Gilbey on Film: 44 Inch Chest -- and a very naughty word

Our film critic on swearing in movies.

Rich, vigorous and inventive swearing on film is hard to come by now -- either that or I'm inured to it -- but there's a foul-mouthed feast for the ears in 44 Inch Chest. This Pinteresque British film, released last month, is about a group of splenetic thugs who kidnap a young waiter who has cuckolded one of their number. While not especially distinguished, the picture has three things going for it: a rasping, rancid-looking John Hurt; the honey-voiced, smooth-as-a-bullet Ian McShane; and some of the ripest, most rhythmic use of verbal obscenities since David Mamet sustained a paper cut immediately after stubbing his toe.

In his New Yorker review of 44 Inch Chest, David Denby wrote: "The men take turns screaming at the silent Loverboy, as they call him, relying on extensive use of Britain's favorite four-letter word (not the same as America's favorite four-letter word)."

Woah there! Now wait just a minute. Is this really how the Manhattan cognoscenti regard us? (And have they never seen Curb Your Enthusiasm?) It's true that I haven't heard the word to which Mr Denby is referring -- we'll call it "clod" -- spill from the mouth of an actual American person, as opposed to a movie character, whereas in Britain you need only reach for the last tube of Werther's Originals in the shop to be branded a clod by the seething shopper who's next in line. But if all you had to go on was TV and cinema, you could hardly argue that we are a nation of clod-utterers. Unless, that is, you spent all your free time watching Danny Dyer movie marathons, and that's something you wouldn't wish on anyone, not even Danny Dyer.

I'm not sure where to cast my vote for Best Use of "Clod" In a Motion Picture. Withnail and I ("Monty, you terrible clod!") has to be a contender, but I find the word even more abrasive in the generally softer American accent, where it takes a moment to register what's been said. What a shock it was to hear Woody Allen deploy the insult in Deconstructing Harry; the BBFC clearly agreed, and gave Allen his first 18-certificate (for its "coarse language"). Even nastier was hearing Al Pacino use the word to diminish Kevin Spacey in the scalding film version of Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross.

I'll put an early bet on young Chloe Moretz to steal Pacino's crown when Kick-Ass, the forthcoming movie about DIY superheroes, opens here in April. Looking like a kid who should be plaiting the manes of her My Little Ponies, Moretz (a veteran of the TV series My Friends Tigger and Pooh, and just 12 when Kick-Ass was shot) delivers the "British" word with a lip-smacking ferociousness that would make Danny Dyer sob into his monogrammed West Ham handkerchief. The director of Kick-Ass, Matthew Vaughn, is British, while the comic-book series from which it is adapted is American. Under the rules of the Denby test, we'll call that one a draw.

The picture has already caused a minor storm in Australia, where it has been rated "MA". I'm not entirely familiar with the Aussie ratings system, but this denotes either that anyone under 15 can see the film only in the company of an adult, or that admission is granted only to those with a postgraduate degree.

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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism