April 2018 Album of the Month: Altan

ALTAN (2018)
The Gap of Dreams

Now in its 31st year, Ireland’s mighty Altan shows no signs of letting up. Not if The Gap of Dreams is any measure. The album’s title comes from a line in a Francis Carlin poem and references the space between this world and the Otherworld and I’ll de damned if I know in which Altan resides.

You know you’re in for a magical ride from the get go. The title track is appended to a tune called “Nia’s Jig” (in honor of singer/fiddler Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s 14-year-old daughter), and another titled “The Beekeeper.” It’s your classic Celtic Big Set, except it’s more accomplished than most—the sort into which instruments don’t jump in and out, they slide through small spaces so adroitly that one never notices the seams where they join. You’ll get another accomplished pastiche on a collection labeled “A Spirited Night,” and indeed it is, with Martín Tourish muscular accordion tossing off precision, staccato-like runs that clear the way for Ní Mhaonaigh’s fiddle to launch into the second tune. The effect is joyous, magical, and magisterial—as we have indeed crossed a special threshold. “The Tullaghan Lasses” is an equally memorable set; this one featuring fiddles chasing their own musical tails.

Ní Mhaonaigh has always been at the center of the Altan swirl—she with the voice of a delicate bird that stands in marked contrast to her robust fiddle playing. As she has matured, so too has her voice—now sporting a subtle burnishing at the edges that makes it less fragile. “The Month of January” is a like a lullaby for adults, and her lead on “Bucach Shíl Andaí” takes us to sonic places analogous to material from Clannad (which actually did this song years ago). To really get a sense of where she’s headed, try “Níon a’ Bhaoigheallaigh,” * which is edgy and throbbing in all the right places. As songs such as these suggest, Ní Mhaonaigh showcases the Irish language, though she’s also superb in English, as we hear on “DarkInishowen,” a lamentation on being separated from the heart’s object of affection.

Everything on this album rings, clicks, swoops, and wails as it should. Listen hard also for the crystalline purity of guitar work from Daíthí Sproule and Mark Kelly, and softer percussive notes from Ciarán Curran’s bouzouki. The Gap of Dreams leaves one with little doubt as to why Altan stands at the pinnacle of modern Irish music.

*This may have been renamed from the preview release. Also, the sync is slightly off in the video.  

Rob Weir


Professor Marston and Wonder Women Shackled by Bad Direction

Directed by Angela Robinson
Annapurna Pictures, 108 minutes, R (brief nudity, sexuality, language)
★★ ½

Any teacher will tell you that the hardest assignments to grade are those that neither sparkle nor stink. We usually grade them C+ or B- with little or no conviction. Let's put Professor Marston and the Wonder Women perspective. In 1941, William Moulton Marston's comic book heroine, Wonder Woman, hit the market and went on to become the most popular female comic book heroine in history. More recently, Gal Gadot squeezed herself into a bustier and the movie Wonder Woman owned the summer of 2017. Yet that same year, the film about Wonder Woman's creator was a box office bust, thereby proving C+ efforts don't excite moviegoers either.

Director Angela Robinson brings Marston (1893-1947) to the screen. We first see him in 1928, as he lectures in a Radcliffe classroom in which his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall) is splayed on the inside window ledge. We learn that Dr. Marston (Luke Evans) is slumming it from his post at Harvard, where he obtained a Ph.D. in psychology seven years earlier, while Elizabeth had to settle for an MA and minor post at Radcliffe. It doesn't take long to figure out that the one with the fanciest title isn't the smartest. Elizabeth is brilliant and mesmerizing; she's also snarky, smokes like a chimney, swears like a sailor, and sulks like a spoiled child. Both are beguiled by Olive Bryne (Bella Heathcoate), an undergraduate who seeks to be Bill's research assistant and are stunned to learn she's the daughter of radical feminist Ethel Bryne and niece to birth control icon Margaret Sanger. Elizabeth is also convinced that Olive wants to bed her husband. She's only partly correct. Olive is initially naïve, but soon opts for a (non-political) life that, in the eyes of society, is considerably more radical than that of her mother or aunt. Back then, it was one thing to advocate for women's equality or reproductive freedom; it was altogether another to engage in a polymorphous triad that produced four children, only two of whom knew that Marston was their father.

Until historian Jill Lepore's 2014 book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, the back-story to the comic book was little known. Wonder Woman becomes intriguingly problematic when you know that Marston (or was it Elizabeth?) developed an early lie detector, that Wonder Woman got tied up a lot because of interest in S & M, and that Martson believed that women were superior to men and should control society. (Or did he?)  All of this is to say that this film's real-life tale has more twists than an inebriated snake. The source material is so ripe with potential that it's perplexing and exasperating that it falls considerably short of where it should have landed.

It certainly wasn't Rebecca Hall's fault. She's riveting as Elizabeth—so much so that it's hard to look in any other direction when she's on screen. She's utterly fascinating and that's quite a statement when one considers that she was toned down in the script. Lepore paints her as far more assertive and less interested in convention than we see in Robinson's film. (Lepore sees her as the pivot around which things revolved, not her husband.) Hall smolders on screen and we know it's merely a matter of time until she combusts.

Several things held the film back. First, Evans is so bland that it's hard to imagine Elizabeth would fall for him or that Olive wouldn't outgrow her fascination. The latter's transformation from naïf to sexual libertine is too abrupt, as is Elizabeth's reverse course from snarky bohemian to pragmatist. This suggests Robinson's script has flaws, but I think the deeper problem was her timid direction. When your top directorial credit is the 2011 TV remake of Charlie's Angels, that's pretty thin. She has, however, made lesbian and bisexual-themed shows and film, which made me wonder why every time this film could have delivered a punch, it glances instead of striking the target. Maybe the film would have worked better had Robinson focused more narrowly. In addition to the complex relationships, Robinson skims other issues: Marston's overly simplistic DISC theory of human emotions, the politics of academia, the emergence of the comic books industry during the Great Depression, and Congressional investigation into whether comics were undermining American society. Call each of these cinematic drive-bys. 

There's only so much one can tell in under two hours and its center needed to be more bohemian. Whatever one might think of unconventional people, they tend to live interesting lives. This isn't a bad film—just an okay one—and when the possibilities are this rich, okay isn't good enough. If you don't know this story, by all means check out the movie. Then pick up Jill Lepore's book I think you'll agree that Robinson deserves a C+ for making fascinating people seem blasé.

Rob Weir


Victoria and Abdul a Bad Second Act


VICTORIA and ABDUL  (2017)
Directed by Stephen Frears
Focus Pictures, 111minutes, PG-13

Someone should make a film about how Queen Victoria was more than a puritanical prude during her 63-plus years on the British throne (1837-1901). Oh wait, somebody already did that twenty years ago. Is it time to do it again? Nope!

Victoria (1819-1901) was just 18 when she was crowned and had not reached 22 when she married her first cousin, Albert of Saxe-Colburg, in 1840. Theirs was a loving and fruitful marriage that produced nine children before Albert died suddenly in 1861, shortly after traveling to Italy to admonish their eldest child, Edward (“Bertie”), who was engaged in a scandalous dalliance with an actress. The queen never forgave Bertie and spent the remaining 61 years of her life in resentment and mourning. In fact, she came to thoroughly dislike all of her children, whom she saw—with considerable merit­—as pampered, conniving, and amoral. History labels the latter half of the 19th century the “Victorian Age,” and associates it with dour temperaments, moral rectitude, social scripting, and affected seriousness.

Not surprisingly, Victoria’s private life wasn’t entirely up to code. She had confidants and particularly enjoyed spending time in royal residences outside of Greater London, especially Scotland. After Albert’s death she found comfort in John Brown, her Scottish footman, who served her from 1863 until his death in 1883. There were even rumors that the two were lovers, but these seem to have been circulated by her family and courtiers jealous that Victoria paid them little heed. Those who’ve seen director John Madden’s acclaimed 1997 film Mrs. Brown with Billy Connolly as Brown and Judi Dench as Queen Victoria know this story.

In 1876, Victoria also became Empress of India, courtesy of British imperialism. In Victoria and Abdul, Dench reprises her role as Victoria. Stephen Frears’ film is basically a sequel to Mrs. Brown—just not a very good one. It opens in 1887, when two Indian Muslims travel to England to present Victoria with a ceremonial coin commemorating her 50th year on the throne. By then Victoria had grown zaftig, tired, bored with the throne, and disgusted with the hangers on at court. Small wonder she found Abdul (Ali Fazal) exotic in all the right ways; he was tall, kind, polished, and in awe of Her Majesty. We see the two grow together as friends, with Victoria appointing him her “Munshi” (teacher) for lessons in Urdu and the Qur’an. She even contemplated giving him a knighthood. The court was scandalized.

This really happened. Perhaps it would have made a good movie. But Frears has essentially taken the kilt off John Brown, put a turban on his head, and replaced the brogue with Southeast Asian-accented English. All the elements are there from Madden’s film: sniveling patronage seekers, a playboy Bertie, upper-class snobbery, and racism.

As for the racism, it often seemed as if the entire point of imperialism was to conquer new peoples the English could despise and belittle. You can easily imagine what people who racialized the Irish and Scots thought of the dark-skinned Abdul and Muhammad, who accompanied him, or Abduls’ burqa-wearing wife and mother-in-law. Still, one of the many problems in Victoria and Abdul arises when Frears populates the picture with deplorables: Bertie (Eddie Izzard), Sir Henry Ponsby (Tim Pigott-Smith), Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon), Dr. James Reid (Paul Higgins), Baroness Churchill (Olivia Spencer), and on and on. There are just two sympathetic individuals: our titular characters. Others probably were this awful, but under Frears’ misdirection our antagonists are mere twits with less depth than cardboard cutouts.

Frears compounds the problem by striking an unneeded semi-burlesque tone. Aristocracy has a way of lampooning itself without the addition of freighted clownish demeanors that invite bemusement rather than outrage. Frears adds other puzzling touches. What was he thinking when he cast Simon Callow as Puccini and then uses him solely to set up Dench’s atonal attempt at a few measures of Gilbert and Sullivan? Such light-hearted moments serve mainly to blunt the full force of things we’re supposed to take seriously: Britain’s plunder of India, Abdul’s personal burdens, the anachronistic nature of monarchy, ethnocentrism…. In essence, Victoria and Abdul plays like any of a number of British East-meets-West comedy/dramas that proliferate like midges.

Frears doesn’t even seem to know how he wants to portray Abdul—as an exotic, a sycophant, a mesmerist, a tragic victim, or just another schemer who’s better at it than English lickspittles. Oh, I forgot; Abdul also plays travel agent. Be prepared for your Wikipedia lesson on the Taj Mahal. The whole film is as boring as English noble nabobs. Like most second acts, Victoria and Abdul is vacuous and forgettable.

Rob Weir