Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on the latest books by Orlando Figes, Colm Tóibín and P D James.

Crimea: the Last Crusade by Orlando Figes

Angus Macqueen in the Observer praises "Figes's lucid account of three years of bloodletting in the Black Sea", whose chief merit resides in "attempting to place the Crimean war as the fulcrum of 19th-century Europe between Waterloo and the First World War". "With his deep understanding of Russia and its uncomfortable position in the world, Figes elegantly underlines how the cold war of the Soviet era froze over fundamental fault lines that had opened up in the 19th century."

For Mark Bostridge, writing in the FT, "The book's true originality lies in its unravelling of the Crimean war's religious origins." The rivalry between the Catholics and the Greeks, backed by France and Orthodox Russia respectively, "is represented as the vital spark igniting the conflagration that followed". The author of Florence Nightingale: the Woman and Her Legend (Penguin) finds less convincing other aspects of Figes's book, including his characterisation of Florence Nightingale, which "relies on tired old sexist taunts".

Oliver Bullough in the Independent acknowledges that he is not unbiased: Bullough's book Let Our Fame Be Great was the only one to be reviewed positively by Figes, who savaged all other rival accounts of the Russian Revolution in comments "unwisely" posted on Amazon. While recognising that "it is not a perfect book, and his sourcing can be erratic", he concludes that Figes's "lucid, well-written" account is "the only book on the Crimean war anyone could need".

"Crimea: the Last Crusade" will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín

For Hermione Lee in the Guardian, the "stories in The Empty Family – like the painful stories of family conflicts in his last collection, Mothers and Sons – are threaded through with regret and need". A few "soggy moments" set aside, Tóibín's "scenes of longing for lost family homes or missed landscapes" are admirable in their "dramatic economy". Lee sees the depiction of "women's interior lives" in particular as "one of Tóibín's great strengths".

Keith Miller in the Telegraph comments on "a certain autobiographical element: in the characters' age, sexuality, nationality and profession". "But from the particular crucible of his own life," she writes, "Tóibín has forged something of wider, if not quite general, interest: a schedule of the principal torments available to the educated, left-leaning, upwardly mobile, male baby boomer in middle age."

David Mattin in the Independent notes the "deep-running concern for modernity, and the spiritual deformations that it visits on us", underpinning the nine short stories in Tóibín's collection. "Running deep beneath the stories is a concern for our new, modern rootlessness, and the collapse of old certainties."

Talking About Detective Fiction by P D James

Edmund Gordon in the Observer, thinks that, "As a personal (and gleefully partial) survey of the highlights of English detective fiction over the past 200 years, her book offers much that will enlighten and entertain." He is less convinced by her claim that "the genre has been unfairly stigmatised by critics, and is as worthy of academic attention as any other kind of writing". But her "modesty", combined with "intellectual vigour . . . make it impossible not to take [her views] seriously".

For Amanda Craig in the Independent it is "P D James's longevity, as well as her serene intelligence, that makes this book especially noteworthy and enjoyable, for at 89 she has grown up with the Golden Age of detective fiction as well as made a substantial contribution to it".

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Daniel Day-Lewis is a genius, but I'll shed more tears for actors who don't choose to stop

I've always felt respect rather than love for the three-times Oscar winner.

Imagine learning of the closure of an exquisite but prohibitively expensive restaurant that you only got round to visiting once every four or five years. There would be an abstract feeling of sadness, perhaps, that you will no longer be able to sample new, satisfying flavours twice a decade in that establishment’s uniquely adventurous style. A nostalgic twinge, certainly, relating to the incomparable times you had there in the past. But let’s be realistic about this: your visits were so infrequent that the restaurant’s absence now is hardly going to leave an almighty black hole in your future. If you’re completely honest, you may even have thought upon hearing the news: “That place? I hadn’t thought about it for yonks. I didn’t even know it was still open.”

