The Villain Checklist: Contrast With The Hero

We’ve had a look at various facets of what makes a good villain, but for the next two entries, we need to shift the goalposts a little bit, and take about the most important relationship that the antagonist has: that with the hero. And up first, we need to discuss the crucial things that differentiate the bad guy/girl from the hero. We need to talk about that necessary contrast:

Contrast With Hero – The villain must in some way, major or minor, be a direct contrast to the hero character.

This is, once again, story-telling 101, but you would be surprised how easily people mess it up, either through inability to understand what the contrast is important, or from a lazy effort to make blindingly clear that the two characters are different.

Suffice to say that it isn’t enough for, say, the hero to be poor and the villain to be rich, a common fall-back. It isn’t enough that the villain be a person of power and privilege, and the hero a lowly peasant. It isn’t enough that the villain control legions of pawns, and that the hero is alone in the world. Sure, these things can help, but they are a starting point for actual characterisation, not a substitute for it. The con-man is opposed by the detective. The supervillain is opposed by the superhero. The galactic dominator is opposed by the plucky farmboy freedom fighter.

The true contrast should be in the finer details. If the hero is an impulsive do-gooder, then the villain should be patiently intelligent, (what should we call that, the “Ned/Littlefinger” dynamic?). If the hero is a womanizing/man-eating Lothario, the villain should be cold and distant to the opposite sex. If the hero is a fundamentally decent person at heart, then the villain should be fundamentally indecent. And it doesn’t have to be something that speaks ill of the villain either. The detailed-oriented con-man is opposed by the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants detective. The supervillain with chip on his shoulder is opposed by the zen-like superhero. The galactic dominator with the abusive childhood is opposed by the plucky farmboy freedom fighter backed up by his loving family.

These are all just examples of course. But the key point is that, however major the contrast in personality and circumstances, the key contrast should be a little bit more small-scale and focused.

Let’s look at a few examples.

In A New Hope, the hero is Luke Skywalker and the villain is Darth Vader. The obvious contrast is that one is a backwater moisture farmer, and the other is the black clad Lord of the Sith. One is inherently good, the other seems inherently evil. But on a deeper level, we can also see a better contrast. Luke is somewhat innocent, naïve and trusting: he hooks up with Obi-Wan on a whim and a prayer, becomes obsessed with saving the princess, and only wants to be a hero and bring an end to the evil empire. Vader, on the other hand, in his torture of Leia, subterfuge in allowing the Falcon to escape and general scheming nature, showcases himself as someone both more conniving, and as someone much more experienced. That’s a good, deeper, contrast.

Consistency_Vader

Nice colour contrast in this scene too.

In contrast (ha!), Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace is a nothing character, and so it is hard to draw an effective contrast between him and the heroic characters (there being no single antagonist in Menace, one of the films key structural problems). Obviously, he wears black, looks scary and has a different lightsaber to Obi-Wan and Qui Gon, but what can we say about a deeper contrast? That Maul is impulsive and angry where the Jedi are not? Obi-Wan’s actions at the end don’t back that up. That Maul is submissive to Sidious, a tool, where the Jedi are not? But the Jedi are tools, of the Jedi Council, just a different kind of tool. When characters are this paper thin, there is little to contrast.

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Good contrast here too. Consistency!

One of the greatest contrasts in comic books can be seen in The Dark Knight, where we have, on one hand, the grim serious dark-clad caped crusader, committed unerringly to his war on crime and the pursuit of justice. And, on the other, we have an insane clown, with a commitment only to chaos and his own twisted gratification. But the contrast goes deeper still, to the way that Wayne and the Joker respectively treat the people around them, and how the Joker uses that against Batman. For the Joker, everyone around him is either a fiddle to be played or a target to be hit, while Batman defines himself in the film by his efforts to help others – Reese, Dent, Rachel, Gordon, to name a few – a sort of dichotomy between civic duty and pointless manipulation.

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Nice focus in this one.

Compare that to, say, Ronan in Guardians Of The Galaxy and the titular Guardians themselves. The immediate contrast is obvious enough: the dour, Gothic galactic overlord and the diverse superhero team with a penchant for glib humour and dancing. One’s a serious political player in the universe, and the other are just wanted criminals. But what’s the deeper contrast between, say, Quill and Ronan? Is it, again, that one uses people for his own ends and the other doesn’t? It’s not as pronounced or as cleverly done as it elsewhere if so. Is it the contrast between Quill’s concept of family and Ronan’s? In a way, though it’s really Thanos who is the more effective contrast in that regard.

distinct_ronan

No great contrasts here.

In the world of video games, consider Breen in Half-Life 2. On the face of it, the player character, Gordon Freeman, is a lone wolf-style freedom fighter compared to Breen’s planet-wide “administration”. Freeman is a man of direct action, Breen sits in his literal tower and sends other people to do the wet work for him. But the contrast goes deeper than that, to the simple fact that Freeman is a mute warrior who lets his guns and crowbar do the talking, while Breen does nothing but talk, his weapons being words, that he uses, at length, throughout the course of the adventure. In that, the creators of Half-Life 2 take one of the key traits of their hero, and use it a set-up to make a contrasting key trait for their villain.

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Technological contrasts!

On the other hand, take Fallout 3, that I recently finished (the main plot line anyway). You can argue about who the main villain in the game is, but for a karmically positive run, it’s President Eden and his subordinate, Colonel Autumn. Neither are especially well-presented and neither make for a good contrast with the kind of player character a karmically positive run will throw up. The Lone Wanderer wants to find his father and help the people of the Wasteland, the Enclave wants to enforce their will and wipe out those who suffer any kind of mutation. But what is there beyond that? Nothing much really. One of the two games discussed understands that even characters distant from each other can be effectively contrasted, whereas Fallout 3 they are just props to throw off each other.

Contrast_Autumn

Ugh.

For our last two, let’s look at a few things I have seen recently. In What Happened To Monday, the bad guy is Glenn Close’s “Child Allocation Bureau” head, who takes illegal siblings from their families and puts them into cryogenic storage as a sort of a plan to stop overpopulation. It’s…a bit silly. And Close’s character isn’t a good antagonist, and she doesn’t contrast well with the sisters who end up opposing her. She’s a power-hungry hypocrite and the sisters are more reserved, hoping only to survive. But beyond that, Close is in the film so little that there is hardly any chance to form any other kind of contrast, especially one of any deeper level.

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Hila…I mean…

Lastly, I recently had the chance to re-watch X-Men: The Last Stand, that disappointing conclusion of the original X-Men trilogy. The film is so narratively incoherent that it’s a bit hard to seperate the heroes out to find one clear antagonist, but I guess that it really should be Wolverine, opposed by, naturally, Magneto. Magneto wants a future for mutant-kind, even if takes force to achieve, and Wolverine wants to…save Jean Grey I guess? As part of that weird romantic triangle sub-plot those first three films were blighted with? And sure, the cult-like leader Magneto and the lonesome Wolverine have that natural contrast, but the film isn’t interested in doing much exploring of other, deeper, contrasts, at any other point in the production.

Contrast_Magneto.png

“Ahhhhhhh”

So, that’s contrasts. But of course, in order for this relationship to work, there can’t just be contrasts, there must also be a level of parity. And that equality is what we will discuss next.

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Ireland’s Wars: Loos

In the aftermath of the failed offensives of earlier in 1915, and as thousands of Allied troops were fighting and dying in the futile Gallipoli effort, the British and French armies made one more attempt to force a breakthrough on the western front. This particular attack allows us the opportunity to look at one of the non-Ireland based named Irish units of the British Army, and their role in yet another Allied failure.

It was September, and the French were trying their luck in the Artois sector for the third time, and John French was pressured to make the BEF contribute their own offensive in support. The chosen ground would be in and around the town of Lens, around 20 miles south of Ypres. French was unimpressed with the directive from above, feeling that the German held high ground of the coal slags (it was a mining area) and intelligence about defences in depth made the location a disaster waiting to happen, but was over-ruled by men like Secretary for War Kitchener. They felt that the situation was better than it may have appeared, and they had a trump card to overcome the German defences: the first British deployment of poison gas weapons. Six British divisions, some of them new to the front, were thrown into the battle on the 25th of September. Three of them were Irish.

First there was the London Irish. They had first come into being during the Victorian era of militia recruitment as the “28th Middlesex (London Irish) Rifle Volunteer Corps”. The Irish diaspora meant that every city in Britain had some form of Irish community, and London was no exception, and there was no bar to such a unit, of obvious nationality in its background, from being formed. Several others were formed for the First World War, and we will discuss them in time.

The London Irish sent a small company to fight in the Boer War, before being made part of the Territorial Force, the established reserve element of the British military, in 1908. The 1st battalion of the London Irish were mobilised shortly after the initial declaration of war, and was sent to the front as soon as they were ready, part of the London Territorial Division.

The line of advance for them was in the land between Lens and the smaller settlement of Loos, from which the battle would gain its name. The British forces released their clouds of gas, and the London Irish followed, essentially leading the way. A popular story has the London Irish kicking a football ahead of them as they went, and cheering every time it went into an enemy trench, but it is unclear how much of this is true and how much of it is a popular invention.

What is true is that despite the German fire – for the gas was unreliable, as always, and the artillery bombardment had failed again – the London Irish hit their objectives, pushing the Germans back from their front-line trench, and then two more support trenches behind, before pushing into Loos itself. They were eventually forced to consolidate in the third German trench line, something that amounted to rapidly using what was to hand to make for a haphazard defence, like moving fire steps and parapets from one side of the trench to the other.

Elsewhere, the Royal Munster Fusiliers’ 2nd battalion was also involved in the attack, suffering from the fact that a turn in the wind resulted in the British gas rolling back over British soldiers, causing many casualties and mass confusion at a critical moment of the planned advance. This was before they had even got going: some of the Munster companies resorted to climbing out of support trenches in an attempt to get through the backlog, and were cut down by German fire. Their resulting attack at Bois Carre was easily repulsed.

On the 27th the newly raised second battalion of the Irish Guards were involved in another disastrous attack at a placed dubbed “Chalk-Pit Wood”. The larger brigade was tasked with attacking the wood – a very small arrangement of blasted trees at this point – and establishing defensive positions on the east side, and while they accomplished the first part easily enough, they found the chalky ground difficult to dig into. When the Germans counter-attacked, nearly the whole battalion was forced back, save for a small amount that held grimly on in the north-east of the wood. The effort to rescue them resulted in the original line being re-captured, but no more gains were possible, and after a day and night of holding the line, the Guards were relived. Among the casualties of their endeavour was a Lieutenant John Kipling, son of Rudyard.

The London Irish, and the other units that had made gains, were left pitifully unsupported, as confusion in the high chain of command meant held back reserves took an age to be committed, and by the time that they were, the chance of a decisive breakthrough was gone. The Germans re-organised and counter-attacked, and so the Loos offensive became little more than a brutal effort to hold onto another salient, with the London Irish forced to endure three hellish days in the captured trenches before being pulled back. On the 28th, the British retreated to their original positions, having taken nearly 60’000 casualties.

It was the beginning of the end for French, already under fire for his conduct thus far in the war, and who was accused of misusing his reserves. By the end of the year he was replaced by Douglas Haig.

The rest of 1915 passed relatively quietly, as the exhausted armies and deteriorating weather, not to mention the troops being wasted in Gallipoli, meant that the season for full-on offensives had passed. Of course, that doesn’t mean that people weren’t still fighting and dying, but not to the same degree that they had been before, and no more meaningful exchanges of territory took place that year. It was in this time that the first of the “New Army” divisions took their place in the line, which included the 36th (Ulster) Division and the 16th (Irish) Division. For them, the end of 1915 was a miserable time of acclimating to the rotten realities of trench warfare in winter, a mixture of flooded, dilapidated trenches, freezing weather and frequent artillery barrages. But at least there was a period, lengthy enough as it turned out, where the major attacks ceased. It wouldn’t last of course, and the spectre of 1916 loomed large.

But before we go there, we need to go back to the summer of 1915, to the southern coast of Ireland, where a critical incident occurred, one that would help to draw the last of the world’s great powers into the conflict in time.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review: What Happened To Monday

What Happened To Monday

Trailer

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The alternate title is the remarkably lazy Seven Sisters. Come on!

Ah, not too distant dystopia. The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Divergent, they are the new genre of dominance. Or, at least, maybe, they used to be? It seems like the big budget offerings from this brand of film-making have tailed off a bit in the last year or so. But not for Netflix, which is doubling down on the concept with this, and an original property to boot, one of the stars of the 2010 Blacklist. Its’s one that seems to go beyond the teenaged and move a bit more fully into the “adult” realm, not unlike last year’s Netflix offering ARQ, while retaining many of the elements that make the aforementioned film a common genre: oppressive government, assault on individuality, awkward romance sub-plots, female villains of questionable morality played by A-List Hollywood veterans…The question then is, is it any good? Or is the director of Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters the sort of guy you shouldn’t expect too much from?

