A review of three things sharing a theme

· culture ·

I'm lagging behind a bit on reviewing some stuff I've come across recently, so I thought I might save a bit of time by doing a three part mini-review. When I was thinking about it, I realised that the film, book and album I'm about to review share a theme: death.

I expect I've lost all three of my readers now. But in these difficult times, a bit of morbid fascination cheers everyone up, right?

Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier

The novel opens with the death of Queen Victoria, and follows two families — the Coleman and Waterhouse families — who happen to have adjacent family plots in a London cemetery. Sweeping social changes are about to replace the formality of the Victorian era (with its obsession with elaborate mourning rituals and rigid social class system), with something more informal and fluid in Edward's reign. The women's suffrage movement is slowly gaining momentum, to widespread disapproval from those who are still hanging on to the old, Victorian ways.

Each chapter relates events from the viewpoint of one of the characters: Mr. and Mrs. Coleman and their daughter Maude, or Mr. and Mrs. Waterhouse and their daughter Lavinia. Occasionally, we get a very different view from the household servants, or from the boy who digs graves in the cemetery. The story (revolving around the cemetery) is pretty gripping, and the characters are brilliantly realised. In particular, the way that you see the two girls (Maude and Lavinia) maturing throughout the novel is fascinating.

Far North directed by Asif Kapadia

If you like the landscapes of the Arctic (it was filmed in Svalbard), you'll probably like this film. The photography is absolutely stunning, which is as well, because the plot is minimal and the dialogue almost non-existent. Given the minimal plot, it's difficult to describe without giving anything away, but I'll try not to post any spoilers. The story centres on Saiva (played by the terrific Michelle Yeoh) who has been told by a Shaman that she will bring death on disaster to any who get close to her. In an attempt to avoid this fate, she exiles herself, rescuing a baby called Anja along the way. One day they come upon a dying man, Loki, and everything starts to fall apart.

The film has a kind of harsh, mythic quality, enhanced by the fact that you can't place the time or geographical location of the action easily. I don't think I'm spoiling anything if I say that it doesn't have a happy ending, and death and relentless fate are omnipresent. At the time, it felt like quite a slight film, but it has lodged itself stubbornly in my mind, and I keep thinking about and reinterpreting events in the film.

Better Times Will Come by Diana Jones

I first heard a few tracks from this album in a concert of American Roots music shown on TV, and hosted by Seasick Steve. I found her mellow, unornamented voice and the way she sang about heartbreaking things with a total lack of sentimentality utterly mesmerising. And she tells a story so well. The songs on this album aren't (quite) all about death, but they are mostly sad songs about hard lives and difficult choices.

There are many good tracks, but in my opinion, 'Henry Russell's Last Words' is the best. Henry Russell was a Scottish miner who died in a mining accident in West Virginia in 1927. He and more than 100 others were trapped in the coal mine, and — without any hope of rescue — slowly suffocated and died. As the air was running out, Henry wrote a note to his wife Mary with a piece of coal. Jones used this letter as the basis for the lyrics.

The quiet acceptance, sorrow and dignity of Henry's words shines through the simple melody. Unless you are made of stone, the repeated refrain of "Oh how I love you, Mary" will bring tears to your eyes. Every single time you listen to it...