other problems run in a similar vein: once more the screenwriters have desperately come up with a way to neutralize Xavier’s powers to prevent him from solving the whole problem in no time flat, and yet again the story focuses on Wolverine, which as usual leaves fascinating characters like Ice Man, Colossus and Kitty Pryde as little more than walk-on roles. One would think, for the good of the franchise’s future, that it’s in the studio’s interest to shine a spotlight on a few more of the many great characters available in the X-Men universe.

On the whole, a fine superhero film of substance and energy, and a worthy follow-up to the excellent First Class.

Rating: 8 of 10.

X-Men Days of Future Past 2

X-Men Days of Future Past 4

X-Men Days of Future Past 5

X-Men Days of Future Past 6

Film review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2014 by Mistlake

Amazing Spider-Man 2 0

Amazing Spider-Man 2 3

Director: Marc Webb. Writers: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner, based on the comic book created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Chris Cooper, Colm Feore, Felicity Jones, Paul Giamatti, Sally Field, Embeth Davidtz, Denis Leary, Stan Lee.

Trouble is brewing at Oscorp, where an accident turns underappreciated employee Max Dillon (Foxx) into powerful monster Electro, while the company’s new boss, Harry Osborn (DeHaan), deals counter-productively with the degenerative disease he inherited from his wacko father (Cooper). Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Garfield) has to deal with these threats and also handle some self-imposed emo love trouble with Gwen Stacy (Stone).

Certainly an improvement on the previous one, this film has its share of weaknesses, but before going into those, I have to make my own basic position clear. Younger Spider-Man fans tend to prefer the “Ultimate” version, which is some kind of modern reboot of the original comic, while older fans usually prefer the original run. Me, I’m so old I ought to crumble into dust to be conveniently swept under the rug. I’ve never read Ultimate Spider-Man, so much of this film is bewildering to me. Peter Parker is a cool, confident hipster? The Osbornes are freaky mutants? Electro is an insane blue monster (actually an improvement over the superficial career criminal in the original stories)? The Rhino is an armored vehicle? OK, so that’s me lost then.

The fact that all these characters are strangers to me does allow me to watch The Amazing Spider-Man 2 free from the pinkish fog of nostalgia, and perhaps that makes me better suited for commenting upon it. So here’s my first comment: it’s not a great movie.

It’s suffering from a lopsided structure that puts extended focus on emotionally not very touching material such as Peter’s and Gwen’s endlessly meandering love story and the frankly unintriguing mystery of his parents, whereas we get to see precious little of the villains until well into the film. There are so many scenes stating and restating what we already know (no, you can’t be with Gwen because death happens a lot) that the movie starts to drag amazingly early on, and there seems to be barely enough time for the climax, which is rushed through in the last twenty minutes or so without much of a build-up. Uninvolving attempts at pathos and hastily crammed-in endings aside, this is also a remarkably stupid script, not in terms of overall construction, but in myriad little details (one small sample: hospitals have emergency generators, you know). All this makes The Amazing Spider-Man 2 both boring and insulting, which is not what I primarily look for in a movie.

There are fine moments too: Peter and Harry trepidatiously breaking the ice after seeing each other again for the first time in years strikes the emotional chords in tune, and Spider-Man’s first confrontation with Electro is a showstopper. Also, the one thing I recognise from “my” Spider-Man is his constant comedic patter to annoy his opponents, and never has it been better represented than here (“A god named Sparkles?!”). I also like the multiple allusions to other characters in the Spider-Man universe (from the Vulture to Shocker and the Black Cat), even though it could easily be argued that it’s being overdone here. In fact, that’s another problem: much of this movie feels like it’s one big set-up for sequels and spinoffs.

Plenty of computerized action, some feeble fumblings at drama and a script that’s unbalanced and low on basic intelligence. And Spidey’s suit is shiny. Briefly put, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is not necessary viewing even if you’re a Marvel fan, but it will do if you’re in the mood for mindless entertainment.

Rating: 5 of 10.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 4

Amazing Spider-Man 2 1

Amazing Spider-Man 2 4

Book review: Hans Alfredson – Tiden är ingenting (Time Means Nothing)

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , on July 24, 2014 by Mistlake

Tiden är ingenting 0

Tiden är ingenting 1

A juicy family chronicle which begins with a birth in an underground burrow in the early 19th Century and stretches forward through time, detailing the fate of the Brosse family up until 1980.

