Gilbey on Film: what to watch in 2010

Our film critic chooses his highlights

Three weeks ago, I was sitting in a café ("café" being the euphemism of choice for those of us who frequent any of the popular high-street coffee chains, but would rather people didn't know it) when I fell under the spell of the couple at the next table. Not only were they bickering -- always prime eavesdropping material -- but the contentious subject was movies. He wanted to see Avatar that evening, while she was adamant that paying to watch a film that she knew in advance would be pure tedium was not on the cards for that Friday night, or any other.

I did my utmost to appear absorbed in my reading, and to refrain from rushing to the defence of this sane-headed woman. Just as well, really, because the entire fabric of their relationship was starting to unravel. "Whenever you choose the film, it turns out to be crap," she argued, which would have given her the upper hand, had he not immediately produced his trump card: "You're the one who made us see Save the Last Dance." Oof! That's gotta hurt.

Now we're on the other side of Christmas, I find myself wondering if they made it through. The odds weren't good; when the topic moved on to films they were looking forward to in 2010, he cited Iron Man 2 and the forthcoming remake of Clash of the Titans, while she sought silent consolation in her cappuccino. As I started coming over all superior towards my fellow coffee-consumer, I wondered if my own Must-See list for the coming year was any more radical than his. The answer: not really.

Most of the films I'm excited about are safe bets in their own way. For example, I can't wait for The Killer Inside Me because the idea of Michael Winterbottom directing Casey Affleck in a Jim Thompson adaptation sounds like dynamite (and because someone who caught an early cut assured me that it's impressively nasty).

Scott Pilgrim v the World has me hooked already because I adore the director (Edgar Wright) and the source material (Bryan Lee O'Malley's witty graphic novels about a lovestruck bassist who must overcome his new girlfriend's evil exes). And I like the look of Gentlemen Broncos, a florid comic fantasy about a science-fiction writer who plagiarises the work of a fan; I'm hoping it will return the writer-director Jared Hess to the heights of his debut, Napoleon Dynamite, after the disappointment of Nacho Libre.

I also hear great things about the new films from Claire Denis (White Material) and Lucrecia Martel (The Headless Woman). And I'm eager to see Chris Morris's first film, the jihad comedy Four Lions. But then, who isn't?

More than any of these partly known quantities, though, it is the surprises that get me buzzing: the films I haven't heard of, by directors whose names don't ring a bell, but which will in all likelihood change my life. The idea that they are out there somewhere is like the promise of an undiscovered colour. Or, at the very least, a new flavour of ice cream.

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.

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.

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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge