A Long Way from Home

Director: Virginia Gilbert
Writer: Virginia Gilbert
Year: 2013
Cast: James Fox, Natalie Dormer, Brenda Fricker

★☆☆☆☆

Adapted from her own short story, Virginia Gilbert’s debut feature is a flimsy, insubstantial romantic comedy, built around a premise that lacks credibility from the outset. Joseph (James Fox) and Brenda (Brenda Fricker) have retired to the French town of Nimes, where they are able to enjoy the sunshine and good food, while carrying on the same banal lifestyle they led at home. Their daily routine includes Radio 4 and The Times crossword, and takes them to the same restaurant every evening, where they meet an attractive young couple, Suzanne (Natalie Dormer) and Mark (Paul Nicholls), who are on a short, romantic break. After striking up a conversation over dinner, Joseph develops an infatuation with Suzanne and starts following her around the tourist trail.

A Long Way From Home Film 2013

This never results in any confrontation, as Suzanne is surprisingly open to having an elderly stranger impose himself on her holiday; she even encourages him with some suggestive looks and mild flirtations. Her receptivity is partially explained by their shared enthusiasm for the local ruins and Mark’s irritating habit of taking excessively loud business calls, but the idea that there might be some attraction there is never remotely believable. Joseph comes across as sadly delusional, and no real explanation is given as to why that might be, despite some hints at a history of clinical depression.

The dialogue is stilted, mundane, almost ludicrously naturalistic and fails to give any psychological insight into the characters whatsoever. When delivering his lines, James Fox often looks as if he is expecting someone to immediately laugh in his face, and, more often than not, that would probably be an appropriate reaction. It is hard to know whether phrases like, ‘You can come over and use our pool any time’, are deliberately excruciating or just appallingly written, especially because there is nothing in the characters’ interactions that suggests anything untoward, or even surprising, has been said. You have to feel sorry for the actors, particularly Brenda Fricker, who comes across as admirably human in spite of the script. Her character is easily the most sympathetic and, even when she is forced to rev up her Irish accent and loudly exclaim, ‘Ah shite!’, she gives it full gusto and manages to draw a despairing laugh.

The Nimes setting is perpetually bathed in golden sunlight, presumably in an attempt to play up the holiday atmosphere. The visuals are pleasant but quickly become unbearably monotonous, although that is perhaps the intention. When Joseph takes Suzanne and Mark on a trip to his friend’s vineyard, there is a welcome change of scene, but the new setting merely invites new clichés. Mark enthusiastically discusses the business side of things with the owner, while Suzanne links arms with Joseph and indulges in an impromptu disclosure about her not-especially-troubled childhood.

The film is supposed to be a reflection about old age and the impossibility of regaining youth, but these aspects are ignored until the end and only ever dealt with superficially. It is extraordinarily safe and devoid of any conflict; even the dramatic climax peters out into nothing, although unfortunately not before introducing yet another preposterous plot point. It is a bewildering debut from Gilbert, who fails to demonstrate a shred of innovation or a basic understanding of how people interact with one another. Bad films are forgivable, but those which attempt nothing, and cannot even adequately portray that, are not.

Rob Dickie

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Much Ado About Nothing

Director: Joss Whedon
Writer: Joss Whedon, William Shakespeare (play)
Year: 2012
Cast: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz

★★★★★

Filmmakers have always had a tendency to take Shakespeare very seriously indeed, diving deep into the texts to develop their own intellectual interpretations or contriving new settings and scenarios to make the plays appear more relevant to modern audiences. This can result in rich, thoughtful pieces of cinema – see Branagh at his best – or wild strokes of genius, like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, but, when done badly, Shakespeare translates awkwardly to screen; there is often some disparity between the language and the action, a fatal flaw that forces you to suspend your disbelief.

Fran Kranz in Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is a triumph because it avoids all the usual trappings, taking the text at face value and letting it largely speak for itself. Filmed over 12 days at the director’s Santa Monica home, on a scheduled break from the production of Avengers Assemble, it is a refreshingly straightforward adaptation, modernised due to practical necessity rather than any conceit, dramatic and comedic without ever feeling forced.

Whedon makes excellent use of his surroundings, exploiting the theatricality of the open plan interiors and utilising every layer of the impressive grounds. The film is shot in monochrome, at least partly to ensure greater consistency with limited resources, but this adds an element of noir-ish glamour to the overall look and conceals anything in the environment that might otherwise have been visually distracting. The modernisation is handled deftly, using things like smartphones and electric torches when necessary, without ever making them seem incongruous to the script.

The film plays out like an extended party; the characters are continually drinking wine and engaging in one festivity or another, with Whedon’s own light jazz score providing the soundtrack. It begins as a homecoming, with Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) returning from war, accompanied by the villainous Don John (Sean Maher) and his two associates. Claudio is instantly infatuated with the beautiful, virtuous Hero (Jillian Morgese), while Benedick renews his prickly relationship with her sister, Beatrice (Amy Acker), which Whedon embellishes by revealing in flashback that they once had a passionate one night stand. Claudio quickly wins Hero’s hand in marriage and, along with his friend, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), and her father, Leonato (Clark Gregg), they vow to play Cupid with Beatrice and Benedick, while their enemies conspire to break up the happy couple.

Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof

Much Ado About Nothing never shies away from turning dark and moody, particularly when the drama reaches its peak, but it will be remembered primarily as one of the funniest Shakespeare adaptations ever committed to film. The exchanges between Benedick and Beatrice are brilliantly timed and accentuate the biting wit of the original dialogue, while the slapstick scenes in which they are allowed to hear of their supposed love for one another are inventive and genuinely hilarious. Nathan Fillion gives an inspired performance as the easily-offended police officer, Dogsberry, playing the clown with relentless sincerity, and the entire cast go about their work in such good humour that it is difficult not to be drawn along with them.

It is a evidently personal project for Whedon and he is working with actors who are behind him every step of the way. The film has a spontaneous, liberated quality, stemming from the natural intimacy between the cast, which helps the audience connect with the language and engage emotionally with the characters. Like no other adaptation of a Shakespeare comedy, it fully understands the playfulness of the dialogue, the sheer foolish joy of the language, without coming close to overstating it. Never seriously putting a foot wrong, Much Ado About Nothing really is a delight.

Rob Dickie

Byzantium

Director: Neil Jordan
Writer: Moira Buffini (screenplay and play)
Year: 2012
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones

★★★☆☆

Neil Jordan’s latest film, Byzantium, is a spirited if convoluted return to the vampire genre that seeks to rewrite much of the old mythology.

Saoirse Ronan Byzantium

Adapted by Moira Buffini from her own play, Byzantium was shot in Hastings, a setting that is overtly rooted in an illustrious history but appears grungy and anonymous in its present condition. As in his 2009 feature, Ondine, Jordan captures his surroundings beautifully, particularly near the beginning, contrasting the timeless qualities of the environment with those that are acutely modern. As the film flickers between past and present, grand ships, pristine sand and tranquil fisherman contrast with  concrete blocks, cheap amusements and the burned-out pier, while, at the same time, nothing really changes for those who inhabit the seafront – women can be bought for a price and the tide beats on. There’s a disorientating monotony to eternal life.

Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are two centuries old vampires, on the run from a mysterious brotherhood that are intent on making them suffer for their past transgressions. After Clara is discovered working as a stripper, they are forced to flee their high-rise flat and end up in a small seaside town, where Clara quickly integrates herself into the criminal underworld. She sets herself up as a prostitute and exploits a local loser, Noel (Daniel Mays), by taking over his late mother’s guesthouse and turning it into a brothel populated by desperate women from the streets.

The eternal cycle of vice and the degrading, precarious existence it leads to causes tensions between Clara and Eleanor, who are worlds apart in terms of personality. Clara is feisty, seductive and violent, prepared to kill anyone who threatens to uncover their secret and use her body to obtain whatever they need to survive. Conversely, Eleanor is passive, introspective and refuses to use violence, feeding only euthansically, on the blood of elderly people who tell her they are ready to die. They are evidently extremely close, with the bond of centuries between them, but it is increasingly apparent that Eleanor needs something more to live for than the battle for survival that Clara appears to relish.

