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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

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 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit