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Mountain Dead edited by Jason Sizemore and Eugene Johnson

September 2, 2013 2 comments

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Mountain Dead edited by Jason Sizemore and Eugene Johnson (Apex Publications, 2013) is a chapbook anthology comprising four stories. Think of it as a kind of overflow. The publisher put together an anthology under the title Appalachian Undead but had some stories left over that it felt were too good to leave on the shelf. Note the cover artwork is the same on both the chapbook and anthology save for the title. I suppose I should approve a left-handed banjo player showing himself an outlier even among zombies.

The problem in the structuring of any story is knowing where to start and when to stop. On the way through, it may be necessary to dump information or to include flashbacks to clarify the ongoing situation. The ideal is to enable everyone to arrive at the end in possession of all the relevant information. The more unanswered questions the reader has at the end, the worse the story. In “Deep Underground” by Sara M Harvey, we have a man returning to the valley where he and his family have lived for more than one-hundred years. We know of one motive for this visit, but the other is never made explicit. It’s obvious he’s spent considerable time researching his family and the valley as he comes with notes to consult as he goes through the story. But we’re never told why he should have made this effort nor what he found. This is a serious oversight. Even though we are given hints, e.g. that other hamlets in the valley have disappeared, there’s no detail given and no context. All we have is an innuendo that the village he’s returned to could be next. It’s not that this story is badly written. It’s that there’s been an insufficient effort invested in fleshing the story out to a proper length to make the overarching situation clear. Only then would the ending make sense. As it is, I have no idea why this particular decision appears to have solved the problem.

“Unto the Lord a New Song” by Geoffrey Girard is wonderfully macabre idea. Many moons ago when I was young and was stuck for something to do, I was won’t to experiment with bottles. Did you know if you take a set of identical bottle and partially fill them with water, you can tune them into a primitive form of xylophone. It’s the same with wine glasses except, instead of striking them with padded hammers, you can wet your fingers and run them round the rims. This is all tangentially relevant to this story. Read it to find out why. “Let Me Come In” by Lesley Conner is a delightful fusion of fairy story and zombies as the three little pigs and the big bad wolf find they have a common enemy, but the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend, or something.

“And It’ll Haunt Me (For Long Days To Come)” by K Allen Wood is a story about credibility. We all hope that, if we tell the truth as we understand it, others will believe us. Even though what we say is not the everyday story of human folk, there will somehow be sufficient empathy that one human will trust the word of another. If that faint hope fails, what are we left with? This is rather a pleasing answer. The structure of this story is that of a frame with an embedded narrative. This is an ideal format because it gives us a chance to watch the story being told and to have third party confirmation of the outcome. I find myself baffled by the decision not to print this full version in Appalachian Undead where a truncated version appears. When this is so obviously superior, there’s no reason to save this fuller version for the chapbook. Unless I have cause and effect the wrong way round. Perhaps the editors felt they had three good stories but not enough for a chapbook. They therefore adopted this version as the fourth and printed a cut-down version in the anthology hoping readers would accept it in context.

So three out of four better than average stories makes Mountain Dead a winner. For a review of the paired anthology, see Appalachian Undead edited by Eugene Johnson and Jason Sizemore.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Glitter & Mayhem edited by John Klima, Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas

July 31, 2013 2 comments

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When reviewing, you sometimes have to bite the bullet and use technical jargon to get the message across. Glitter & Mayhem edited by John Klima, Lynne M. Thomas, and Michael Damian Thomas (Apex Publications, 2013) revives the urge to dive back into critique. Prepare yourselves. This anthology is “fun”, using the word in its most technical sense, of course. Thematically, we’re partying, on occasion in disco or roller derby mode, so be prepared for some culture shock. It’s also quite sexually liberated so brace yourself for diversity. There’s also occasional bad language but where in this life is safe from the undeleted expletive or three? Overall, there’s considerable irreverence on display although there are moments of seriousness. Put this together and you have one of the most enjoyable of anthologies of the year so far. And, at the end of the day (or night) depending on how long the party lasts, isn’t that what fiction should be all about? Yes, there’s a space to be held for the white-knuckle and wow-factor stuff — actually the kind of stuff that’s often held up for praise when it comes round to award time — but we should all be allowed to celebrate reading for the sheer pleasure of seeing words used well to make us smile, or think (just a little — too much thinking can overload the brain’s computing power).

