Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Paul Torday and his Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce

In the Internet Age it's become all too easy to discover everything about the latest book, film, or TV series, and thereby burst the aesthetic bubble. If I'm so enthralled that I don't go looking for the filmographies of the cast of Borgen - or the biography of Paul Torday - then I know I've struck gold. In recent years Torday's novels with their embossed pastel covers and wry titles have drawn me in so completely that I didn't know anything about their creator, until I read his obituary in the Guardian just before Christmas. I had just picked up The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce.


Torday's richly textured writing, I discovered, was mirrored by an eclectic family background and working life. His father migrated to Britain from Hungary as a child, trained as a physicist, and seemingly propelled the Oxbridge English-reading Paul into a career in industry. Torday's grit and hard graft are identifiable both in his professional survival of the family firm's subsequent misfortune, and in his capacity, much later, to drive after a lifetime's creative ambition by writing a novel every year following his cancer diagnosis.

The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce appeared at roughly the same time that Torday was diagnosed - a year after his bestselling debut, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Wilberforce chronicles the decline of a connoisseur alcoholic. We watch as he channels loneliness into his business, falls in with a group of friends above his station, discovers wine, goes after someone else's girl, and proceeds to sabotage and delude himself into losing everything he loves - via 'tasting' five bottles of wine a day.

Wilberforce's sombre, pensive tone was perhaps creatively cathartic for an author whose sudden success was counterpointed equally suddenly by serious ill-health; yet the lightness of touch and subtle humour that impresses readers of Salmon Fishing or The Hopeless Life of Charlie Summers permeates Wilberforce's often poignant pages. It's a sad book, as Torday has crafted a damaged, dogged titular character who is blind to his own emptiness; but the author's skill is such that it's never heavy-handedly bleak. Wilberforce is a compassionate homage both to wine, and to human weakness.

It's also typically bewitching. Julia Langdon writes that Torday 'wanted to find what he termed the "ultimate story", one that would bewitch readers, and he went on writing compulsively because he was still trying to find out what it was.' His many readers testify to the success of his enterprise.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Cheryl Strayed's Torch

When Cheryl Strayed published Wild last year (reviewed here), her career went stratospheric. Wild: a Journey from Lost to Found chronicled with deepest darkest humour how, at twenty-six, a catalogue of personal disasters led to her decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She had just divorced a man she loved, aborted her heroin-shooting lover's baby and watched her family wrench apart in the wake of her mother's untimely death. Oh God, you think, another misery-guts self-centred 'journey' of a memoir - but you would be wrong. Wild was so extraordinarily well-written, honest, and funny, that 50,000 people now 'like' Strayed on Facebook, the number of hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail has shot through the ceiling and Reese Witherspoon is busy filming the memoir in Oregon.

Strayed hiking the PCT in 1995
Seven years before Wild emerged, Strayed published Torch. It was her first novel and it, too, was heavily autobiographical. Thirty-eight year-old Teresa Rae Wood is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her family - partner Bruce, and children Claire and Joshua - begin to fracture and peel away from each other with pain. As Teresa lies dying in a hospice, Strayed paints a multi-dimensional portrait of the past and present of this accidental family: the single mother who turned up in the backwaters of Minnesota, and cobbled together jobs and boyfriends until Bruce came along; the latter who can't believe his grief and can only move forward by hurling himself immediately into marriage with another woman; the daughter who watches herself, bemused, seeking solace with an older man and lying to her stable, reliable, but dull boyfriend; the son who skips school and would rather have drugs and opportunistic sex than acknowledge Teresa's cancer by visiting her in hospital. Small-town life suffocates and supports her characters in equal measure; mother, partner, son and daughter twist, squirm and resist as they are unwillingly bound together in the unavoidable final chapter of life.


