Ancient history

Biopics as old-fashioned as their subjects

The latest work by the Monsoon Wedding director, Mira Nair, is Amelia, a biopic exploring (but never interrogating, mind) the life of the pioneering aviatrix and flapper Amelia Earhart. It is a stunningly unambitious piece of film-making.

Indeed, from the moment it takes as its entry point Earhart's much-mythologised final flight (during which her plane disappeared somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, never to be seen again etc, etc), thus clearing the way for the main part of the film to be constructed out of an utterly linear sequence of flashbacks, it is clear that it will spend two hours attempting to tick all the good old biography boxes. A couple of brief scenes from subject's childhood (preferably doing something linked to their later life -- staring at a plane, say)? Check. A scene proving the precociousness/courage/blah of the subject, displayed in the face of initial humiliation and rejection? Check. An impressionistically ambiguous final shot with a voice-over celebrating "freedom" or something similarly abstract (and therefore implying, to quote Dylan, that death is not the end) . . . You get the idea.

If Nair's movie was an anomaly, it'd be fair enough to shrug one's shoulders and ignore its old-fashionedness. But it is not. In fact, I'd suggest that Amelia's failings are symptomatic of several, largely unacknowledged problems that have been plaguing biographical cinema for years. Viz: a lack of new ideas about how to treat "non-fiction"; an unwillingness to experiment or to innovate structurally; a belief that archaic notions about "realism" and reverence ought still to be respected; an inability to recognise that the greatest biopic ever made, Citizen Kane, embodied the exact opposite of all these traits.

Consider the reception that greeted Todd Haynes's superb Dylan biopic, I'm Not There -- everywhere, a sense of relief that somebody, finally, was willing to break the mould. Here is Toby Litt, discussing the film in the New Statesman back in 2007: "I'm Not There . . . is as fragmented as any mainstream Hollywood movie has ever been," he argued:

Like Dylan, I'm Not There shape-shifts incessantly. It is a film very much made in the editing room. Far more ambitious than [Anton Corbijn's Ian Curtis biopic] Control, it succeeds in doing what me and all the other megastar dreamers always wanted: it stands us inside Dylan's shoes . . . And viewing the film as a whole, we can at least allow ourselves the illusion that this is how Dylan remembers his life. Towards the end, Cate Blanchett -- who channels 1966 Dylan, right down to contorted hand gestures and incessant eye-rubbing -- turns to the camera and says something to the effect that it's all about hexagons. I'm Not There is an object with six sides, but it is a single object.

Yet, two years on, it seems to me that few have made much of an effort to follow Haynes's lead. Not even innovative directors constructing elegant films: say, Jane Campion's Bright Star (which takes John Keats and Fanny Brawne as co-subjects), or Diana Kurys's Sagan (on Françoise Sagan), for instance.

Litt's remarks about "the illusion that this is how Dylan remembers his life" draw attention to exactly what, one suspects, those directors would propose as a defence: the importance of integrity, accuracy, doing justice to one's subject; the verisimilitude, the true-to-life-ness necessary if one is to get any sense of this into a film. Certainly this seems to be what Nair was aiming to achieve: Amelia closes with a slide show of actual photographs of scenes that the film has attempted to re-create, as though to celebrate its own precision, its own truth.

But didn't visual art, literature, the vast bulk of cinema realise, many, many years ago, that realism is a myth? How can a two-hour film depict, with any sort of exactness, an entire life? How can a three-minute sequence showing Earhart fighting to navigate her way through a storm, and then pulling her plane out of a nosedive, and then struggling against sleepiness, come close to a true representation of the dangers that she faced during her 1932 solo flight across the Atlantic?

I'm reminded of a passage that appears early on in Jonathan Coe's magnificent biography of that 1960s one-man British literary avant-garde, B S Johnson -- the brilliantly titled Like a Fiery Elephant:

He lambasted those figures who continued to write "as though the revolution that was Ulysses had never happened", insisting that any attempt . . . to follow the practice of the great 19th-century novelists was "anachronistic, invalid, irrelevant and perverse". "Present-day reality", he argued, "is markedly different from [. . .] 19th-century reality. Then it was possible to believe in pattern and eternity, but today what characterises reality is the possibility that chaos in the most likely explanation."

Coe goes on to explain that Johnson considered the writing of conventional, linear, realistic fiction after Joyce "the literary equivalent of travelling by horse and cart when there were cars and trains available". Coe's book (like, indeed, his later novels) itself subscribes to this principle: it attempts to trace the line of its subject's life using the very methods Johnson both adopted and advocated, be that shattered narrative or an ever-present honesty with the reader that telling stories, however steeped in fact, might as well be "telling lies".