It all starts with “Sister Twelve: Confessions of a Party Monster” by Christopher Barzak, a pleasingly subversive fairy story in which twelve princesses discover a secret passageway that takes them to an infinity of parties through time and space. All they need do to escape the dreary grind of life in the palace is to touch the floor, open the door and go down the steps. The freedom is intoxicating so long as it lasts. “Apex Jump” by David J. Schwartz has to be the ultimate roller derby event where the challenge is not to win, but to avoid being beaten by a new record amount. Just remember, when the sergeant major says, “Jump!” you do it without hesitating. “With Her Hundred Miles” by Kat Howard let’s suppose each sleep really is a little death and the dreams that are born during that short stay in the afterlife are fatal to whatever you were dreaming about. Then dreaming about birds in flight would mean you wake up and find your bed surrounded by dead birds. But suppose you dreamed about people?

In these days of sexual equality, “Star Dancer” by Jennifer Pelland supplies the Women in Black I’ve been waiting for. This story is definitely WiBbly and sometimes WoBbly (that’s Women on Blue Kisses) when the dance music plays and we all get as high as an elephant’s eye. “Of Selkies, Disco Balls, and Anna Plane” by Cat Rambo reminds us we can change our appearance and act out roles wearing different clothes, but underneath, we stay the same. “Sooner Than Gold” by Cory Skerry is a delightful story about possibilities. Who knows what excitement lurks on the other side of a closed door? Whatever it is, keep it close to your chest! “Subterraneans” by William Shunn & Laura Chavoen takes the idea of wife swapping to a new level. Think of it as a kind of megamix when you choose between the red and blue pills to Marvin Gaye’s “Lets Get It On”. “The Minotaur Girls” by Tansy Rayner Roberts is a thoughtful story of a young girl on the cusp of adulthood, wanting so desperately to be old (or skillful) enough to be allowed into the “club”. In just a few pages, this contrives to say something interesting about the ties between the generations of the young as they take years off their lives in the pursuit of the unattainable. “Unable to Reach You” by Alan DeNiro in these days when everyone expects you to be connected 24/7, it’s important to get to the source of any problem and assert control. “Such & Such Said to So & So” by Maria Dahvana Headley plays a neat game with the language of drinking and partying, suggesting no-one should get to like their drinks too much or the dog will leave its hairs when it bites us on the ass. While “Revels in the Land of Ice” by Tim Pratt finds poetry in the eye of the beholder if you go to the revels to see what it reveals.

“Bess, the Landlord’s Daughter, Goes for Drinks with the Green Girl” by Sofia Samatar is nicely surreal. Life passes by this pair of partying girls and death fails to keep them down as they keep the celebratory mood going. “Blood and Sequins” by Diana Rowland gives us inadvertent police officers in a major prostitution and drug bust as the zombies rescue the butterfly. It all makes perfect sense when you read it. “Two-Minute Warning” by Vylar Kaftan gives us a nice SFnal twist on a paintball party upgraded to more lethal levels as people who live for the thrill of it all encourage those grown more timid to get back into the spirit of things. “Inside Hides the Monster” by Damien Walters Grintalis wonders how sirens would fare when modern music replaces the simple melodies she prefers. The problem, of course, is that if she listens to this modern music, might her own music be tainted. Yes, that could be a real problem. “Bad Dream Girl” by Seanan McGuire gives us the real inside dope on roller derby when the girls with aptitude come out to play. Of course this is all wonderful so long as they play fair. No-one gets hurt (too seriously). But what would happen if one decided to cheat? “A Hollow Play” by Amal El-Mohtar wonders what people might sacrifice if the need was great. It’s all a question of relative values. The more you want, the greater the sacrifice you might have to make. Of course, as the process approaches, you might suddenly realise what you propose to sacrifice isn’t meaningful enough. That would be an unfortunately discovery to make. “Just Another Future Song” by Daryl Gregory considers the problem of identity which might get a little lost if you can upload yourself into different bodies. The challenge, of course, is to remember just enough, whether in the brain unit or the gut, to make the best transfer to the next body. “The Electric Spanking of the War Babies” by Maurice Broaddus & Kyle S. Johnson returns to another SFnal disco groove as the Star Child looks for the mothership to give the Funk to the people, whether they want to receive it or not. “All That Fairy Tale Crap” by Rachel Swirsky is a very amusing metafictional rant against the idea of fairy stories and the stereotypical women who defer to their Princes so they can become mindless Princesses and live unfulfilled lives forever after.