Miseryguts? Maybe. But honest, too. No-one writes about grief, pain, and the desperate need to feel better somehow, anyhow, like Strayed does. She really has seen it all - and from the other side she ploughs it back into her writing with ferocious eloquence, sympathy, and humility. In one vignette that encapsulates the human mess, Claire and Joshua pile their mother's belongings into boxes to remove them from Bruce's house. His new wife is moving in and they want all Teresa's possessions gone, uncontaminated. Objects jostle preposterously:

...a pair of scissors, a camera, a half-used bottle of Vick's Vapor Rub, and a collection of Johnny Cash CDs might be in one box; a salad spinner, their mother's ancient reading glasses, an unopened jumbo packet of sugar-free gum, and a lampshade in another. Claire refused to throw anything out...the gum was possibly the last pack of gum their mother had purchased. 

We've all packed those boxes; Strayed's talent is to tell a story so real that we know we are not alone.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Surviving Sickdays: a Technological Guide for Dummies

Freshers' Flu. The Flu that in university towns you will get even if it's been a while since you were Fresh and even if you don't actually know any Freshers. Once you've picked up the bug that's ambled its selfish-gene way from Fresher to Fresher to tutor to colleague to admin to yoga buddy to YOU, you get to splutter, cough, sneeze and ring in sick. Now is your chance to catch up on all that reading, write those expenses claims, tackle the giant pile of laundry, reply to the emails that never quite made it onto your executive radar, and transfer your filing system from the floor to - the floor in another room while you make an Evernote to buy files. Being ill can be so productive.
A-choo.
Except maybe it's genuinely bad and when you try to read, words start inexplicably swimming off the page or bouncing along the top of your consciousness like pebbles skipping along the top of a muddy pond. Perhaps your head hurts at the prospect of formulating numbers in your foggy brain and then putting them together. Or mustering the energy to write emails feels like wringing out your laundry by hand. On these occasions one must accept that one is positively bona fide sick and relegate the Puritan work ethic to be deployed on some future slightly milder infection. Fortunately, entertainment is at hand these days in a way it wasn't ten years ago, when I had to crawl across the room to turn over the cassette tape and was enthralled to the schedule of the television a miserable fifteen stairs, three 45 degree turns to the left and two doors away. Now one can be properly ill and entertained from the comfort of one's bed, with the following technological blessings:

1) The smartphone and/or tablet. You're going to need this pretty much every moment of every sickday. Leaving aside the messages of sympathy you'll want (in between naps) to elicit from concerned friends, there'll come a grim moment at about 4pm of every sickday when you have to decide whether you're going to need to cancel on everyone tomorrow. Given that you have to carefully estimate just how much better you're likely to get in the next seventeen hours, based on current temperature and sneeze-per-minute ratio, this is a cognitively gruelling exercise that would only be exacerbated were you blurrily trying to read your handwriting in your paper diary and type grovelling emails with one hand on the laptop (whose power cable keeps falling off) precariously balanced on your knee a sufficient distance from the diary that you're holding open but also worrying a bit about everything's proximity to the bowl on the other side of the bed that still contains some cold soup from lunch which will either spill on the duvet or into which the tissue box will fall.

With the smartphone and/or tablet, a few swipes and taps and it all just happens. Magic.

2) Audiobooks. Specifically, Audible. You are not actually going to listen to those podcasts that you downloaded from Yale and Stanford and Berkeley for the eventuality of such a sickly occasion. You simply do not have the spare brainpower given that, as previously established, the written word alone is proving a trial. Also, when it comes to Audible, you are not going to listen to Dante, Hume, Winston Churchill or any of the other worthies that you've felt good and intellectual about downloading every month for the past year with your cut-price subscription. What you actually want is the chicken soup of audiobooks. Whether that's Jilly Cooper, David Attenborough, Heinrich Harrer or Fifty Shades (there's no accounting for taste), pick whatever will keep you enchanted for hours at a time. Whack it on the smartphone, and it will sit on your pillow nattering happily at you while you snooze.