The divisions between the two protagonists are mirrored in the makeup of the film itself, as it moves swiftly between vivid action sequences and quiet, reflective scenes, which can be slightly jarring. Flashbacks are also used heavily, causing the film to lack momentum, particularly in the early stages, as the present-day storyline is continually broken up by lengthy elucidations of the past. However, these are essential to the narrative and become progressively more engaging as the film reaches its conclusion, tying up the loose ends in the plot and expounding an original mythology that contains some impressive imagery.

Gemma Arterton Cleavage Byzantium

The problem with Byzantium is that it tries to do too much and fails to combine each of its disparate elements into an entirely cohesive whole. There are scenes in strip clubs, further education colleges, nineteenth century orphanages, postmodern seafronts, all awkwardly juxtaposed with one another, and the changes in atmosphere when the film switches between them are just too drastic. The script is bloated and needed paring down to its essentials, with more focus on the relationships that keep it going and slightly fewer lines of clunky dialogue.

The strongest element of the film is the romance that develops between Eleanor and Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a haemophiliac who becomes attracted to her when he hears her playing the piano in a hotel restaurant. Eleanor is desperate to reveal her true identity to someone – she is continually writing down her story and throwing the pages to the wind – and he provides an outlet for her to do so. His initial disbelief about her supernatural status is well handled, while his unwavering faith in her basic goodness is touching, even when he can’t quite accept who she claims to be. The scenes in which his blood is spilled are the most visceral and moving in the film, the only moments that come close to portraying the tortuous nature of a vampire’s existence.

Jones’s performance is also the standout, bringing out Frank’s innocent curiosity and resigned fragility to create a compelling and genuinely believable character. Ronan is a haunted, withdrawn presence and her steely blue eyes are used to great effect, but her performance is a little too serious and lacking in variation. Arterton overplays her character from time to time, although she is full of zest and vigour, exuding sexuality in a way that is powerful and assertive, while Sam Riley is solid in his supporting role as the aristocratic Darvell.

Vampires are undoubtedly in vogue, although Byzantium, to its credit, strives to bring something new to the genre. The updated mythology is inventive and interesting; thumbnails extend into talons to pierce the skin and people are transformed into vampires through a meeting with their doppelgangers in an eerie island cave. It is shot well, as Jordan’s films usually are, and has plenty of interesting imagery. However, that doesn’t quite make up for the film’s structural flaws, especially as it occasionally descends into almost soap opera melodrama and the ending is something of a disappointment.

Rob Dickie

The Great Gatsby

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writer: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce, F. Scott Fitzgerald (novel)
Year: 2013
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan

★★★☆☆

Baz Luhrmann instinctively felt like the wrong man to direct The Great Gatsby but there was always something about the combination that made you really hope it would come off. His films, like Gatsby’s parties, are gaudy, vivacious extravagances, alluring because of their grandiosity and nothing more, sensory illusions designed to conceal the fragility of the visions behind them. Perhaps inevitably, the result is an ostentatious, almost flagrant adaptation that is consistently entertaining but only ever half works, and leaves you wondering what might have been.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan The Great Gatsby

Luhrmann’s excess is glaring from the outset, as we are thrust into a mansion overloaded with gratuitous 3D effects and countless waiters in tuxedos walking simultaneously through French windows. As the characters move out into New York, it is a garish, digital jungle, full of loud, ornate vehicles, shimmering surfaces and unnecessary camera swoops. It is not so much a city where anything could happen, but a city where everything is happening, all at once, and it seems to be giving you a headache.

The parties look like set pieces from a big-budget musical, too glitzy and unreal, even for Gatsby, an amalgamation of elements from innumerable other parties but, despite the costumes, they do not come close to resembling anything the Fitzgeralds would have attended. The Jay-Z-produced soundtrack is inspired and injects energy into scenes that would have otherwise struggled to come alive. It is innovative, exciting and ultimately the only contentious point of departure from the novel that genuinely succeeds.

