Sunday, 6 June 2021

The Thursday Murder Club: An Antidote to Crime Fiction

It's always amazed me that there are people who read nothing but crime fiction. Though I make a point of reading books from many genres, crime is one section I never really visit on my almost weekly trips to Waterstones.

I can see the appeal, of course. You know what you're getting with a crime novel, especially if you're committed to a single author or one of their series. Detective is having some personal trouble which they have to put out of their mind while they solve a murder or missing persons case. Personal trouble keeps haunting the detective, but in a useful way that somehow helps them solve the case and make an emotional breakthrough at the same time.

But to me, this formulaic approach brings little comfort, especially in book form. I've been known to enjoy the odd police procedural, but it's the ingenious solutions of David Renwick's Jonathan Creek and the psychological focus of CBS' Criminal Minds that have appealed to me - quirks that counterbalance what can often be quite unimaginative writing. When it comes to books, I want a challenge; something that makes me think, or laugh, or cry.

Every so often, I try to circumvent my prejudice against the genre. But while a few books have slipped through the cracks, they've never been the complete package. In Charlaine Harris' Lily Bard Mysteries, the the charming cast of small town residents is more compelling than the mysteries themselves. Conversely, the non-crime-related events of Ian Rankin's Rebus novels feel more like filler than insight into the characters.

So it's unlikely that I would have bought The Thursday Murder Club for myself - even as a fan of author Richard Osman's many TV and radio exploits. But thanks to a delayed delivery, I received it last year as an interim Christmas present. And with all the fantasy and sci-fi on my TBR this year, I thought "why not break it up with some crime?"

I'm very glad I did - it's the crime novel that has challenged all my misgivings about crime novels.

Giving Up Trope

No matter how hard you try to defy them, it's hard to avoid the filing cabinet full of well-worn clichés and stock moments inherent to the crime genre. The Thursday Murder Club is no exception, but I've never read a book that subverts them in quite such a novel way.

We've all read the scene where the lead detective, having exhausted all official leads, begrudgingly consults a local organised crime boss as a last resort. Well, what if that informant was really likeable? Someone you'd visit for a drink or a slice of home-baked cake? Well, that's the Thursday Murder Club. 

Four golden oldies living in a retirement village sit at the centre of this murder investigation. Each one has a unique charm and a rich inner life with which we don't often credit people of their age. Even the hackneyed good-cop-bad-cop routine, manages to find new life when attempted by semi-famous unionist Ron and retired psychiatrist Ibrahim; and readers may snicker with delight any time Elizabeth makes use of the global contacts from her apparently classified past.

Making these four pensioners the protagonists of the story is a stroke of genius from Osman. Police investigators Chris and Donna are almost as likeable, but part of me wonders if Osman has deliberately made them a little bland; subtle pastiches of professional detectives who, in any other crime novel, would be the main characters.

Seriously Funny

A particularly tiresome trope of the crime genre - perhaps more closely associated with American writing - is the dry, sarcastic humour that detectives apparently need to display in order to pass their final exams. Well-deployed, it does lend a certain gravity to a character, but like many crime tropes, the depths seem all but plumbed now.

It was very refreshing to find little of this quippy, self-congratulatory comedy in The Thursday Murder Club. The humour - of which the book is full - has a much more genuine edge to it. And - from Joyce's misadventures with technology to Elizabeth's motherly concern for PC Donna's personal life - it's firmly rooted in the characters.

But it's not just where our own observations of older people are confirmed that humour is found. It also appears on the many occasions where they surprise us. We're heading into spoiler territory so I won't give too much away, but don't be surprised if you end up believing that these four septuagenarians could do almost anything if they set their minds to it.

Wheels in Emotion

Finally, it is where most crime novels disappoint me most that The Thursday Murder Club really impresses. From Kinsey Milhone to Sam Vimes, every hard-boiled detective is battling with inner trauma, but it usually plays second fiddle to the crime plot. Either it's an unnecessary distraction to be filed away until it's plot-relevant; or it represents some character growth the protagonist needs to face.