Put all these hints together and you have a highly enjoyable anthology.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

Hansel and Gretel witch hunters

The important thing to learn about killing witches is that they don’t like it when you set their collective ass on fire. Or, to put it another way, when film-makers set out to do fairy stories, they’d better do it with a sense of humour or the film will die on its ass. So here we go with Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013). Our orphaned brother and sister team, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton), are cast into the roles of protectors of the innocent and specialist witch exterminators. For the purposes of this film, they are hired by the Mayor of Augsburg to deal with a rash of disappearances. Children, whose faces are plastered on to the local milk bottles (the film is making an effort to mirror contemporary sensibilities, particularly through Gretel’s willingness to swear like a trooper in this pre-Enlightenment, postmodern version of a Germanic township before the electric lightbulb, but not the milk bottle, has been invented) have been spirited away in anticipation of a “blood moon” event due in three days time (always give your heroes a deadline — pun intended). So our heroes go off into the nearest pub to mingle and pick up the local gossip which enables them to meet Ben (Thomas Mann) their biggest fan. This is the ultimate nerd who’s been obsessively collecting their press clippings and now oozes enthusiasm in the hope of getting them to sign his book. Meanwhile Sheriff Berringer (Peter Stormare), the spooky local witchfinder with Wild West aspirations to greatness in law enforcement, is paying the greedy rubes to form a posse and go out searching for the missing children at night. It’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel but they always say food tastes better when it walks into the forest fresh.

Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton ready for battle

Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton ready for battle

 

Now a few thoughts about the backstory. Isn’t it just weird when a father takes his two children off into the woods and, after ensuring they are thoroughly lost, blows out the candle in his lantern and disappears? And all that “gingerbread” the witch had Hansel eat. . . That would give him a really bad case of diabetes, wouldn’t it? And why would the children be immune to the spells cast by the witches they now hunt as adults? Hmmm. Some deep mysteries on display here including where the insulin is coming from to keep Hansel alive and how come they’ve developed this array of firearms before their time. Ah, such are the problems when you take your fairy stories into a kind of steampunk fantasy version of history. Everything gets all mixed up. And, so long as it’s all done with a sense of style and fun, we go along for the ride. Which brings me to the nub of the problem. At its heart, this is a straightforward action adventure with two heroes rescuing twelve children from some bad witches. So what market is this simple story aiming at? Obviously not the children’s market because there a fairly consistent pattern of swearing and some of the violence is fairly graphic. It’s not played for shock value as a horror movie. There are jokes and no attempts to produce boo moments. The tone is very matter-of-fact. Shoot this witch, decapitate that one.

Peter Stormare and Pihla Viitala ready for the execution

Peter Stormare and Pihla Viitala ready for the execution

 

As an aside, this is a witch-heavy film which makes me wonder what a film has to do to be considered misogynistic. The aim of the script is to show us violence against women on a fairly epic scale. Both the good and the bad females come in for a steady battering or eviscerating as the minutes tick by. All the major women are killed with the exception of Gretel. She gets to be an honorary man, swearing like it’s about to go out of fashion, senselessly violent, and wandering off with the three surviving men at the end to kill more women (none of whom get an open casket funeral when she’s finished with them). What does it say about a film when the only woman who survives does so at the price of killing as many other women as she can?

 

Then, of course, we come to the “love interests”. Gretel has the nerd and Edward (Derek Mears) a troll, in hot pursuit, i.e. she doesn’t get anyone normal to lust after her. Hansel is very taken by Mina (Pihla Viitala), a young lady accused of being a witch. They have a very chaste encounter in the woods for all the partial nudity. Yet Hansel seems strangely unaffected by this sexual encounter. He’s one of these love ‘em and leave ‘em types who seems uninterested in the romantic side of love. Which leaves us with Muriel (Famke Janssen) the ringleader of the coven who doesn’t have anyone to love but is able to do all the usual witchy things like fly around on bits of twig, cast spells, and look entirely human when she feels the need. And herein lies the real failure to engage the audience.

Famke Janssen going witchy

Famke Janssen going witchy

 

I’m all for magic systems that work. That’s the lynchpin of true fantasy. I also have no problem with black and white systems to use the magical force. It seems eminently reasonable that if there’s a source of magic available to people with the right sensitivities, they should be able to choose how to use it. But this film fails to develop any kind of coherent explanation of who witches are and, more importantly, whether they pass on their powers to their children. Indeed, the characterisation of witches is almost at the level of a cartoon or comic book. They gibber, caper around and fight when cornered. There’s very little effort to make them frightening. They’re just there and because pesky humans can overpower the weaker members of the coven, they want to develop the ability to resist fire. That way, they can walk away from the burning as soon as the retaining ropes are destroyed by the flames. I suppose this means they can already withstand the removal of head and/or heart, being pulled apart by four strong horses, and so on (and that no-one uses chains to hold them in the fire).

 

Yet, despite all these manifest failures, this is not a bad film. It’s just a film that fails to realise its potential. There’s an underlying sense of fun about it and, with a running time (not counting the extended opening and closing credits, of about 80 minutes, it knows when to quit before we all run out of patience. I suppose this means, in modern terms, it’s not very good value for money if you walk through the cinema door at full price, but I’ve watched the DVD as a rental and it’s excellent value. For the record, it seems to have collected $225 million at the box office on a production budget of $50 million. Since that represents a profit before the downloads and DVD sales come in, there’s already talk of a sequel. I’m not sure this would be a good idea but you can’t argue with the profit-driven when they scent more profit. Hence, if you can access Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters for a few dollars, lay in some popcorn and prepare for a blast of fun brainlessness.

 

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

March 5, 2013 4 comments

Snow White and the Huntsman

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) starts, as many of these adaptations of fairy stories do, with a portentous voice-over explaining how, in the midst of deepest winter, the queen came across a single red rose growing in the snows of the castle garden. She reached out. A thorn pricked her finger and, with a suitable gravity in play, three drops of blood fell significantly and stained the snow. Shortly thereafter, albeit presumably with the assistance of the King and the usual passage of nine months, a baby was born and named Snow White (notice the subtle use of imagery). With a swift cut to summer, we then have the child wandering through the fields with a bird in her hands. She’s into the rescue business. With her heart overflowing with goodness, she vows to nurse it back to health. Then before the voice-over can complete the next sentence, her mother is dead and the inconsolable King is lured into battle when a dark army unexpectedly appears. The army is witchy and easily vanquished but, behind the lines, chained in a wagon, they find and liberate Ravena (Charlize Theron). With a smile of gratitude, she captures the heart of the King and they marry in haste (so he wasn’t that inconsolable). This fulfills the primary rule that all fairy stories shall have an evil stepmother. This one wastes no time. She stabs the King on their wedding night (a more positive form of coitus interruptus is hard to imagine) and admits her army to the castle. This takes everyone by surprise — except the waiting army, of course. The evil minions slay all the loyal courtiers and lock the princess away in the tower. There’s no knowing when royal blood may come in useful. The only one of importance to escape the castle is her childhood friend William. Time for another voice-over to signal the passage of time and we come to the required crunch.

Kristen Stewart in the moment

Kristen Stewart in the moment

 

Now grown into a woman, Snow White (Kristen Stewart) escapes the tower and enters the Dark Forest where she meets the Huntsman (not a surprise given the title and played by Australian beefcake Chris Hemsworth with heavy 6 o’clock shadow). In another part of the kingdom, the remnants of the old court and young William (Sam Claffin) are now playing the part of guerrillas in the style of Robin Hood, stealing where possible and keeping the people alive. While the Huntsman does his dark and broody best to impress the Princess with his dour savoir faire, William goes undercover and joins the hunt for the Princess. Now everyone has the chance to stagger around in woody darkness for a while. Thinking ahead, the Woodsman tries to teach Snow White how to kill in self-defence. She thinks with her heart and has no stomach for killing (sic). This is just as well because when a troll starts flaming on one of the wood’s forums, she’s there with in her caring moderator role to keep the peace. I may be missing the seven little folk but you can’t beat a good troll, particularly if there’s a bridge for it to hide under and gnaw on bones.