Hans “Hasse” Alfredson is one of those unfairly talented people: as comedian, actor, director and writer he has excelled in all the fields he has chosen as his own, in addition to which he has one of those “I’d listen to him recite the phone book” voices. While primarily known and treasured for his comedy and for his complex film dramas, I also consider him one of Sweden’s better authors. His writings range from the absurd, like his pokerfaced 1960s book about burning debris in a corner of the garden, to the darkly disturbing, like his novella En ond man/An Evil Man, which he later filmed as the internationally acclaimed Den enfaldige mördaren/The Simple-Minded Murder. This novel, Tiden är ingenting/Time Means Nothing, belongs to another category again, but is still very recognizably Alfredson’s.

The book is a highly pleasing concatenation of different styles and genres: historical rural drama, raw comedy, naturalism, magical realism, social satire and psychological study, to name the most obvious ones. All the components are tied together by Alfredson’s beautifully lucid, frothing and often drastic prose, and Tiden är ingenting is an extremely entertaining, fast read despite all its details of history and character.

The second half, where the family expands, gets rhapsodic and lacking in focus and, somewhat logically, loses most of the fairy tale elements of house elves and witchcraft as the story moves into more modern times. Family chronicles can of course become rather meandering over time, but Alfredson maintains structure though the clever concept of treating the Brosse family as an individual, as apparent in the headings of the book’s sections: “Childhood”, “Youth”, “Manhood” and “Old Age”. This conceit is most obvious in the last two sections, “Manhood” telling of how certain members of the family achieve prosperity and some renown in the fields of commerce, academia and the theatre, whereas “Old Age” shows the family’s fortunes in decline. It’s not only intelligent, but also lends itself well to the kind of cynically humorous tragedy the author is telling, and the ending contains so many levels of reverberating irony that I can only call it a masterful and deeply satisfying conclusion – something else which is difficult to accomplish in family chronicles, because how do you know where to end it?

The characters are broadly but believably drawn up, highly colourful and distinct, and I like the way personal traits keep reappearing through the generations. One uniting feature of all Alfredson’s work is his penchant for combining bubbling humour with a salty streak of darkness, and this gift serves him in good stead here, infusing the characters and their actions with an irresistible quality, even those who are – as one of them even admits of himself – rather useless people.

Full of bitterness, humour, imagination, nostalgia and dashes of The Emigrants, this is a novel of singular life and the joy of telling tall tales.

Rating: 8 of 10.

Tiden är ingenting 2

Film review: Dracula 3D (2012)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2014 by Mistlake

Dracula 3D 0

Dracula 3D 4

Dracula 3D 5

Director: Dario Argento. Writers: Dario Argento, Enrique Cerezo, Stafano Piani, Antonio Tentori, based on a retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula by a cognitively challenged four-year-old on LSD. Starring: Thomas Kretschmann, Rutger Hauer, Marta Gastini, Asia Argento, Unax Ugalde, Miriam Giovanelli, Giovanni Franzoni.

I have not seen this film in 3D, but since I have never seen a 3D film where the extra dimensions did anything to enhance my experience, I consider this fact irrelevant or at best something which works in the movie’s favour.

Jonathan Harker (Ugalde) arrives in Transylvania to catalogue the library of neighbourhood benefactor and bon-vivant charmer Count Dracula (Kretschmann), but of course soon there is blood and boobs and giant praying mantises. OK, so that last part is new.

If for some reason you get it into your head to make a new film version of Dracula, which is one of the most oft-filmed stories in cinema history, you need to go into that project with a few new ideas to make it reasonably fresh. Argento and his co-writers had no such ideas. This film is a lazy, scattershot production where most of the actual ideas have been lifted directly from the Hammer movies Dracula (the 1958 one) and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. As usual, Argento is solely interested in the visual side at the expense of plotting, and with a story as well known as this one, that simply will not cut it.

OK, let’s get the things that do work out of the way. First and foremost, Argento was lucky to get cinematographer Luciano Tovoli on board, the man who shot Suspiria and Tenebrae: Dracula 3D has the juicy, colour-resplendent sheen of Suspiria and looks absolutely magical to the point that one wishes Tovoli had found a proper film to work on instead. What else? Hauer, once he finally appears, is great as a nervous, almost apologetic but still purposeful Van Helsing (he also has the distinction of being the only proper Dutchman to play Van Helsing on film), and Kretschmann saves the clichéd and poorly written Count by giving him an underplayed, soft-spoken theatricality.

The rest of Dracula 3D is terrible. Moodwise, there’s a complete lack of urgency or horror, standing in stark contrast to the electrical viciousness of Argento’s best work of yore, and this lukewarm absence of tension is beautifully complemented by the abrupt brevity of the action sequences. With the exception of an early brawl in a churchyard, every fight in the movie is resolved within five seconds: “Oh, you’re attacking me, better slit your throat open, then. Well that was exhausting.” Given that most of these scenes involve Hauer and that he was 68 at the time, the brief melee encounters may be understandable, but still …

The digital effects, even the scenery mattes, are dodgy in the extreme. When you think of what excellence of effects Gareth Edwards managed in Monsters (2010) using a laptop and an over the counter graphics program, there really is no excuse for this kind of shoddiness anymore. Also, the low quality of the CGI is made impossible to disregard due to their sheer over-use – in some scenes a simple trickle of blood from someone’s arm evidently could in no way be achieved without ham-fisted computerized assistance. Some of the effects are also innately ludicrous, like the aforementioned praying mantis which comes gallivanting into someone’s living room at one point. These underwhelming effects also play a significant part in the groan-inducingly asinine ending.

And most of the time, this is less a motion picture than a standing still one. It just doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. This is actually illusory, since there’s very little in the script that doesn’t come into play later on, and it all ties together in an almost professional way – it’s just the lackadaisical editing and pacing within scenes that makes it look like it’s just standing around like a disappointed, stringy-necked turkey all out of corn.

At least Argento manages to get his daughter naked once again, and that obviously makes him happy on some level. But could we please, finally, get a Dracula movie where the blasted Count doesn’t mouth off about how “you look just like my long dead wife”? That part is getting even more repetitious than Asia Argento nudity.

Dracula 3D is silly, boring and – cinematography aside – not even well-made on a technical level. Argento should stay away from the classic monsters, because I never thought I would say this, but this movie is even worse than his take on The Phantom of the Opera. I always loved Dario Argento. This is just sad.

Rating: 2 of 10.

Dracula 3D 1

Dracula 3D 2

Dracula 3D 3

Dracula 3D 6

Dracula 3D 7

Dracula 3D 8

TV series review: Penny Dreadful, season 1 (2014)

Posted in TV Series reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 21, 2014 by Mistlake

Penny Dreadful 1

Penny Dreadful 2

Penny Dreadful 4

Created and written by: John Logan. Starring: Timothy Dalton, Eva Green, Henry Treadaway, Josh Hartnett, Rory Kinnear, Reeve Carney, Billie Piper, Danny Sapani, David Warner, Helen McCrory.

London 1891: Sir Malcolm Murray’s (Dalton) daughter Mina has apparently been abducted by a vampire, so he assembles an eclectic team of dysfunctional specialists to find her, a team including prone-to-demonic possession Vanessa Ives (Green), troubled American gunfighter Ethan Chandler (Hartnett) and, oh, some guy named Victor Frankenstein (Treadaway).

In some ways, Penny Dreadful is like a less gifted cousin of Sherlock. It’s fairly intelligent and has some good tricks up its sleeve, but you know, if you’re related to Sherlock Holmes you will always come up looking less clever. Where Sherlock carefully cherrypicks the elements to use from the old stories and avoids confusion between the new and the old by choosing the modern day as its setting, Penny Dreadful just crams Dracula, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray and a few other choice morsels into blender and blitzes them merrily to see what will come out. The result, inevitably, is a mishmash of bits and pieces which even Dr. Frankenstein would have a hard time putting together into something seamless.

The show’s story actually gets a little bewildering if you’re familiar with the source novels, because there are narrative strands taken directly from the books, but these invariably lead in different directions and to different punchlines. When this is done well, there are nice surprises, but when done poorly, there are disappointments galore, the treatment of iconic character Professor Van Helsing (Warner) perhaps chief among them. It’s my belief that Penny Dreadful is best enjoyed by an audience who has only heard of the original literary works, but not actually read them.

What we have is the skeleton of an original story, and a pretty good one at that, upon which has been fastened various dollops from the various monster tales that inspired it, and sometimes they go together, sometimes they don’t. Dorian Gray (Carney), for instance, serves absolutely, positively no purpose whatsoever in the plot, whereas Frankenstein and his private trials and tribulations blend nicely into the overall narrative. The somewhat genre-anachronistic Linda Blair contortions of Vanessa Ives are harrowing and well-acted, but are given too much time compared to what they contribute to the greater scheme of things. And so it goes on – to make another Frankenstein analogy, Penny Dreadful is a creature made from components that don’t always go that well together.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to resist its charms, of which there are many. It sports one of the best recreations of that mythical Victorian London I have ever seen, the set design shining bright through each episode. Inevitably, given how many times literature and cinema has gone to this well, clichés abound: we get the dockside dive bars, the foggy gas-lit streets, the high society parties, the spiritualist séances, the opium dens and so forth. Rarely, however, has all of this looked so good, and the sheer detail of design does much to draw you into the tale told. It should also be pointed out that the actual horror content is harsh, gory and rather modern, which makes the show pack an icy punch that helps it along admirably.

The action scenes are repetitive, though, in fact interchangeable, consisting of our heroes fighting groups of samey-looking vampires in samey-looking locations using samey-looking combat techniques. Fortunately, there isn’t too much of the action-thing going on, this being a show that for budgetary reasons as well as creative ones focuses on character. And here we find the great strength of Penny Dreadful.

Not only are the characters well acted by the fine cast, they’re also beautifully delineated, making strong initial impressions while remaining deeply mysterious, troubled enigmas. Some of the questions are answered with well-judged, teasing slowness over the eight episodes, others remain for us to ponder until next season.

Gunman Ethan Chandler somehow manages to not come across as a cliché despite his typical Westerner veneer, and turns out to be a fascinating man – his Big Secret becomes very easy to figure out early on, but there are more facets to him that only serve to deepen the mystery. Frankenstein too is complex, if less inscrutable than Chandler, but no less captivating in his layered responses to what is going on around him. The Frankenstein Monster (Kinnear) is spot-on, perfectly bringing to life the poetic, wistful but also vengeful creature of Mary Shelley’s novel. Unfortunately he is severely let down by a much too mild makeup job, which in no way would motivate people to go on and on, as they do, about how ugly he is. Green’s and Dalton’s characters have so much going on personality-wise and in terms of back story that it’s no use getting into it here, especially since it would include spoilers, but suffice to say that they play their difficult roles superbly, and that I assume Green needed an extended holiday to recover from the demands placed on her here. Alas, the great character work does not extend into the villain camp – the vampires our protagonists are fighting are as far as I can tell just mindless monsters with no shred of personality, which leaves the whole conflict somewhat lacking. Someone else must have thought along those lines too, because we’ve been promised a more charismatic main antagonist next season.

Big on character, emotion, mystery and atmosphere, Penny Dreadful is more captivating than it should be given its let’s-fling-stuff-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach. The whole name-dropping Who’s Who of Gothic fiction is rather silly, and also of course reminiscent of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the work of author Philip José Farmer. In the end, though, I’m not going to complain about getting a big serving of some of my favourite characters doing cool stuff in my favourite historical era. That would just be stupid of me.

Rating: 6 of 10.

Penny Dreadful 5

Penny Dreadful 6

Penny Dreadful.

Film review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2014 by Mistlake

Grand Budapest Hotel 0

Grand Budapest Hotel 4

Grand Budapest Hotel 10

Director: Wes Anderson. Writers: Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness, inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig. Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, Saoirse Ronan, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jason Schwatrzman, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban.

In the 1930s, Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes), the elegant but debauched concierge at the luxurious Grand Budapest Hotel, gets into a world of trouble when he grabs a priceless painting that he was going to inherit anyway from one of the rich old ladies whom he serviced in every way. Accused of murder, and with a war looming on the horizon, he can rely only on the hotel’s lobby boy Zero (Revolori) to extricate himself from a hopeless position involving not only the justice system but also two psychopathic brothers (Brody, Dafoe).