That sums up how I feel about the announcement this week that Daniel Day-Lewis is retiring. What an actor: three Oscars, a method genius, all of the above. But prolific is the last thing he is. It would be disingenuous to say that any of us had imagined seeing too many more Day-Lewis performances before we finish strutting and fretting our own hour upon the stage. I’m 45; Day-Lewis’s first, brief screen appearance was in Sunday Bloody Sunday, which came out the year I was born. So even allowing for another 30 years on this planet, I still wasn’t reckoning on seeing new screen work from him more than five times in my life. It’s a loss but, given the proper support and counselling, it’s one I can live with.

Looking at Day-Lewis’s recent work-rate helps bring some perspective to the situation. He is currently shooting the 1950s-set fashion drama, Phantom Thread, for Paul Thomas Anderson, who solicited from him a towering, elemental performance in There Will Be Blood, which won him his second Oscar. But before that, the last time we saw him on screen was four-and-a-half years ago in Lincoln (Oscar Number Three). Prior to that, a full three years earlier, was Nine, a woeful musical spin on Fellini’s that is one of the few blots on an otherwise impeccable CV. In 2007, it was There Will Be Blood; in 2005, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, directed by his wife, Rebecca Miller; and in 2002, Scorsese’s Gangs of New York—the film that enticed Day-Lewis out of his first retirement.

Oh yes, there was an earlier one. The retirement which didn’t take. After making The Boxer in 1997 with Jim Sheridan, who directed him in My Left Foot (where he got Oscar Number One for playing the writer Christy Brown) and In the Name of the Father, the actor went off to become a shoemaker’s apprentice in Florence. A Daniel Day-Lewis spoof biopic surely couldn’t have come up with a more characteristic career swerve than that. This, after all, is the man who lived in the wild for weeks before making The Last of the Mohicans, and who endured physical deprivations to prepare himself for In the Name of the Father, in which he played Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four. He also famously stays in character, or at least refuses to drop his assumed accent, posture and demeanour, between takes on set—an easily-ridiculed trait which actually makes a poetic kind of sense. Here’s how he explained to the Guardian in 2009:

“If you go to inordinate length to explore and discover and bring a world to life, it makes better sense to stay in that world rather than jump in and out of it, which I find exhausting and difficult. That way there isn’t the sense of rupture every time the camera stops; every time you become aware of the cables and the anoraks and hear the sound of the walkie-talkies. Maybe it’s complete self-delusion. But it works for me.”

So the method immersion and the physical consequences (he broke two ribs during My Left Foot and contracted pneumonia while shooting Gangs of New York) make him a target for mockery. There have been accusations, too, that his workings-out as an actor are often clearly visible in the margins. “All that screaming and hyperventilating,” remarked the filmmaker and Warhol acolyte Paul Morrissey. “You may as well have a ‘Men at Work’ sign when he’s on screen.”

But no workman operating a pneumatic drill ever announced his retirement through the world media. (And with such petulant phrasing from his official spokesperson: “This is a private decision and neither he nor his representatives will make any further comment on this subject.”) Making plain this retirement, rather than simply getting on with it quietly and without fanfare, serves a number of functions. It’s going to be very beneficial indeed to Phantom Thread when it opens at the end of this year: the distributors can go right ahead and advertise it as Day-Lewis’s final performance without fear of contradiction. That’s the sort of promotional boon that only usually happens in the case of posthumous releases. And coming right out and saying “It’s over” also helps remind the world that Day-Lewis is still there, even if he won’t be for very much longer. It puts him right back in the headlines. It’s a wise career move—to use the words with which Gore Vidal responded to news of Truman Capote’s death—for a career that is now at its flickering end. 

But I’ll save my tears for the next actor whose life ends prematurely—another Philip Seymour Hoffman or Heath Ledger—rather than one who has the luxury of being able to call “Cut!” on his career at a time of his choosing. Perhaps I’m taking this news better than some of my colleagues because Day-Lewis, though a master of his craft, has always been an actor who engendered respect rather than love. One component of his mastery in recent years has been a studious coldness. No one has yet put it better than the comedian Adam Riches, who described Day-Lewis as “the greatest actor never to have appeared in anyone’s favourite film.” 

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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