This novel, though, is concerned with the realities of later life, and so the relationships and emotional stress can't help but take centre stage. Elizabeth's dementia-suffering husband Stephen, Joyce's attempts to coax Bernard Cottle out of his shell, and Ron's fluctuating relationship with his son; none of these are lessons they need to learn or annoyances they wish to avoid. They are insights into the lives of humans who - in spite of all presumptions - still have so much left to give.

Such well-realised elderly protagonists bring with them the wisdom of age. Their characters are fully developed, and what insecurity remains is channelled toward others. Their emotional intelligence is what helps the Murder Club to get ahead of the police investigation at crucial moments, and also what brings real heart to the story's more tender moments.

In short, I highly recommend this book - to lovers and haters of crime fiction. Though it opens with the gentle ease of the man sitting behind the desk on Pointless, it's a truly moving story with laughs in its belly and love at its heart. And in September, after many years of failing to do so, it looks like I'll finally be buying the sequel to a crime novel.

Thursday, 31 December 2020

2020: My Year In Music

It's often said that your music taste peaks at around 14. Whatever music you were singing and dancing to halfway through secondary school will be the music you listen to for the rest of your life. And I think to a certain extent that's true.

I will always have a soft spot for pop punk, for instance, a genre that was at its peak when I became a teenager. I still come back to All Time Low's Nothing Personal and Paramore's Brand New Eyes - both of which were released when I was 13 - and I know them almost lyric for lyric.

But something about that statistic scared me a bit. With so much music from all around the world at my fingertips, I didn't want to end up listening to the same 30 songs purely through lack of trying. So for the last few years I've made an effort to listen to everything and everyone I can. And now I want to share some of that experience with you.

2020's been a crazy year, with few blessings to count. But it's given us some great music, and time to explore music that we haven't heard before. So, without further ado, here are my top 5 albums that I discovered this year... 

After Hours (2020) by The Weeknd

The Weeknd's sophomore album Beauty Behind the Madness is firmly cemented in the soundtrack of my university days. What could be more relatable to a hard-boozing student than the self-destructive sentiment of "Can't Feel My Face" or the hungover haze of "The Hills"? I loved dancing and drinking to the Weeknd, but I never imagined liking his music.

But there's little to dislike about After Hours. As immaculately produced as his previous efforts, it retains the bright synths and lilting rhythms that made The Weeknd a party playlist staple. But the lyrics reveal a maturity, a vulnerability we've rarely seen before. "Take off my disguise," he asks in the record's very first line - as if inviting us to see what lies behind his sheen of reckless decadence.

It's a beautiful, brutal album. Regret pulses through heavier tracks like "Too Late" and "Save Your Tears," while the more radio-friendly numbers explore broken relationships and the fear of being alone. A cheery record it is not, but Abel Tesfaye's gorgeous vocals guide the listener through it, and tracks like "Scared to Live," it's clear that inside all this self-sabotage and sadness, there is still hope

My highlights: Alone Again, Hardest to Love, Blinding Lights, In Your Eyes

OK Computer (1997) by Radiohead

As a big fan of Coldplay, Muse and other bands who wouldn't exist without Radiohead, I can't believe it took me so long to start listening to them. And, though I listened to every album in order, it was no surprise to find that OK Computer captured my imagination more than the rest. I've always known it's one of the greatest records of all time, but now I really understand.

Retrospectives all across its 23-year life have claimed that the themes of OK Computer are, if anything, more relevant today than they were in the 90s - and 2020 is no different. Radiohead saw a world of ubiquitous technology coming, and they perfectly captured the all-too-familiar isolation of a world that relies more than ever on technology for a sense of normality.

What's more, for all its technical, musical and lyrical experimentation, it's still a cracking rock album. The pulsing guitars and headphone-busting drums of 'Airbag' and 'Electioneering' contrast perfectly with Yorke's baleful crooning on 'Exit Music (For a Film)' and 'The Tourist'. It's a perfectly crafted record and I can't stop listening.  

My highlights: Subterranean Homesick Alien, Let Down, Karma Police, Lucky

Walking Like We Do (2020) by The Big Moon

I'm normally a sucker for the raw indie sounds of a debut album - all the uncut potential of a band writing without a producer. But despite the critical acclaim of The Big Moon's debut Love in the 4th Dimension, its rough, grungy sounds didn't capture my imagination as much as this year's excellent follow-up Walking Like We Do.

This second album has a cleaner, more polished sound that allows the band's inventive melodies and compelling harmonies room to breathe. Lyrically, the record brushes up against the biggest issues of its day - the idolatry of consumerism takes centre stage on "Holy Roller", while "Dog Eat Dog" could be read as a criticism of the institutions who stayed silent in the face of the Me Too movement.

But the light touch with which The Big Moon explore these heavy topics makes this album perhaps the perfect record for 2020. They do not ignore the confusion and uncertainty of these times, but the overall outlook is hope that we can succeed in the face of adversity. "We don't know where we're going," they sing on the penultimate track, "but we're walking like we do."

My highlights: Dog Eat Dog, Take A Piece, Barcelona, A Hundred Ways to Land

Planetarium (2017) by Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAllister & Sufjan Stevens

This album is the biggest surprise of the five. I stumbled across it while wading through Sufjan Stevens' back catalogue, and it's been my go-to work soundtrack ever since. Blending poetic, thoughtful lyrics with ethereal electronic sounds, it manages to be at once an all-consuming musical experience and just a great record to 'have on in the background'.

Even in today's musical culture, space is still usually represented through classical instruments. Not so here. From earth-shaking pads to subtle control-panel leads, synth sounds take centre stage, and they capture a sense of unknowable power in our familiar night sky. Stevens' vocals are soft and plaintive throughout - his voice a small space probe, at times echoing in the void, at other times almost drowned out by the sheer gravity of sound.

Finally, this record has something that few concept albums possess: simplicity. Despite its grand subject matter, Planetarium is never pretentious. It's understated, caught up not in the cleverness of the music or lyrics but in the awe of these heavenly bodies. There's no complex narrative, just a series of carefully constructed vignettes on a theme. The result? A body of work about our solar system that even Holst himself would be proud of.

My highlights: Neptune, Pluto, Saturn, Mercury

Hadestown (2019) by the Original Broadway Cast of Hadestown

Les Misérables. Billy Elliot. In the Heights. Broadway's no stranger to portraying the lives of marginalised groups. But is it the best art form for the job? In her video essay on Rent, Lindsay Ellis contends that these shows often fly the revolution flag while pandering to the middle-class tastes of those who can afford the tickets. It's no wonder that the 'oppression' aspect of these shows often plays second fiddle to narratives of love and self-acceptance.

That's what's so impressive about Hadestown. The tragic love story of Orpheus and Eurydice is retold with tenderness and hope, but in every love song there is the shadow of something bigger at hand. The titular town is an industrial underworld where poor workers give their all to Hades, all to enrich and protect him. Hades doesn't appear as a powerful god, but as a scheming businessman whose deals control the prosperity of the whole world. Sound familiar?

And the immediacy of Hadestown's politics is matched at every step by Anaïs Mitchell's musical prowess. From the Jazz club at the underworld's entrance to the deep rumbling bass of Hades himself, the soundtrack is a compelling listen from start to finish. It's a small story with big ideas, and I'll be first in line to see the show when theatres reopen.

