Gilbey on Film: No Cannes do

Don’t pay too much attention to the pictures that wow the festival crowds; we may only recognise a c

So, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. But how much do you really care about Cannes?

I've only attended the festival once. That was 1999. A good year, I reckon: the Dardenne brothers' Rosetta and Bruno Dumont's L'humanité scooped the big prizes from David Cronenberg's jury, while All About My Mother, Kadosh, The Straight Story, Pola X and Wonderland were memorable competitors.

I also spotted Jeff Goldblum rolling his eyes as we both left the cinema after Peter Greenaway's 8½ Women, wearing an expression that would now be described as: "WTF?"

While I harbour no burning desire to return to Cannes, it became a habit to peruse the festival despatches by other journalists and critics. This year, I broke that habit. It was all down to the sense of overkill after 2009's festival; by the time films such as The White Ribbon, A Prophet, Fish Tank and Antichrist landed a release here, I felt strongly that I had already watched them several times over. I didn't want that to happen again with this year's selection, so I adopted a policy of No Cannes Do.

Seeing a film fresh, with no prior knowledge of its flaws, virtues and twists as perceived by other eyes, is one of the rarest pleasures in cinemagoing. (I get quite unreasonably annoyed just thinking about the critics who revealed the identity of the casting surprise in Zombieland.) Add to that the unavoidable hothouse hysteria of many of those reviews filed straight from the steps of the Grand Palais, and you've got a recipe for some seriously warped judgements.

There are times when it can seem the festival isn't about the films at all, but rather the reaction to them. That is why the miserable ritual of booing has such a hallowed place at Cannes.

The most notorious example remains Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura, which is now regarded as a masterpiece, but was greeted with a chorus of catcalls on the Croisette in 1960.

Antonioni reportedly believed his career was over, until a band of critics and film-makers, including Roberto Rossellini, released a statement unequivocally supporting the film. It went on to win the jury prize. Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette and Vincent Gallo's unfairly maligned The Brown Bunny, along with the aforementioned Dumont film, are among recent competition entries that were subjected to a severe Cannes-ing.

Who knows how many of today's judgements will stand? As Steven Soderbergh said in 2007: "Twenty years from now we'll figure out which ones are great and which ones aren't." I was reminded of this comment, and of the unfairness of what is politely called "the common consensus", by the news that Ang Lee's Ride With the Devil has just been released on Region 1 DVD in a director's cut, with 13 minutes of missing footage restored.

In his look back at this masterful 1999 film, set during the US civil war, Graham Fuller of Sight and Sound strikes some familiar, plangent notes, reminding us that the picture was "poorly distributed and publicised on release . . . sank without trace . . . [was] not an easy sell . . ." And ain't that always the way?

Fuller rightly argues for the picture's unorthodox brilliance, calling it "the most mature film made about the effect the war had on shaping American society". Bravo. You can read a report here on a recent Q&A with James Schamus, the picture's articulate writer/producer (and regular Ang Lee collaborator), in which he reveals that his screenwriting dictum is not "Write what you know" so much as "Write anything but what you know".

Also heartening is news of another restoration. The new version of Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis is a case not of a disparaged or overlooked film being rehabilitated, like Ride With the Devil, but of a confirmed classic being shown at last in its correct form.

Chris Fujiwara writes: "For years now the false Metropolis has been running amok, courting charges of proto-Nazism, furnishing video backdrops for nightclubs, and fuelling predictable academic studies . . . The Lang film had been mutilated in so many ways that its creator insisted that it had ceased to exist." Metropolis will be released in the UK on 10 September.

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.

Show Hide image

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.

***I 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.

0800 7318496