Tuesday’s Reviews – His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

books, crime, fucking awful, Man Booker, review, Scotland

It seems as though last Tuesday was about a month ago but, as it turns out, it was only 7 days. You may remember that last week’s blog post was a bit of an unusual one thanks to some unexpected news. Instead of my scheduled review of the Man Booker 2016 Shortlisted His Bloody Project I spent the Tuesday review in a rather angry and sad analysis of a rejection for a job I really wanted. I’ve had time to come to terms with it now and, even though I’m still feeling all of those things, I’m not dwelling. I’m applying for more and trying to organise some useful shit to help me in the future. Now that I’m once again of sound-ish mind, I’m going to attempt to do what I wanted to last week. It may not have won the Man Booker Prize but His Bloody Project was a worthy, if unexpected, entry on this year’s shortlist. It’s my favourite entry on the shortlist… but, then again, it’s the only one I’ve actually read.

If you’ve been paying attention to my recent Sunday rundowns you may have noticed that it took fucking ages for me to finish this book. I partly blame the fact that during that time I was preparing for both of my recent interviews. The other portion of blame goes to me continued book slump. It’s a pain in the arse and it’s here with a vengeance. Whatever the reason, it certainly wasn’t any indication of the book’s quality. It’s an interesting read that I was desperate to pick up as soon as I heard about it. Taking the lead off the current trend for true crime, the author first recounts the tale of how he “found” a pile of documents pertaining to the trial of one of his relatives. What we have is a bizarre form of psychological crime thriller where, instead of witnessing a crime, the reader must put together the pieces of information laid before them to understand why three murders were committed.

The story is set in a remote village in rural Scotland in the late 1800s. The story is told through witness accounts, court transcripts and the memoir written as the guilty party awaited his trial. As the book’s subtitle states, it is a collection of Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae, a 17 year old crofter who confessed to the murder of three of his neighbours. The main chunk of the book follows Roderick’s own version of the events that lead him to enter the house of Lachlan Mackenzie one morning and kill him, his daughter, and his infant son. This account if further complicated by the medical examinations of the bodies, several witness statements from Roddy’s neighbours, and an evaluation of a top prison doctor. The mixed narratives all weave a complex web the reader must continue to untangle once they have run out of pages. It’s a captivating read that will keep you guessing for as along as you let it.

One of the novel’s greatest strengths lies in its historical setting. The novel presents a rich portrait of life in a 19th century crofting community and about legal proceedings from the time. The preamble that leads up to Roddy’s description of the murder presents a fascinating relationship between the poor members of the community tirelessly working for their unseen laird and living their lives according to their rigid faith. The murder is placed in a context of a stoic acceptance that bad things will happen no matter what. The community is shown to be at the mercy of so many powerful agencies that they no longer have control of their own destinies. They are victims of the circumstance and must bow down to those with any amount of power. And, as seen through Lachlan Mackenzie’s actions, when certain people gain power they find a perverse pleasure in torturing those below them.

His Bloody Project really is a fascinating read that really places the reader in the heart of the story. The historic aspects have a very authentic feel about them and the handy glossary helps overcome any potential language barriers beautifully. Despite the fact that we know from the outset that Roddy was guilty of the three murders, the novel continues to be surprising. It is also weirdly funny in a very The League of Gentlemen kind of way. It is an interesting way to present a crime novel and, instead of leading us to a conclusion in the traditional sense, Macrae Burnet asks the reader to consider the evidence before them and consider the psychological issues surrounding each individual.

Coming from a fairly new author and a small Scottish publishing house, His Bloody Project was always an unlikely and unusual addition to the Man Booker Shortlist, even before you take into account the prize’s apparent dislike of the crime genre. Plus, there is part of me that still feels like the attempt to portray the events as real is a tad too gimmicky for my liking. However, I can’t deny that I loved every moment of reading it and I think Macrae Burnet did a remarkable job of presenting the ambiguous natures of criminal proceedings. It deserves every second of its increased popularity since the nominations were announced and, despite not winning the actual title, it is a winner on so many more levels.

Brave (2012)

animation, bear, Emma Thompson, family, review, Scotland

It’s been a good while since I watched Brave and I found that I was unable to find anything to say about it. It didn’t really have much of an impact on me. The film wasn’t the worst film that Pixar has ever produced but it is in no way up there with the greatest. It’s difficult to discuss a Pixar film without looking back at their (mostly) great back catalogue of films. Much in the same way that people can’t open up to Woody Allen’s latest films without getting nostalgic about the Woody of the 70s and 80s. Of course, it’s not a great system but when you’re dealing with a film studio that brought us family favourites like Toy Story and Finding Nemo it’s hard to forget just how much potential they have. Up against some of these greats Brave just comes across as much less ambitious and suggests that Pixar are quickly running out of fresh ideas.

Brave is set in the luscious Highlands of Scotland where young princess Merida attempts to fight against the expectations put upon her so that she is free to romp around firing arrows and hunting bears. As heroines go, Merida is a major improvement on the old Disney princesses we grew up on. She knows her own mind and isn’t afraid of standing up to her mother and father. However, Merida is still a child and her independence can often descend into whiney and bratty behaviour. Of course, I can’t say that I don’t agree with her idea that riding through the forests and shooting arrows from her bow is much more appealing that marrying the son of a Scottish lord. I reckon if someone was forcing me to do the latter I would moan about it a little too.

In fact the first part of the story, which sees Merida take a stand against the law that demands she marry the winner of the Highland games, provides a strong foundation for a great story. However, the writers make the strange decision to change direction and turn this young woman’s fight to prove herself into a tale of accidental transformation. Merida is then forced to set out on a fantasy adventure with her mother in tow. The character who was given the least amount of build up and, after the unnecessary triplets, is the least interesting character in the film. Emma Thompson does as good a job voicing this lame and undeveloped character but it is difficult to care about the fate of a woman whose only role in the film is to be more annoying and whiney than her daughter.

This incredible decision turns what could have been an interesting update to the traditional fairytale into a simple family soap opera. What begins as a potentially clever, coming-of-age struggle descends into an obvious series of cliches. There is nothing clever about the second half of the script and the emotional impact is lost within the wave of boredom and deja vu that will be washing over most of the audience. Without wanting to sound too brutal, this part of the film left me absolutely cold. I lost interest in what was going on as it was so painfully clear how the story was going to progress and how the writers would try and inject humour. I stopped paying attention to the action and instead counted down the minutes until this dismal story was over.

A story that also ensures that Merida’s father is completely underused and becomes nothing more than an irritating bumbling fool. At least this explains the bizarre decision to ask Billy Connolly to voice him. Who better to lead a rowdy bunch of lumbering Scottish warriors than the rowdy, lumbering Scottish comedian? Of course, he does pick up the role fairly easily because it’s almost identical to the one he played in the disappointing Gulliver’s Travels. There is a direct link to the Scottish ogre of the Shrek films here but there is no sense of subtle humour here. Rather than have a sarcastic and cutting outcast we have a bumpkin whose manic behaviour just became tedious.

Although Brave does have its amusing moments, it never quite reaches the mark. The script doesn’t really take off and we miss much of the subtle humour and witty one-liners that fill Pixar’s back catalogue. It is a film that finds itself sucked into its fictional traditions and flits between vaguely serious melodrama and over-the-top silliness. There is none of the refreshing self-awareness and simplicity that made previous offerings so entertaining and engaging. It has some great standout moments but the film ends up dragging on whilst offering very little to keep you intrigued. For a story set in the wilds of Scotland that promises archery, bears and battling Scottish clans, it ends up being a bafflingly dull affair.

Thankfully those Scottish highlands have been beautifully recreated and the visual imagery is as stunning as you would expect from such great animators. The textures of the backdrop are gorgeous and show just how far animated films have come since Pixar’s early days. Just take a look at Merida’s flowing ginger curls as she races through the trees on her adventure. In terms of animation, the studio is continuing to push themselves and showing that even this type of complex imagery is well within their reach. Had this film not been so incredibly beautiful to watch I am sure there is no way I would have reached the final credits. It is a massive shame that such a fantastic example of this studio’s work is let down by a storyline and script that can’t have seen much in the way of editing or rewrites. This artwork demanded sharper dialogue, a more thought out plot path and fully fleshed characters.

Brave is one of those disappointing Pixar films that had so much potential but just falls short by the end. The plot will unexpectedly changes direction whenever it can and get rid of inconvenient characters in the most ridiculous manner. Julie Walters turns up for a brief spell as a Macbeth style witch who offers Merida a glimmer of hope. Then poof! Gone. It isn’t wholly disappointing but it a film that doesn’t go anywhere. There is no real direction for the plot and we end up with a feeling that neither Merida, her family, or the audience are really any better off than they were before the opening credits began. Pixar have a reputation for producing great animated films that appeal to children and adults alike. I find it hard to believe either of these groups would have been satisfied with this production.