This second idea is a lesson the literary biopic learned years ago -- codified in works published in the middle of the 20th century, such as Truman Capote's "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood and Tom Wolfe's wildly influential The New Journalism. These are works that any author attempting to pen contemporary "non-fiction" (Dave Eggers, say) has a responsibility to be aware of, respond to. So why are present-day film directors and screenwriters of non-fiction not put under similar pressure?

Why is it that when in 2000, to take one more example, Ed Harris decided to make Pollock, "a true portrait of life and art" about an abstract expressionist painter, he chose to use exactly the approach that abstract expressionism did its best to kill off once and for all? That's what I want to know.

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Broken and The Trial: From Sean Bean playing a priest to real life lawyers

A surprisingly involving depiction of a clergyman provides the saintly contrast to the sinner being judged by a real jury.

I was all set to scoff at Broken, Jimmy McGovern’s new series for BBC1 (30 May, 9pm). A drama about a Catholic priest and his impoverished parish in a “major northern city”, it sounded so hilariously McGovern-by-numbers (“Eh, lad, give us the collection bowl – the leccy wants paying”) that on paper it could pass for a spoof. Even funnier, Sean Bean, late of Game of Thrones, was to play the clergyman in question.

Naturally, I adore Bean, who comes from the major northern city that is Sheffield, as I do, and who is so terribly . . . virile (though when I interviewed him in a car park behind King’s Cross Station a few years ago, and a security guard in a high-vis jacket approached us furiously shouting the odds, he ran and hid in his trailer, leaving yours truly to face the music). But let’s face it: he’s not exactly versatile, is he? The idea of him in a cassock, or even just a mud-coloured cardigan, made me laugh out loud.

Settling down to watch the series, however, I soon realised that no scoffing would be taking place. For one thing, Broken is hugely involving, its Dickensian plot (no spoilers here) as plausible as it is macabre. For another, in the present circumstances, its script seems to be rather daring. Not only is Father Michael Kerrigan shown – cover my eyes with the collected works of Richard Dawkins! – to be a good and conscientious priest, but his faith is depicted as a fine and useful thing. If he brings his besieged parishioners solace, he is sure to be carrying vouchers for the food bank as well.

The flashbacks from which he suffers – in which his mammy can be heard calling him a “dirty, filthy beast” and a spiteful old priest is seen applying a cane to his hand – are undoubtedly clichéd. But they are also a device. Forty years on, he is happy to nurse his dying mother, and his love for God is undimmed: two facts that are not, of course, unrelated. How weirdly bold for a television series to set its face against the consensus that denigrates all things Christian as it never would any other faith.

I don’t for a minute buy Anna Friel as Christina, the gobby, broke single mother Kerrigan is determined to help. Even when covered in bruises – a bust-up at the betting shop – Friel manages to look glossy, and she never, ever quits acting (with a capital A), which is a drag. But Bean is such a revelation, I was able to ignore the voice in my head which kept insisting that a Catholic priest as young as he is – in this realm, “young” is a couple of years shy of 60 – would surely be Polish or African (I’m not a Catholic but I am married to one, for which reason I occasionally go to Mass).

He plays Kerrigan, whose overwhelming desire to be kind sometimes makes him cack-handed, with great gentleness, but also with an uninflected ordinariness that is completely convincing. Part of the problem (my problem, at least) with Communion is the lack of rhetorical passion in most priests’ voices, something he captures perfectly. One other thing: Line of Duty fans need to know that Adrian Dunbar – aka Ted Hastings – can also be seen here wearing a dog collar, and that he looks almost as good in it as he does in police uniform.

On Channel 4 The Trial: A Murder in the Family was an experiment in the shape of a murder trial in which the defendant – a university lecturer accused of strangling his estranged wife – and all the witnesses were actors but the lawyers and “jury” were real. Over five consecutive nights (21-25 May, 9pm), I found it pretty tiresome listening to jury members tell the camera what they made of this or that bit of evidence.

Get on with it, I thought, longing again for the return of Peter Moffat’s Silk. But I adored the lawyers, particularly the lead ­defence barrister, John Ryder, QC. What an actor. Sentences left his mouth fully formed, as smooth as they were savage, his charm only just veiling his mighty ruthlessness. Drooling at this performance – which was not, in one sense, a performance at all – I found myself thinking that if more priests came over like barristers, our dying churches might be standing room only.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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