My highlights: Wedding Song, Epic II, Why We Build The Wall, Flowers

Honourable Mentions:

  • Dreamland (2020) by Glass Animals
  • An Unwavering Band of Light (2012) by Jenny Owen Youngs
  • Giants of All Sizes (2019) by Elbow

Saturday, 28 November 2020

Recipe: Hot Alcoholic Butter Beer to Warm up Your Winter

Disappointed with the coloured cream soda served at official Harry Potter locations, I designed this alcoholic alternative. Sweet, spicy and completely vegan, my recipe attempts to recreate the warming butter beer of the books I’ve loved since I was a kid. The perfect magical drink for a witchy Winter ritual.

For 6 medium-sized servings, you’ll need:

For the butterscotch sauce:

  • 100g of light brown sugar
  • 50g of vegan margarine (Flora, Vitalite, Pure are all great)
  • 70ml of soy milk (this is what I use but I’m sure oat, almond etc would work fine)
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract


  1. Melt the margarine in a medium-sized pan.
  2. Add the brown sugar and salt, and heat over a low heat.
  3. Once the mixture starts to bubble, stir slowly for 3 minutes.
  4. Add the soy milk and stir into the mixture.
  5. Bring to a low boil, then stir slowly for 3 more minutes.
  6. Take the pan off the heat, and stir in the vanilla extract.
  7. Leave the mixture to cool. It will thicken and separate, but don’t worry. You can recombine the ingredients by whisking the mixture with a fork.

For the butter beer

  • 600ml apple cider
  • 300ml ginger beer
  • 150ml cream sherry (doesn’t sound vegan, but there are varieties available)
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 4 star anise
  • 6 cloves

For the ‘foam' on top:

  • 100ml vegan double cream


  1. Pour the apple cider, ginger beer and cream sherry into a saucepan and stir well.
  2. Add the cinnamon sticks, star anise and cloves.
  3. Turn on the stove at a low heat, warming the mixture slowly. Keep an eye on the temperature of the liquid, and stir whenever bubbles start to appear. Try not to let the mixture boil.
  4. In the meantime, pour the double cream into a mixing bowl. Whisk it with an electric whisk until very soft peaks form.
  5. Pour a small amount of butterscotch sauce into a drinking glass, just enough to cover the base of the glass.
  6. Once the butterbeer is hot, remove the spices and pour into the glass.
  7. To create a beer-like head of foam, cover the top of your butterbeer with a tablespoon or two of the whipped double cream.
  8. Drizzle a little butterscotch sauce over the cream, and serve while it’s still hot.

This took some experimentation but, as my housemates will tell you, it was definitely worth it. Impress the mulled-wine-avoiding scrooges in your family this winter with a warming (and still alcoholic) alternative!

A Winter of Witchcraft

It’s like the lead-up to a bad joke: two lapsed Catholics, an agnostic and a universalist Anglican move into a small terrace in Nottingham. In this ragtag post-university household, it’s no surprise we talk about spirituality a lot. But even six months into lockdown, none of us expected the new Winter tradition we would take on in these uncertain times.

Raised under the roofs of religion, all of us have an appetite for ritual and reflection, even if most of us don’t fancy bringing God into it. This applies especially to my partner Lucy - one of the Catholics, if anyone’s keeping track. On our recent holiday to the Forest of Dean, she became fascinated with the seasonal traditions celebrated by modern-day pagans and Wiccans.

Wicca is a constructed religion based on the beliefs and festivals of ancient Celtic people. With this comes a deep respect for nature, stories of Mother and Father Earth, and the belief that performing certain rituals can produce real, tangible magic.

It’s a lot to process. But modern-day traditions are made to be messed with. Each of Lucy’s many books on contemporary witchcraft has its own spin on pagan rituals and traditions.

What resonates most with us is the Celtic calendar. Eight festivals that map the passing of the natural year. The Summer and Winter solstice, the Spring and Autumn equinox, and four other feast days that represent our relationship with nature. Each one comes with its own traditions, including seasonal foods to eat and deep questions to reflect on.

When September arrived, the nation braced itself for a second wave of lockdown. Meanwhile, we were busy preparing for Mabon, the feast of the Autumn equinox. The end of nature’s year and the start of the dark season. So, even as the sun shone weakly through the yellowing leaves, we prepared to welcome Winter into our lives, witch-style.

We invited round a couple of friends - creating a bubble of 6, for those with the Covid bingo cards - and had a delicious, warming lunch. Spicy roasted chickpeas, baked root vegetables with cauliflower cheese, the rich smells of sage leaves and pears poaching on the stove. 

Not the kookiest Sunday so far. Even our nice afternoon walk felt quite ordinary, though anyone looking closely would have noticed us collecting conkers, acorns and sycamore seeds. As the sun began to set, we sat around a makeshift altar in the garden. On it we placed our foraged findings, giving thanks to each element for the gifts we’ve been given this year.

We thanked the air (represented by the sycamore copters) for ideas and inspiration. Fire - a popcorn-scented tealight - was thanked for the joy and passion it brings us, and we poured wine into a bowl of water as thanks for our friendships. Finally we broke and ate bread to thank the earth for the physical harvest of this year’s efforts.

It was new, and a little awkward, but everyone agreed how lovely it was to spend time focusing on the good things in life as an uncertain Winter approaches. And this is just the beginning. Ahead of us lay Samhain and Yule, the Celtic ancestors of Halloween and Christmas.

But why choose this Winter to adopt our new tradition? Maybe it was a desire to slow down and pay attention to the passing of the year, rather than shutting out the outside world and wishing away our time spent in lockdown. Maybe it was desperation to have something in the calendar to look forward to.

Or perhaps it was a desire for something else that usually comes with Winter: the security of family. In these unprecedented days, nothing is certain, and nagging at the back of our minds was the possibility that we wouldn’t get to visit home this Christmas.

Before lockdown, the four of us had never cooked together. We were separate people, going about our separate lives, occasionally playing board games together or joining in the Big Tidy. But these days making dinner, exercising, washing up and even the weekly food shop are all collaborative efforts. Everyday rituals of their own, if you will. Preparing and performing our parts in this ancient, new-age festival felt like a natural extension of our happy approximation of domestic life.

So this weird constructed family of twenty-somethings will be celebrating our weird constructed traditions this Winter. On Samhain we built a fire and told stories of relatives who have passed on. For Yule, we’ll burn pine in a cauldron, reflecting on the past and thinking about the future.

Maybe we’re just pretending to worship gods and cast spells. But there is a real magic at work in this performance of witchcraft. Through this Winter, and beyond, we’ll observe the passing of the seasons openly and thoughtfully. And best of all, we’ll do it together.

If you want to get in on the fun of our witchy winter, why not try my very own butter beer recipe? It’s a magical mulled-wine alternative to warm any winter night!

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Why I Love Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

As the follow-up to one of the most beloved franchises in film history, 2016's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them arrived heavy with the weight of expectation. With David Yates still in the director's chair, and Rowling herself penning the screenplay, surely we were in for a rich new adventure inside the Wizarding World we know and love.

Did it turn out the way we all expected? Not exactly. Does it still hold a special place in the heart of this die-hard Potter fan? Absolutely.

Of course it's not perfect. The action sequences are entertaining but silly, which often jars with the overall dark, threatening tone. Colin Farrell's Percival Graves makes for a pleasingly mundane villain, especially after the nose-less Voldemort. But then they had to turn him into Johnny Depp at the end. Why not just make Graves a servant of Grindelwald?

But there's lots to love too. Protagonist Newt Scamander and his unlikely sidekick Jacob make a very likeable duo, supported by surprisingly snappy dialogue from Rowling's debut screenplay. 1920s New York is no Hogwarts, but it complements the dark, hostile tone of the film. And the beasts themselves are the icing on the cake - CGI masterpieces designed to make us laugh, gasp and go "aww" in all the right places.

But what makes this film special is the same thing that helped Harry Potter stand out in the crowd of magical children's novels: it's actually about something. Of course, every film has a point to make or themes it wants to explore, even family blockbusters. But what I love about Fantastic Beasts 1 is that the whole story - every scene, character and relationship - exists to discuss the film's key questions.

Gender Expression and Where to Find It

First of all, Fantastic Beasts provides a detailed exploration of gender expression, something that remains rare in Hollywood even today. An excellent discussion of Newt's gentle masculinity can be found here, and it's wonderful to see such an understated, thoughtful leading man in an age where bad-ass superheroes are making the big bucks. But this theme isn't limited to the film's protagonist.

Sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein display very different takes on femininity - Tina is a wannabe hard-boiled detective, seen showing traditionally male traits like ambition and gruffness. Meanwhile Queenie, from her cutesy voice to her aptness for household magic, displays a more traditional femininity.

Crucially, though, both women take their gender expressions in their stride. Queenie is delighted to find a happy house guest in Jacob, and the two hit it off immediately. Tina, though an impostor in the New York auror office, seems perfectly at home in the world of gritty investigation work.

Indeed, Tina and Newt's blossoming romance is characterised by them embracing sides of themselves they are less familiar with. Awkward, unassuming Newt learns to open up to another human, and Tina softens her hard edges as she warms up to our protagonist.

Which brings me to perhaps the most important idea considered in the film. Almost every relationship explores a different answer to the question: What does it mean to care about someone?

The Obscurus - Caring Too Much

First up is the newest addition to our catalogue of fantastic beasts  the obscurus. This force of dark energy is created when a child is forced to hide their magical ability. The obscurus terrorising New York is that of Credence Barebone, a powerful young wizard who was adopted by witch hunters.

The obscurus acts as a defence mechanism for Credence - it lashes out whenever he is angry or in danger, destroying buildings and even killing the people who oppress him. As a massive Potterhead, I can't help seeing the obscurus as a kind of anti-patronus: a spiritual protector that's built on anger and fear rather than hope and happiness. And like the destruction it wreaks on the city, the violent care the obscurus shows for Credence will eventually destroy him.

Graves and Credence - A Means to an End

Percival Graves (head of security for the American Ministry of Magic) is busy trying to stop a dark mysterious monster from terrorising New York. Credence, who seems to have a special importance to Graves - so much so that Graves rescues him from his cruel adoptive family, and promises a life away from harm in exchange for help.

As the movie continues, we learn to see Graves as the villain of the piece, and his relationship with Credence takes on a new meaning. Graves does care about the boy, but only as an asset. He sees something special in Credence, and he's willing to show kindness if it will further his own (rather mysterious) ends.

Newt - The Master Carer

And then there's our protagonist. First introduced to us as the author of the "Care of Magical Creatures" textbook, it's no surprise that Newt is defined by caring. More specifically, he is presented as someone who cares for those who can't offer him the same thing in return.

Most obviously, he has dedicated his life to the proper treatment of magical animals, a task he seems to trust no one else with (he puts a very complex undetectable extension charm on his suitcase just so he can bring his whole menagerie with him to New York). There's no doubt that the creatures owe a lot to Newt, though of course he expects nothing in return from them.

But there's a human example too. At the start of the final act, Newt finds a photo of Leta Lestrange, an old flame of his. This is clearly shoehorned into the film to foreshadow the next movie, but it does provide an insight into Newt's character. Seeing him look at the photo, mind-reader Queenie intuits that Leda was "a taker," whereas Newt needs "a giver". Another example here of a relationship where Newt gave more than he received.

Newt is a master of caring for others, but he's not used to receiving care in return. It's no wonder then that he initially resists Jacob's attempts to befriend him, or that he's so slow on the uptake when it becomes clear that Tina likes him. While most characters are exploring what it means to care for others, Newt experiences for the first time what it's like to be truly cared for.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them might stumble a bit as it tries to appeal to both children and grown-up Harry Potter fans. It might get a little confusing as they attempt to set up a five-film spin-off franchise. But it remains a pacey, thrilling, heartfelt adventure that breathes new life into JK Rowling's wizarding world. And crucially, it pushes the themes of friendship, bravery and compassion that makes the Harry Potter books so timeless. I'm sure that will be an enduring feature of the series...

