Welcome to Creative Sensemaker, our weekly guide to all that’s best in culture and the arts – movies, streaming, books, music, galleries and much else
And so begins the age of Emerald Fennell. Some pundits were surprised yesterday by the nomination of the multi-talented British actress and screenplay writer for a Golden Globe in the Best Director category for her feature film debut, Promising Young Woman. But not those who have been following her rise to the cultural stratosphere.
At the big poker table of the entertainment industry, the ‘tell’ – the rune to be read if you were watching carefully – was Fennell’s recruitment in 2018 by Phoebe Waller-Bridge to take over as head writer for Season 2 of Killing Eve.
You’d probably recognise her from her performances in films like Anna Karenina (2012), The Danish Girl (2015) and Vita & Virginia (2019) – and almost certainly from her terrific portrayal of Camilla Parker-Bowles (née Shand) in Seasons 3 and 4 of The Crown.
But Killing Eve was Fennell’s stepping-stone to a future as a movie, stage and television mogul – a future that is now unfolding with glittering assurance (she is presently working on the book of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s new musical version of Cinderella).
Promising Young Woman, a dark comedy which Fennell also wrote and produced, stars Carey Mulligan – nominated as Best Actress in a Motion Picture – as Cassie Thomas, a young woman determined to avenge the rape and apparent suicide of her best friend. It is released on streaming services later this month: not to be missed.
As it happens, Fennell is in terrific company. Three of the five nominees for Best Director this year are women – the other two being Regina King for One Night in Miami and Chloé Zhao for Nomadland.
No less deserved, and pleasingly symmetrical, is the nomination of Emma Corrin, the break-out star of Season 4 of The Crown, in the Best Actress in a Television Drama category, for her uncanny performance as the young Princess Diana (a role that she now passes to Elizabeth Debicki in Season 5).
Meanwhile, Sacha Baron Cohen seals his claim to be the Peter Sellers of the 2020s, with a double nomination: as Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm and as Best Actor in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture for his tremendous portrayal of Abbie Hoffman in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7.
As ever, there are snubs in the nominations for the 78th Golden Globes – the first such major list for movies and television released in the year of the pandemic. Odd, for instance, that Mrs America, the magnificent ensemble account of the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment, is absent from the Best Television Series – Drama shortlist (which, mysteriously, found space for the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest prequel, Ratched).
Meryl Streep was expected to get the nod for her performance in The Prom – but will probably get over it, since she already holds the record for Golden Globes nominations (32).
Much less forgivable – indeed, infuriating – is the absence of Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, which, for my money, was the best television series of 2020. In her performance as Arabella Essiedu, and the screenplay she crafted for her fellow actors, Coel captured lightning in a bottle – the trauma suffered by a rape survivor, the daily challenges and condescensions faced by a woman of colour, the strange relationship between social media stardom and literary accomplishment.
The absence of I May Destroy You from this year’s slate is not only an omission; it is a disgrace – and one compounded by the fact that the most significant films of the year with Black ensemble casts (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Da 5 Bloods, Judas and the Black Messiah, and One Night in Miami) accrued only seven nominations in total, not one of them in the best drama picture category. For all its protestations of support for diversity and the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year, Hollywood still has a very long way to go.
The results will be announced in a mostly virtual ceremony presented by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (their fourth time as hosts) on February 28.
Published today, Jews Don’t Count by David Baddiel (TLS) is a fascinating exploration of the way in which anti-semitism is regarded by many as a lesser form of bigotry than other forms of racism or prejudice. Book now to hear him in conversation with Tortoise co-founder and editor, James Harding, on Wednesday 17 February at 18:30 GMT
Here are this week’s recommendations:
(To buy any of these books, and browse further, click on the title to go to the Tortoise Book Store.)
Out of the Ordinary: How Everyday Life Inspired a Nation and How It Can Again – Marc Stears (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press)
In the past five years, many have tried to reconcile the division in contemporary politics between the elite and the everyday, the world of political abstraction and the experience of daily existence. It will come as no surprise to those familiar with the work of Marc Stears – former chief speechwriter to Ed Miliband, now working at the University of Sydney – that he offers the best road-map yet, drawing heavily upon the progressivism of the 1940s and 1950s, and the legacy of Orwell, in search of answers. The task, Stears writes, is to work out “how tradition can be combined with progress, patriotism with diversity, individual rights with social duties, nationalism with internationalism, conservatism with radicalism.” A daunting challenge – to which this excellent book addresses itself with rigour and readability.