Once the flashy effects are out of the way and the focus shifts from the setting to the characters, the film really grows into itself and starts to hint at the depth that the story requires. Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect as Gatsby, striking the right balance between portraying the monumental myth and the flawed, vulnerable man behind it. The object of his obsessive dream is the careless, cynical Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who is bored by her wealthy husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) and his ongoing affair with a woman in the city. Mulligan, with her tragi-glamorous look, always effortlessly carries off this kind of role, while Edgerton gives a strong, oddly sympathetic performance as the crude, boorish Tom.

Like the novel, the film is narrated by Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), although his character is placed in a sanatorium where he is receiving treatment for alcoholism and depression, which presumably developed as a result of the events that take place. You have to feel for Maguire – his character is poorly written – but he gives a strange performance and looks completely out of place as he contemplates everything that is going on around him. Deliberately confusing narrator and author, Luhrmann has Nick write the novel as a form of therapy and some of the more choice phrases drift across the screen in typewritten font. It’s a clumsy device, unnecessary and false, which makes it seem as though the whole point of The Great Gatsby was the writing of the novel itself.

The Great Gatsby Joel Edgerton Tobey Maguire

Aside from that, the adaptation is faithful in terms of plot, as it builds up to the catastrophic conclusion that sees every relationship in the film shattered irrevocably. The climactic scene is superbly done, without any disproportionate effects; the showdown between Gatsby and Tom is accomplished purely through words and emotion. Gatsby and Daisy’s initial meeting is another fine scene, taking place against the backdrop of Nick’s ludicrously flower-stuffed cottage, the slapstick elements enhancing the awkward emotion involved.

Luhrmann’s Gatsby is ultimately a love story, at its best when it focuses on the sweeping romance at the foundation of its protagonist’s fantastic dream. The bombastic style is only ever faintly ridiculous, distracting from several excellent performances and the invigorating score. It is clear that no detailed reading of the novel has taken place; the story is stripped of any subtlety and much of its depth. Some scenes are poorly misjudged, particularly the ending, which shows not a dream fading like a wisp of smoke but love and glory consecrated eternally by death. It is a film that is easier to criticise than praise, seeming as it does to revel in its own downfall. But actually, it’s not bad at all once you get into it, just not great.

Rob Dickie

I, Anna

Director: Barnaby Southcombe
Writer: Barnaby Southcombe, Elsa Lewin (novel)
Year: 2012
Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Gabriel Byrne, Eddie Marsan

★★★★☆

Screening in both Edinburgh and Glasgow as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, I, Anna is a neo-noir thriller with a psychological twist. Charlotte Rampling stars as the title character, a mature femme fatale who is suffering from amnesia and dissociation due to a traumatic experience that takes place at the end of a singles night.

The film is directed by Rampling’s son, Barnaby Southcombe, who presents the story from Anna’s perspective and places the emphasis on her precarious state of mind. Reading the novel by Elsa Lewin, a psychoanalyst based in New York, he immediately identified the title character with his mother, even though the ‘story was not her own’. It is evidently a personal film, and this becomes increasingly obvious as the narrative develops and we realise that behind the mystery there is something far more significant at stake.

I, Anna Gabriel Byrne and Charlotte Rampling

The adaptation moves the action from eighties New York to present day London, emphasising Southcombe’s varied European influences. The director makes excellent use of his surroundings as the capital is transformed into a brooding concrete menace, centred around the brutalist towers of the Barbican complex. The environment is oppressive and has a looming, crushing sterility, which seems to serve as a warning to those hoping to find anything genuine in the warm, bubbly atmosphere of the singles bars.

However, there is an unlikely romance at the core of I, Anna. It begins inauspiciously, as Rampling’s character meets DCI Bernie Reid (Gabriel Byrne) at the scene of a murder and leaves with a discarded umbrella that clearly does not belong to her. With his own demons to battle, Bernie is no less unhinged than Anna and quickly develops an obsession with this elusive woman, who lives in a small one-bedroomed flat with her daughter and granddaughter. The camera is drawn to Rampling’s figure; it is often framed or shown in close-ups, sliding down her legs, demonstrating that older women too can be dangerously seductive.

The retro elements and heavily stylised look of the film work well, giving it an unreal quality that seems to reflect many of the characters’ states of mind. Anna is frequently found in phone boxes, no doubt a nod to the noir of the past, but it also serves to intensify the mystery and has a genuine narrative purpose. As an aesthetic device it is effective, particularly during the scene in which Anna and Bernie first meet, and, like all of I, Anna‘s initially improbable elements, it makes perfect sense by the end.

The soundtrack also pleasantly surprises, comprising a bleak, atmospheric score by French electronic duo K.I.D., interspersed with acoustic tracks by indie crooner Richard Hawley. Southcombe originally had something very different in mind, a lyrical piano score, but it did not work, and it is difficult to see how it could. The dark electronica seems to bleed from the dense concrete and Hawley’s voice is superbly aligned with those of the central characters.

There is a smart twist at the end which strips away the foundations of what has been constructed, but rather than complicating matters, it sheds light on much that had remained in doubt. It is, in fact, crucial to the success of the narrative, taking attention away from the comparatively weak murder mystery, which has been designed to facilitate the intriguing character study rather than the other way around.

I, Anna Charlotte Rampling

The performances of the leads are key to the film and they are able to carry it through the early stages when the narrative seems convoluted and the cast a few characters too big. Rampling and Byrne have excellent chemistry and we really feel for their haunted characters, particularly as the film reaches its climax. They are perfectly cast and equally comfortable in such uncomfortable roles.

I, Anna is worth persevering with as it quickly develops into a coherent drama that gives renewed purpose to its underwhelming beginnings. There are plenty of tense moments and a couple of shocking scenes, but what stands out is the delicate handling of the relationship at the heart of the story and, particularly in the midst of such a harsh landscape, the almost unbearable fragility of the mind.

Rob Dickie

Review originally published at the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Director: Lasse Hallström
Writer: Simon Beaufoy, Paul Torday (novel)
Year: 2011
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas

★★☆☆☆

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is one of those films that could easily be a metaphor for its own production. You can imagine the guy pitching it: “I want to make a film about a Sheikh who tries to bring salmon fishing to the Yemen?” “A film about salmon fishing in the Yemen?! That’s absurd! How? Why?” “Purely because it’s absurd. That’s the beauty of it. It will work, have faith. Just to make sure, we’ll throw in a complicated romantic quadrangle, a just-about-still-topical political angle and enough charm to prevent people just sitting there shaking their heads in disbelief. Trust me.”

It begins with the beautifully named Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) approaching Dr Alfred “Fred” Jones (Ewan McGregor), a government fisheries expert, with a proposal for constructing a river in the Yemeni desert and transporting 10,000 wild salmon from British rivers so her client, the Sheikh (Amr Waked), can fish. Fred naturally ridicules the idea, but, under pressure from the Prime Minister and his dogged press secretary (Kristin Scott Thomas), both desperate for a feel-good story from the Middle East, he agrees to meet Harriet and discuss the project. Before he knows it, everything is in motion and he begins to chase after the impossible.

It sounds like it should have been a political satire, like the novel by Paul Torday it was based on. It does have satirical undertones, but they are far too tame to be taken seriously. The war in Afghanistan is treated soberly, but nothing else comes close to being a target – Anglo-Middle Eastern relations, the Prime Minister’s shameless PR efforts and even terrorist attacks are only ever lighthearted asides or superficial plot developments. Kristin Scott Thomas gives a vibrant and engaging performance, but her character is just a glamorised Malcolm Tucker, without the depth of character or genuine sense of being under pressure.

Lasse Hallström clearly opts against making a satire, instead using the story as a vehicle for the kind of feel-good film he is known for (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat). Quite what there is to feel good about in an oil-rich Sheikh’s decadent vanity project is not immediately clear, though Hallström extracts as much as is humanly possible from the grand folly of it all. The main point of interest is the relationship between Fred and Harriet, which has the effect of transforming the salmon project into an overly figurative backdrop. McGregor and Blunt have enough chemistry to make it work, and you would probably end up rooting for them if there was even the slightest hint they might not end up together.

The one area the film does succeed in is the comedy, which draws plenty of laughs all the way through. It is very British in character, exploiting Fred’s reserve, eccentricity and awkward attempts at telling jokes. There are some excellent lines and very funny moments, which makes it a shame that the rest of the film does not support it.

Aside from humour, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen offers little, and the elaborate project it is built around seems wasted. It takes you from London to Scotland to the Yemen but, while this offers aesthetic variety, you get the feeling that the essential story could just as easily have taken place in a New York office. The plot is clumsy, with too many arbitrary developments and emotional twists, particularly towards the end. It tries to be stupidly charming but ends up more charmingly stupid, and only that because the leads are able to inject some comic life into a film which was always likely to fail.

Rob Dickie

The Artist

Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Writer: Michel Hazanavicius
Year: 2011
Cast:  Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman

★★★★☆

To make a silent film that straightforwardly copies the style of the 1920s would be a gimmick. To put it simply, filmmaking has moved on. That is not to say that it has got better or worse – many silent films from that era are wonderful, but they are products of their time. Merely recreating an old-fashioned silent film in the modern age is impossible. It would seem hollow.

With The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius does not attempt to make a 1920s film, however much he borrows from them. Yes, it is shot in black and white in an old-fashioned ratio, the soundtrack is heavily reminiscent of the era, and there is no dialogue until the very end, but The Artist’s strength lies in the way it uses these aspects of the silent film, and transforms them into something else – something modern and self-reflexive.

The sound of silence is all George Valentin can tolerate.

The film would not work otherwise. Its occasional breaks into irony are necessary, whether achieved by the use of sound or colour, or any other quirks of the style. The clearest example is during the star George Valentin’s (Jean Dujardin) nightmare, which sees him thrust into a threatening world of everyday sound. The strength of the silent world that Hazanavicius has created means that the rift caused by sound is unnerving, but the irony is that the film, like any other, is not set in a silent world at all. The scene works because we can empathise, yet to empathise in that scenario should be absurd.

Our sophisticated position as viewers from a distant future makes the on-screen action appear quaint, but this only deepens our connection with the characters. The Artist maintains a relationship between the audience and the screen that is rarely seen. In a crowded cinema, there were few who didn’t smile for the majority of the film, few who didn’t laugh out loud, and few who didn’t feel compelled to applaud at the end. If nothing else, The Artist is a charmer.

In part this is down to the story, which depicts a silent film star, Valentin, who falls in love with an upcoming actress, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), before his career is ruined by the arrival of the talkies. His character is not entirely sympathetic, showing from the beginning a clear ambivalence to his wife and eventually becoming extremely jealous in the wake of Peppy’s success, but the desire for him and the romance to succeed never deteriorates. Like any true silent film star, Dujardin is larger than life and infinitely expressive, which is where his charm lies. He is also permanently accompanied by his dog, Uggie, who more than once steals the show.

As it reaches its finale, the film becomes fairly dark. The black and white is used perfectly to deepen the mood and the music becomes increasingly melodramatic. Valentin’s downfall is touching and his perilous position is starkly contrasted to the dancing and frivolity that come before it. That is the beauty of making a film in this way – the contrasts – it forces distinction and doesn’t allow for subtlety, and if the film can bring the audience with it, as The Artist does, it makes for an enchanting experience.

There is nothing difficult or subjective about the film. It is designed to appeal to a wide audience, somewhat ironically given that many will dismiss it simply for the fact of its silence. It is very funny, and appeals to a sense of humour which everyone possesses to an extent, something most comedies are unable to do. However, it is not perfect. It is only gimmicky once, but unfortunately the gimmick comes at a crucial moment. It is a moment that has elsewhere been praised and will divide audiences, but one that is disingenuous and uses the medium in a way that manipulates the audience into thinking something has happened when it has not. Hazanavicius strikes a false note at the dramatic climax, and in a word the connection is broken. Bang! But only for a moment.

Rob Dickie