‘My Grandparents’ War’ is a poignant WWII series

Released in 2019 to commemorate the 80th year of the beginning of WWII, the documentary series is presented by four acclaimed British actors sharing their own search for a piece of family history.

Each of the four one-hour episode is a moving, personal discovery as the acclaimed actors retrace their grandparents’ wartime footsteps. All of them appear in natural situ, devoid of showy costume or make-up but instead, wrapped in authenticity. A remarkable documentary series.

What’s in common is the intriguing fact that these grandchildren had known little about the wartime happening or even heroics of their grandparents until now, and the main reason is due to the older generation’s own reticence about their experience in a traumatic chapter of their life. This in itself is poignant and revealing.

Episode 1 – Mark Rylance

From Shakespearean drama to Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, stage and film actor Mark Rylance discovers a real-life horror story as he ponders the facts and conditions of his grandfather Osmond Skinner as a Prisoner of War in Hong Kong. He travels to the former British colony and walks the path and talks to those who show him records, and meeting the daughter of his grandfather’s fellow prisoner. Views from both sides of the war are presented.

Episode 2 – Kristin Scott Thomas

Kristin Scott Thomas’s grandfather was Royal Navy Captain William Scott Thomas whose heroics include a crucial role in the Dunkirk evacuation and D-Day, as well as the arduous and deadly missions of the Arctic Convoy to transport supplies to Russia. A moving personal journey as she learns the facts and visits Dunkirk to meet a descendant of an evacuee. The tragic death of Kristin’s pilot father in a plane crash when she was young could have severed a link between grandfather and grandchildren in terms of war stories.

Episode 3 – Carey Mulligan

Carey Mulligan’s grandfather Denzil Booth was just a teenager from Wales when he was fast-tracked to join the Navy. He was A radar operator on a war ship when it was hit by a Kamikaze plane. Touching moments when she goes searching for the details of her grandfather’s ship and conflicting emotions when she finds out the truths about the pilots of these Kamikaze missions when she sets foot in Japan.

Episode 4 – Helena Bonham Carter

While they did not actively fight in the battlefield, both sides of Helena Bonham Carter’s grandparents had performed remarkable heroics during the War. Her maternal grandparents were Jews living in Paris. During the Holocaust, Helena’s grandfather used his Spanish diplomatic influence to save thousands of Jews. While in England, her paternal grandmother was an activist denouncing anti-semitism and was marked by the Nazi’s to be eliminated once they took over. An uplifting episode.

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My Grandparents’ War is now on CBC Gem. If you’re in Canada, it’s free download. Here’s the link to the trailer. If you’re not in Canada, try to find this documentary series. A must-see.

Related Posts on the Pacific Front in WWII:

WWII Comfort Women Speak Out in The Apology

The Railway Man: Movie Review

The Railway Man by Eric Lomax: Book Review

Canada Reads 2018: Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

TIFF19 Review: Military Wives delivers a soothing tune

If being called a ‘feel good movie’ would right away make you think of a thoughtless and syrupy offering aiming just to please, Military Wives would shatter that myth. The reason for the ‘feel good’ effect in this case is largely because it is based on inspiring, real-life events. The spouses and partners of a British military base band together for mutual support and socializing when their loved ones are deployed to Afghanistan on a 6-month tour. At first just for coffee and a sip of wine, later they discover the joy of singing together as a choir. The subsequent events lead them to the Festival of Remembrance at Royal Albert Hall, deep friendship, and healing beyond their expectations.

Military Wives
Kristin Scott Thomas in Military Wives. Image Credit: Courtesy of TIFF.

The Military Wives Choir phenomenon had inspired the development of the BBC TV series The Choir. And now its movie version Military Wives has just world premiered at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival. According to their website: There are over 2,000 women with a military connection in 74 choirs based across the UK and in British military bases abroad, including Cyprus, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. As well, other countries’ military wives have followed suit, organizing their own choirs. Those with no prior knowledge of this global movement would find this a fresh and interesting subject to put on screen.

Directed by Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty, 1997) and written by Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard, Military Wives touts an effective cast to augment their singing. Kristin Scott Thomas is perfect as Kate, the Chair of the social committee on the fictional Flitcroft military base. As the wife of a Colonel, she comes with certain prescribed authority but her bossy personality denies her genuine friendship. Kate has to work together with the leader of the women’s social group, the casual and congenial Lisa (Sharon Horgan). During a brainstorming session, the idea of a choir comes up, something which neither of them has the expertise, or that the group is particularly well-tuned for the task. But living in an isolated military base, the two leaders have to take up the challenge on their own.

Scott Thomas and Horgan are lively foils playing off each other with spot-on comedic timing, both trying to lead the choir in their own way at the same time. Kate is formal and traditional; Lisa is spontaneous and contemporary. While hymns are Kate’s choice for their repertoire, Lisa has no trouble getting the group to belt out pop songs and spark up camaraderie.

Their story however, is deeper than just the catchy tunes. Kate’s son was killed in a previous deployment. Despite her gung-ho and cheery surface, deep down she is still grappling with her loss, and now her husband has gone off to a war zone yet again. Scott Thomas has no trouble bringing out the complexity of her character.

While Kate has to deal with personal loss, Lisa has to raise a rebellious teenaged daughter at the brink of endangering herself. Clashes between Kate and Lisa are inevitable. But instead of telling a mundane, formulaic story, Military Wives succeeds in eliciting genuine emotions and poignancy. These words from a young wife well express their precarious daily life: “every time the phone rings and the doorbell goes, I feel sick.” So, when one of them does meet such a tragic fate, the story gets especially real and poignant.