Charlize Theron never given a chance to be really evil

Charlize Theron never given a chance to be really evil

 

Then we’re off to a riverside community comprised entirely of women and children. A ruthless queen kills the men on the off-chance they may threaten her. Anyway, the villagers tell the Huntsman who he’s helping. He seems to think she’ll be safer with them and disappears into the night. Fortunately, the evil minions (and William) set fire to the village. The film was getting more than a little dull. Anyway the fire brings back the Huntsman and he’s able to whisk her away before William can reclaim his lost love. That leaves us with. . . At first sight, I thought it was Ewoks in an unexpected flashback from Endor — a place famous for its witch. Who? What? I now understand a small disreputable group had wondered over from the nearby set where Peter Jackson was filming and offered their services as extras. But caught up in the thick of the action, they decided to give up being elves and become dwarves instead. Fortunately, they had some caves to run into — sadly, no-one sang “Hi Ho, it’s off to work we go.” I miss these little flourishes and references to the Disney original. So then they all go walkabout in the New Zealand style until she meets the proper elves and one of these rather pleasing majestic animals who are rulers of the forest. It’s all very twee with bunnies and a green turtle. Great CGI tree branches cum antlers sprouting out of the head of this monarch of the glen. The leader of the Jackson renegades then gives it to us straight. “She is life. She will heal the land. She is The One!” Now all we have to do is wait for her to choose between the red and green apple and for them all to live happily ever after.

Chris Hemsworth looking dark and broody

Chris Hemsworth looking dark and broody

 

And, in a way, this sums up the problem. For all the evil minions shoot at the stag and do bad stuff, there’s no real sense of menace in any of it. It’s even second-rate as an action film. The team behind this film obviously decided, come Hell or High Water, they were going to make a two-hour (plus) epic. Overlook the fact the traditional plot is never going to stretch that far and hold any kind of suspense. Modern audiences apparently want spectacle even though it’s soulless and empty. The result is, I regret to say, tedious beyond measure. Even my usual sport of mocking the afflicted can’t save me from total boredom. Once we get past the initial taking of the castle and into the forests, this film dies a slow and terrible death. I can’t even raise a smile as the dwarves try to do an Ewok and defeat the evil minions (but not William who’s just hanging in there trying not to look conspicuous to anyone). Then Snow White sleeps, wakes and there’s lots of CGI fighting at the end as the Dark Army rises again, reconstituted from broken mirror fragments. Charlize Theron does her best but she’s not allowed enough time to develop an interesting character as the evil stepmother. Indeed, she’s almost completely missing from the central section of the film except when her brother gets killed. The idea of saving her for the big ending is completely misconceived. Without a fearsome adversary, the pallid Snow White and grunting woodsman are never going to carry the film. All they do is run around and look fairly helpless. Even worse Kristen Stewart is revealed as wooden. There’s no spark or animation about her. Even when she’s supposed to be scared, she’s not clearly emotionally involved. Chris Hemsworth stomps around, muttering darkly in any accent that comes to mind, and looking “grim”, if not darkly romantic. I suppose he has the looks, but the lad can’t act to save his life. So Snow White and the Huntsman is definitely a film to miss.

 

The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein

In order to prove to myself that I’m slowly devolving into a mental state where I’m three wildebeest short of a full herd, I sometimes engage in conversations with myself. No, I’m joking. I actually find this internal dialogue a very useful way of finding out what I’m thinking. If I just sit passively in my chair and look out of the window, this is an excuse to switch off the brain, to mindlessly watch the occasional cloud drift by or admire the ferocity of the rain. Only by interrogating myself can I discover what I think. So for The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein (Tachyon Press, 2011), the conversation went something like this.

“So what did you think?”

“I thought it was very clever, but I didn’t believe a word of it.”

“It’s a fairy story, you twit! Believability is not supposed to be high on its agenda.”

“Yes, but I always judge a book by the credibility of the characters’ responses to the situations in which they find themselves. Take the arrival of a flying saucer in my front garden as an example. After overcoming the initial surprise, my reaction would be that no self-respecting Grays would travel parsecs to harvest my organs. I’m too close to death and everything’s pretty worn out. So I would be flattered these aliens had picked me to speak on behalf of Earth and go out to offer them a cup of tea — well, instant coffee since I’m out of tea right now. In this book, I’m completely in tune with Ben. As a scam artist in the making, he has exactly the right attitude in tracking down this family and courting one of the three daughters. I also get why he would offer his innocent friend, Will Taylor, an introduction to one of the other sisters. If there’s money to be made, he sees no reason why it should not be spread around his circle of friends. But once involved, Will Taylor fails my credibility test. Oh, no, wait a minute. If this is a fairy story, he’s the Prince! Doh! A man, noble in spirit and too stupid to be anything other than brave, he’s got to be the one to wake Sleeping Beauty. Well call me cynical or any other words that come to your mind, but I don’t buy it. Not for one minute do I think Will would go to these lengths to rescue a young woman he has known for so short a time.”

“How sad. This is a book about the magic of love and you just don’t get it.”

“Well, I’m old and all out of romance. You wait until you’re in line for the next daisy up-pushing exercises prescribed by the relatives waiting on their inheritance, and see what you think about young men who recklessly defy the supernatural.”

Lisa Goldstein planning on fairy cakes for a snack

Returning to a more normal style, you may remember Gordon Gekko from Wall Street (1987). He volunteered himself as the leader of the “Greed is good!” brigade. Well, this is a book describing an offer the Gekkos of this world would find impossible to resist. All you have to do is. . . and you shall be rich beyond your wildest imaginings. Well, perhaps not that rich. But certainly financially comfortable although, in the darkest hours of the night, it’s possible there might be a slight pricking of your conscience. Fortunately, most of you would sleep through it. Not surprisingly, this offer has been around for hundreds of years — greed didn’t wait until the 1980s before making its presence felt. Once cave dwellers found value in material possessions, they were suckers for the something-for-nothing, once-in-a-lifetime offers a cave-to-cave double-glazing salesman could make. Except these sellers weren’t offering better windows. In a scaled-down Faustian way, all they wanted was a little of your time and there was good luck (and gold) in return.

Coming back to Will Taylor, he’s a contrivance introduced by Lisa Goldstein so she can run all the fairy story tropes through her modern sensibilities and find way of beating the snares and traps. This would be impossible without a man prepared to jump through hoops on demand. This is not to say I did not admire the cleverness of the plot and the ingenuity with which our hero manages to keep on the rescue track. I just found it all less than completely engaging. What kept me going was curiosity to see how he would win — sorry, no spoiler warning is necessary. In all fairy stories, the Prince kisses the frog and gets turned into a pumpkin (“pumpkin” is the German for “love-struck loon and proud father”). Although, after too long a session in the fairy realm, we get a kind of epilogue and, in that final breath, our Will grows more credible. As an old man, I know he’s right when he says the world always looks to have been more exciting when we were young and that, no matter what jobs we take, always hoping they will keep our interest, almost everything gets boring when we’ve seen hundreds of examples of the same thing. In a way, the same thing happens to love as the marriage matures over the decades. Even the children drift away. Getting to the end of life can be remarkably unglamorous.

So The Uncertain Places is almost a great book. The ideas are engaging, the prose elegant. Or perhaps it’s me. Perhaps my own cynicism and prejudices are getting in the way. Perhaps, if you enjoy romantic fiction masquerading as fantasy, you might find Prince aka Will Taylor an attractive hunk and follow his fairy story adventures with delight.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For the record, The Uncertain Places was a finalist for and won the Mythopoeic Awards – 2012.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008)

December 27, 2011 Leave a comment

The question immediately coming to mind is a simple one. What exactly is a fairy story? It would be rather trite just to list all the stories which feature supernatural creatures like, well, fairies. . . So let’s offer a more sweeping suggestion that a fairy story is one in which there are elements of magic with the possibility of enchantment. In the olden days when we used to sit around the fire for warmth as the night drew in, we would tell ourselves these tales. They were a part of our oral tradition. This is not to confuse them with myths and legends because they more often represent themselves as having elements of truth. Both those who tell and those who listen spellbound, know a fairy story is not intended to be taken as a literal truth. And in this lies the reason for their slow transformation from a purely adult form of fiction to tales we tell our children, to the new varieties of story we come back to as adults. Some like Pan’s Labyrinth or The Company of Wolves are modern parables of our time, intended as polemics or the delivery system for moral improvement. Others like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day are more “harmless”, being intended as mere romantic dalliances through which we can distract ourselves from the rigours of the world.

Frances McDormand fending off the real social secretary

It would be difficult to find someone not familiar with Cinderella. The story seems to have embedded itself in cultures around the world as an inspiration to the oppressed to have a little more confidence in themselves and find a prince(ss). This film is a variation on the theme as we see the story from the point of view of a slightly surprising fairy godmother. The titular Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is an intelligent woman who finds herself out of joint in London, a city on the eve of war. Life has passed her by. Her first and only love was killed in the trenches in WW I. No-one else has ever moved into this clergyman daughter’s circle, condemning her to the drudgery of playing governess to families she dislikes. Having lost three jobs in quick succession, the most recent because she disapproved of her employer’s drinking, the employment agency decides to drop her as unsuited to the life of service. In desperation, she steals the business card of a new female client, thinking she too wants a governess.

Amy Adams who is really a Grubb from America

So, by accident, she ends up in the flat occupied by Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams). This is a young American woman who’s one lover away from destitution in London. The flat she currently occupies is owned by a fairly sleazy nightclub owner, Nick (Mark Strong) who lets her sing with the band. From this platform, she’s met the piano player, Michael (Lee Pace) and Phil (Tom Payne) who has within his gift the leading role in a new West End musical. She sleeps with all three because she’s lonely and ambitious, but is equally exploited by two of her lovers. In the midst of all this superficiality, Edythe (Shirley Henderson) dictates outerwear fashion and her potential husband, Joe (Ciaran Hinds) designs lingerie for the well-to-do.

Ciaran Hinds making a living in women's underwear

At any moment, war with Germany may be declared and mannequins in fashionable shop windows sport the latest designs in gas masks. The social bubble that has carried people through the depression of the 1930s and into relative prosperity is about to be punctured. All this social magic will disappear as the Blitz begins. At this cusp between peace and war, its occurs to these people that they should take decisions for their futures. The catalyst for this fairly momentous change is Miss Pettigrew, whose drive to find employment gives her desperate energy. She has known hardship and pain. Hers is the voice of experience that, when needed, will speak the truth.

Lee Pace as a penniless piano-player

Perhaps that’s where the real magic comes into play. She can only find her way into these people’s lives by dishonestly claiming to be sent by an employment agency but, once in place, she has a unique opportunity to provoke others into hard decisions. It’s inherently ironic that a liar should become the mouthpiece of truth. The script is a pleasing balance between hope and despair. David Magee and Simon Beaufoy have done a good job in recapturing the mood of the original novel by Winifred Watson. The direction from Bharat Nalluri is light but sure. The result is entertaining in a way only possible in a fairy story. The right people must come together in the ending but, on the way, we must see beyond the external appearances for the reality beneath. The poster says it all with Joe’s lingerie keeping London’s socialites looking good, and two women from different generations and cultural backgrounds finding common cause in the pursuit of happiness — physical and economic security is less feasible given the outbreak of war. For the record, unlike the original Cinderella, events are largely confined to a single day and the morning after. The oppression necessary to trigger the acceptance of change comes from within. These people are all unhappy in the roles they have chosen for themselves. They can only find freedom when they give up the false dreams and decide to be true to themselves. Put like this, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day may sound a bit trite but, onscreen, it produces a heart-warming response.

As a final thought, I’m a sucker for the piano played well and, in the midst of some good big band numbers and slightly anachronistic jazz, there’s some great piano. Thanks, perhaps, to Paul Englishby who wrote the original score.

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