Download The Birds Began to Sing FREE – for five days only

For five days only The Birds Began to Sing is available to download FREE from Amazon Kindle.

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The Birds Began to Sing is a gripping, page-turning mystery novel. I drew inspiration from Agatha Christie, Daphne Du Maurier, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Susan Hill, the Bronte Sisters and Michael Crichton but I hope you will agree it is also singular and original in its own right.

Here is the blurb from the back of the novel:

When aspiring novelist Alice Darnell enters a competition to write the ending for an unfinished manuscript by late, world famous author Sasha Hawkins, it appears she might have her big break at last.

However, upon arrival at Sasha’s former home – the sinister Blackwood House – Alice is unsettled by peculiar competition rules, mysterious dreams and inexplicable ghostly visions. She begins to question her sanity as she is drawn into a terrifying web of deceit, revenge and murder.

Some review snippets:

“Mystery, drama, conspiracy theory, and some supernatural intrigue. A real page turner!” – Anonymous, Barnes and Noble.

“An excellent psychological thriller…” – Steve B, Amazon.

“Well written, poetic in places, funny at times and with a plot that will keep you turning the pages…” – Al Gibson, Amazon.

“Properly chilling…” – Alice R Brewer, Amazon.

“This was really a great read and I loved the twist. Did not expect it at all.” – Jennifer, Amazon.

The Birds Began to Sing can be downloaded FREE here. Print copies (not free, alas) can be ordered here.

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Film Review – Hidden Figures

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The Oscar nominated Hidden Figures, a true story of civil rights and the space race, is the third film in what feels like as many weeks to feature photographs of the people it is based on in the end credits. I am getting really, really annoyed at this lazy shorthand for “it’s a true story, honest”. Because the real people are invariably less good looking than their Hollywood counterparts, it bursts the cinematic bubble and if anything makes the film feel less convincing, not more. Stop trying to convince me the story is true, because I have already suspended disbelief for two hours. In this case, you had me at hello because Hidden Figures, besides this increasingly irksome cliché, is a pretty good film. If viewers want to see pictures of the real subjects, they can go online or look at a history book, but unless you are pulling a Schindler’s List (the one time bringing actors and the people they were portraying together had genuine knockout emotional punch), please, please just stop.

Annoying end credit photo montages aside, Hidden Figures does an admirable job of telling a story that deserves to be told. In the 1960s, during the space race, NASA hired several black women who were literally called “computers” to help with their calculations. These human “computers” were kept separate from their white counterparts, with segregation being very much the norm at the time. The plot focuses on three women, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). Main protagonist Katherine is a genius mathematician who winds up working with NASA big cheese Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), helping him create “maths that doesn’t exist yet” to put a man into orbit. Elsewhere Mary is determined to become an engineer, but keeps hitting brick walls when she discovers she has to study courses at a whites-only college to qualify. Dorothy, unofficial supervisor of the other black female “computers” at NASA, wants recognition of her title, but hits bureaucratic obstacles underpinned with racism in the form of Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst).

The central performances are all very good. Taraji P Henson in particular steals the film in one extraordinary moment when she explains to Harrison that there are no “coloured” bathrooms where she has been seconded, so she has to walk half a mile to take a pee. Harrison’s subsequent action (spoilt by the trailer if you’ve seen it) is a great cheer-out-loud moment. Look out for a fine supporting role for The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons too.

The story of how these three women triumph over adversity, and in the process make an extraordinary contribution to the history of the space race, is competently if unremarkably directed by Theodore Melfi. But not every film needs to reinvent the language of cinema and Hidden Figure certainly hits all the right dramatic notes, providing an absorbing and entertaining story that also has a modicum of genuinely interesting food for thought on the civil rights issue. The message of the film seems to be that the way to confront injustice is not through violence or demands, but by allowing hard work and perseverance to speak for itself, thus exposing the folly of racial prejudice and bringing about change.

In short, whilst this arguably falls a little short of the genuine awe in space race movies such as The Right Stuff or Apollo 13, nevertheless Hidden Figures is a diverting and worthwhile watch, primarily for the excellent and sympathetic performances from the lead cast members.

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Inspiration: The Birds Began to Sing

Whether writers care to admit it or not, much of what they pen is influenced – consciously or unconsciously – by other works. In my case, I am happy to acknowledge influences, but like any other writer hope my own work stands out in its own right.

With that in mind, I have decided to write a series of articles detailing influences and inspirations for my own books, starting with six key texts that influenced my mystery thriller The Birds Began to Sing.

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Rebecca (Daphne Du Maurier) – An obvious gothic touchstone, given that my story contains a Danvers character of sorts. The central mystery is also very Du Maurier-esque. Indeed, one person who read my novel at one point forgot I had written it and thought she was reading Du Maurier. I take that as a very high compliment given that Du Maurier is certainly the strongest influence on The Birds Began to Sing.

Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) – Another obvious gothic influence, chiefly because of the mad wife in the attic angle, which my own novel pays homage to. Like Du Maurier’s Rebecca, Jane Eyre contains a climactic fire that also acts as a symbolic purging metaphor, as all good gothic mysteries should. The Birds Began to Sing continues this tradition.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Arthur Conan Doyle) – Another obvious influence, and not just because of the Dartmoor setting. The structure of the novel – with the first act in London and the rest of the story in a remote and sinister setting – was a formula I definitely followed. Also the atmosphere of subtle, uncanny menace, particularly during Watson’s first night in Baskerville Hall, proved a huge influence.

Sleeping Murder (Agatha Christie) – The splendidly eerie opening of this story, with its hints of repressed memories, hauntings and insanity, was a definite tonal inspiration. A recently married young woman buys a house and decides she wants to make various decorative changes. As the renovations get underway, the very changes she requested to doors, steps, types of wallpaper and so on are discovered mysteriously hidden beneath the current décor.

The Woman in Black (Susan Hill) – The deeply unsettling spectral appearances throughout Susan Hill’s horror masterpiece proved a big influence on my story, though obviously in my case the ghostly apparitions have a rather different explanation.

Coma (Robin Cook) – Here I must confess the film as much as the novel was an influence. This absolutely nail-biting medical conspiracy thriller contains many elements that are found in my own story, chiefly the tropes of the imperilled heroine who may or may not be paranoid, and her is-he-or-isn’t-he-in-on-it love interest.

You can download The Birds Began to Sing from Amazon Kindle here, or else buy a print copy here.

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Film Review – The Lego Batman Movie

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After The Lego Movie turned out to be something quite special instead of the soulless cash grab so many had anticipated, further films were inevitable. The Lego Batman Movie is a fine way to continue, given Batman’s involvement in The Lego Movie. Relentlessly paced with gags to spare, this is an absolute blast, albeit not quite on a par with its predecessor.

Batman (Will Arnett) begins his character arc here as a hilariously unbearable narcissist, unable even to acknowledge that the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) is his arch enemy (he likes to “fight around”, apparently). Back at the Batcave/Wayne manor (appropriately on an island), the melancholy of Batman’s lonely existence is amusingly spoofed, with him eating microwave lobster, watching Jerry Maguire and ruminating over photographs of his dead parents. Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) attempts to encourage him out of his self-centredness to pay attention to Dick Grayson aka Robin (Michael Cera), the orphan he adopted in circumstances too ridiculous to detail here.

The sheer amount of in-jokes and background details will no doubt warrant repeat viewings, and the kinetic, anarchic style established by The Lego Movie is continued here by director Chris McKay. Said anarchy comes amusingly to the fore when uber-villains from other stories – including the Wicked Witch of the West and her army of flying monkeys, Lord Voldemort, Sauron, Gremlins, King Kong, the Medusa and the Kraken from Clash of the Titans – threaten Gotham City, again in circumstances too ridiculous to explain in a review. Even the Daleks make an appearance – “British robots” the Joker amusingly and inaccurately remarks (after all, Daleks are technically deranged fascist mutants in robotic casings). “Ask your nerd friends” he continues, presumably a reference to the fact that Doctor Who is not quite the cultural phenomenon in the US that it is in the UK. Look out for over-the-heads-of-the-children gags too, including a cinema showing “Two Shades of Grey” and a rude joke involving Batman’s number plates. Oh, and you won’t be able to take any film seriously that begins with ominous music and a black screen ever again.