The ‘feel good’ element is how the women deal with their own personal issue and accept each others’ foibles to work together in harmony, reaping mutual support and deep friendship. The motto of the Military Wives Choir is ‘Stronger Together’. The movie brings out this credo movingly.

 

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Read my other TIFF19 Reviews:

Coming Home Again directed by Wayne Wang

Interview with director Wayne Wang

Parasite directed by Bong Joon-ho

A Girl Missing directed by Kôji Fukada

 

Suite Française Movie Adaptation

The film is the long anticipated adaptation of Irène Némirovsky’s final work in progress before her death in 1942. Born in Ukraine, Némirovsky had moved to live in France since 1919. Before the Nazi occupation, she was a prominent literary figure in her adopted country, having published nine novels and a biography of Chekhov. The Nazi takeover sent her fleeing Paris. She was writing Suite Française in the village of Issy-l’Evêque where she was living with her husband and two young daughters when the French police arrested her for her Jewish descent and sent her to her demise in Auschwitz.

Suite Française was intended to be a literary composition in musical terms. Like a musical suite, the author had planned to write five pieces, but had only finished the first draft of two upon her death. The whole set when completed could have been an impressive eyewitness paralleled fiction, a historic testament reflecting the larger picture from the microlevel, a family, or, a woman and a man from different sides of the war falling in love.

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Such is the story of “Dolce”, the second novella in her Suite on which the movie is based. Lucile Angellia (Michelle Williams) falls in love with a German officer staying in her house where she lives with her widowed mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas), the most elegant estate in the village. Lucile’s own husband has been missing in war and now a likely prisoner. That makes falling in love with the enemy right in your own home even more conflicting. However, Williams fails to bring out such internal battles or even ambivalence; Schoenaerts fares better in expressing the conflicts.

The opening of the film captures vividly what Némirovsky described as the ‘German artillery thunders… its wailings fill the sky’. As viewers we see people carrying suitcases and personal belongings scurry or simply dive for cover and we hear the sudden, roaring thunders of bomb blasting the country road on which refugees from Paris flee like rats – and as the camera zooms away – insects. It’s this kind of cinematic moments that make films powerful. We read about the air raids in the book, we see and hear the actual effects in the theatre. With that regard, the voiceover narrative by Michelle Williams is redundant. Or, maybe it’s just a lazy way of storytelling.

With that dynamic start, the film falters in not sustaining such power, albeit it still has many beautiful shots; romance in its period setting, the movie is visually appealing. But the attractions between Lucile and the handsome German official, Lieutenant Bruno von Falk, played by the ubiquitous Matthias Schoenaerts, soon becomes the centrepiece.

Like his role as Gabriel Oak in Far From the Madding Crowd, here Schoenaerts portrays another man of few words. Compare the two roles, he is more convincing here with his German officer look, and yes, sitting at the piano, mesmerizing Lucile with his soft touch. No words needed when music lures.

If not interrupted by her feisty mother-in-law, Lucile would have dived into the pool of passion immediately. Thanks to Kristin Scott Thomas, who adds some realistic sparks into the dreamy world of wartime romance with the ‘wrong man’. Such episodes could make interesting exploration, but the film is overwhelmingly mellowdramatic and seems not intended to be deep or psychological.

When a farmer, Benoit Labarie (Sam Reily), kills a German officer, the plot thickens. And as a viewer, I’m thankful for that turn in the otherwise relatively uneventful story. Benoit’s wife Madeleine (Ruth Wilson) urged Lucile to help him out. And that she did, risking everyone in her household and ultimately leading to the moral dilemma of both herself and her enemy lover.

The prolific film composer Alexandre Desplat (The King’s Speech, 2010, among many other works) wrote the signature piece “Bruno’s Theme”. While romantic in its overall styling, it is punctuated with discords, could well be a reflection of Bruno’s inner state. The ending of the film shows us his resolve. When love and duty is in conflict, there can’t be any favourable resolve. But then again, the film does not go further into that.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays a pivotal role in balancing sense and passion in her household, and bringing out some worthwhile and lively performance for the production. My major objection regarding this talented veteran of cinema and the stage is that nearly all her movie roles in recent years present her in character twenty years older than she really is. Here, the first shot we see Madam Angellier is her white painted, over-made-up face as an old widow. That is one reason why her other work in 2014 My Old Lady is so refreshing, for we get to see her in a suitable age where she can still find love.

Regarding WWII Holocaust movies, it is unfortunate that films of this genre in recent years based on popular fiction or chronicling significant historical events are mere passable works, like The Monuments Men, or The Book Thief, Sarah’s Keyor the related film Woman in Gold. Seems like the epic war movie genre with its affective power to move has not re-emerged in the past decade, iconic films such as Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997), and Polanski’s The Pianist (2002) have all but remain distant memories.

As for Suite Française the movie, it should not be seen as the adaptation of Némirovsky’s book called Suite Française, however unfinished. The movie is best taken as a rendition of a storyline in one of its pieces, and true to the title ‘Dolce’, sweetly laced with soft touches. Overall, despite its flaws, it is still a watchable film.

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This is my second entry to the Paris In July blogging event hosted by Tamara of Thyme for Tea.

Paris in July 2015 Icon

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Other Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:

Sarah’s Key (2010): From Book into Movie

The Book Thief (2013): From Book to Film

Far From the Madding Crowd (2015)

My Old Lady (2014)

Woman In Gold: Then and Now (2015)

The King’s Speech (2010)

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My Old Lady (2014) Movie Review

Among the dozen films I’d watched at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, two are apt selections for the annual Paris In July blogging event hosted by Tamara in Thyme for Tea, now in its sixth year. Recently I have re-watched both, one at an indie theatre, the other on Blu-ray. Here’s my first entry to Paris In July 2015.