3) Video games. For all their brain-numbing, attention-deficit-incurring, neuro-pleasure-centre-exhausting properties, you will find these indispensable. The good news is that there's a game suited to every stage of Freshers' Flu. When you're so far gone that you can't remember your middle name, Candy Crush is appropriately mindless. You will find yourself peacefully moving Candies across the screen into lines of three for hours at a time and wondering whether you will ever hold your own in a seminar again. But fear not. By day three or four, though still mouldy-student-housebound, some degree of working memory has returned and you can probably risk a strategy or role-playing game. Build your own farm with Hay Day or city with Megapolis. And be firm with yourself when you return to real life: the lecturer will realise that the look of concentration on your face at 9.03am on a Monday morning is nothing to do with the notes you're nominally typing on your iPad, and more about the cost-benefit analysis you're performing on the merits of mass-producing virtual cherry jam versus virtual cherry juice.

4) Blogs. Find a new one with a good backlog of posts that you can really glutton on in between micro-sleeps. By great good fortune, having exhausted A Girl Called Jack and Skint Foodie, I came across Recipe Rifle by Esther Walker, other half of food critic Giles Coren. It's a blog ostensibly about cooking and also about being mother to two tiny people. The recipes are lovely, the mother-of-two-tiny-people bit as fascinating as it is candid. Savour your Freshers' Flu and be thankful you ain't sitting up all night with a tiny person's Freshers' Flu. (If you are, ignore this blog post. You need a bottle of whisky and a medal.)

Feel better soon, everyone.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Great Childbearing Debate

This month, the Great Childbearing Debate resurfaced. The Office for National Statistics told us that 43% of university-educated women born between 1965 and 1978 are remaining childless, and that the proportion of women without children has doubled since the 1990s. The GCD exploded in the broadsheets:

Times columnist Hannah Betts wrote, 'The pressure to breed would be more persuasive were those who have ventured there not forever lamenting their lives.'

In the Daily Mail, Kate Spicer argued that 'I believe the Motherhood Deniers, waving the flag for the childless life, remain in the minority...Most of those 43 per cent will have gone through fertility hell, or never met the right guy, or left it too late, or have any number of unhappy stories.'

In The Times, Anna Wharton described how she wound up being a single parent in her mid-thirties: 'I was going to meet Mr Right. We would get married and have children. What happened, however, was that I ended up sort of roughing it.'

'Let's have twelve, honey!'
Why do so many women remain childless? Hannah Betts looked to women in the public eye: 44 year-old Kate Humble calmly says 'My maternal gene is missing'; historian Lucy Worsley argued last year that she had been 'educated out of the natural reproductive function.' Different again is novelist Ann Patchett's account: 'by the time I was in middle school I'd figured out that a low overhead and few dependents would increase my time to work.' According to these examples, some women choose not to have children because fundamentally they just don't feel the urge, or they just want to do something else more.

But tellingly, in Betts' case, she then transforms the discussion from one about self-determined choice between two goods to reactivity against an assumed bad. Why would you have kids when it's simply such a drag, she asks?

'In reality, parenting is still largely regarded as women’s work. Men are commended for being “hands-on”, for having baby iconography on their desk and leaving work early for the odd infant appointment. Women, in contrast, remain routinely resented and sidelined for such behaviour...A study by social scientist Dr Nattavudh Powdthavee...argues that the notion that propagation fosters happiness is a “focusing illusion”, and that there is “almost zero association” between having children and contentment. “Parents spend much of their time attending to the very core processes of childcare: problems at school, cooking, laundry. It is these small but negative experiences that are more likely to impact on our day-to-day levels of happiness and life satisfaction.” In short, parenting’s a drag in which women continue to shoulder the burden.'

Suddenly, childbearing is not just a value-neutral choice that a woman may or may not make for personal reasons; it's an inherently inadvisable act that renders inevitable the negativity of her subsequent experiences. We've gone from a individualistic framework, that emphasises choice and agency in the realm of childbearing and raising, to a deterministic one that emphasises helplessness should you go down the Mothercare road.