The fine vocal cast also includes the likes of Billy Dee Williams, Eddie Izzard, Channing Tatum and Rosario Dawson as Barbara Gordon. Incidentally, Barbara favours a more group effort to crime fighting in Gotham city, given that despite Batman’s years of effort, crime levels haven’t changed and all the Batman villains are still on the loose (the too-many-villains criticism levelled at many superhero movies is also amusingly satirised). Needless to say this does not sit well with Batman’s lone vigilante work ethic, but throughout the course of the film he learns the predictable lessons of the importance of family, the need for, whisper it, “teamwork”, and so on.

Despite being utterly demented, The Lego Batman Movie does feel like a proper Batman film, emphasising fun rather than darkness, but also very aware of it’s own history, with references and even clips from previous Batman movies. When Batman tells Robin they are going to punch the villains so hard “words describing their impact are going to spontaneously materialise”, it is impossible not to feel a sense of joy at the sheer cine-literacy of the filmmakers. Some of these jokes are obvious, some are subtle, some are blink-and-you-miss-them, some are for the children, some for the adults, some for the fans… In fact, you could argue this film has something for everyone (I got a particular kick out of a subtle reference to John Williams’s score for Richard Donner’s Superman during Batman’s visit to the Man of Steel).

In short, The Lego Batman Movie is a very good half-term family trip to the cinema. You could argue it doesn’t quite have the heart of The Lego Movie, but on its own terms it is a roaring success.

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Film Review – Toni Erdmann

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Toni Erdmann, which has been Oscar nominated for this year’s best foreign language film, is a triumph of surreal, awkward, painful and poignant dark humour. Comparisons with The Office (the UK version) are not unjustified although this is a very singular beast.

Winfriend Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is a practical joker attempting to reconnect with his somewhat estranged daughter Ines (Sandra Huller), who works as a corporate strategist schmoozing oil company clients in Bucharest. He travels to Bucharest and starts to gatecrash her life, posing as her CEO’s (non-existent) life coach Toni Erdmann by sporting a wig and fake teeth. What follows really needs to be seen to be believed, particularly in two stand-out scenes; one involving an impromptu musical number, and the other a birthday party featuring quite possibly the funniest nervous breakdown ever put on film, for reasons that are too convoluted and hysterically funny to spoil.

In any other hands, this kind of material could have fallen flat on it’s face, but somehow writer/director Maren Ade manages to not only make this work, but make it work brilliantly, and at a surprising length too (the film runs for two hours forty-two minutes, but doesn’t feel a frame too long). Performances are outstanding, the documentary style direction superb, and quite honestly I strongly suspect this could win the big prize for foreign language film come Oscar night. It is worth adding warnings as this contains strong language, hard drug use, nudity and one eye-wateringly awkward sexual moment that whilst hysterically funny, will prove too much for some constitutions. This is absolutely not for the easily offended.

For everyone else however, Toni Erdmann is a raw, painfully honest tragic-comedy that explores its estranged father/daughter themes with surprising poignancy. The underlying message is laudable and more relevant than ever, namely that we have but a few years in which our children chase us for attention, and if we miss it, we could end up chasing them for attention in an attempt to make amends for past regrets. It also explores how the pursuit of career can bring profound unhappiness, and cause us to miss what is important in life. None of these insights are particularly new, but they are examined here in such a unique way that they feel very fresh.

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Religion, Agony and Secrets… The novels of DM Miller

On Valentine’s Day I normally favour a bit of counter-programming on this blog, rather than slavishly adhere to calendar observance. However, this year I think it is worth promoting fellow author DM Miller, who has written an unusual romantic trilogy. The Religion of the Heart, The Agony of the Heart and Secrets of the Heart are not the kinds of novels I would normally choose to read. However, because the novels centre around interfaith romance, I was interested purely because I have explored this territory a little myself (in my novel Love vs Honour).

DM Miller’s novels are radically different to Love vs Honour, but nonetheless raise many fascinating religious and political questions, in their fearless examination of the challenges faced by those in interfaith marriage.

The main plot appears simple enough, with Catherine and Abdul, Jewish and Arab respectively, meeting and falling desperately in love. In any love story there must be a blocking force, and here the blocking force is less religion but more culture, tradition and in some cases entrenched prejudice, most of which stems from relatives on both sides of their families. The third monotheistic religion, Christianity, is also cleverly woven into the mix, due to Catherine having been partly raised by her strict Christian adoptive father Dan. Incidentally Dan himself, for reasons too complicated to detail here, enters into an interfaith marriage of sorts in the course of the story.

Obviously the primary purpose of this kind of romantic novel is to provide an exhilarating emotional rollercoaster with dizzying highs and crushing lows, with a certain degree of escapism, and the trilogy contain these in spades. For example, Abdul’s rich family background is definitely a romantic escapist element popular in this kind of fiction. However, despite this escapism, intriguing religion based dilemmas are delved into throughout, and it is these that ground the novels, making them provoke thought as well as tug at heartstrings.

Whilst the first novel explores the considerable obstacles that stand in the way of Catherine and Abdul getting married, as well as some surprising family revelations, the second novel concerns complications that ensue post marriage once children enter the mix.  Catherine and Abdul are complex, fully rounded protagonists who elicit sympathy and occasionally irritation, thus making them more believable. The supporting characters are interesting too, particularly Dan.

Some might criticise the novels for being melodramatic, but since melodrama is a genre staple here to say that is to miss the point. Besides, melodrama is not necessarily a dirty word, as I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog. Again, I emphasise that whilst this kind of romantic fiction is not a genre I generally indulge in, DM Miller’s trilogy certainly goes to some interesting places. So far I have read the first two novels in the trilogy, and I look forward to reading the third.

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Film Review – Loving

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It’s hard to believe US laws prohibiting marriage between races still existed in the early 1960s, but Loving, the new film from Jeff Nichols, provides a sobering reminder of such alarmingly recent times and attitudes. That said, it is important to stress that Loving is a subtle and quietly touching piece of work that celebrates everyday innate human decency, rather than something designed to provoke outrage in an obvious way.

The film tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), a young couple who marry after Mildred falls pregnant. They decide to go to Washington DC to get married, purely because there is less paperwork. Upon return to Virginia they are promptly arrested for having an illegal marriage and told they potentially face jail time, unless they leave the State. The ACLU later picks up on their story, and the case is poised to make legal history, going all the way to the Supreme Court.

Had this been directed by, say, an Oliver Stone or a Spike Lee, this would have been a very different film. However, instead of being an angry polemic with raging courtroom battles and scenery chewing, Loving quietly tells the story from the point of view of a married couple who simply want to be left alone. Indeed, Nichols’s direction is so full of poignant, tender moments between the couple – holding hands in a car, cuddling up on a sofa, sitting on a porch at night – that a surprisingly intimate tone is generated. The viewer almost feels as though they are intruding on private moments, and of course that is exactly how the Lovings felt. Richard particularly comes to dislike the ACLU lawyers and press that intrude into their family life, even though obviously they are trying to help. However, Mildred understands the political battle far more than Richard, and sees the press intrusion as a necessary weapon in the bigger fight for civil rights.

The lead performances are superb, especially from the Oscar nominated Ruth Negga. Nichols is rapidly becoming one of America’s most consistently interesting directors, and whilst this this might ultimately prove too understated for some tastes, Loving is nonetheless a warm, humane and deeply moving film.

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His Dark Materials – A Reassessment

SPOILERS AHEAD for His Dark Materials.his-dark-materials

In the past I have written extensively of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I have spoken of how it is a spectacular feat of imagination that almost equals The Lord of the Rings. I have also spoken at length regarding its anti-Christian themes, and it is regarding this that I wish to offer something of a reappraisal.

For those who have not read the novels, or may only have seen the damp squib film version of the first novel Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass, the US title, which was used for the film), the His Dark Materials trilogy is set in an elaborate parallel universe, which subsequently expands to other universes, including our own. In the universe where the story begins, each human has a “daemon” that takes the form of an animal, from which they are inseparable. Essentially they are like spirit animals. The heroine, Lyra, along with Will, a boy from our universe, have a series of extraordinary adventures that include witches, armoured polar bears, mysterious spectres that kill only adults, as well as the even more mysterious “Dust”. Along the way, traditional notions of good and evil are challenged, as the Church from Lyra’s universe seeks to control and dominate, initially represented by the villainous Mrs Coulter. At the same time, the enigmatic Lord Asriel seeks to fight the Church, though his methods prove equally diabolical in many respects. This all comes to a head in an extraordinary confrontation between beings from multiple universes – including the angelic realm – as a war takes place against God himself.

Or does it?

The sticking point for certain Christian readers has always been the apparently anti-Christian, anti-God stance of the novels. Indeed, this article is not a complete recanting of what I have stated previously, as to be fair the novel does go to great lengths to dismiss the Christian notion of heaven, hell and the afterlife in general. Moreover, Pullman’s “God” character (referred to as “the Authority”) turns out to be the first angel created by Dust. This angel then lied to the other angels and told them he was God, leading to centuries of deception and oppression. However, whilst Pullman undoubtedly has an atheist viewpoint, it is worth considering the following.

Firstly, has not Pullman inadvertently reinvented God in the form of Dust? He seems to have hit the classic atheist dilemma, in that God cannot be disproved in much the same way as he cannot be proved. The brilliance of the Dust concept is that it can be read as “The Big Bang” or even “God” if you wish. Pullman is wise enough to know he has to leave wriggle room.

Secondly, Pullman’s own experience of organised religion is clearly a deeply negative one, and frankly mine has been too, on the whole. I cannot blame him for using his writing as a means of expressing this. I have also written of oppressive religious systems, both real and imagined, on multiple occasions (most notably in my novels Love vs Honour and Children of the Folded Valley). To complain that Pullman has it in for Christianity (and monotheism in general) is foolish, as his exploration of religious corruption is valid, and even though I do not subscribe to a simplistic view that all religion is bad, historically Christianity does have a lot to answer for, bad as well as good.

Finally, my past objections to Pullman centred around his responsibility as an author, specifically my concerns that he would put children off the idea of God entirely. Whilst it is true that books can contain powerful, worldview shaping ideas, and that authors do have a responsibility for what they write, I am increasingly convinced, even as a Christian believer, that “protecting” children against novels like His Dark Materials is misguided. I believe in engagement and discussion, not blanket prohibitions that lead to “forbidden fruit” curiosity.

My own faith has led me to conclude that God has a way of turning up in people’s lives and confounding their expectations of him. Phillip Pullman himself may even discover this himself one day, but in the meantime I would argue his extraordinarily imaginative tales should not be feared by Christians. Despite his views, Pullman is asking honest, difficult, painful questions and this is not a bad thing.

Of course, some Christians will still insist the novels are dangerous, and I agree. All good writing is potentially dangerous. That includes the Bible. Over the centuries those texts have been twisted and perverted to all manner of insidious ends, justifying everything from the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition and the Ku Klux Klan. At this point in history, I don’t think His Dark Materials can lay quite the same claim, but yes, it is good to bear in mind that like all good writing, it is potentially dangerous. Does that mean we should get hot under our dog-collars and engage in book burning lunacy (as some have done this week to JK Rowling in protest of her views on Donald Trump)? Absolutely not.

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Film Review – T2 Trainspotting

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Do we really need a sequel to Danny Boyle’s seminal Trainspotting? Well, perhaps not. But Trainspotting 2 (or T2 Trainspotting, to be strictly accurate) is actually pretty good. It certainly isn’t the ground-breaking zeitgeist picture that the original was, but on its own terms it works very well as something that’s less Trainspotting and more its own beast.

The plot picks up twenty years after the events of the first film, whereby Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), determined to kick his heroin habit, ripped off his friends including Danny aka “Spud” (Ewen Bremmer), Simon aka “Sick Boy” (Johnny Lee Miller) and vicious loonie Begbie (Robert Carlyle). Renton returns to Edinburgh after an extended stay in Amsterdam, and is reunited with Simon and Danny. The former is attempting to set up a brothel with his girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) after getting tired of their blackmail racket. The latter is still a heroin addict estranged from his wife and son. But whilst these two reluctantly appear to accept Renton ripping them off as water under the bridge, a recently out of prison Begbie is nursing a twenty year grudge.

Performances are all solid, and it’s great to see the return of the original cast (including Kelly Macdonald in a bit part). Boyle’s direction is less visually audacious this time, but this decision is in keeping with the tone of the piece, ie less an energetic tale of small time crooks and hard drug use, more a reflection on the compromises and disappointments of its forty-something characters. There is still enough violence, hard drug use, strong sexual content and extremely strong language to more than warrant its 18 certificate, but this isn’t a youthful tear-up-the-rulebook cinematic landmark. Instead the story becomes a sombre, melancholy treatise on the wasted lives of men who seem stuck in the past. As one character says to Renton, “You’re a tourist in your own youth”.

That said, there are glimmers of redemption here and there, especially concerning the character of Danny (aka “Spud). Even Begbie gets to have an oddly touching moment near the end with his estranged son, (although he is still very much the unhinged psychopath of the original film). As for Renton, here he seems haunted by his former life. Cleverly integrated clips from the original film underscore this, as do childhood home movie shots. Screenwriter John Hodge (adapting Irvine Welsh’s novel Porno) gives the famous “Choose Life” speech a particularly raw-nerve jabbing contemporary update, with the proliferation of surveillance camera footage continually providing a contrast between past and present. The soundtrack also reflects this, and features a mixture of old (Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Blondie, Queen, Run DMC) and new (Wolf Alice, Young Fathers, The Rubberbandits), along with a mixture of both (Prodigy’s new remix of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life). However, my favourite part of the soundtrack was actually the massively slowed down, remixed introduction to Underworld’s Born Slippy, used very effectively in Renton’s afore-mentioned flashbacks.

It is perhaps difficult to imagine what someone who didn’t see Trainspotting back in 1996 might make of this new film coming to it cold, but for all its hard edges, I found it a surprisingly different and meditative sequel. Not destined for classic status perhaps, but a worthy companion piece to the original.

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Film Review – Hacksaw Ridge

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Andrew Garfield gives a tremendous lead performance in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, based on the true story of World War II hero Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist conscientious objector who nonetheless enlisted as a medic, winding up saving 75 lives in one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific campaign.

At first, the film is a little too Apple-Pie-Americana in tone, as Doss woes hospital nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) in a somewhat schmaltzy fashion. Although this section also includes a subplot involving his alcoholic World War I veteran father Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving), it fails to cut through the pseudo-Hallmark Channel sheen. It isn’t until Doss reaches boot camp that the film starts to settle into its own groove, with Doss initially bullied and nearly driven out of the army for his beliefs during training. Yet because he doesn’t quit, Doss gradually gains the reluctant respect of his fellow soldiers. Once he reaches the eponymous Hacksaw Ridge, and Gibson turns up the blood and guts to Saving Private Ryan levels, Doss’s extraordinary courage comes into sharp focus.

And boy is it gory. It has become trendy amongst a certain snooty critical elite to sneer at Mel Gibson, but whilst he may be a something of a blunt instrument, he is nonetheless a hugely effective and visceral director, especially during big scale battle scenes. Hacksaw Ridge might not be quite up there with his best work (ie The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto and Braveheart) but it is, in the end, a gripping and satisfyingly moving piece of work; a story of astonishing heroism that absolutely deserves to be told.

Doss’s laudable pacifism is given proper motivation through traumatic childhood flashbacks. His faith is also inspiring, especially during the aftermath of one battle when he keeps risking his life behind enemy lines to pull his wounded comrades to safety, continually praying to God to be able to save one more. I couldn’t help but think of this bravery in metaphorical spiritual terms, almost like an evangelist trying to save one more soul from the jaws of hell. Regardless of whether or not one has a faith to be affirmed, this is certainly stirring stuff.

It’s also interesting to note that Garfield has now played Christians in a hugely effective way twice in a row. As a double whammy, Silence and Hacksaw Ridge make quite a powerful set of films, and despite its flaws the latter is arguably as essential as the former.

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