Review: Agora starring Rachel Weisz

As a lifelong bibliophile and Egyptophile, it’s inevitable that I’ve long harboured an affection for the ancient Library of Alexandria and her erudite librarian, Hypatia.  When I saw their story was being told in a new film, I was very excited. The ancient library brought to CGI life! The awesome teacher, philosopher, astronomer and librarian Hypatia breathing and being awesome for the world to see! Hurrah!

Then, of course, I remembered how it all turned out in history, and there was a little less yayness. Philosophers generally don’t fare well in ancient history, as you may recall.

But off I went to see Agora (named after the pubilc gathering place for discussion, announcements and denunciations) with a certain amount of trepidation. The film stars Rachel Weisz as Hypatia and was directed by Alejandro Amenabar.

It’s certainly a handsome film. Fourth century Alexandria has been created in Malta and the CGI computers and it’s hard to see where the set ends and the technology begins. It also has a terrific multicultural cast who all do a creditable job of bringing the period to life.

The story occurs at a time of great social turmoil (well, when isn’t it a time of great social turmoil…) where followers of the new faith of Christianity are still persecuted, though no longer fed to lions. There are regular clashes between followers of old Roman gods, Judaism and Christianity – and as these faiths clash, there is of course the inevitable oppression, discrimination, violence and “my god is better than your god” slanging matches. Which leads to the inevitable bloodbaths. Those who govern Alexandria are left to find ways to manage the city between all these violently clashing ideologies and sometimes unhelpful directions from the Emperor back in Rome.

Against this backdrop, Hypatia teachs philosophy, fraternity, science and reason. Her determination that everything must be questioned and tested and questioned again naturally comes up against a host of people who prefer blind faith.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to note that these conflicts lead to the sacking and burning of the library in a scene that made me cry. To see the loss of all that knowledge and art because of superstition and intolerance is hard – it’s harder still to see it knowing that this sort of thing goes on in my own lifetime. And not just in developing countries. There are regular, ugly calls to ban books, to silence debate, even vilely to declare that certain groups of people ‘deserve to die’, from all kinds of people of all kinds of faiths in all kinds of societies.

There’s a lot more of the story from that point, however, as Hypatia salvages what she can and continues to teach and to question the universe. We watch her slowly evolve a theory of the movement of the planets, starting with the then accepted Ptolemeic ideal of the Earth as the central point and heavenly bodies moving in perfect circles around it, towards a heliocentric theory – but only if she continues to challenge the basic precepts of knowlege and never to take anything as… well, scripture. Obviously, the respite can only last so long.

Agora is a film that champions reason over blind faith. The fact that 1600-odd years later, humanity is still seeking a philosphy of reason in the face of blind faiths that choose violence and oppression over debate and acceptance is kind of depressing.

I’m not sure I enjoyed the film – I found a lot of it very distressing, because its issues are still today’s issues – but I think it was a film worth seeing. Rachel Weisz is a terrific Hypatia, and Alexandria looks pretty cool. When its library isn’t on fire, anyway.

Read about Agora at IMDB

Review: Fall Girl by Toni Jordan

I’m a big fan of heist shows.  The Sting, Catch Me If You Can, the sanctioned heists of Mission Impossible, the doing-it-for-the-little-guy heists of Leverage, the for-the-hell-of-it larceny of Hustle. Even the cons in the gods-battling-to-rule-the-world story of American Gods. I don’t imagine I’d be as enamoured of a real life attempt on my worldly goods, though I flatter myself that I’m both too honest and too smart to fall for one, but I’m all for a fictionalised con artistry.

Toni Jordan’s Fall Girl is a delightful contribution to the genre. Dr Ella Canfield is an evolutionary biologist trying to get funding for research to prove that the Tasmanian Tiger still exists – and what’s more, is living in the Mornington Peninsula. Only of course, there is no such person as Dr Ella Canfield. Della, one of a long line of elegant con artists, is just trying to relieve millionaire Daniel Metcalf of some of the funds in the Metcalf Trust. She doesn’t expect he’ll miss it, really.

It turns out, however, that there are a lot of things she doesn’t expect, but they happen anyway. Like Daniel deciding he needs to see the scientist Dr Ella in action over a weekend before he hands over the cash. Cue a crash course in outdoorsy living and scientific method. But there’s definitely some odd things going on, both at home and out bush, and Della will have her hands full trying to sort it all out before the end.

It’s hard to comment without risking massive spoilerage, but it may be sufficient to say that Della and her family of con artists find that life is a lot harder to manipulate when you’re not always sure who is lying to whom.

There’s a delicious screwball humour about the whole story of Daniel, Della and Della’s misfit family. There’s also a warm sense of bygone eras about it – that whiff of the gentleman thief, like Raffles, the roguishly charming villainy of some Cary Grant films. Della’s family, living in their ramshackle old home filled with secret doorways and hidden rooms, belongs to a more chivalrous time than the one they live in.

It’s refreshing, too, to see a heist story from the point of view of a female protagonist, Della is sharp, funny, thoughtful and clever. Joining her on the journey to discover the layers of truths behind this simple job gone complicated, and her own family.

All these layers of lies and that sense of old fashioned chivalrous thievery are central to the plot and its resolution. This makes it more than a screwball romance or a heist story – it’s also a story about people and change and belonging. But mainly it’s huge fun and very engaging !

Fall Girl by Toni Jordan is published by Text Publishing.

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