This tension in the public discourse around childbearing masks deeper issues. Although Betts acknowledges that child raisers suffer in society because it's women's work, she fails to articulate the logical extension - 'it's still not ok to be a woman' - or to ask the question 'what does it mean to be a woman?'. She explains the choice to be childless on the grounds that childbearing is a female, domestic, thereby stigmatized activity, and women attempting to partake while (for example) holding down a job are socially resented. She implies that women begin to opt out to avoid resentment at work; perhaps as social attitudes seep into their self-fabric, they continue to opt out to prevent resentment within themselves. We might conclude that they do so to prevent themselves being identified as (society's pejorative version of) 'women'; and that the greater the reaction against childbearing, the more the 'very core processes of childcare' are construed as fundamentally negative.

If the great opt-out stems from a reaction against the universal ill of childbearing, we should expect childbearing to be stigmatised in perpetuity. However, the possibility that childless women challenge received notions of 'womanhood' has different potential. As a vocal minority of women dissociate their identity from childbearing and child raising, gradually these choices could become more gender-neutral, and thereby, less negative. We will no longer have the city phenomenon of the forty-year-old male exec taking two weeks' paternity leave, while his wife stays home for eight months. Already, for several young parents of my acquaintance, having a child together is simply something they are quietly getting on with - alternating nights up with the baby, and alternating time off work.

This possible social consequence of female childlessness for the hitherto 'gendered' nature of childbearing has not featured in the Great Childbearing Debate this month. It's bizarre, for example, that we're given no comparable statistics for childlessness among university-educated men; the attention is still focused on women. Cooking and laundry, activities that are frequently enjoyable and cathartic for many, are within the realm of childrearing suddenly dubbed 'small...negative experiences' by Dr Nattavudh Powdthavee. If public discourse were to question the idea that the 'core processes of childcare' are necessarily 'small' and 'negative', we might come to attribute the problems of modern childbearing not to drudgery, but to continuing inequality between men and women and the gendered segregation of public and private life. And then (stop me if I'm going out on a limb here) we might actually have to talk about how to deal with that.

That highly-educated women increasingly remain childless is a complicated phenomenon, with causes and consequences that require detailed investigation. It should therefore not be explained away on the simplistic grounds of individualistic 'choice' or universalistic 'childrearing is miserable'. Take Lucy Worsley's claim that she was educated away from childbearing: does a university education reveal the socially real fetters of motherhood, leading to deliberate 'choices' not to have children? Does it simply teach women that motherhood is a second-class activity? Does it shape women so that they work and live within echelons in society where childrearing is particularly demeaned?

Has anyone asked the men what they think?

To sum up: the coverage of this phenomenon has yet to analyse the cause and effect of increasing female childlessness in terms of evolving gender identity. If child raising is just one gender-neutral lifestyle choice among others, men and women will continue to make that choice. If having children is hard work because it's women's work, women will either opt out or be nudged out. If society provides cost-effective childcare and equal-duration paid parental leave to both sexes, men and women might have more babies. Whatever happens, the great childbearing debate must continue.

Mosaïcultures at the Montréal Botanical Garden

The world's biggest horticulture competition, the Mosaïcultures Internationales Montréal 2013, has attracted over half a million visitors since it opened on June 22nd. What is mosaïculture? It is not topiary, as the info boards hastened to inform us. It is altogether grander and more impressive. Artists create sculptures from plants embedded in meticulously organised soil. This year's edition of the triennial competition exhibits forty plant sculptures created by two hundred artists from all over the world, to speak to a particular theme: Land of Hope. As have the themes of previous years, the components of Land of Hope invoke questions of ecology, biodiversity, and the impact of the human cultural world upon ecosystems:


  • The interdependence of man and nature
  • Positive actions for the environment
  • Endangered or at-risk species or ecosystems
  • Nature in the city
  • The beauty and fragility of life on earth
  • Peace: the key to planetary survival

The two kilometre stroller-friendly path around the exhibition takes in much of the grand Botanical Garden. Even on a weekday it was well-trodden; the grand imagination of the artists entranced children and left adults looking wistful. It's a magical afternoon retreat from one of North America's most vibrant cities, and a must-see if you're in or near Montréal this summer. 







