Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Niall Ferguson, Sue Miller’s 9/11 fiction and the life of Caravaggio.

Caravaggio: a Life Sacred and Profane, by Andrew Graham-Dixon

"This is an exciting biography, punctuated with fights and feuds," writes Michael Prodger in the Sunday Telegraph; "Where Graham-Dixon's Caravaggio differs from that of previous writers is that he thoroughly scoured the criminal archives as well as the more usual repositories . . . he appears time and again in court records as either the aggressor in assorted brawls or as being mysteriously nearby when they happened."

For Peter Conrad in the Observer, "This is less a biography than a critical study that searches for traces of Caravaggio in the milieux, both churchy and raunchy, which he frequented. Graham Dixon's high-minded interpretations of the pictures don't always convince, but he describes paint with a rare poetic finesse."

Cristopher Bray, writing in the Independent, is also impressed: "Though the lineaments of this story -- from Caravaggio's brutish strutting through counter-Reformation Rome . . . to his impoverished, malarial death on the beach at Porto Ercole -- are well known, there is much that is new here . . . And though some of [Graham-Dixon's] iconographic hermeneutics are a little far-flung, there's no gainsaying the depth of research behind them."

The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller

In April, Ron Charles, writing in the Washington Post, delivered the following assessment of this tale of love-loss and false grieving in post-9/11 New York: "The Lake Shore Limited may be the closest thing we'll get to a [Henry] James response to 9/11: no drama, no crisis, barely any action at all -- just a deeply affecting examination of the thoughts and feelings of four people still moving in the shadow of that tragedy."

But British critics have baulked at this assessment. "It is unlikely that [James] would ever have described, as Miller does, a person's shoulders as 'sheeny knobs'," writes Beth Jones in the Sunday Telegraph, "or used the expression 'soft structural whumps' to describe the sound of a couple having sex." Nor, writes Lisa O'Kelly in the Observer, "would he have been likely to invent a character who moaned aloud due to the proximity of a woman's 'warm dampness' ".

"Yet while her language can sometimes be pedestrian and there is too much filler detail," continues O'Kelly, "she remains an often sharply observant and perceptive writer, adept at revealing painful emotional truths about love and loss, regret and betrayal."

High Financier: the Lives and Time of Siegmund Warburg by Niall Ferguson

Frank Partnoy, writing in the Financial Times, calls this an "illuminating and important new biography . . . of the man who built and defined S G Warburg". Its main lesson, Partnoy explains, is that "if Warburg's conservative approach had survived, his bank and others would have shunned consolidation during the 1990s, avoided excess risk and might even have dodged the recent crisis".

"There is little here of the blood and guts sustaining many popular biographies," Partnoy acknowledges, but "Ferguson's higher purpose is to introduce not the man, but his ideas . . . Warburg's bank preserved by sustaining its morals and reputation."

For Bryan Appleyard, writing in last week's New Statesman, "this is Ferguson at his finest . . . beautifully paced, dramatically subtle and psychologically shrewd". "He had access to 10,000 letters and a mass of previously unpublished material," Appleyard writes, "and has turned it all into a testament to what the world lost when it embraced a colder, harder globalisation than any imagined by Siegmund."

But for T J Stiles, writing in the Washington Post, "the very mass of Ferguson's expertise and research weighs upon his writing. I was surprised by his confidence in readers' historical and financial knowledge . . . [and] the bounty of manuscripts [available to Ferguson] occasionally leads to overindulgence, with a narrow focus on Warburg's views, not their impact."

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

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.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories