Gilbey on Film: you say you want a revolution

Don't believe the hype about Kick-Ass.

As I wrote in the NS two weeks ago, I was amused and entertained by Kick-Ass, a violent comedy about a wave of DIY superheroes. Parts of the film have been described as shocking, but surely the biggest shock has been the adoration the movie has attracted from some quarters -- especially the Guardian, which described Kick-Ass on its website as "defiantly unconventional" and a "remarkable vision". Then Peter Bradshaw's frothing five-star rave ("thoroughly outrageous . . . fantastically anarchic . . . surrealist . . . monumentally mad and addled . . . a genius for incorrectness and pure provocation . . . . more energy and satire and craziness in its lycra-gloved little finger than other films have everywhere else. . . ") was followed by an approving capsule review in the paper's Saturday supplement, the Guide, which insisted that the movie "doesnt play by the rules".

The truth is that it plays by every rule. It doesn't rip up the rule-book so much as rewrite it in eye-catching neon.

The Financial Times and the Telegraph were scathing about the film, while the Independent and Observer were mercifully level-headed. But feverish approval was not restricted to the Guardian. I had to laugh when I heard the picture being discussed on Radio 4's Saturday Review, where Ekow Eshun delivered possibly my favourite line spoken anywhere, about anything, so far this year. He praised the film for "this desire to go to offensive places and own them as collective spaces". That is definitely what he said: I just went back and checked on the iPlayer. That's not an express ticket to Pseuds' Corner -- it's more like lobbying for a residency there.

But back to Kick-Ass: a good night out, yes, but no revolution. Here are a few reasons why, in addition to the ones I mentioned in my original review. Beware -- here be spoilers.

Fathers and sons. Like virtually every other mainstream movie in the western world, Kick-Ass has no place for women. The hero's mother dies in the first ten minutes or so. The mother of the foul-mouthed, 11-year-old crime-fighter Hit-Girl dies in a comic-strip flashback. (I can't remember if she expired in childbirth but, if not, she may as well have done.) The mother of Red Mist is glimpsed briefly at the breakfast table, then never seen again. Perhaps she died, too. The important thing is: no females, not real ones at any rate. There's something callous about that; you'll notice it everywhere. The makers of the Disney film Chicken Little got to the stage of casting the hero's single mother before deciding that it would be more dramatic to give him a single father instead. If you see that movie, keep an eye out for the character of the (now deceased) mother, consigned to a framed photograph on the mantelpiece. Brutal.

Women. OK, I exaggerated. There are women in Kick-Ass, but they're not real like the men. Hit-Girl isnt really a girl, but an adolescent lad's idea of a cool kid sister, meaner than any boy and with a mouth to match. The hero's love interest is only there to set up a running joke: she thinks he's gay. When she finds out he's not, and leaps straight into bed with him, you may wonder why the writers bothered with the gag anyway, unless the idea of a straight man being mistaken for a gay man is inherently funny. Which it may well be, unless you happen to be looking for a B&B.

Uxoriousness. I did wonder why the camera gazed so lovingly at that billboard of Claudia Schiffer. I didn't realise until I read other people's reviews that she is married to the director, Matthew Vaughn. Now it just looks sinister in the context of the film's insistence elsewhere on keeping its women in their place. What better way than by putting them on billboards in lingerie? (Vaughn began his career as a producer for Guy Ritchie. Ritchie has similar trouble with female characters -- remember Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels? You could use your thumbs to count that movie's non-decorative female roles. And you'd still have two thumbs left.)

The catchphrase. "With no power comes no responsibility." A neat line, you might think, and one which fans of the film have celebrated as both a jibe at Spider-Man (cheeky, really, since Kick-Ass steals most of its first 40 minutes from Sam Raimi's nicely judged 2002 adventure) and a symbol of the picture's amorality. What doesn't get mentioned is that the line is followed by the words: "Except that's not quite true . . ." The screenwriters giveth, and the screenwriters taketh away. If it wasn't quite true, why leave the line in? Oh, I see, because it gets a laugh. To which the only response can be: Get thee to a script editor.

You'll notice I haven't even included the highly dubious BBC cross-promotion that allows Jonathan Ross (whose wife, Jane Goldman, co-wrote the script) to plug the film on his Friday-night talk show in an interview with the star, Aaron Johnson. (Ross is also chums with the writer of the Kick-Ass comic-book, Mark Millar, who based a character in an earlier comic on the chat-show host.) And to think that the covers of children's story-books on the CBeebies channel are routinely blanked out to avoid accusations of on-screen advertising!

Why not add some of your reasons why Kick-Ass is nowhere near as subversive as its defenders would have us believe? Together we can own this debate. Maybe we can even take it to a collective place, weather permitting.

 

 

 

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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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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