Sunday, 25 August 2013

Prescription: A Weekend in the Woods

In his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, American journalist Richard Louv combed through the evidence for the psychological and physiological benefits of spending time outdoors. At the outset he wryly explained his choice of concept in a public context of widespread psychologese:

'Our culture is so top-heavy with jargon, so dependent on the illness model, that I hesitate to introduce this term...I am not suggesting that [it] represents an existing medical diagnosis. But when I talk about nature-deficit disorder with groups of parents and educators, the meaning of the phrase is clear. Nature-deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.' 

I picked up Last Child in the Woods as I was packing for a weekend of canoe camping in Algonquin Provincial Park, a paradisiacal expanse of forest and lakes in Ontario, Canada. I didn't need Louv's persuasion to look forward to my upcoming trip. I remembered that on my visit last summer I had enjoyed a magical five days in which the sun shone, the air was fragrant with the scent of pine, wolves howled, lakes glistened and loons called to each other with haunting flute-like voices. I couldn't wait to go back.

Grand Lake, Algonquin
Bizarrely, when the nature bug bites, one tends not to remember the mosquitoes. My actual experience of canoe camping in Algonquin last weekend was a sensorially murky blend of mild discomfort and distinct, subtle, progressive quietening. The photographed aesthetic of sunlight glittering on a glassy lake doesn't capture the wonder felt lying in a drifting canoe and watching while it continues to glitter, hour after hour, unfailing, unchanging; or checking each morning the slow accretion of pine gum dripping, dripping, dripping, from the great tree that's the cornerstone of your campsite. Nothing is that still in the world in which we usually live.

Two days pass quickly in our busy society, but two days without phones, computers, running water, or electric lights in the evening, unfurled with unexpected endless moments. When I returned from Algonquin I was surprised at how much of my frenetic computer-stimulated energy had died down and steadied like the embers of a campfire. It's this sense of steadiness that I always remember. Nature does not inscribe in my memory the bugs, the damp clothes, the obstinate sleeping mat slipping and sliding on the floor of the tent, the hamstrings cramping from washing dishes off the frog-strewn beach. It challenges man's foremost assumption: that what is expertly crafted, calibrated, and controlled by us is best for us. Unwieldy, unpredictable, itchy, and occasionally painful, a weekend in Algonquin is only ever a good thing.

A Grand View From a Canoe
With these experiences in hand, I accept Louv's argument that no-one will buy into spending time in 'nature' if it's sold as a leisure activity or a lifestyle choice. As these, it's either baffling (the discomfort) or self-indulgent (hours drifting in a canoe? Really?). This is why he pitches it as a health intervention: we need more parks, more treehouses, and we need to let our kids out into the woods if we're going to reduce anxiety, recalibrate attention, promote problem-solving, and preempt obesity. His strategy is appropriate. At the level of urban planning and education policy, evidence is currency, and health is good rhetoric. On the home front, perhaps only 'health' could combat the stranger danger that has kept a generation of children out of the backcountry. Moreover, any scan of the prohibitive price labels in an outdoor goods store will tell you that hiking and camping are distinctly middle-class. For many, the only way to get a weekend in the woods could be on prescription.

It's a shame that in a society where banking interns are literally worked to death, the concept of 'leisure' has become so pejorative that we have to justify a stroll in the forest in terms of cost-effective population health strategy; and that we have to wrestle nature into a sanitised 'self-improvement' box to get parents on board. But the human world is just as murky as the natural: you have to get your hands dirty to start a fire.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Charlotte Mendelson's Almost English



Oxford-educated Charlotte Mendelson is one of our Best British Authors. Her novels to date - Love in Idleness, Daughters of Jerusalem and When We Were Bad - were all released to prizes and popular acclaim. Her latest, Almost English, has already been long-listed for the Booker and shortlisted for the Orange. It sounded so promising that I did the unconscionable and bought it brand-new for my Kindle before its paperback release.