Paris in July 2015 Icon

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My Old Lady (2014)

Just when voices had been raised in recent months from female stars against the sexist domination in Hollywood, and lamenting the lack of significant female leading roles, another issue pops up. Well, the problem has been there all along, but who would speak for those who are…. getting old? The peril of Agism in the movie industry. And, if you’re female and aging, confronting Hollywood is a losing battle.

I’m glad there are filmmakers who consider film as an art form, and in its essence, conveys the meaningful and universal that make us human. Kudos to all who attempt to break the barrier. Here we have a directorial debut from 75 year-old Isaac Horowitz. As he had noted, which first-time film director would talk about his five grandchildren?

Horowitz is an author of more than 50 produced plays. Several of his works have been translated and performed in as many as 30 languages worldwide. This is his first time directing a film, adapting his own play onto the big screen. My Old Lady is a delightful debut. I’ve watched it three times, so far, and liked it more each time.

My Old Lady Poster

In an after screen talk, Horowitz shared that he had heeded one advice from the iconic director Sydney Lumet: “Cast the best actors in the world and then get out of their way.” In his debut movie, his cast is first-rate, and allow me to show their age when they made this movie, just to prove a point: Maggie Smith, 80, Kristin Scott Thomas, 54, and Kevin Kline, 67. How much the director had left them to their own I don’t know, but sure looks easy for these veteran actors to take on this one. Such natural ease comes from decades of experience, expertise honed as innate skills.

That’s the advantage of ageing. Let’s drink to that.

Kevin Kline plays Mathias Gold, a down-and-out, thrice divorced, alcohol dependent, penniless middle-aged American who is relieved to inherit from his late father an apartment in the Marais district of Paris. Going there to claim his rightful ownership and aiming at a quick sale, he learns a French lesson in property transfers instead: En Viager. When his father purchased the apartment 43 years ago – now worth over 10 million Euros – he was under the contracted stipulation of a Viager.

This is the issue Mathias faces: Instead of a lump sum payment made for a clear purchase, his father, the buyer, had contracted to put down a cheap amount and then pay the rest as viager, a monthly fee of 2,400 Euro to the vendor and occupant of the apartment, Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith), until she dies. Now at 90, Mathilde is in good health, thanks to her daily sustenance of red wine and precise meal times. Not only that, Mathilde has a daughter living with her, headstrong and vocal to defend their property against any potential profit-driven redevelopment plans.

That’s the story. It is not hard to predict the ending, with Kline and Scott Thomas together, albeit fiery and combative to start with. But what is harder to foresee is the story within the story at the outset. Everyone has a past. This is one of the best performance I’ve seen with Kline, for he carries the whole film and delivers with just the right touch of humour and pathos. The first time the two were co-stars was in Life As A House (2001), interestingly, another story based on a domicile. Life as a house indeed.

Scott Thomas as always is a pleasure to watch. No matter what role she takes up, her communication is crisp and clear even without having had to say a word. The last scene is a prime example. But of course, you don’t have to wait till the last. As for Maggie Smith, at 80, she is as strong as ever, even when she is playing one who is ten years older.

When it comes to plays turned into films, one should expect the prolific dialogues. Not a perfect fit all the time, there are moments where I as a movie viewer expect better lines, and more than stage-like scenes. But overall, the three characters are a delight to watch.

The few external Parisian street scenes with their fine matching music score instil longing. Yes, this is the kind of films that work best to lure you to Paris, not to the hot tourist sites, but to the streets where Parisians actually live. Subliminal seduction registering in my mind that next time I must go to those districts which are less trodden by tourists but equally representative of the historic city. Maybe a B&B right there in the Marais instead of a boutique hotel.

My Old Lady is a light comedy with a heart, bringing out an issue that, alas, could not be fully resolved, for what’s done cannot be undone. Offsprings inherit from their parents not only the physical properties but often the emotional baggages and their consequences. As a dramedy, Horowitz has brought us not only the drama but the happy ending, the best case scenario that can come out of human failings. That could well be a reason why we go see movies.

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Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

The Second, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Tuffing It Out At TIFF14

For a list of Paris in July Posts from previous years, CLICK HERE.

Great Film Expectations

For an updated list of 2012 premieres of film adaptations, CLICK HERE.

With written works from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games to Shakespeare’s Coriolanus materialized on the big screen, what else can we anticipate in this year and next?

Here’s an update of some upcoming film adaptations from literary works. Great choices for book groups too.

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carré

On the heels of the acclaimed “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, this time, Philip Seymour Hoffman is the man. Directed by Anton Corbijn whose last film was the deep and thoughtful “The American, a film I found to be much better than the book.

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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Finally, dates are set for the premiere: Sept. 7 in the UK, Nov. 9 in the US. I look forward to this one: Tom Stoppard screenplay, Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) directs, Keira Knightly as Anna, Matthew MacFadyen Oblonzky, Jude Law Alexai, Aaron Johnson Count Vronsky, and Downton Abbey‘s Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary) as Princess Myagkaya, plus many other British stars.

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Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell 

Winner of multiple awards and shortlisted for a Booker in 2004, the apocalyptic novel is adapted by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and The Wachowski’s (Matrix’s). Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw (Bright Star), Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent. Here’s Susan Sarandon’s take on the production.

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The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud 

Some big names affiliated with this project are Richard Gere, Eric Bana, Keira Knightly, Emma Thompson, Rachel McAdams. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) on board. But I can find no more news after this announcement, which is fine, gives me more time to get to the book first. It’s been on my TBR list for a few years now.