In a future where humanity’s existence is under threat due to rampant over-population, the “Child Allocation Bureau”, under Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close) enforces strict “one-child” laws, where siblings are placed in cryogenic storage until Earth’s problems are resolved. When Terrence Settman’s (Willem Dafoe) daughter dies giving birth to identical septuplets, he raises the children himself in secret, naming them after the days of the week, and forcing them to share the same public persona one day at a time. 30 years later, the family (Naomi Rapace) is thrown into crisis when the eldest, Monday, goes missing.

What Happened To Monday already had a difficult battle with me before the film started, because I found its trailer goofy and the overall premise, outlined in a rush of establishing narration early on, a bit hard to swallow. And what followed on was not all that great either, a tonally diverse experience that struggled, like the characters it was depicting, to find an identity of its own and stick with it.

What Happened To Monday wants to be a high concept sci-fi classic: something akin to Children Of Men maybe, just in reverse, an eerie look at a possible future where ethically quandaries presented by overpopulation must be tackled, from both an intensely personal and impersonal viewpoint. Here, the film suffers from the fact that it all seems so tired – as stated, this film has a lot in common with the rest of the genre – and that the high concept needs to be twisted and turned in order to make any sense: siblings are outlawed in this world not because of just bog-standard overpopulation, but because global warming caused food shortages and the GMO equivalents hade the side effect of increasing fertility, leading to lots of septuplet cases, and are you series? You can’t just stick with “overpopulation” as your thing? Indeed, there’s a certain conspiracy strain running throughout What Happened To Monday, that is a tad unpalatable, like the aforementioned swipe at GMO’s and the fact that the evil faceless government is the “European Federation”, like the producers had a Brexit feeling and wanted to make something of it.

The commentary on fascism also seems rather trite. It’s not clear whether What Happened To Monday is trying to say that the evils of a one-child policy – a complex issue treated with all the grace and subtly of a sledgehammer here – inevitably leads to a fascistic government, or if a one-child policy is an inevitable consequence of such a government, or if the one-child stuff is just something that happens to be occurring alongside a fascistic government. Either way, fascism is here, and you don’t need to worry too much as to why and how.

But beyond our glimpses of this particular dystopia, and once things have been established, What Happened To Monday suddenly turns into a Bourne-esque action thriller, replete with gruesome blood splatters, kinetic hand-to-hand gun kata and chase sequences of one against many. This change really does just come out of nowhere, as if halfway through filming they realised that what they had might not be enough to hold the audience’s attention, and suddenly the aforementioned sisters are shooting places up and diving out of windows. While the sudden injection of action is not necessarily a bad thing, it still felt altogether undeserved.

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Glenn Close’s villain lacks…everything. Time, character, believablity.

What Happened To Monday probably works best as an identity crisis move, a character study of seven individuals obliged to play a single part. You get the feeling that the film was probably first pitched as just this, as something more akin to Ex_Machina perhaps, than what it has turned out like. There is something genuinely enticing in depicting seven sisters going through the motions of a single role, trying to maintain their own individuality in a world where their very existence is the crime, and not just their individuality itself. Monday is the smart one – maybe a little bit too smart for her own good – then another is an introverted computer expert, another is a flirtatious partygoer, another is a tightly wound fighter, and so on and so forth.

But the film has too many sisters to cover and too many different things it wants to do with them, for this to be a study of a unique family structure. It comes down largely to surface details really, and you can’t help but think that a slightly more conservative approach, with less sisters, may have yielded better results. As it is, it’s actually hard to tell the sisters apart sometimes, in an unintentional way, and any possibility of looking at the dichotomy between a unified public persona and a fractured private one is squandered.

And there’s also a really thrown together romantic angle to the film as well, that only comes into play in the second half of the production, that ties into the industry crisis element of proceedings, but is so rushed that it largely failed to pop.

Of course, What Happened To Monday has another Achilles heel, namely Naomi Rapace. This should be an actors dream role: the chance to play seven inter-connected but different parts in the one production, with the chance to bring something a bit different to each one. And while Rapace isn’t terrible, she still isn’t up to the task here. Too many of the sisters are the exact same in every delivery, facial expression or action: only the hair colours and glassware tends to change, in lieu of the actor leaving her mark. Not that Rapace has a great deal to work with here, as What Happened To Monday isn’t scripted particularly well to begin, with much of the sisters dialogue feeling like it was translated from another language, and the life of Karen Settman, working for a nameless corporation that doesn’t appear to do…anything, nothing to get all that swept up by.

The supporting players, what few of them exist, can only do so much. Willem Dafoe and Glenn Close have been added here just to bring any kind of gravitas, and sure, they can do that, to a point. But Dafoe only has limited flashbacks, and Glenn Close’s villain is sort of  Cruella Daville without the camp: a person out to imprison children as part of a political power grab, and playing the hero while doing so. She’s also only in the film for around five minutes, not enough time to make a true impact. She has a certain kind of Hilary Clinton vibe to her as well, and you start to wonder just what kind of politics the writers and director are bringing with them.

What Happened To Monday stutters and stumbles along, until it reaches a finale that takes over two agonising hours to arrive, hoping, perhaps, that two twists in the third act might keep you entranced. But the twists are the sort of thing any reasonable person will see coming from a mile off, and do nothing to enhance an otherwise painfully stretched out narrative.

Tommy Wirkola’s direction is solid, if uninspiring. The deliberately drab surrounds and greying colour palette of Bucharest do their part to set the mood as suitably oppressive, without carrying the kind of notoriety that made The Hunger Games exceptional, or without the detail that made Children Of Men interesting. The fight scenes are shot in dim lighting, probably to cover up its inadequacies of chorography, and what sci-fi stuff exists is of the basic variety, little more than what you would expect of a garden-variety Doctor Who episode. And why, in this unnamed European metropolis, does everyone speak with a different accent?

In the end, What Happened To Monday feels like a film that thinks it is far more thoughtful, provocative and intelligent than it actually is. It wants to depict a dark future where morality is thrown out the window in service of a vague “Greater Good” but the execution is so comically over the top that the film appears as much cartoonish as serious. Its lead doesn’t have the chops to pull it all together, and the tonal shifts mean you feel like you are watching four different films in the two-hour span, none of them quite good enough to justify the whole enterprise. A lot of effort, for little result. Not recommended.

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You don’t want to know.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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Ireland’s Wars: The Gallipoli Debacle

The established Irish regiments of the British Army had been battered and bloodied in the Gallipoli landings, with the larger effort floundering on isolated beachheads, that soon closer resembled the trenches of the western front than the more mobile affair that the planners had initially hoped for.