That, regrettably, was where it all became a bit familiar and the excitement began to peter out. Mendelson specializes in a certain type of British character: in Love in Idleness, a naive university student fantasises her way into sexually confused neuroticism; in Daughters of Jerusalem, Mendelson evoked the stifling lives of academically elite girls and their emotionally unfulfilled parents - a thinly veiled portrait of Oxford, her hometown, and its league-table-topping High School; in When We Were Bad, her funniest novel, an extended Jewish family contend with family secrets and surprising longings; and in Almost English, we see the return of the Neurotic Teen and the equally emotionally challenged Mother. Except, by now, it's slightly irritating.

Marina is a shy half-Hungarian sixth-former, the unfortunate subject of her immigrant grandparents' ambition. She begins the school year at a mid-ranked co-ed boarding school. To remedy her total lack of, ahem, experience, she embarks on an awkward relationship with a younger boy who turns out to be the son of a famous TV historian, Alexander Viney. Meanwhile her mother Laura bunks on the floor of her Hungarian ex-in-laws' cramped London flat, desperately missing her daughter and mourning her dull adulthood. Then the ex turns up. And some kind of half-baked family secret emerges connecting the Hungarians with the smooth TV historians.

That, sadly, is basically all there is to Almost English. It's well-written, and there's some astute social observation (the upper-class Vineys are spot-on), but its a bit too template and suffers from spineless protagonists. While Mendelson has previously created sympathetic characters muddling along in thick, atmospheric, timeless problems, I found myself increasingly annoyed with Laura and Marina. Their inability to finish a sentence in dialogue, unrelenting awkwardness in social situations, and general floundering in the face of - well - life, smacked not of poignant caught-in-two-worlds coming-of-age swansong for mediocrity, but of slightly dull filler, enlivened by a bit of exotic Eastern European context.

The latter certainly sells books these days (see Marina Lewycka), but Almost English needed more original main characters for its occasional glimmer of humour to carry any weight. One hopes that Mendelson has something a bit better up her sleeve for novel number five, and her previous books lead me to think that she'll soon be back on form - hopefully with all-male characters, set in a supermarket in Grimsby, a commune in Sloane Square, or an ashram in Norway. That would be a Booker dead cert.

Monday, 29 July 2013

How To Be An Oxford Tourist In July

The people of Oxford welcome with open arms the hundreds of thousands of tourists who descend on our cobbled and police-horse-excrement-bespeckled streets every year. Tourist season begins in April and ends in October. Please try to plan your visit within these dates, otherwise the usual 50% chance of rain increases to 98% and the probability of sudden onset Gloomy-Spire-Variant SAD observes a similar hike.

© Ian Fraser
To make the most out of your time in Oxford, please note the following suggestions for your trip.

1) Stand in the middle. Of everything. Pavements ('sidewalks'), roads, conversations, and most particularly entrances. Entrances to Sainsbury's, the Bodleian library, the banks, Marks and Spencers and the train station are highly recommended as sojourning spots. If possible please supplement with all six members of your family and slurp ice-cream at a noise level of your choosing.

NB. For extra pleasure, slow down dramatically, or indeed stop when your foot strikes tarmac upon exiting said establishments. You did it. You owned the shop. Stand where you are and be proud.

2) Visit the underground cathedral on St Giles. The steps are misleadingly labelled 'public toilets', but don't let that fool you. This is a delayed gratification exercise to test how smart you are, designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Please spend at least half an hour trying to locate the underground passageway before exiting.

Oxford's best-kept secret - the underground Cathedral

3) Play 'kill a cyclist'. Healthy fun for all the family, you can win the game in several ways:

a) Holding your camera at eye-level, step out into the street while pretending not to look. Magdalen Bridge and the High Street are terrific opportunities for this, with a 48% fatality rate in 2012.

b) If aged under eighteen, hire your own bike and cycle the wrong way down the streets, preferably with an equally unhelmeted wheelie-ing friend. The Plain roundabout is especially recommended as being likely to take out the odd car and even yourself alongside the unwitting cyclist.

c) Walk very slowly and diagonally across main streets as you cross (it goes without saying that you should avoid traffic lights), making eyes at the cyclist in your sightline. They will struggle to measure distance, speed, and direction accurately. A flurry of your handbag or plastic rain-cape boosts your probability of winning by 17%.

4) If aged under thirty, make a point of purchasing Oxford University clothing. Hoodies and t-shirts are particular faves. Even though you are thirteen years old, cannot ask bus directions in English, and are being shepherded around town with your mates by a bored-looking undergraduate with a dangly name-badge, all the thirteen-year-olds with the other language school will look at you and be convinced you go to Oxford. Then they will photograph you.

5) Finally, WALK SLOWLY. The toy town of Oxford is best navigated at a gentle moonwalk.

'Oxford Broad St in July', courtesy of Annette van der V.
Please take out appropriate insurance before attempting any of these feats. Enjoy your trip!

Monday, 8 July 2013

Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing

Director and screenwriter Joss Whedon is best known for creating Buffy and directing Avengers Assemble, one of last year’s slightly more memorable superhero blockbusters. He reveals indie aspirations with his adaptation of Much Ado, filmed in twelve days in the Whedon home, with a cast of vaguely familiar faces. Shakespeare's Sicilian elite are transported to an ambiguously modern California, where the girls wear mid-twentieth-century dresses and the dudes whip out evidence of Don John misbehaving on their smartphones. Baz-Luhrmann-meets-Sofia-Coppola pandemonium ensues.

 

For Much Ado newcomers, the plot revolves around two relationships: Beatrice and Benedick, an intellectually jostling, sarcastic duo who can't quite get it together; and Claudio and Hero - saintly, naive young things whose love is hijacked by the scheming malcontent Don John. First, let it be said that Whedon's black-and-white, cinematographically elegant rom-com makes this all very enjoyable. Amy Acker (Beatrice) and Alexis Denisof (Benedick) are individually very good, and Fran Kranz makes a touching Claudio. For light relief, Nathan Fillion's Dogberry and co. steal the show, and Whedon's musical arrangements for 'Sigh No More' and 'Heavily' are a lovely touch.

However, the film is not without perplexity in its hybrid Shakespeare-California form. The Prince and Don John turn up in limos, sharp suits and sunglasses. Are they Hollywood execs or gangsters? Gangsters make more sense with Shakespeare's war-talk and the concealed pistols, but these guys look like gangsters circa 1980. Then there are the smartphones. And the girls' dresses. It's a bit muddled, but beautiful enough that we suspend disbelief.

Beatrice eavesdrops as Hero and Ursula stir up romantic mischief
The bigger problem is the romance. A love scene at the beginning of the film sets up the idea that Beatrice and Benedick were once thoroughly modern lovers. But their physical chemistry in the rest of the film is very chaste, in line with Shakespeare's language of 'maids' and 'talking' (ahem) at chamber windows. There's none of the awkwardness, energy, or magnetism that we suspect should be there given that history, and given their plotted sense of direction. The moral anachronism is a problem for Claudio and Hero, too. Clark Gregg's terrific speech as Leonato rejecting his defiled daughter just falls a bit flat when the spiky-haired wedding photographer is wielding a gigantic Canon.

Benedick and Beatrice: will they, won't they?
But perhaps these incongruities make the audience think. I squirmed to watch the patriarchal handling and transaction of women wearing modern clothes, and the defeatist tears of the tame and placid Hero; it's a shame that the chemistry between Beatrice and Benedick goes stale now that they're grown-up enough to get hitched. Much Ado's fairytale narrative, its playful staging, and its little glitches certainly make Whedon's adaptation linger in mind.