Wes Anderson’s style is unmistakable: the actors’ deadpan delivery of long monologues and the way they are often posed in tableau style in the frame, the strange and with each film more beautiful stylization of the images, the quirky use of music, the high eccentricity of plot and character, and so on. All of these elements are present in The Grand Budapest Hotel, and although parts of the film are reminiscent of The Royal Tenenbaums, it somehow manages to be completely different from anything I’ve seen before.

The story feels intensely fresh, and my little synopsis above doesn’t do it justice, because there are so many twists, vignettes and characters involved that it would take a couple of pages just to sort them out. The absurd adventures of Gustave and Zero would have been idiotic if presented in anything resembling a serious, realistic style, but instead they swing themselves up into the heights of brilliance when treated the way they are here, as surreal comedy of the most imaginative kind. It’s also a story full of surprises, and each and every time you think you’ve got the movie figured out, there’s a new burst of manic creativity to rocket it into the Whatthefuckosphere.

Wonderful and energizing as the story is, it’s topped by the visuals. Part of it is the perfectly judged editing, but most of all it’s the jaw-dropping use of miniatures, set design, mattes, visual effects and eye-popping pastel colours. I have – very rarely – seen films that are as visually festive as The Grand Budapest Hotel, but never one that looks remotely like it. Its unique look should be garish and grating, but somehow it isn’t – it’s gorgeous and astonishing to the point of making you lap it up while considering taking up painting as a way of approximating something as lavishly joyous as virtually every frame of this movie. The detailed and exuberant imagery encompasses the characters as well, adorning the almost impossibly starry cast with costumes, hair design and accessories that transform them into creatures perfectly inhabiting this world of heightened 1930s reality.

Alas, we are all but human, and so The Grand Budapest Hotel has its share of flaws. While all the actors (Fiennes, Goldblum and Dafoe being particularly delicious) are on top form, many of them are tragically underused, notably Murray in a brief but entertaining appearance. By cramming so many splendid people into the movie, perhaps Anderson did them a disservice by thus reducing the breathing space of each one. The same thing goes for several plot elements, like that pertaining to the Society of Crossed Keys – an imagination-stoking idea which should have been developed, but is given short shrift in the narrative and is used more as a convenience to move the story along than given a solid position in the script’s structure. Further to this, the film’s ending arrives rather abruptly, switching from eager, sumptuous “showing” to concise and summary “telling”. It’s rare for me to say this, but I simply think that this is one film that would have benefitted from being longer.

If you love an original, funny and action packed gambol with extreme characters and rampant design, The Grand Budapest Hotel should be at the top of your to-do list. It’s one of Anderson’s finest films, crazy yet controlled, harshly funny and as beautiful as any film you’re likely to see.

Rating: 9 of 10.

 Grand Budapest Hotel 1

Grand Budapest Hotel 8

Grand Budapest Hotel 5

Grand Budapest Hotel 2

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Grand Budapest Hotel 7

Grand Budapest Hotel 6

Grand Budapest Hotel 9

Book review: Charles Ross: Richard III

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2014 by Mistlake

Richard III (Ross) 5

An analysis of the life, politics and reign of usurper king Richard III (1452 – 1485) of England.

This book by Professor of Medieval History Charles Ross is one of the most respected works among the many written about the controversial king. Where most historians tend to be either deeply hostile or fiercely protective of Richard, Ross takes a more neutral stance, which is of course the correct approach when dealing with a subject where frustratingly few solid pieces are there to fit into the jigsaw.

What we do know about Richard III is that, as Duke of Gloucester, he was faultlessly loyal to his brother Edward IV, even if he did show an avaricious streak that stretched liberally into the illegal, gladly disinheriting widows and grabbing their lands and income. He was at king Edward’s side on battlefield, in council and in exile, and in his position as virtual “Lord of the North” he made himself popular and beloved (which he is to this day) in Yorkshire and surrounding counties, albeit much less so in the south. But something happened when Edward IV died. Richard incarcerated the king’s two sons and heirs (who were never seen again), had several powerful noblemen executed without a trial, and soon made a lunge for the throne, having himself crowned as king Richard III in 1483. And then … he turned out to be pretty good and just monarch for 26 months before dying in the Battle of Bosworth Field against another usurper, his successor Henry VII.