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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

To coincide with the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens and the Olympics in London, Mike Newell (Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral) directs, screenplay by David Nicholl (One Day, Tess of d’Urbervilles, When Did You Last See Your Father) who may be also writing the third Bridget Jones movie. Ralph Fiennes is Magwitch, Helena Bonham Carter Miss Havisham, Jeremy Irvine, Pip.

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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald 

What will F. Scott think when he sees his masterpiece produced in 3D in the 21st Century? Woody: do give us a sequel to “Midnight In Paris” with your brilliant imagination. Australian director Bez Luhrmann is poised to bring us this new version of Gatsby in 3D, which I’m sure will stir up lots of discussions. It has already. But no matter how I dislike 3D (except Hugo), I want to see Leo DiCaprio play Jay G., Carey Mulligan, Daisy B., and Tobey Maguire, Nick C. Do Click Here to read a Guardian preview close to 3D.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Kenneth Branagh will direct Kate Winslet in this popular novel about the power of literature in desperate wartime. This is a reprise of their cooperation from 1996, when Branagh, as Hamlet, also directed Winslet as Ophelia. No dates have been set for its production or release, but something to keep in mind.

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The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

Coming out in three parts. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” in 2012, and “The Hobbit: The Desolation of  Smaug’ in Dec. 2013, and ‘The Hobbit: There and Back Again’ in July, 2014. Peter Jackson attempts to reprise his Rings Trilogy magic. Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom… the whole gang. Again, we’ll get to see beautiful New Zealand as setting.

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The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin

Claire Tomalin’s account of Charles Dickens’ affair with the young writer Nelly Ternan will be brought to screen with script from Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) to be directed by Ralph Fiennes, who will play Dickens himself. To add to the rave, Kristin Scott Thomas is also on board. Felicity Jones will be playing Nelly Ternan. Fiennes never ceases to amaze us with his versatility, after directing Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in postmodern style.

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Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Tom Hooper of “The King’s Speech” directs an all star cast in this musical offering. Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert (is he going to sing too?), Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway join in the chorus. Just too bad Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth are missing here. Release date for North America is Dec. 2012, which means it can be a contender in next Awards Season.

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Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Director Ang Lee picked 17 year-old Suraj Sharma of Delhi, India, from 3,000 teenagers to play Pi Patel. Interesting that Tobey MacGuire will play Yann Martel, the author of the book which won the 2002 Man Booker Prize. The film to be shot in 3D has a December 2012 release date. Again, films opening in December usually have eye on the next Awards Season. Will keep our eyes peeled.

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Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

The Booker of Bookers winning work will see its author Salman Rushdie team up with acclaimed Canadian director Deepa Mehta in the film adaptation. Mehta in a recent interview hinted it will debut either at the Venice or the Toronto Film Festival this fall. You can still join us for a slow Read-Along of Midnight’s Children before the film comes out.

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Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier 

On the drawing board of Dreamwork and Working Title. Who can take the helm to reprise an adaptation made famous by Alfred Hitchcock, and actors to replace Sir Laurence Olivier as Mr. de Winter and Joan Fontaine as the new Mrs? Now, why does Carey Mulligan emerges in my mind… and Michael Fassbender

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What Maisie Knew by Henry James

Looks like a good classic to read before seeing the movie. Julianne Moore and Alexander Skarsgård lead the cast. I’ve enjoyed previous Henry James adaptations of The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl, and The Portrait of a Lady. Look forward to this one.

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Books to be turned into TV series:

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

To be adapted into an HBO TV series with an all-star cast under the helm of Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale). Stars include Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans, Dianne Wiest, Chris Cooper and Greta Gerwig. But, will the author be involved in any of the writing?

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A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Again, HBO has bought the rights to this one. The 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner is to be adapted into a half-hour TV series.

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The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Yet again, it’s HBO that will be developing the novel into a TV drama series, another project by the “uber producer” Scott Rudin, who also oversees “The Corrections.”

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What are some of  your most anticipated films or books in the coming year(s)?

Sarah’s Key: Book into Movie

“When a story is told, it is not forgotten…”   — “Sarah’s Key” the movie

The Background: Vel d’Hiv Roundup

The story has to be told, because it is based on a historical event that has long been ignored. On July 16 and 17, 1942, the French police in Paris rounded up more than 13,000 Jews in Paris, among them 4,000 children, and confined them in the Velodrome d’Hiver (Winter Velodrome), an indoor bicycle racing track and stadium not far from the Eiffel Tower. There in the Velodrome the Jews were kept under French police guard for five days with no food and just one tap. They were subsequently sent to internment camps outside of Paris, where children were torn apart from their parents. Apart or together, they shared the same fate. From the internment camps, young and old alike were later transported by train to the Auschwitz extermination camp. The Velodrome, which was situated in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, has since been torn down but the event remains a dark page in France’s history.

The Vel d’Hiv roundup had been ignored for decades in the classrooms of the nation. Post-war French leaders from de Gaulle to Mitterrand had kept mum on the issue of France’s role in deporting Jews to the death camps. It was not until Jacques Chirac became president in 1995 that the French state accepted its official complicity, in particular, the Vel d’Hiv roundup. Here’s an excerpt of Chirac’s historical speech taken from a TIME magazine article:

France, homeland of the Enlightenment and of human rights, land of welcome and asylum; France, on that very day, accomplished the irreparable,” Chirac said in his speech, using the Vel d’Hiv roundup as a metaphor for all Vichy crimes. “Failing her promise, she delivered those she was to protect to their murderers.

A story based on this true event ought to be noticed. The French drama based on true accounts, “La Rafle” (“The Round Up”), was released in 2010 to a large audience in the country. And for us in North America, we have the novel Sarah’s Key (2007) and its movie adaptation (2010) to inform us of that horrific event and the imagined scenario of its impact on the lives involved.

(Spoiler Alert from here on.)