See you next time.

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Dream Bigger #5: Controlling the Narrative

When I began this series in January, it was to mark my resolution to dream bigger this year. So naturally the time has come to ask myself how successful I've been. Has everything gone according to plan?

Not exactly. For example, I was really hoping that I'd be running a regular improv night in Nottingham by now. And though we've had several ideas that have reached various stages of readiness, it just hasn't happened. I was also planning to write loads of short stories this year, after a great writers' retreat at the start of January. In reality, that ended up being the only time I got any short story writing done.

But does that mean I've failed? Well, rhetorical question, this is the beauty of abstract resolutions. They allow you to control the narrative.

It makes sense to think about your life as a story. Events happen in a certain order for everyone (birth, infancy, school, university, etc.), so there's a well-defined structure. But what makes your story unique is that you're the main character.

The trouble with thinking like this - perhaps especially for a writer, but maybe not - is that I often expect my life events to make sense, as if everything was planned out beforehand. If something doesn't work out, I'm left trying to work out how this failure fits into my narrative. 'Maybe I was always meant to have that unhealthy relationship,' I might say. 'It paved the way for something that happened a few chapters later.'

I'm not sure why I do this, but I know that there's a time and place for it. Sometimes we need to admit when something went wrong, and dig into why that happened. But other times it's healthy, especially when the narrative you're trying to create isn't your actual life.

So I haven't set up a regular improv night this year. But thinking about the events that I have run in the last 12 months, maybe it wouldn't have been the right thing to do this year anyway.

And I haven't written any more short stories yet this year. But I did submit one for a competition. And though I was unsuccessful, my rejection has helped me identify some issues in my writing that I can fix ready for next time.

In short, dreaming bigger has succeeded this year. I might not have achieved exactly what I wanted to achieve, but reflecting on 2019 has helped me realise two things...

1) I have done some pretty cool stuff this year. I wrote and performed my first ever one-man show. I co-wrote and performed in a live sketch show. I'm engaged to my best friend in the world, I've spent lots of time with wonderful friends, and I've really gotten back into reading for pleasure. I haven't spent as much time on creative endeavours as I could have done, but I couldn't call any of it time wasted.

2) Dreaming bigger isn't a one-year project. My resolution this year has helped me commit to my creative dreams, and work out ways of making them a reality. This series might be over, but the act of dreaming bigger has only just begun. I've got big plans for next year, and I've already started setting them in motion.

Thank you so much for following this series, I hope you've found it as useful as I have. If you don't want to miss another blog post, they're not going away. You can subscribe to the mailing list on this page. Thanks, and here's to another year of dreaming bigger.

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Frozen VS Frozen II: When Plot Takes Over

I can say with certainty that Frozen II is not a bad film. It's well animated, the setting is full of imagination, and I laughed out loud more often than I thought I would. I saw it with my family on opening weekend, and we all left the cinema with the same reaction: satisfied with another Disney-tastic family experience... and pretty confused about what exactly had happened.

As soon as we got home I knew I had to write something about this film, because it presents a textbook lesson in storytelling. For those who haven't yet seen the film, this is your spoiler alert.

One of the strengths of Frozen (2013) is how tight the narrative is. Each main character has something they want, a motivation that is supported by the rest of the film's building blocks. Elsa is scared of what her ice powers can do, so she shuts herself away - both literally and emotionally. In response, Anna wants doors to be open: again, the real doors separating her from the outside world, and the metaphorical doors into her sister's affections.

The entire plot of Frozen is motivated by this tension. Anna's feelings of seclusion make her reckless - she almost marries someone she's just met, who turns out to be the villain. She sets off into the wilderness with no preparation. For Elsa's part, she embraces her ice powers, but still hides herself away, believing they can make her nothing but a villain.

The resolution of the story is equally tied to the bond between these two sisters. When Anna saves Elsa from Hans (the true villain of the piece), it heals the frozen heart that Elsa accidentally gave her years ago. At the same time, this act of true love thaws Elsa's cold demeanour, allowing her to open up and rule the kingdom with a happy heart.

And just in case you weren't convinced of their thematic link... Elsa, the uptight one with ice powers, was born on the winter solstice. Anna, the ginger one with a fiery personality, was born on the summer solstice.

Herein lies the reason that Frozen II can't really measure up to its predecessor. There's plenty of plot to the movie, but it's not really about anyone. In the film's opening, we flash back to Elsa and Anna's childhood, where their parents tell them of an ancient forest whose people are at war with Arendelle.

Turns out, Elsa and Anna's father was there when the fighting broke out, though conveniently he didn't see how things began. (We learn later that he was rushed to safety by the girl who grew up to be the girls' mother, though for some reason she neglects to reveal that at this point.)

Most of the movie takes place in this enchanted forest. Granted, it is a very cool setting, full of magic and mystery. But everything feels so... unmotivated. The only thing bringing them to the forest is a mysterious voice calling to Elsa. The only people we know connected to the forest are her parents, whose death early on in the first film means that we're not really invested in them.

To give you a concrete example of what happens when a film focuses on plot rather than character, let's focus on Kristoff's story. He spent the first film as Anna's guide in the frozen north, becoming her true love interest. The second film begins with the two of them in a comfortable relationship, and we learn early on that Kristoff wants to propose to Anna.

On the surface, a nice development of their relationship. Plenty to explore there, right? And they very nearly do. The film starts to examine Anna's loyalties - does she follow her sister into the unknown, or stay in Kristoff's warm embrace? But she doesn't have to choose, since they all decide to go north!

While it is good to have the gang all together (we don't get that in the first film), it changes Kristoff's role in the movie, and not for the better. As soon as they arrive at the forest, he becomes merely an annoyance to Anna, attempting to propose in various inappropriate moments until the film separates them entirely. While a local villager and fellow reindeer enthusiast teaches Kristoff about proposing correctly, Anna and Olaf go after Elsa, who's travelled north in search of the plot.

It's now that Kristoff has his best moment, a solo song that portrays how lost he feels whenever Anna isn't around. Shot like a cheesy music video, it's a very funny scene. But his sentiment is serious, so it's a bit jarring that the film plays it for laughs.

And where has his confusion about the state of the relationship come from? The two of them started the film happy together, and nothing's really changed - yes she's not around right now, but she has important things to do! Like many of the scenes and songs in Frozen II, this beat ends up feeling unmotivated, because the film hasn't spent enough time setting up the tension between characters.

If I was in Jennifer Lee's place, I'd have kept Kristoff in Arendelle for at least the first two acts. He would be our connection to the homeland, and provide comic relief as he prepares a variety of ridiculous proposals. The song could stay pretty much the same, but now it's the point when he realises that proposing is about expressing your feelings honestly, not about the grand gesture.

This would be emotionally dramatic, and also increase the tension of the final act. When the tidal wave from the broken dam rushes towards Arendelle, it's not very scary because the city has been evacuated. But what if we knew (and Anna didn't) that Kristoff and Sven were still in the city. Instant high stakes, and a better feeling of relief when Elsa saves the day.

The confusion my family and I felt when watching Frozen II is a classic symptom of sequel-itis. Everything was tied up with a nice bow at the end of the first film, so the writers invented a big complex plot to give the next story momentum. The result was an enjoyable, fun, thrilling, visually beautiful movie. But I think, if they had drawn the new story from the characters and their relationships, it could have been even better... and much less confusing.