Even worse, the sweltering weather and necessity of supplying the allied forces via the sea, meant that Gallipoli trench life carried extra perils, in the form of clouds of flies, rapidly-spreading disease unique to that kind of battlefield, and other sickness brought by unclean drinking water. Not to mention, of course, the guns and bombs of the Turkish defenders. The Irish regiments, such as the “Dubster” amalgamation of Munster and Dublin Fusiliers, were spending their time withstanding Turkish counter-attacks, and occasionally making very limited, and often pointless, advances of their own. The Turks were well prepared and committed to the defence.

There would surely have been thoughts of withdrawal at that stage, but instead, those in command decided to push on and put even more troops into the quagmire, in a desperate effort to break the lengthening deadlock. And into that firestorm would go the very first of the new “Irish” divisions of the British Army, raised since the beginning of the war: the 10th (Irish) Division.

The 10th, commanded by Bryan Mahon, was made up largely of the initial rush of recruits from the Irish Volunteers. In three separate brigades – the 29th, 30th and 31st – it contained new battalions of every pre-existing Irish infantry regiment: the Royal Irish Regiment, Royal Irish Rifles, Connaught Rangers, Leinster Regiment, Royal Munster Fusiliers, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and Princess Victoria’s Royal Irish Fusiliers. In the first half of 1915 they had been transferred from Ireland to a base in England ahead of an expected deployment to the western front, but the need for more troops in Turkey altered their destination.

Sir Ian Hamilton’s new plan was a grand offensive from all points of the Gallipoli positions, along with another landing, this time in Suvla Bay, which was located to the north of “Anzac Cove”. The land beyond Suvla Bay contained a salt lake/marsh before breaking into a flatter plain, ahead of more difficult high ground of the Kiretch Tepe and the Sari Bair ridge. The plan was simple enough: for the 10th and others to be used en masse to land in the bay, advance quickly, secure the Kiretch Tepe and from there have their pick of targets, like the ammunition depot at Ak Bashi, or the positions on a number of other heights. But before the 10th was even on the boats approaching the shore, the plan was altered, nominally out of the necessity of providing reinforcements to other sections of the front. What followed was a series of smaller battles as part of a larger whole.

Instead of the whole division going ashore at Suvla, the first of the Brigades, the 29th, was instead diverted to the Anzac Cove sector, where the Australian and New Zealander contingents of the MEF were again trying to increase the size of their bridgehead, going up against the positions on the Sari Bair ridge. On the 6th of August, the 29th went ashore. The initial deployment was confused but without casualties, as the Irish mingled with the more shell-shocked ANZAC’s. The Royal Irish Rifles were the first of the new units to see significant combat, sent against the Sari Bair after numerous ANZAC and Gurkha units had tried and failed. The Rifles took heavy casualties from shellfire, advanced as far as they could, dug-in and stayed in their positions for a few days, before the lack of forward impetus necessitated a withdrawal. It was a suitably muddled entry to the fighting for the new Irish regiments. Elsewhere in this section of the line, the Leinsters were placed on “Rhododendron Hill”, where they were initially the subject of heavy shelling, before going back and forth with the Turks, defending and counter-attacking in turn, in a few days of brutal bayonet-filled combat between the 9th and 11th of August.

The overall efforts to take Sari Bair ended in failure, and while that expense of life was taking place, the landing at Suvla Bay was also going ahead. The reminder of the 10th, the 30th and 31st Brigades, went ashore at “A” and “C” beaches, or at least were supposed to, before a mixture of bad planning and poor seamanship resulted in them clamouring ashore in the wrong position. The battalion commanders, landing in darkness and having been inadequately briefed ahead of a time by the absent General Mahon, were left bereft of guidance.

The 6th battalion of the Innikillings, at “C” beach, were almost immediately under artillery fire, before they were moved inland to tackle “Chocolate Hill”. They first had to move through the salt lake/march, that was infested with Turkish snipers, before forcing the enemy out of a gully ahead of the actual hill. Chocolate Hill proved too much for the “Skins” alone, with the battalion ignorant of both the extent of the incline and the strength of its artificial defences. They were able to consolidate what they had gained though, having taken over a hundred casualties in the process.

The division’s contingent of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and Royal Irish Fusiliers were also landed at “C” Beach and also took part on the overall assault on Chocolate Hill, and beyond onto other defended heights. They are credited with the final taking of Chocolate Hill on the 8th of August, before being diverted to hold positions at Green Hill, where the poor quality of the existing trenches meant inadequate cover from Turkish shelling. However, a further assault on the fearsomely named “Scimitar Hill” was beyond the 10ths ability.

The rest of the 10th was supposed to be at “A” Beach, but the actual location they had landed in was soon re-named “A Beach West” to belatedly cover for the fact that it was the wrong place. The beachhead was a mess of confused battalions with no clear idea of how to proceed, with the Royal Munster battalions eventually taking the initiative and advancing up the Kiretch Tepe, as far as they could, before being checked by intense Turkish fire. The British were unable to make adequate headway.

Indeed, in every part of Allied held Gallipoli, barely any kind of significant gains were being made. On the 13th of August the Inniskillings went against the Kiretch Tepe and were similarly repulsed with loss, with over 350 casualties. The 7th battalion of the Munsters was next to give it a try, between the 15th and 16th of August, with the 6th Dublins eventually thrown in as support, despite being reduced to less than 500 men. The Royal Irish Fusiliers were also engaged nearby: between them all, they finally took the summit, but were then obliged to withstand repeated Turkish counter-attacks, with barely any more ground gained. Life there became a grim schedule of holding the line, relief back a small way to the beachhead, before being rotated back to the front, with water supplies continually low and disease soon running rampant.

On the 20th, the 1st Inniskillings were redeployed to be thrown against Scimitar Hill, where they lost over 600 of the 5’300 British casualties taken in the effort to uproot the Turks from their positions. The Skins’ efforts that day became legendary, but were ultimately futile. The day after, in the Anzac sector, the Connaught Rangers were thrown against “Hill 60”, gaining ground at an astonishing rate, before going too far and being cut down in droves by well-placed machine guns. That particular battalion of the Rangers almost ceased to exist in a week of back-and forth fighting.

Such was the nature of the Autumn offenseives, dozens of bloody attacks that accomplished remarkably little. The new assaults finished up without any major overall success, and certainly without the breakthrough that Hamilton and Churchill and all the others would have hoped for. The experiences of the 10th’ coincided with a messy change of command structure, as Mahon briefly resigned his Generalship over a dispute about his immediate superior, even as his men were fighting and dying on the Gallipoli heights.

While it was not immediately apparent, the Gallipoli operation was all but done, though it would take an agonising number of months for the final withdrawal to go ahead, during which time the British and imperial forces remained in place, stuck in the limited ground that would eventually cost over 180’000 men to have gained. Despite Hamilton’s requests, there was little appetite for continuing to throw men and material into the area, especially with the continuing bloodshed on the western front, that more critical area that required reinforcements ahead of the next campaigning season. French appetite for Turkish adventures was waning, and Bulgarian entry to the war, on the Central Powers’ side, meant that German supply of the Ottomans would be easier than ever.

The 10th was one of the early evacuees, being transferred to the Salonika area of operations, where the Allies were trying to buttress the failing military efforts of Serbia and maintain another front against the Central Powers, with decidedly mixed results; a story for another day. For the others, they had to stay in place, as the blistering summer heat turned to howling wind, freezing rain and even icy blizzards, that introduced the dangers of frostbite and even flooding to the trenches. It was not until December that they were allowed to trudge back onto the beaches and from there to waiting Navy vessels, with the very last of the soldiers taken off the peninsula on the 9th January 1916. The evacuation was pretty much the only part of the campaign that was well-handled. For those other units, service in the rest of the Middle-East, or back at the western front, awaited.

The Gallipoli campaign’s failure had a far-reaching consequences. Apprehension and disquiet over the offensive had contributed to a change in the British government earlier in 1915, with figures like Lord Kitchener and Winston Churchill side-lined. Hamilton’s military career ended in ignominy. The Ottoman war machine was in the ascendant, attacking other British positions in the Middle-East, while any efforts to be made in the later months of the 1915 were hamstrung by the expense of men in the east. Beyond the scope of World War One, the events at Gallipoli were a major influence on the planning of amphibious operations in later wars, most notably the Normandy landings in 1944: a real “What not to do” sort of guide.

For the Irish, the pre-existing regiments and the new, Gallipoli was a nightmarish exercise in futility they now had to do their best to put behind them. 1916 would have its own butchers bill, but, for those on the western front, 1915 still had more fighting to get through.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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The Villain Checklist: Sympathetic/Compelling

Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word,–legitimate!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!

-Edmund, King Lear, Act One Scene Two

The next entry is one of the least important in terms of traditional story-telling, but one of the most critical when it comes to crafting memorable characters. You can have a bog-standard villain who enters, cackles madly, gets defeated and departs from the stage having accomplished their purpose of being an obstacle. Or, you can try and do something a little different. You can try, as William Shakespeare did for Edmund above, my favourite character in my favourite play, to make your antagonist a little sympathetic, or at least a little compelling. And thus:

Sympathetic/Compelling – The villain should be, even in just a very minor and maybe fleeting sense, somewhat sympathetic or compelling to the audience.

The truly great villains will be over-flowing with this concept, and we’ll take a look at a few examples in just a moment. For now, let’s consider how to make a villain sympathetic, or compelling, and the difference between the two.

Sympathy is simply that: that the audience recognises that the bad guy has a point in his/her own motivation, that he/she is justified, somewhat at least, in what they are doing. Occasionally however, the villain’s actions are alien or abhorrent that it is impossible to sympathise with them, but in that event they can still be compelling: they can command your attention and your interest through a combination of charm, of mystique, or simply being interesting.

Sympathy is certainly the easier of the two to manage. For this, the villain’s backstory, motivation and their earlier actions all need to work in concert. They typically need to be separated from the hero to some extent for this to work – often the case in superhero films I find – and to have been wronged in some fashion, by a third party who will also be an element in the story. They will seek redress, and while their manner of doing so will eventually reach a point where it can no longer be deemed acceptable by the protagonist characters, it’s still enough that the audience is left thinking “Yes, I get this”.

And it should be noted that there is a difference between sympathy and understanding. We can easily understand why a villain does what they do, but sympathy goes beyond that, into the realm of actually wanting them to succeed, even if it’s only a little bit.

“Compelling” is different, in that it is more a task of performer and writer than that of narrative. This is charm, this is fascination, this is interesting: this is a character that we, the audience, want to follow around, simply because they have that charm, are fascinating, are interesting. This is a real Je ne sais quoi situation, but you know it when you see it. And a villain can be compelling without being sympathetic, and vice-versa, and indeed he/she often has to settle for one or the other.

Of course, the time has to come when the sympathy stops, and we are no longer compelled. We still need the hero to prevail, and while it isn’t all that bad for the audience to have some doubts about the hero, by the time that the resolution comes we should know for sure where our true sympathies lie. Anything else is a failure of film-making.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

The quote at the beginning of this post is what I always think of when this concept comes up. There are a few antagonists in King Lear of course, but Edmund is by far the most interesting in my eyes, simply because, on the outset, he is sympathetic. He’s the bastard son of a gullible moron, and the bastard brother of a gullible moron. Trying to usurp their position is a villainous act, but as Edmund outlines so eloquently, his station in life, set by societal and religious norms, is unfair, and does not take into account his own very real talents. An audience can sympathise with that, and with Edmund’s antipathy towards his father who doesn’t really treat his son properly. Edmund, when played right, can be compelling too, typically treated as a charming, confident young man in productions, who spins people around his finger if he isn’t busy seducing them. Eventually, Edmund does go too far, getting caught up in conspiracies that end with mutilation, death and treason: and it can be debated how culpable Edmund is in how things turn out at the conclusion. Yet, even at the end, Edmund does as much as can, despite his own nature, to be redeemed in the eyes of those that he has wronged.

Sympathetic_Edmund

Yet Edmund was beloved…

We can also take a look at another villain from the same production to demonstrate when sympathy or some kind of compulsion is not evident, or is not supposed to be. Oswald is the manservant of Goneril who helps her in her evil schemes: he has almost no redeeming qualities beyond his own basic loyalty to his mistress. He’s petty, a liar and potential murderer, and never does anything that can be realistically described as sympathetic or compelling. Of course, this isn’t a problem because, as we have said, it isn’t strictly necessary for villains to be either of the things that we discussed, and certainly I would hold to the view that there is only room in the production for one sympathetic villain.

Sympathetic_Oswald

This is the first image I found for the guy.

We should also look back to our frequent subjects, the antagonists of A New Hope and The Phantom Menace. Vader in Episode IV has little to him in terms of sympathy – that will come later, for sure – but he still has an obvious compelling quality to him. His look, his attitude, his actions, his sublime confidence and mastery of his art, they all combine to make the audience take a certain shine to Vader, even if it goes little beyond a sort of twisted fascination with this odd being. Star Wars would build up to the moment that we start to have sympathy with Vader, but his compelling elements are enough in A New Hope.

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“Why don’t you like me, huh!?”

On the other side of things is Maul in The Phantom Menace, a villain without sympathy, for sure, lacking any kind of meaningful backstory, or way for the audience to connect with him. Is he compelling? To a certain extent I would argue, though it doesn’t really move beyond surface details. The audience may briefly be compelled to think more of Maul due to his horns, his weird skin colour, or the double-lightsaber, but that’s pretty much all it is. Even before he gets cut in half, it’s plain that Maul, as a character, isn’t really going anywhere fast, and certainly nowhere that would have us sympathising with his actions or considering him compelling. The lack of words is a big issue there, as is the general feeling that Maul is little more than plot obstacle with a name.

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A real sympathetic guy, that Maul.

The one example that often pops up in people’s heads when this comes up is Heath Ledger’s Joker, naturally. The sympathy comes for him in small bits, mostly, as you consider any of his two possible backstories, horrific tales that easily make you think a bit differently about this particular Clown Prince of Crime. Whether he was the subject of terrible domestic abuse as a child or fell into a stress-induced mania later (or both), The Dark Knight takes just a little bit of time to make us think twice about the Joker and where he came from, though it never goes as far as full-on sympathy. But in terms of being compelling, the Joker is a true stand-out: his every line, action and facial twitch combines to produce a villain that was a bigger star of the story than the titular crimefighter, someone memorable, hypnotic and altogether entrancing. You don’t get much more compelling villains than The Dark Night’s Joker.

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The demented aren’t the only minds he attracts.

The superhero genre is, naturally, littered with much worse examples. Take Malekith from Thor: The Dark World, a guy whose backstory and experiences do combine to produce something that could verge on sympathy, or at least understanding. He’s the leader of a dying race, all but wiped out in a war with Asgard. But it falls apart quickly with any real thought: Malekith was engaged in a war to essentially destroy the universe, and choose to push the self-destruct on his own people rather than accept defeat. He’s just sort of a double-dickhead then, a guy who wants to screw the rest of the universe while using his own people as pawns. And Malekith lacks any kind of compelling nature, being written and played in a dour, dark fashion, with too much to do in terms of competing with Loki for the audiences’ attention. The Dark World has to get its fun villains elsewhere then, and Malekith, nominally the main antagonist, is just sort of there as well.

Sympathetic_Malekith

At least he looks creepy.

The Operative of Serenity is another interesting case study. It wouldn’t be right to say he is sympathetic throughout the course of the film, though the more soft-hearted among us may feel a genuine pang at the finale, as his entire world view crumbles around him. Overall, whatever the strength of the Operative’s belief in that which he serves, he still does things too out of kilter with moral norms to be considered sympathetic. But compelling? Yes, I think so. The dichotomy inherent in the Operative: a man who claims to only want a “better world” while killing children to achieve it – is fascinating in itself, and Chewitel Ejiofor’s performance is also magnetic enough to attract out interest. This is topped off by the Operative’s turn at the conclusion of the film, wherein he performs a volte face that may stretch the bounds of believability, but ultimately just serves to make him more interesting.

Sympathetic_Operative

“Mal, I’m a monster…”

Lastly, as is my custom, I’d like to take a moment to discuss the antagonist of the last film I watched, although that is a little difficult on this occasion. One of Death Note’s problems is that it has no really clear villain force: is it Light himself, because he can’t get a handle on the power that he has? Is it Mia, because her bloodlust is a little bit more advanced? Is the puppet-master of the entire affair, the death-Shinigami Ruyk? Or is L, the detective out to unearth the identity of “Kira”, the actual opposing force of a film that wants us to view Light as the hero? Who’s the say really. None of these characters attracts the audiences sympathy at any point, as they verge between outright homicidal mania and more low-intensity sociopathy. Some are certainly compelling: Ruyk is an interesting addition to the cast as an otherworldly force with unclear intentions, and L, despite the ridiculous backstory, is also a bit fascinating. But it’s all in fits and starts, bits and pieces, and Death Note meanders in half-baked philosophical musing when it should be focusing on the tightening up its narrative structure.

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He can’t be the villain! His name is light!

That does it for the traits of the villain. Over the next couple of entries, we’re going to move beyond the villain character itself, and instead broaden our scope to discuss the critical relationship in any work of fiction: that between the antagonist and the protagonist, both in terms of their actual interactions, and the narrative subtext of their relationship.

 

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Ireland’s Wars: The Gallipoli Landings

In the run-up to the First World War, both the Entente and the Central Powers vied for the support of the Ottoman Empire, the massive political structure that nominally dominated Turkey and the Middle-East. In reality, the Ottoman’s had been the infamous “sick man” for some time now, the Empire struggling to keep itself together amid numerous independent movements springing up within its borders, most notably in Turkey itself. Even with those problems though, the Ottoman’s were a potential goldmine in terms of alliances, controlling the narrow Straits of the Dardanelles, the Mediterranean Sea route to Tsarist Russia.

Where once they had shown favour to Britain, by the time the war began in Europe the Ottoman’s were more or less in the German camp, Kaiser Wilhelm’s army sending advisors and ships to boost their Turkish counterparts. On October 31st 1914, they joined the war opening, carrying out offensives against Russia in the Caucuses and allowing their German commanded Navy to seal up the Dardanelles.

By 1915, with the western front at stalemate, numerous Allied figures, most notably perhaps Winston Churchill, conceived an ambitious and daring offensive, to assault the Dardanelles, open the straits and send a combined navy and army force to capture Constantinople, opening up the seaward approach to Russia and potentially knocking the Ottoman’s out of the war in one fell swoop. The operation also had the potential to get some of the Balkan powers involved in the war on the Allied side, leaving Germany and Austria-Hungary surrounded. The impetus for the plans was boosted by the general Allied opinion of the Turkish military, thought to be under-trained and unlikely to withstand any kind of forward assault for long. As long as the Allies could maintain the element of surprise, a quick sharp attack on the Dardanelles could be the pivotal moment of the war.

The Allies critically under-estimated their opponents. While the Turkish armies were generally in a bad state compared to their neighbours, German training and commanders were helping immensely. The German general for the coming campaign, Liman von Sanders, was no pushover, and his main Turkish subordinate, Mustafa Kemal, was to become a potent symbol for the burgeoning Turkish nationality. Moreover, the Allied leaders simply forgot the basic fact of warfare, that even the most ill-trained rabble can win a battle if they fight on the defensive, in well-prepared positions and with decent leadership.