The Book

Written by Tatiana de Rosnay and published in 2007, the book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 120 weeks. It has sold 5 million copies world wide and been released in 38 countries. de Rosnay has published works in French. This is her first English language book.

The book weaves two stories together 60 years apart. 10 year-old Sarah Starzynski’s family is one of those being rounded up on July 16, 1942. On the spur of the moment, Sarah hides and locks her 4 year-old brother Michel in a cupboard in the wall of their bedroom, thinking there he will be safe until she comes back for him. It was horrific for her and her parents to find out later that they won’t be returning at all.

Sarah and her parents are kept in Vel d’Hiv in appalling conditions, only to be deported to an internment camp where she is separated from them. Her determination never wavers though in getting back home to let her brother out of the locked cupboard. She has kept the key, guarding it with her life.

Fast forward to 2002. Julia Jarmond, a U.S. expatriate married and working as a journalist in Paris, delves into the research of the Vel d’Hiv roundup for a magazine article commemorating its 60th anniversary. She is totally absorbed by the little-known event. What’s more, she finds out that the apartment that used to belong to her French husband’s grandparents and which is now under renovation for her to move in was the very home of Sarah and her family.

At the same time, Julia struggles with a personal dilemma. At 45, mother to 11 year-old Zoé, and after two miscarriages, Julia is excited to find out she is pregnant. Her husband does not share her sentiment however, pressing her to abort. The poignant story of Sarah inspires Julia’s decision as the story unfolds.

While I whole-heartedly admire the author for her intention to honor the victims of Vel d’Hiv and her eagerness to expose the atrocities afterwards, I have reservations about the literary quality judging from the style and structure of the book. At several points, I feel the writing redundant. And for a novel written for an adult readership, it gives me the feeling of being talked down to, told what to think and how to feel.

Structurally, it presents the two stories in alternating chapters. The shifting is abrupt as the chapters are only three pages long. This lasts till the middle of the book when the story of Sarah’s key comes to an end. That occurs when Sarah makes it back to her apartment and discovers the heart-wrenching horror. The rest of the book is the continuation of modern day Julia’s story, her persistence to discover Sarah’s trail after the war and dealing with her own personal dilemma. Compared to Sarah’s story, this latter part seems trivial and anti-climatic.

The Movie

One year after it premiered at the TIFF, I finally have the chance to see this movie as it is being screened only recently in one theatre here in town.

Screenwriter director Gilles Paquet-Brenner has gleaned the essence of the novel and tightened the plot in an engrossing way. By virtue of its form, the movie has the advantage of showing rather than telling.  It can condense paragraphs of words into a cinematic moment frozen in the mind’s eye. The film is captivating, telling the story with vivid and haunting images.

We see the recreated Vel d’Hiv and its appalling condition. We see a woman plunging to her death from a high level in the Velodrome, an apparent suicide. We see the horror of children torn away from their mothers in the internment camp. We see too the desperation of Sarah finally running up to her apartment, pounding on the door of the new family living there. We see her barging into her bedroom and unlocking the cupboard. And from inside there with the camera pointing out, we see the terror on Sarah’s face as she looks in. We hear her scream.

The storytelling is carried out by the excellent performance of the two main actors, Mélusine Mayance as Sarah and Kristin Scott Thomas (“I’ve Loved You So Long”, 2008) as Julia Jarmond. The structure of the plot limits young Sarah to only the first part of the film, albeit her portrayal is memorable, her unseen presence lingers through the movie.

Kristin Scott Thomas always delivers. Her role as the persistent journalist Julia is convincing and a pleasure to watch. Her cool demeanor conveys the fact that it takes intelligence and professionalism to find the truth as a journalist, and yet, once exposed, the truth can have the affective power to inspire and turn one’s life around. Scott Thomas has aptly portrayed this change.

Nevertheless, the weakness of the film lies in the lack of character development in the ‘minor’ roles. If given more depth, they can sharpen the conflicts and enhance the story. I’m thinking of Julia’s relationships with husband Betrand (Frédéric Pierrot, “I’ve Loved You So Long”, 2008) who insists on her abortion, and with her daughter Zoé (Karina Hin).

And since I’ve been looking for ‘intrusions of grace’ lately, there’s a scene here that is of note. It is not in the book, but screenwriter/director Paquet-Brenner has aptly created a poignant cinematic moment with it.  When Sarah and another girl are trying to crawl under a barbed wire to escape from the internment camp, they are caught by a guard. But upon the urgent appeal of Sarah, he softens. Using his bare hands to hold up the wire, he pushes the girls through. The camera then closes up on his bleeding hand, pierced by the barbs, an apt allusion. How we need these ‘intrusions of grace’ to shed a glimmer of hope amidst overwhelming darkness.

“Sarah’s Key” may well be one of those examples where the movie speaks more powerfully than its source material. If you are time-pressed, go for the cinematic rendition.

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To read more about the Vel d’Hiv roundup and related articles, click on the following links:

Behind the French Ruling on WWII Deportations of Jews“, TIME.

“Remembering the Vel d’Hiv” The Economist.

“Letters from Drancy” The Guardian.

“Vel d’Hiv Roundup” Wikipedia

More Gifts … Books and Movies

Continue from last post… succumbing to the Boxing Day craze.

Other than the art calendars, I found these bargains, books that kick off my 2011 reading plan and some DVD’s at very collectible prices:

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana De Rosnay

Already made into a movie (Elle s’appelait Sarah by French director Gilles Paquet-Brenner) premiered at Cannes and TIFF last year.  A journalist discovering a holocaust story about a ten year-old Jewish girl who tried to save her younger brother from the police by locking him in a cupboard.  The key will play a major part in a moral dilemma.  This much I know and it’s already captivating, especially with Kristin Scott Thomas playing the role as the journalist in the film.

 

 

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

The winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize.  Here’s the description from the Man Booker’s official site: “a scorching story of friendship and loss, exclusion and belonging, and of the wisdom and humanity of maturity. Funny, furious, unflinching, this extraordinary novel shows one of our finest writers at his brilliant best.”  I’ve enjoyed reading some of the past winners and look forward to this one.

 

 

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

I got this over the holidays and have already finished reading it.  I have mixed feelings about it. The 9/11 story from the POV of a 9 year-old boy is poignant, and the way JSF presents and illustrates (the visuals) it is a new reading experience for me.  A movie is in the works with Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock co-starring.  Mmm…

 

 

Music of Chance by Paul Auster

I have quickly devoured this one over the holidays together with the turkey.  The reason I was looking for this book is because of the movie.  I first saw the film adaptation a few years back and it stirred in me an unsettling resonance beyond words.  It’s a modern day Sisyphus story pitting man against chance, absurdity, and himself.  You must read it and then see the film, which unfortunately, is so overlooked that you’ll have a hard time finding it. But it deserves high acclaim, especially the performance by James Spader.  The film is also one of the best ‘Book Into Movie” adaptations I’ve seen.

 

 

In Search of Lost Time (Vol. 1) Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

Translated by Moncrieff and Kilmartin.  I know many of you have read Proust and some may be Proust scholars, let me know what you think.  As for me, its attraction is simple.  How can you resist a beautiful Modern Library Classic edition with such an appealing cover?  It’s comforting just to see and touch it.  I’ve downloaded an e version into my Stanza app some time ago, but could never get into it by reading it on my iPhone.

 

 

The Early Work Of Philip K. Dick, (Vol. 1): The Variable Man And Other Stories

The main reason I got this, yes, it’s also a bargain at $5, hardcover… but the main reason is it contains a story I was looking for: ‘The Adjustment Team’, which is an upcoming movie (with Matt Damon and Emily Blunt).  I’m not a Sci-fi fan, but did enjoy some of Dick’s works adapted into films, like Minority Report (2002).  Others including Blade Runner (1982) and Total Recall (1990) are all ‘classics’ now in the Sci-fi film genre.

 

 

 

And some very collectible DVD’s:

When Harry Met Sally


I finished Nora Ephron’s I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections not too long ago.  It’s a revealing and amusing memoir.  That’s what prompted me to grab this DVD when I browsed the 50% off table at Chapters (Canada’s equivalent of Barnes & Nobles), about $5.  When Harry Met Sally (1989) is Ephron’s breakout screenplay in the romantic comedy genre.  After that is history… Sleepless In Seattle (1993), You’ve Got Mail (1998), and most recently, Julie and Julia (2009).  But do you know she also wrote the screenplay for Silkwood?

Children of a Lesser God


This is probably one of the most forgotten films that deserves more mention.  There is inherent difficulty in the execution of a film where one of the two major characters is a deaf-mute.  But the relationship and the communication conflicts between Marlee Matlin as a student in a deaf school and William Hurt as a speech teacher just show how realistic these obstacles are.  Marlee Matlin won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1987 for her role, not bad for a debut. Her affective performance was made even more poignant due to her real life impediment.  It has been decades now since I first saw it in the theatre. I was delighted to be able to find a copy to keep, $4.

Scorsese: The Martin Scorsese Film Collection


A classy box set of four films:

  • Raging Bull — Special 2 Discs Edition, lots of special features. Classic Scorsese that gave Robert De Niro the Oscar, plus seven noms for the film.
  • The Last Waltz — Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris… this is rock history in film.
  • New York, New York — Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro, a spectacle.
  • Boxcar Bertha — Barbara Hershey and David Carradine… historical too.

And the best is the price: I paid $10.

***

 

Now let me shift gear to the 68th Golden Globes this Sunday, January 16…

Nowhere Boy (2009)

“He’s a real Nowhere Man
Sitting in his Nowhere Land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody”

—– John Lennon’s ‘Nowhere Man’

Other than the iconic first chord of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ at the beginning of the movie, there is no mention of The Beatles in Nowhere Boy, which is fitting.  After all, the film is not about the Beatles, but a teenaged boy by the name of John Lennon growing up aimless and angry, and how he found passion and poured his life into a goal that finally led him to become one of the most important music figures of our time.

An apt title.  Lennon had had a tumultous childhood.  Raised by his aunt Mimi since five years-old, he did not meet his birth mother again, Mimi’s younger sister Julia, until he was 15.  The film picked up from there until he went to Hamburg in 1960.  Screenwriter Matt Greenhaigh had crafted a moving relational story based on the book written by John Lennon’s half-sister, Julia Baird, entitled Imagine This: Growing Up with My Brother John Lennon.

I’ve particularly enjoyed the mother-son relationship depicted so poignantly in the movie, and the tug of war between the one who has given birth to and the one who has raised the child.  For me, there is also a bit of competition, comparing the two amazing actors, Anne Marie Duff as Julia, Lennon’s birth mother, and Kristin Scott Thomas, as Aunt Mimi, who has raised the boy, stayed with him through thick and thin, and watched him emerge into a man of importance.

Everyone who watches a movie does so from his/her own frame of reference and perspective. While I’ve enjoyed the pre-Beatles era music and the early rock and roll in the film, as well as the human interest of youth striving to gain some sense of self, I’m nevertheless drawn to Scott Thomas’s role as Aunt Mimi.  She has shown what a mother is, even though she is not the one who has given birth to John.  She is someone who stays and not escapes, who takes care of daily tedium, who instills the ever unpopular notions of discipline and responsibility, and who takes nasty insults and hurting actions from a rebellious and still maturing teenager, all because of love.  Scott Thomas’s marvellous performance as the strict and stern Mimi is an effective foil against Duff’s frolicking Julia.  Both performances are moving.

Aaron Johnson has done a marvellous job in portraying a tormented soul torn between these two women. Meeting his birth mother Julia at 15, he can feel right away the thickness of blood.  On the outset, his musical talent has come from Julia, and his free spirit a natural extension of hers, yet he knows he is also tied to Mimi, and despite her restrained persona, he knows she has loved him deeply.

On his first gig as the Quarrymen, John is introduced to a fifteen year-old well-mannered teen by the name of Paul McCartney, nicely played by Thomas Brodie Sangster. Again, an effective foil between the two.  Paul is gentle, polite, chooses tea over beer, and does not have to bust and bang to release his pent-up emotions.  He also helps John with his guitar skills, teaching him more chords, and suggesting they write their own songs.  Paul definitely has it all collected under a stronger self despite the loss of his own mother just a year earlier.  Thus marks the beginning of a valuable friendship.

The fine production is significant considering it is a fact-based biopic of a period of Lennon’s life that has not been explored on film. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, 2008) has crafted some colorful renditions for this period film.  The two sisters are also color-coded, Julia in red and pink, and Mimi, back and grey.  A bit too dramatic at times, but the point well taken, maybe something to do with director Sam Taylor-Wood being a visual artist before this her first feature film.  Also, some scenes may look melodramatic, but I was so immersed in the story I had thoroughly enjoyed them. The most moving scenes come at the end, and all the way through the credits.  That is when real photos and actual historical accounts are revealed, a poignant resonance to the film.

At the beginning of the end credits, we see that the film is dedicated to Anthony Minghella (1954-2008), the Oscar winning director who had brought us the The English Patient (1996), Cold Mountain (2003) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), to name a few.  Minghella was instrumental in encouraging director Sam Taylor-Wood to make the transition from visual artist to filmmaker, and had worked with her on her short Love You More, which has earned her a nom for the Golden Palm at Cannes 2008.