Detransition, Baby – Torrey Peters (Serpent’s Tail)
As the debate over trans rights and gender-critical feminism has become the third rail of cultural politics, many writers and satirists have retreated to a bunker of silence on the subject – fearful of the consequences of stepping outside the ferociously-policed parameters of permissible discourse. Full marks, then, to Peters, for jumping off the creative cliff in this joyous, humane and witty tale of Reese, a trans woman who wants a baby, Ames (formerly Amy) who has detransitioned, and Ames’s pregnant partner, Katrina. Just as Armistead Maupin did in his epic saga of gay life in Eighties San Francisco, Tales of the City, Peters presents her characters as ordinary, flawed people facing knotty, authentically modern predicaments – rather than as lifeless embodiments of ideological piety. The result is a book that is not only hugely enjoyable, but – in the truest sense – enlightening.
Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell – John Preston (Viking)
Best-known for his account of the Jeremy Thorpe affair, A Very English Scandal (2016), adapted by Russell T Davies for the BBC in 2018, and The Dig (2007) – his novelisation of the Sutton Hoo archaeological dig, now a Netflix movie starring Ralph Fiennes – John Preston has the writing talent, investigative guile and power of empathy to take on this extraordinary story. Book now to hear him in conversation with James Harding on Wednesday 10 February at 18:30 GMT.
Malcolm & Marie (Netflix, February 5)
Are there two more riveting screen actors performing today than Zendaya and John David Washington? The former has dazzled in Euphoria, directed, as in this movie, by Sam Levinson. Washington, meanwhile, has shown extraordinary range in films as different as Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018) and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020). In this black and white chamber piece, filmed by a tiny crew during the pandemic, a couple returns from a movie premiere, bicker, joke and assess the state of their relationship. If that sounds claustrophobic, it is – by design, and in clear homage to the movies of John Cassavetes. The fact that the two actors can pull this off as superbly as they do is a tribute to their respective talents, and to Levinson’s sure hand as an emerging A-list director.
ZeroZeroZero (Sky Atlantic/NOW TV)
Like Gomorrah, this series is based on a book by Robert Saviano, and packs a similar punch, tracing the international traffic in cocaine from Calabria to Mexico to the US, where Edward Leyman (Gabriel Byrne) and his daughter, Emma (Andrea Riseborough) act as brokers. Violent, ambitious in its intertwining of plotlines and anchored by the predictably excellent performances of Byrne and Riseborough, this may well be the most gripping series of the month.
News of the World (Netflix, February 10)
Nothing to do with the defunct Sunday tabloid newspaper, Paul Greengrass’s movie tells the tale of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a former Confederate officer, who now earns a crust by reading newspapers to people for ten cents a head. His threadbare existence is turned upside down when he meets Johanna (Helena Zengel in a remarkable performance), a young white girl who has apparently been raised by Native Americans. What might have been a saccharine affair is a well-paced exploration of cultural chasms and the human instinct to cross them.
Collapsed in Sunbeams – Arlo Parks
Already featured on a Michelle Obama playlist, the 20-year-old London poet and singer delivers a debut album of astonishing confidence and sophistication. There are references to Thomas Yorke and Twin Peaks in the first minutes – indicative of a deep and beguiling hinterland. The artistry of the music lies in its apparently effortless combination of a pop sensibility – the songs are seriously catchy – with a lyrical profundity that will make you listen again and again.
Franz Schubert Piano Trios: Trio Talweg
The French violinist, Sébastien Surel, Vietnam-born cellist Éric-Maria Couturier, and French-Brazilian pianist Juliana Steinbach have cultivated a distinctively eclectic sound, with roots in folk music and contemporary composition as much as the classical canon. You don’t have to be a Schubert obsessive to appreciate the lightness of touch and imagination with which this collection is infused.
Snakes and Ladders – Chip
Fresh from a very public beef with Stormzy, Chip assembles a line up of collaborators including Tiwa Savage, Stylo G, Haile, Bugzy Malone, Headie One, Movado and MoStack in this 21-track melange of rap, dancehall and grime. An ideal jump-start for those afflicted by lockdown blues.
…and recommended by Tortoise members
Tim Bale: The Interrogation (BBC Radio 4)
“Something desperately old-fashioned – a radio drama on its eighth series! Each episode is like a beautifully painted miniature, brilliantly acted as a three-hander, with the interrogators played by that old stalwart Kenneth Cranham and his junior, Alex Lanipekun, accompanied by a series of great actors.”
Skye Hallam: Living Record Festival (until 22 February)
“There are 40 shows on, and it’s been getting fantastic feedback – especially as it is supporting out of work performers who are able to maintain their creativity and incomes through the festival. Tickets are inexpensive: my show ‘Heads or Tails’ is £9 with a sharing incentive which enables you to get 25 per cent off the ticket price each time you share! (Someone will be able to watch my show for a quid.)”
Thanks, Tim and Skye. Please do keep sending your recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now.
Take care of yourselves – and each other.
Editor and Partner
Photographs Getty Images, Focus Features, Netflix, HBO, BBC, Sky