Review: Edmund de Waal Contemporary at Waddesdon

Acclaimed author returns to pots in a new exhibition.

Edmund de Waal is an unlikely celebrity. Tall, thin and unassuming to the point of extinction, he seems, even at a private view surrounded by family and friends, to be always on the edge of the picture. This won't do, because, even if we put aside memories of last year's bestseller, the Hare with Amber Eyes, de Waal is still one of the foremost ceramicists of our age.

His exhibition, just opened at Rothschild-owned Waddesdon manor, near Aylesbury, is in many ways a response to the book's success, which won him the Costa biography award. Waddesdon, grand and as ridiculously opulent as a late Victorian mansion owned by the richest people in the world can be, is far from a family house. It was used most regularly as a party house for hunting gatherings, and in fact still is, in the winter off-season. But the Rothschilds and the Ephrussis, de Waal's ancestors who starred in his memoir, are interlinked families, and the house is bound up for him in the history he told.

He says he intended the exhibition “to be a way of thinking through, in visual terms, some of the ideas on belonging that drift through my book The Hare with Amber Eyes.” He insisted nothing was moved from the permanent collection to make way for the pots.

The result of this is that the ceramics are placed in conversation with other pieces of art in the house, making a charming mishmash of styles. One of the most memorable locations is an enormous Russian desk, complete with two clocks and a copious amount of black Japanese lacquer. de Waal called it “a desk to sign treaties on”. On it a vitrine is placed, with a series of stacked dark glazed pots, almost like sake cups. The comparison between the simple, understated but beautiful ceramics and the death-by-gilt desk is striking, indeed perhaps too striking, as many visitors miss it as they come through the door.

Vitrines are fashionable these days, but I'm not sure they are the ideal choice for De Waal's work, as they separate them from their surroundings when they should communicate with them. It is the first time he has used them in his work. The plates appear to be floating, which is effective, but the vitrines make the ceramics run the risk of being more museum pieces than living artworks. They also make it harder to see how the glaze reflects the surroundings.

Some of the vitrines are frosted so that you can only see a ghostly outline of the pot within, a deliberate attempt to reflect a sense of loss inherent in Jewish ancestry that nonetheless feels a bit frustrating.

It's a lovely exhibition, however, capable of enchanting people who previously thought plates were just for eating off as well as hardened ceramic fans. Particular favourites include the stack of white glazed plates with a gold one hidden in the pile, and the tiny smear of gold glaze on a rank of black glazed cups. Waddesdon itself is one of those places that have to be seen to be believed.

Photo: Paul Barker © The National Trust, Waddesdon Manor
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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

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 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories