The Code (Australia 2014)

Jesse (Ashley Zukerman) attempts to break into an encrypted document

Jesse (Ashley Zukerman) attempts to break into an encrypted document

The Code is an Australian serial narrative in 6 x 60 mins episodes. It combines a mystery with a conspiracy/political thriller/investigative journalism story. The setting is in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) of Canberra and a small town in the bush where a young Aboriginal couple are involved in a car crash. Who caused the crash and how did the couple’s car end up dumped in a quarry with the girl dead and the boy subsequently hospitalised?

The different aspects of what is a familiar genre narrative involve a pair of computer hackers, one of whom is on the autistic spectrum and the other who is the daughter of Iranian refugees. Hacking and decrypting are central to the narrative and several of the data exchanges are represented on screen as text and numerical data ‘floating’ over the image. Jesse (Ashley Zukerman) and Hani (Adele Perovic) have both been previously warned about their activities  by government agencies and Jesse struggles to keep a job and keep away from hacking. He is effectively ‘looked after’ by his elder brother Ned (Dan Spielman), a journalist now working for an internet news site. The main interest for me was the interrelationships between Jesse, Ned and Hani when Ned stumbles across a connection between the car crash in the bush and various machinations in the Australian Prime Minister’s Office – focused on the Deputy Prime Minister who is also Foreign Affairs Minister (and played by David Wenham, the major Hollywood actor in the cast). Ned’s ‘inside source’ is his ex, Sophie, the Head of Communications in the PM’s office.

Aaron Pedersen and Lucy Lawless – underused in the narrative?

Aaron Pedersen and Lucy Lawless – underused in the narrative?

Out in the bush the crash attracts the attention of the local schoolteacher Alex (Lucy Lawless aka Xena: Warrior Princess) and her ex, Tim the local police sergeant (Aaron Pedersen – see Mystery Road). This narrative strand proved a disappointment for me since I thought it wasn’t properly exploited by the writer, the experienced Shelley Birse. Two of the best-known actors in the production were under-used, as was the location.

Overall, however, I thought the serial was well-directed and nicely shot. The Australian Parliament building in ACT was used imaginatively and its design was worked into the credit sequence which also drew on the idea of data exchanges which are being monitored and intercepted. There have been plenty of Australian TV shows on UK TV in the past, but this one made by Playmaker and first shown on the Australian public service channel ABC1 in September seems to mark a change. Playmaker is run by former executives from Fox Australia and my reading of some of the coverage of The Code is that whereas previously Australian productions have been pale imitations of Hollywood imports, this one appears to draw directly on the recent surge of Nordic Noir productions that have had such a major impact in global television trading. As well as the UK, the serial has been sold to the US and to DR in Denmark. The Killing is certainly one of the touchstones for The Code and House of Cards might be another one.

Like many other viewers I was confused by the closing scenes of The Code. If I read the final scene correctly, there was an open ending and something very worrying might be about to happen. Probably I misunderstood, but I’d certainly watch a follow-up. The relationship between Jesse and Ned and then between Jesse and Hani worked very well for me. Putting aside the fantastical conventions of the genre (MacBooks that operate three or four times faster than mine!) I thought the portrayal of Jesse and his struggles with conforming to ‘ordinary’ social interactions was believable and moving rather than just another plot point.

This is the ABC Trailer:

In the UK, the serial should still be on iPlayer and a DVD is out soon from Arrow. The show’s Wikipedia page has details of distribution in other territories.

The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

I was shocked when Anthony Minghella’s death was announced last week. He was far too young and it must have been dreadful for those around him. There have been tributes from all sides of the UK and international film, theatre and oprea communities. He obviously helped a lot of people in the industry and was highly respected. I wasn’t that interested in his films which I assumed to be in the ‘international Miramax mode’ and the only one I saw in a cinema was Cold Mountain, which after a fantastic opening battle scene I found quite literally cold and ultimately disappointing. As a result I approached the film pilot of the projected TV series of The No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency with some trepidation.

I was further taken aback to discover Richard Curtis was a co-exec producer and co-writer. His presence usually puts me off completely, but I’d heard great things of the novels that were the series’ inspiration and I was intrigued by how Botswana would look on film. The cinematography in the film pilot was by Seamus McGarvey and it was very beautiful — far too beautiful really. The opening sequences had numerous crane/cherrypicker shots that might have graced a mainstream Hollywood feature. Unfortunately, the novels (I’m told) are small scale, gentle tales that don’t need the epic treatment.

I have no problem with the BBC screening a series set in Africa (in a Sunday night ‘comfy telly’ slot, just like ITV) and I have no problem with Africa being represented by a gentle comedic series – I readily accept that it’s important to have alternative representations of African stories — they don’t all have to be about civil war, refugees and famine. But . . .

I do have problems with this series. I only lasted for less than half the running time and found something better to do. The opening was slow for no apparent reason. It looked like a one hour idea was being spun out over 100 mins or so. The beauty of the cinematography then began to look likeit was offering an alternative to the slow story. But my main concern is that the film isn’t really an ‘alternative’ to the other representations of Southern Africa. In fact it follows the usual British/American strategy of shipping in actors from the US and UK as well as writers, director, producer etc plus some heads of department. The heavy promotion of the film suggested ‘local’ sourcing of other crew, but as far as I could work out, this meant South African crew members alongside a couple of South African actors. Great play was made of being unable to find an African actor to play the lead role. I interpret this to mean that no African actor was considered suitable for a UK/US audience – I’m sure there are Zimbabwean women who could have played the character, or even South Africans. It wouldn’t be so bad if the BBC (or other UK channels) were prepared to put some money into African film production in Anglophone countries in the way that the French do in Francophone countries — or at least show some African film product.

South Africa is potentially the major source of African ‘films’ (ignoring for the moment the hundreds of video films being produced in Nigeria and Ghana) but as yet the South African industry has remained in thrall to Hollywood. I guess it was too much to expect the Weinsteins and HBO to do anything very different with The No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

BBC4 Roots showing


I managed to catch most of a BBC4 programme celebrating the 30th anniversary of the screening of the mini-series Roots, based on Alex Haley’s book, and I’m glad I did. The programme neatly fitted into the current series of programmes marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade. I didn’t watch the series all the way through in 1977. In those days I was rarely in during the evening, being at meetings, at work or the movies. However, I saw enough to know how it worked and I was well aware of it as a cultural phenomenon. What intrigued me most about the BBC4 programme was the use of a clutch of high profile 40 something British actors and writers to tell us about their memories of the programme as young schoolchildren. The likes of Adrian Lester, poet Lemn Sissay and actor/writer Kwame Kwei-Armah all spoke about how the programme had been a revelation since they had not learned enough about the slave trade in the classroom to understand what their own identity meant. Indeed Kwame Kwei-Armah changed his name from the ‘slave name’ of Ian Roberts, partly because of his experience of watching Roots. This set me to thinking about how much I knew about the experience of slavery and where I had learned this.

We certainly did cover the ‘triangular trade’ in secondary school history (but not by age 10-11 as the interviewees attested). I think I must have picked up most of my knowledge from popular literature, film and television and certainly a great deal from Jamaican music. I’ve got to acknowledge that it was coming across Bob Marley and the Wailers in the early 1970s that really got me interested in Jamaican history and led me towards Marcus Garvey and the powerful music of Winston Rodney aka Burning Spear. Sometime before 1977 I must also have got into Walter Rodney the Guyanese historian, probably through meeting Black activists in London.

One thing I certainly learned from the BBC4 programme was the extent of Alex Haley’s success as a journalist and writer. I’d forgotten that Haley was the journalist to whom Malcolm X told his story and which produced a book that went on to sell millions of copies as ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’. I bought that book sometime in the mid 1970s and it had a big impact on my teaching. I remember the fuss over the release of the film Mandingo in 1975 (a melodrama about sex and race championed by Movie magazine), but I don’t suppose that even that controversy penetrated far into the popular imagination of the period. That was the achievement of Roots. I wonder how the mini-series would do today? And I wonder too, how much today’s students really know about the history of slavery? Do they have time (or the inclination) to look for the literature and the music that tells the personal stories that carry the emotional power of a Roots? More on this please BBC4.

Bradford Riots

It’s over a week since the local elections and since Channel 4’s broadcast of The Bradford Riots. I’m surprised that there has been relatively little mention in the national press of the local results in Bradford, where Labour actually did well, taking seats from the Tories and reducing the BNP’s seats. In Keighley, Labour won all three seats, including one for an Asian woman – a significant success, I think.

The Bradford Riots is a ‘realist drama’ based on the events in July 2001 when a National Front march was proposed for Bradford and Asian youths took to the streets to defend their territory. The independent production company stated that they could not get permission to restage the events in Bradford so the film looks a little bizarre to the locals with key scenes shot in parts of Liverpool.

Some of the national critics have complained that the central character is not ‘typical’ because he is a university student. But from what people tell me the story sticks pretty closely to ‘real’ events. It was researched, written and directed by Neil Biswas. He is, I think, from the Bangladeshi community in Whitechapel, the location for his first feature, Second Generation in 2003. He does a good job and the film is well worth watching. At the end, I was moved and angry on behalf of the family at the centre of the drama. But that was mostly because I knew the story was ‘true’ – by which I mean that what happened to the characters actually did happen to real people.

It’s very difficult for realist television drama to do more than that, but the day before I went to see Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’armée des ombres (Army in the Shadows) What a movie! I love Melville and this a digital restoration by a French archive of a 1969 film. The colours are muted and the film is relatively slowly paced over 145 mins. But Melville is in complete control. I wish I could think of easy ways to introduce this kind of filmmaking to younger audiences. There are no car chases and little direct conflict in this story about the French resistance, mostly based on Joseph Kessel’s novel, but also on Melville’s own wartime experience. The action as such comprises an escape from custody, a reluctant execution, another escape from a firing squad and a ‘mercy’ assassination. Between these dramatic highs are long periods of tension building,with marvellous performances by the likes of Lino Ventura and Simone Signoret.

Melville is an expressionist rather than a ‘realist’, but I was convinced of the ‘reality’ of the situations that faced the resistance fighters. I particularly enjoyed Lino Ventura’s flight back to France from London. Prepared to jump from an RAF plane with his parachute harness over his overcoat and suit, our hero has his glasses firmly taped to his forehead with elastoplast. It’s those touches of humanity that make this a great film.