Fight club: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Atticus in Pompeii.
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All you need is lava: Sparks fly in Paul W S Anderson's Pompeii

The love story between a slave and a noblewoman is clearly influenced by Titanic, but better described as Gladiator with a topping of molten lava.

Tragedy plus time equals disaster movie, as the saying almost goes. The more time, the better, if you’re going to transplant fictional characters into real situations. James Cameron’s Titanic may look like passable entertainment in 200 years but, for now, that film’s implicit suggestion that the ship went down because two young lovers dared to cross the class divide seems tasteless at best. Pompeii, shot in 3D, has the balance right. As it is set in a-long-time-ago AD, it doesn’t breach propriety when imagining the doomed souls who perished as the city was transformed into the world’s largest ashtray. The love story between a slave and a noblewoman is influenced by Titanic but the film could also be described as Gladiator served with a topping of molten lava.

As a child in Britannia, Milo (played as an adult by Kit Harington) sees his mother slain by a vicious Roman leader. No sword-and-sandals hero ever got anywhere without first witnessing the death of a parent and vowing revenge – just ask Conan. Milo is put into slavery and becomes a gladiator with a formidable fighting style and an even more formidable bounce to his ringlets. (I’m betting he uses Miss Jessie’s Pillow Soft Curls.) His owners recognise his special aptitudes for combat and for keeping his stubble the same length at all times. He is transported from Londinium, also known as the Land of Too Few Extras, to the arenas of Pompeii, where vast and unconvincing CGI vistas extend in every direction. His black suede jerkin and the leather bootlaces he wears around his neck suggest that he came to Italy via Camden Market.

In Pompeii, Milo is pitted against the towering African slave Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who has the uncanny ability to sound like he is being dubbed at all times. The two adversaries defy their masters and become allies, clapping each other on the back and swapping tips.

“Your right arm is stronger than your left,” says Atticus.

“You should learn to thrust when you shift your weight,” replies Milo. Boys, please. Get a cubiculum.

Milo also comes to the attention of Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of the city’s ruler, Severus (Jared Harris), and for a few scenes they engage in some light flirtatious simpering: catch one another’s eye, look down coyly, look up again, bite lip. It seems as if it’ll be a fine romance, or at least a contest to see which of them can show the greatest amount of thigh. Unfortunately, Cassia is desired by the tyrant Corvus (played by Kiefer Sutherland), who was a total A-hole to her during her gap year in Rome. More pressingly, Corvus turns out to be the brute who killed Milo’s mother. Hell’s bells! Or, as Severus would say: “Juno’s tit!”

Corvus doesn’t take kindly to Cassia galloping across the countryside bareback with a slave and concocts various punishments, stripping Milo to the waist and doling out 15 of the finest homoerotic lashes.

“I could have prevented that,” gasps Cassia. “What was I thinking?”

“He made you feel alive,” whispers her handmaiden Ariadne (Jessica Lucas), angling shamelessly to write an advice column in one of the Sunday supplements.

Every now and then, there are some violent tremors and an urn falls off a shelf. “It is the mountain,” observes Atticus. “It rumbles from time to time.” Finally, Mount Vesuvius erupts in a fury, possibly in response to the dialogue it has been forced to hear, and all of Pompeii resembles an explosion in a crematorium. A tsunami hits the city, the streets are flooded and, in one of the most unexpected causes of death in history, hundreds of pedestrians are killed by a longship whooshing down Main Street.

It would be hard to begrudge a movie in which Atticus invents the Black Power salute moments before being pelted fatally with magma, while Corvus’s response to being double-crossed by Cassia is to yell: “You bitch!” With scenes such as those, Pompeii has some claim on being the greatest lava story of the year.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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