Ross has the good sense of pointing out, more than once, that any discussion, or indeed moral evaluation, of Richard III must start with the times he lived in, that is to say the clannish, scheming, greedy and highly violent Medieval England. Seen in this context, Richard suddenly doesn’t look like the despicable monster of tradition (and of Shakespeare), at least no more so than other men of power in the same era. For example, his brother Edward was also a usurper and had a considerable share of violence on his conscience (most likely including the murder of Henry VI), yet is not regarded as a devil, and neither is Henry VII, who was an exceptionally greedy bloodsucker even for his period.

The fact that Richard, and with him the House of York, was overthrown is often used by his defenders in claiming that the propaganda of Henry VII and the other Tudors are to blame for the nasty picture of him that we know today. According to Ross, very little such propaganda is actually in evidence in preserved documents. Instead, he points to materials showing that the vilification began in Richard’s own time, when rumour spread that he had murdered his nephews (aged ca 12 and 10) and, upon the death of his wife Anne Neville, intended to marry his niece Elizabeth – two rather extreme actions even in those days, and both accusations likely to have a foundation in truth.

Ross believes, then, that Richard was no worse than other men lusting for power in the 15th Century, except for those to exceptionally unpleasant public image “mistakes” with nephews and niece. Richard was sitting very loosely on the throne during this time, the danger of rebellion or invasion ever-present and sometimes an actual fact, and Ross suggests that if he was indeed guilty of the above two outrages, it may well have been in a frightened attempt to strengthen his grasp on the crown, killing the two children with the best claim to the throne, and marrying the very daughter of his predecessor (disregarding the incestuously close bond of blood).

Reviewing the scarce facts, there is little doubt that Richard could be as ruthless and calculating as he could be generous and friendly to reform. This makes it easy to see him as a complex man of extremes, but Ross again puts his finger on the most logical of conclusions: that we simply don’t know enough about him to form a complete picture, and that the illusion of him being a man of psychological mystery merely stems from the gaps in our information about him.

Thus, Ross’ book is a sober account, unhesitatingly accepting that while Richard was quite the douche, that’s not surprising in light of him being a child of his time and of the scheming power mongers who raised him: Edward IV and Warwick the Kingmaker. Ross also shows us the legal reforms (many of which substantially benefitted the poor), college grants and loyalty to friends that form another side of the king.

Ross’ voice of reason is presented in beautiful language that is erudite without being obscure, keeping the story clear and exciting to the reader. There are, however, long passages which consist of lists in prose, itemizing people, titles, grants, domains and family ties, all pertaining to Richard’s adherents and opponents. It’s as tedious and indigestible as the Bible’s “begats” and isn’t helped by the author’s insistence on accounting for these people’s income down to the last quarter of a penny.

Given such long stretches of dullness, most of which are about men we never hear about again, it’s amusing that my other complaint is that the book is too short. Richard ruled for only just over two years, and he’s one of the most difficult of English monarchs about whom to assemble reliable facts, but there is still much, including his coronation, the available information about the Princes in the Tower, and the Duke of Buckingham’s intriguing defection, which Ross appears to discuss in much less detail than it deserves.

Richard III was first published in 1981, and new material has come to light since, foremost among which is of course the discovery of the king’s remains in Leicester in 2012. Consequently, you would think that Ross’ book is obsolete, but you would be wrong: it sets out the facts ever so well, and provides that quality most lacking in Ricardian scholarship: simple cool levelheadedness.

Rating: 8 of 10.

 

For some more of my incoherent ramblings about Richard III, see my discussion about the Shakespeare play and the Sharon Kay Penman novel.

 

Windsor Castle today.

Windsor Castle today. (Picture by Claes Sillberg)

View from the top of York Minster after an exhausting climb. The city of York played an importan part in Richard III's political endeavours.

View from the top of York Minster after an exhausting climb. The city of York played an important part in Richard III’s political endeavours. (Picture by Claes Sillberg)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 212 other followers

%d bloggers like this: