Monthly Archives: June 2021

A Passage to India

I started collecting Judy Davis movies because Russell Crowe once told someone who asked whether he wanted to be the next Mel Gibson, “No, I want to be the next Judy Davis!” I can easily see why. Her screen presence in David Lean’s epic adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India is really something – somehow her body language seems to be more pivotal in framing each shot than the camera position/angle itself.

But this little sonnet about the first 20 minutes of the film (I’m watching it piecemeal, I don’t know the ending yet!) is for Peggy Ashcroft, who plays young Adela Quested’s mother-in-law and companion on her first-ever journey abroad. Adela and her mother-in-law share a newcomer’s distaste for the blatant colonial racism under the Raj, and remark privately between themselves on the backwardness of the British authorities who form their welcoming party.

In the scene where I left off (because I couldn’t hear the dialogue over my fan – just trying to stay cool in this crazy heat wave!) Peggy Ashcroft’s character has an unexpected encounter with a young doctor (played by Victor Banerjee) whose life will become central to the story as it unfolds, at night in the ruins of a mosque abutting her son’s veranda. He rushes to stop her from setting foot inside, not realizing that she has already been courteous enough to remove her shoes. This poem is from her point of view.

If passage by steam, by post and by rail
can reunite lovers, can trusted friends
not be made of the neighbors fortune sends
these travellers – parting the painted veil?
A heatmap of garlands, a palette of dyes,
this country is bursting with artisans,
students of law and of our medicine,
dodging our taxis, avoiding our eyes.
How do you sanction the brutal disdain
of judge for defendant in England’s reign?
Liberties novel to people of caste
ring false when tea is the measure of class.
Allow me the privilege to know someone
whose race the whole Raj is at pains to shun.

Leave a comment

Filed under Acting, Dream Ensemble, Judy Davis, Poetry

Kingdom of Heaven

Kingdom of Heaven is a fitting sequel to Gladiator for Ridley Scott, with beautiful set pieces, an all-star cast and a love story that weaves its way through historical events effortlessly and ties the whole thing off very nicely in the end. Inspired by real events, it follows the story of Balian, defender of Jerusalem, and culminates in a battle won by the legendary Saladin, played with steel and panache by Ghassan Massoud.

In his first confrontation with the crusaders (not his actual first, but the first one depicted in the film), having cornered a particularly malicious mercenary in his lair at Kerak, Saladin is unexpectedly forced to stand down by the arrival of King Baldwin’s army. This is a great frustration to his men, because the mercenary in question has been harassing caravans of Muslim pilgrims, in violation of the peace King Baldwin had negotiated.

This poem, inspired by the 60th Psalm, is in the voice of a mullah played by Khaled Nabawy who, after this undecided battle, questions Saladin’s assurance that the right time and place will be chosen for victory, by him. The mullah prefers to give all credit for planning and promising victory to Allah.

God, You turned your back on us – our homes are overrun.
You exacted blood for our impieties – relent!
You made our great roads tremble, thick with infidels.
Restore what now remains of our toppled pride.
You answered our thirst for glory with harsh medicine,
You filled our cup with a bitterness that left us dry.
You gave God-fearing people a rallying cry,
a scripture of our own to teach the truth.
Will you not free your followers from Western despots?
Extend your hand in aid to answer our prayers, our oaths.
Allah has spoken, that it should be written down:
“Over the village of Asqalan let me exult,
and all the forests of Lebanon I shall measure.
Mine is Galilee, and I shall take back Ibelin,
from the fortress of Tiberius, invincible,
where the Horns of Hattin will draw blood before night falls.
The Gulf of Aqaba will do for a washbasin,
in Judea I cast off my sandals and take rest,
over Jerusalem’s gates my men shout, triumphant.”
Who will stand forth and lead us to Raynald’s lair, Kerak,
and lay siege to the sell-sword who desecrates the Hajj?
Have our men of courage quailed within sight of his walls?
Salahadin will not avenge even his own kin.
God will deliver us from these infidels’ terror,
if petitioning men for redress has been in vain.
In the name of Allah, we shall summon greater strength,
and God will give these mercenary knights a dog’s death.

Leave a comment

Filed under Directing, Poetry

Ned Kelly

The True History of the Kelly Gang is not for the faint of heart – this retelling of a famous outlaw’s tale is gritty in the extreme. Director Justin Kurzel turns the popular romance narrative of outlawry on its head with a child’s eye view of the Australian anti-hero’s origin story, a view that pulls no punches and leaves no intriguing detail of the legend unexplored.

Russell Crowe plays a major role in this origin story, as young Ned’s mentor Harry Power, leading him on his first real adventure away from home. The bushranger instills in Ned a desire to tell his own story, in his own words, in defiance of the corrupted, oppressive legal records that will dog his legacy throughout his short life.

This poem, based on the 57th Psalm, is in Ned’s voice, at the end of the road, desperately trying to set the record straight before all is lost, scribbling in a fury at the scene of a siege.

Grant me this, my son, that in good faith
I’ve written down your history myself,
for in your care my words may find safekeeping
until the plague upon our land has passed.
I call upon your duty to me, son,
for you must live, and by your works requite me.
No one else will trouble for my bones,
for those who lay me low despise us.
You must persevere – they’ll test your love.
I crouch here at bay, among dire men;
arrayed against us, soldiers hot for our blood.
Their mouths leer with malice,
knowing a mere word from them could end the likes of us.
My son, do not look to the heavens for rescue,
their glory is paramount, but we die alone.
A baited snare lay waiting for my men,
and all the while a boot pressed on our necks,
but those who dug our graves in this ambush
will join us in our deaths, as I’m a man.
My faith in my own destiny is strong,
and as I write to you, I claim my own.
Remember me as a man, and no fool’s slave.
Sing out the ballads of our land – sing loud!
Sing ditties that defame all wicked men.
Our music has the grit to rouse the dawn.
In words of my own choosing, tell my tale.
Our hymns are of a different kind out here.
No kindness ever smiled without the sting
of bitterest derision on our fates.
Though over all the one sky looms, unmoved,
and for a greater glory all are judged.

Leave a comment

Filed under Corruption, Music, Poetry, The True History of the Kelly Gang

A Jonah

(Production still courtesy of the wonderful fansite, The Dear Surprise, which I highly recommend.)

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is one of the most beautiful, captivating epic adventure movies ever made, with gorgeous cinematography and production design, an unforgettable score, and one of the most charismatic leading man duos ever to grace the silver screen.

But at the heart of the action is the story of a small ship’s crew living in close quarters at sea, trying to do a tough job while living with each other cheek-on-jowl. When the inevitable scapegoating behaviors that arise in such claustrophobic quarters take hold of the crew, even the captain is drawn into the hysteria – Jack Aubrey becomes a passive spectator on the ritual purging of the crew’s projected unconscious in the story of the Jonah.

This poem, inspired by the 56th Psalm, is in that Jonah’s voice, in a moment of desperate resignation – unwilling to flout the crew’s superstitions, even though they may cost him his own life.

Grant me grace, dear God,
when this man tramples my rights,
for all day long he presses me.
The ship’s crew mocks me day and night,
salutes like daggers flout my rank.
When in danger, I trust in God,
the Almighty – His word I praise,
and in His hands, I have no fear.
What can hardship cost my soul?
My men conspire, distort my words,
and turn all hearts against mine.
Their hatred never gives me rest,
but dogs my shadow hungrily,
and I sense they want my life.
Free me from these brutal schemers.
Bring down what wrath You may.
My shame-faced days You’ve numbered –
take my tears as well.
Count them towards the salt sea’s.
Then my detractors will cease
with a hush, the day their wind calls.
That God will claim me, I know.
In the God who called Jonah
and summoned the whale, in the Lord
I place my trust and shall not fear.
What can this ship’s crew do to me then?
I take upon myself their prayers in this.
And add to these my thanks to You.
For You preserved me on the mast,
and kept my grip from slipping,
to walk in enigmatic grace,
and feel the light a few days more.

Leave a comment

Filed under Puppy love

Javert’s suicide

There’s something terribly abrupt in Javert’s suicide, in Russell Crowe’s performance of Les Miserables, and the way the song builds logically toward its climax doesn’t fully prepare you for the impact of his leap into the void. You keep expecting an alternate ending, the way he gazes over the edge – you can tell this is not what he wants, and that he regrets it, in the Homeric sense of regret (best described in Simone Weil’s essay, The Iliad, or The Poem of Force).

It calls to mind a vignette I read recently about a suicide attempt made by a young woman who had just had a fight with her husband – she survived, and tried to wipe the blood away herself when he discovered her in the bathroom, as if to smooth things over. He screamed, and took her straight to a hospital, whence began her journey into psychiatric care.

The patient in the vignette had a genetic disorder that caused cumulative liver disease which reached a breaking point in her early 20s and predisposed her to disorganized thinking and emotional distress (Wilson’s disease). So one would think she’s not representative of suicides, on the face of it. But there’s something necessarily abrupt and unnatural about a turn to suicide, in anyone who hasn’t already been contemplating it for years. And there’s that apologetic reaction face one naturally puts on when caught red-handed after a failed attempt. It’s not insincere, it’s just abrupt.

This poem, based on the 55th Psalm, captures Javert’s thoughts in between his escape at the barricades and his confrontation with Jean Valjean in the sewers, and highlights how differently things might have turned out, if they had never met again. (But could it have ever ended that way? Could Javert have let himself fail to find Valjean?)

Stars, bend your gaze, hear my prayer,
in your firmament, smile on my plea.
If you hear me below, shine the brighter!
For in turmoil, I stagger and groan.
From the press of the enemy,
from the onslaught of reckless, foul crime,
when the scoundrels of cheapstreet take up arms
and in fury the mob seeks my life,
my breast shudders painfully,
death-terrors flood my senses,
fear sends tremors through me,
and horror of vice floods my soul.
Would I could rise like the eagle,
to soar far from here and take rest.
I would wander the mountainous deserts,
and plunge in the lakes of the highlands,
to wash away all that has touched me,
and live far from the riotous crowds.
Stars, bring your silence to bear,
for I’ve witnessed the outrages here,
criminals ceaselessly circle their prey,
and all Paris is party to mischief,
preying on those most defenseless –
chicanery governs the market square.
No rascal defies me, that I might shrug,
no hatred pursues me, that I might hide.
But you – a pillar of industry,
my equal, a full citizen,
with whom I conferred on my duties,
to whom I once gladly deferred!
May his kind meet their deaths with more haste.
Perdition should take him alive.
For they feather their nests with the spoils of crime.
I call on the stars in dismay,
and their steadiness shows me my fate.
Through the night I have dreaded the dawn
and racked my soul with questions,
for only the stars know my thoughts.
This fugitive ransomed my life,
when in battle, outnumbered, I fell,
a captive among reckless men –
inflamed by their own penury,
such malcontents flinch at no crime.
He released me behind his men’s backs,
a traitor to even his own.
His smoothness was vile as a snake’s;
in his heart he desired my death.
His words were of mercy and peace,
but he came here to take up the sword.
I can only fall back on the law,
for the laws of the heavens are firm.
They protect righteous men from the mob.
I pray that the stars intercede,
and carry him down to destruction.
Men who hide vice in their hearts
will not long outrun death’s embrace.
For myself, I must trust in the stars.

Leave a comment

Filed under Acting, Les Misérables, Music, Poetry