Nowhere Boy garnered four BAFTA nominations including Outstanding British Film and Outstanding Debut Director for Sam Taylor-Wood.   Both Scott Thomas and Duff were nominated for BAFTA and The British Independent Film Awards, which Duff won, as well as the London Critics Circle Film Awards. Johnson’s impressive performance also led him to noms and wins.  Overall, a moving tribute to a pop icon and the two mother figures that had shaped his early life.

~~~ Ripples

Easy Virtue (2008)

Easy Virtue posterCan we all get along?  That poignant plea is ever applicable,  from L.A to all corners of the world, today or years past.   And when it comes to families, which one doesn’t have its ups and downs?  So, since the answer is obvious, might as well make comedies out of the situation.

Based on the play by Noel Coward, and lavishly adorned with his songs, credits to the Easy Virtue Orchestra, the film is otherwise re-written to appeal to a contemporary audience.

The story takes place some years after the First World War, in the 1920’s.   The eldest son of an English aristocratic family, John Whittaker (Ben Barnes, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian), comes home from abroad and brings back his new wife Larita, a race car driver (Jessica Biel, The Illusionist).  What ensue are battles on the home front between the audacious new bride and the stuffy and snobby matriarch of the family, Mrs. Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas, I’ve Loved You So Long).  The main spark of their explosive confrontations:  Larita is American.  And Larita does not disappoint.  She is exactly what Mrs. Whittaler expects her to be, and some more:  a gale of forbidden ideas and scandalous history.  For her performance, Kristin Scott Thomas received two Best Actress nominations.

The most intriguing character is Mr. Whittaker, played by Colin Firth (When Did You Last See Your Father, The Girl With The Pearl Earring, Pride and Prejudice).  A veteran of the Great War, Mr. Whittaker is a disillusioned man, aloof, perceptive, and cynical all at the same time.   He is the only one in the family extending a welcoming hand to Larita, and stands by his new found comrade in the domestic clash of cultures.   The climax of the story comes near the end in an enthralling scene of the two tango dancing.  Naturally, what follows is just anti-climatic.

Easy Virtue 1

The Whittakers live in a humongous mansion on acres of lush grounds for generations, reminiscence of Darcy’s Pemberley (yes, Colin Firth again), and for Mrs. Whittaker especially, no short supplies of pride or prejudice.  Whether it’s intentional of the director or not, at one scene in the Whittakers ballroom, I see Darcy, poised and tall.  But director Stephan Elliott and co-writer Sheridan Jobbins are no Jane Austen.  This comedy of manners may appear to be a burlesque of the traditional upper-class English family, but it lacks the depth of characterization and cathartic effect of an Austen work.

And that’s alright.

Easy Virtue may be frothy, loud, and ephemeral, but it is effective in delivering some witty lines, great comedic timing, some cool cinematography, and fine performance not just from the main characters, but the supporting roles.  I must mention the butler Furber (Kris Marshall), and the two Whittaker sisters Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) and Marion (Katherine Parkinson).  They have added much delight to the film.  A fun ride all the way.

I have not seen Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas together in a movie since The English Patient (1996).  And truth be told, they are the reason for me to see this one.

Easy Virtue is currently released on limited screens across North America.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

2009 Golden Globe Nominations

Update January 12:  CLICK HERE for the Golden Globe Winners.

Hollywood Foreign Press Association has just announced the 2009 Golden Globe Awards nominations.  Click here for the full list.

If, as they say, the Golden Globes usually is a good prediction of the Oscars, then I am hopeful that some of those who truly deserve the recognition might just get a nod for next year’s Academy Awards.

I’m thinking in particular of Kristin Scott Thomas for her role in I’ve Loved You So Long (France), nominated for a Golden Globe Best Actress Award (Drama), and the film getting a nod in the Best Foreign Film category.

Anne Hathaway is also a contender in the same category as Scott Thomas, for Rachel Getting Married.  Her performance is a good sign of her versatility.  But my choice is Kristin Scott Thomas, hands down.  She has delivered a superb performance in I’ve Loved You So Long as the deep and tormented Juliette Fontaine.   I wish her all the best all the way to the Oscars.

As to the two nominations Mamma Mia! receives for Best Picture (Comedy or Musical), and Meryl Streep for Best Actress (Comedy or Musical), I admit I am a bit surprised.  But then again, as a musical goes, especially one made up of amateur singers, maybe it does deserve a nomination for its entertainment value.

To read my reviews of the movies mentioned here, just click on their names.  My reviews are also linked by IMDB’s ‘external reviews’.

*****

 

I’ve Loved You So Long (2008, France) Il y a longtemps que je t’aime

Update: 

March 3:  The DVD has come out.  For those who don’t like to read subtitles, the DVD has an English Version with Kristin Scott Thomas voicing her own part.  But nothing compares to the original of course. 

Feb. 8  I’ve Loved You So Long has just won the BAFTA for Best Film Not In The English Lanugage tonight in London, England.

Dec. 11:  I’ve Loved You So Long has just been nominated for two Golden Globes, Best Foreign Film and Best Actress (Drama) for Kristin Scott Thomas.

Sisters reuniting is the storyline of several movies recently, as in Margot At The Wedding (2007) and Rachel Getting Married (2008 ).  But both Nicole Kidman and Anne Hathaway are just featherweights compared to Kristin Scott Thomas’s powerful performance here in I’ve Loved You So Long.

il-y-a-longtemps-que-je-taime

Winner of the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival, I’ve Loved You So Long is the  directorial debut of Philippe Claudel, French novelist, screenwriter, and professor of literature at The University of Nancy.  It is unfortunate that festival films like this one are rarely shown in North America, except in major selective cities.  I’ve wanted to see the film for a while, but not until my trip to Vancouver last week did I have the chance to watch it in a theatre.

In the film, the reunion of the sisters comes under the most unusual of circumstances.  Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient, 1996) plays Juliette, an older sister who has just been released on parole after 15 years in prison.  She rejoins society to the  embrace of her younger sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein).  Léa was only a young teenager when her much older sister was disowned by their parents.  To them, the crime she had committed was unforgivable.   Léa was told to ostracize Juliette, as the rest of the family did.   Now years later, Léa is teaching literature at a university, and  mature enough to reconnect the tie that binds.   She receives Juliette  into her own home, a warm family with a loving husband, two adopted Vietnamese girls, and her father-in-law Papy Paul (Jean-Claude Arnaud), who has lost his ability to speak after a stroke.  But her husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) is apprehensive, and understandably so.

Like the viewers, Léa is kept in the dark as to the details of the act Juliette had done , a secret that is painfully borne by Juliette alone.  The slow unfolding of the facts thus sets the stage for the heart-wrenching performance by Scott Thomas.  The film is an exploration into the nature of good and evil, love and forgiveness.  In our society that excels in labeling people, the writer/director leads us to ponder the questions of what constitutes a crime, who are the victims, likewise, who are the strong, the helpers, and who are those that need help?  How can we truly know each other?  And ultimately, what is love?

ive-loved-you-so-long

I admire that the elegant Oscar nominated actress Scott Thomas was willing to take up a role that would cast her against type, and to work under a first-time director.  Devoid of  make-up, her gaunt and haunted look,  deep set eyes and languid lids, and the high cheek bones that used to speak of beauty in her other films now form the epitome of a soul tormented.  Her icy demeanor reflects a guarded self that is too wounded to risk another blow.  Though released from physical confinement, Juliette is still imprisoned by her own guilt, and has to serve a  life sentence of torments from the ambivalence of her act.  Scott Thomas has poignantly portrayed a believable character and effectively created a tragic heroine.  Juliet is out of prison, has nowhere to go, lost to herself and the world.

Yet love paves the road to redemption, and courage is the building block.  While Léa plays a major part in reaching out to Juliette, her adopted daughters and even the silent Papy Paul have all unknowingly participated  in the healing process. It is his silence and the calming effect of his books that Juliette finds affinity.  In sharing the French children’s song ‘Il y a longtemps que je t’aime’ with Léa’s adopted daughter P’tit Lys (Lise Ségur), she ventures out to reconnect in a meaningful way.

Léa also invites Juliette into her circle of friends, in particular, her colleague Michel (Laurent Grévill).  Michel has spent some time teaching in a prison.  He reaches out to Juliette with his understanding and compassion, and shares with her the enjoyment of art.  Although he does not know the full details of her circumstances, he respects her humanity and offers his friendship, even when Juliette is not ready to receive.  He patiently waits.

Engrossing and intense, the film nonetheless offers a satisfying experience.  Even though I was able to guess the nature of the dark secret underlying the suspense, such that it has lessened the effect of surprise on me at the end, I still find the film thoroughly enjoyable, in particular, the superb acting from both sisters.  For those who associate tears with melodramatic and contrived effects, the film is an apt refutation of such a view.  Tears are most welcome and cathartic as a closure here after almost 90 minutes of elliptical restraint,  for they are  the very expression of reconciliation and redemption.  The climax is one of the most poignant I’ve seen in a long while, and the subsequent ending, a triumph.

I look forward to more of Claudel’s work.  And for Kristin Scott Thomas, I think she deserves no less than an Oscar for her performance.

~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

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