The failure to adequately account for all of this would be paid by numerous units of the British and French military. Initially, the only regular division available for the campaign was the 29th, that comprised battalions of the Royal Munster, Inniskilling and Royal Dublin Fusiliers, which set sail for the straits in mid-March. By the time they arrived, that crucial element of surprise was lost when the Royal Navy attempted and failed to force the straights themselves, losing a number of ships to Turkish guns and mines. In April, the 29th was in Alexandra, acclimatizing with the commander of the “Mediterranean Expeditionary Force”, Sir Ian Hamilton, who have we noted before for his service in the Second Boer War. They were joined by the “ANZAC” portion of the army, volunteers from Australia and New Zealand, along with a French contingent. All the while, expecting a renewed attack, this time with infantry, the German advised Turks were preparing defensive fortifications on the Gallipoli peninsula of the Dardanelles. Gallipoli was a defensive minded general’s dream, with numerous natural strongpoints, steep bluffs and potential landing points that would command a wide field of fire.

The Allied plan was overly simple. The 29th was to land on numerous beaches on the very tip of the Gallipoli peninsula, Cape Helles, while the ANZAC’s went ashore further up the coast. The French would launch divisionary attacks elsewhere, and the whole operation would be supported by the guns of the Allied navies. Once the footholds were established, the infantry would move forward, capturing the numerous forts that dotted the passage, and the Navy would then be free to move through the straits. All going well, and if the reports of Ottoman military incapability were true, the Allies would soon be marching victoriously for Constantinople.

On the 25th of April, the first troops went ashore, starting with the ANZAC’s, who almost immediately ran into trouble after landing too far north. They would secure roughly 2km’s worth of a beachhead before finding any further advance impossible in the face of the well-entrenched Turks, losing 2’000 men – and starting a national legend – in the process.

For the Irish regiments, it was the Cape Helles landings that concerned them, the five beaches named alphabetically as S, V, W, X and Y beaches. For the Inniskillings, their landing at X beach on the morning of the 25th went as smoothly as could be hoped against relatively light resistance. Over the next few days, they were involved in a few difficult operations, trying to spread out the beachhead and support the operations of other regiments. On the night of the 1st May, the Turks launched a daring night-time assault of the Innsikilling trenches, that resulted in a bloody, bayonet filled conflict, where the “Skins” sent the enemy packing, but not without loss. They were reduced to drawing up a trench line to defend the scrap of the peninsula they had been able to take. They were lucky enough in these opening exchanges. It was the Dublin and Munster regiments who would walk into a bloodbath.

They were tasked with V beach. Here, to the south, the Turkish defenders controlled significant high ground, including an imposing fort called Sedd-el-Bahr that overlooked the proposed beachheads. If you’re wondering why the British decided on such an unlikely spot for a landing, remember their belief that the very sight of enemy troops, combined with the artillery, would be enough to send the white flags flying.

Some of the troops tasked with taking the beach would head to land on row-boats, but 2’000 of them would instead attempt to disembark from the SS River Clyde, a former collier ship. The plan was for the River Clyde to operate as a “trojan horse” ship, filled with men and then deliberately run aground as close to the shore as possible, whereupon troops would swarm out of specially cut hatchways in the ship and scramble over a series of semi-improvised lighters to the beach itself. If you haven’t figured it out just yet, the exact particulars of the Gallipoli landings were figured out in a rush of planning, and many men were about to pay for that lack of preparation.

Accompanied by a bombardment from the Navy, the Clyde beached without serious incident, but as soon as troops began to disembark in earnest, the defenders opened up. The Munsters were coming from the Clyde, with the Dublins mostly in smaller boats: all now came under withering rifle and machine gun fire. The British soldiers had nothing to aim back at, and precious little cover. As such, the Turks were essentially able to sweep back and forth with their guns, and a massacre was the result.

Many of the Dubliners boats were completely annihilated, left to drift back out to sea. Others desperately rowed as hard as they could, with infantry taking over from downed Navy men, only to find next to no cover on the beach anyway. Others took their chances in the water a bit too quickly, and were dragged to their deaths by the weight of their own equipment, or tangled up in barbed wire emplacements the Turks had left below the waterline.

For the Munsters, disembarking from the River Clyde was no less deadly, with the lighter-bridge cut to pieces and ruined very quickly. Of the first 200 men to leave the Clyde, maybe 180 were casualties in seconds. Men took to diving directly into the water from the ship, there to struggle with their equipment, the tide, and the bullets. A Dublin company in the River Clyde was one of the last to actually leave the vessel, and suffered a similar fate to all of the others.

A scrap of men, Dublins and Munsters, managed to get to the shore and find a rudiment of cover, making an incredibly brave but futile effort to advance into the fort. After a few hours, scraps of other units were similarly ashore, eventually numbering maybe 200 in number, able to do little more than huddle behind sand dunes and listen to the carnage around them. They faced a lengthy day among the dead and dying, waiting for the cover of nightfall before any other move could be contemplated. The few left in the Clyde after the last of the assaults had been sent forward could do little than withstand the peppering shots of the Turkish defenders and wait for further instructions. When night did come, what men could now be organised on the beach were able to establish more formal outposts. Of their roughly thousand strong contingent, each, both the Munsters and Dublins lost over 600 dead or wounded.

The following day, the Irish regiments were obliged to pick themselves up and forge on with whatever they had to hand, the Munsters and Dublins coalescing into a formation that would become known as the “Dubsters”. Together they engaged in a brutal attack on the Sedd-el-Bahr fort, where Turkish defenders held for a time, counter-attacked and then were eventually pushed back, enacting a price in blood for every step. By the evening of the 26th, the Irish and other British forces at V Beach could do no more, and a ragged trench line was established.

And so, instead of the triumphant advance on Constantinople that so many had envisioned, the fighting in the Dardanelles became little more than an amalgam of what was taking place in Europe. On the tip of the peninsula and around “ANZAC Cove”, the Allies dug-in. Soon, more Irish would be on their way to join them.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review: Death Note

Death Note

Trailer

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Ogady bogadie

I have not read a jot of Death Note, the famous Japanese manga series that has already been the inspiration for a number of animated movies and shows. In college sci-fi, fantasy and anime circles, it was always something that I was aware of, but never had any particular interest in, my encounters with Japanese fiction extending to little more than Cowboy Bebop and Trigun. I knew that there was a book that can kill people, a death god and all manner of strange hairstyles. And my awareness of this property would probably have gone little further, but for this Netflix offering, that has already garnered a great deal of negative press ahead of its release, for all of the predictable reasons: whitewashing claims, apparent departures from the source material, etc.

But I feel that someone in my position, having only a bare knowledge and little attachment to the source material, is better placed than some to offer an assessment of 2017’s Death Note, brought to us by director Adam Wingard. Netflix films have been a bit off and on as of late and this is another sort-of Hail Mary pass in terms of the kind of output they are looking to champion. So, was Death Note a suitable introduction to the world of this manga for someone like me, or was it just another forgettable western adaptation of something we don’t have the understanding of to do it justice?

Maladjusted high schooler Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is chosen by death God Ryuk (Willem Dafoe) to be the new bearer of the “Death Note”, a supernatural notebook that has the power to kill anybody whose name is written in it. Determined to use his new power to be a force for good, Light embarks on a killing spree of morally dubious people, encouraged by dark-minded girlfriend Mia (Margaret Qualley). Things spiral out of control however, as Light’s “Kira” persona becomes the focus of a law enforcement manhunt, headed by mysterious detective “L” (Lakeith Stanfield).

This film is…strange. And not strange in the way that Wingard presumably wants it to be. Throughout the course of its 98-minute running time – feeling twice the length if I’m being honest – Death Note wavers between different kinds of tone and story, and never does anything near enough to fix the gaping hole at its very heart, namely the problems of the nominal protagonists.

I mean, there is absolutely something potentially quite fascinating here, and I have no problem buying the popularity of the larger property. Ordinary person gest extraordinary powers, and has to figure out what to do with them, if anything. In this case, it’s literally the difference between life and death. Giving a nihilistic teenager the power of a God: it’s ripe for interesting explorations of deified morality, the positive limits of vigilantism and good old human tendencies to give in to temptation.

But there are two major problems. The first is that both Light and his creepy love interest Mia, are awful people, whiny, entitled teenagers who get a thrill from murdering strangers half-way around the globe, barely stopping to question whether they should or not, and they play the persecuted minority when the tables are turned later on. Their relationship a poisonous puppy dog affair, poorly written and poorly executed on-screen (a rain swept “I love you” scene is beyond ill-placed). An apparent departure from the source material, the love plot drags Death Note down whenever it becomes the focus, and one can smell the whiff of Donnie Darko off every bit of it.

This would be OK, if the point of the film was to follow two power-tripping antagonists around, a sort of Bonnie and Clyde with supernatural magic I suppose, but Death Note instead prefers to portray Light as a good ol’ protagonist, especially as the film rounds the corner and moves into its third act, running from Johnny Law and trying to prevent a series of catastrophes. He has a troubled backstory – a mother killed by a well-connected mobster who got off scot-free, educators who don’t understand him,  a distant father – which is apparently supposed to explain his bloodlust, but at the end of the day it feels like a narrative effort to excuse his mass-murder, when the film should be embracing the concept.  I suppose what Wingard may be going for is a certain mind-scrambling with the audience trying to get you to both root for and oppose Light’s actions, but not even a lately inserted parlour room scene can do enough to unravel the threads being woven here.

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It’s stylish, at times, but that isn’t enough.

Indeed, the film is at its most interesting in its early stages with “L”, the genius detective who becomes the lead in trying to ascertain the identity of “Kira”. A police drama about a hard-nosed cop trying to stop God? There’s something to raise an eyebrow, and the cat-and-mouse game that Death Note occasionally portrays is easily its strongest element, with L playing a sort of modern-day Sherlock Holmes with his deductive reasoning and Light sulking and throwing a strop as he gets outplayed continuously. There’s your movie: a clear protagonist, a clear antagonist, albeit the “reveal” of the antagonist’s power would ruin it completely. And even L is ruined too, when we get into the details of his own origins, which are fantastical to the point of comedy.

This should be American Psycho with magic. But instead of a thoughtful character study where we see Light’s descent into megalomania, the process where he goes from having his powers to being a worshipped being world-wide is passed over in a 30 second montage. Wingard seems intent on shoving as much of the source material as he can into a feature film, when it seems clear that an elongated serial format would be better. The squashed nature of the thing means it all seems so unnatural: case in point, with supernatural murders occurring daily, none of the police characters seem all that abashed that, you know, magic is real. They simply don’t have time to, with Ryuk summing up the pacing issues by telling Light abruptly in one scene that he shouldn’t care about working out the logic of his own story.

And that’s before we get into the cultural appropriation going on. Death Note is a film that wants to have a Caucasian cast doing their thing in Portland, Oregon of all places, with 80’s pop hits littering the soundtrack, yet still also wants to keep the essential Japanese elements of the source material, that you can find in a lot of Japanese fiction. The emphasis on high-school life and the references to Japanese language, culture and mythology all abound, and just don’t fit in with the vast and the setting. It isn’t quite on a Ghost In The Shell level – Scarlett Johansson was literally playing a Japanese woman in that feature, whereas there has been an effort to transplant to the States here – but it’s still eye-catching. Break-away entirely is my advice, and have Ryuk be Satan or something similar.

The cast is trying here, but there is only so much they can do. Wolff does a passable impression of an inane teenager, but you can see him struggling in some of the more bizarrely written scenes, such as when he first meet Ryuk, and he has no kind of real spark with Qualley, who, on her own merits, actually outdoes him in the acting stakes, playing a character who you can never quite get a read on. Dafoe is easily the most noteworthy of the cast, imbuing Ryuk with a sort of supervillain-esque zany creepiness, almost certainly calling back to his role as Norman Osbourne in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies in the process. Ryuk comes across as delightfully camp, which is fine for me, but I’m given to understand that he is supposed to be a terrifying representation of a Japanese death entity, which he doesn’t really come across as here. And there’s Stanfield as L, certainly going for a kind of Cumberbatchian type thing, and largely succeeding.  Light’s bereft father, played by the under-appreciated Shea Whigham, is also worth some praise, as the most human character in a film that wants to forget any of the others are too.

Wingard at least is a good director, and Death Note pops visually, the film showcasing the blood and gust of a horror when it wants and reverting back to drama shots when it wants to as well. A glorious slow-mo scene early on depicts the gory possibilities of the titular book in probably the best constructed scene, and a chase sequence late-on is also surprisingly effective. L’s hunt for Light brings us to neo and rain-soaked set-pieces that call to Ghost In The Shell and noir influences, the detective’s spider-like stance strangely effective and the films’ grasp of montage improves as it goes along. For a director with a background in horror, those moments are limited enough in Death Note, and Wingard’s last notable effort, Blair Witch, seems far removed from this in many fundamental ways.

The visuals will not save Death Note however. It’s a mis-step on too many basic levels: the transferring of the settings, pacing, dialogue, character relationships, consistent tone, etc. The cast is, taken together, doing nothing all that special, and at the end of the day, Death Note feels like another tired western adaptation of something from outside the west, that calls to mind other disasters like Dragonball Evolution or Speed Racer. One feels that Netflix should just consider that many western audiences will accept Japanese actors and Japanese settings and subtitles, over something as humdrum and, largely, forgettable as this. Not recommended.

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Much ado about nothing (this is an obscure reference, even for me)

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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