Gilbey on Film: don't follow the Oscars herd

All this praise for The King's Speech makes me suspicious.

Ever since time began, mankind has yearned for justice to prevail at the Academy Awards. I don't think all the films which landed nominations this year are worthy of approbation.

Inception is surely only in the running because it's a popular favourite; the Best Picture category was expanded from five nominations to ten last year so that mainstream audiences could root for films they'd actually seen -- a transparent bit of populist tokenism. And I'm baffled by the general admiration for The Town, a compendium of macho crime movie clichés. But even we terminal Oscar curmudgeons would have to concede it's a pretty decent spread this year.

There's lots of love for The Social Network, Winter's Bone and The Fighter (out here on 4 Feb), as well as the odd crumb of comfort for Blue Valentine, Dogtooth, Biutiful and the Australian thriller Animal Kingdom (25 Feb). It's rumoured within the industry that Mike Leigh receives a Best Original Screenplay nomination each year whether or not he's actually written a new film, but that doesn't make his nod for Another Year (his fifth writing nomination from the Academy) any less deserved.

I can't even join in with much of the griping over at GoldDerby, where some of the exclusions are branded "shocking". Yes, it's a real shame that Andrew Garfield's portrayal of Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network was squeezed out of contention, particularly as he provides the emotional centre; he wears all the movie's pain in his worried face. But I can't get exercised over the omission of Michael Douglas for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (that would've been one of those "congratulations for still being alive" Oscars) or Robert Duvall for Get Low (ditto).

Casting a long shadow over the UK media's reporting has been, inevitably, The King's Speech. Supporters of the picture, who care not that it is dutiful and deferential to both royalty and to archaic wisdom about film acting and directing, may crow about its 12 nominations, but should recall the chastening example of The Color Purple (eleven nominations in 1985, but no prizes).

I won't begrudge Colin Firth the Best Actor award that he is the favourite to win; those of us unconvinced by The King's Speech might console ourselves by thinking of it as a deferred acknowledgement for his work last year in A Single Man (he was beaten to the gold by Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, who is in the shortlist for True Grit this time), much as Jeremy Irons's Oscar for Reversal of Fortune was widely considered to be compensation for his stunning double-performance, ignored by the Academy, in Cronenberg's Dead Ringers.

But I feel suspicious of any consensus, even if it's one that builds up around a film I admire. I happen to think The Social Network does everything right, and couldn't really be bettered, but I'm suspicious of the absence of any convincing counter-arguments (though Zadie Smith's rigorous analysis of the film, and the phenomenon it describes, is a joy to read).

Likewise, it's dispiriting to hear the party line being toed over The King's Speech, as though to fail to root for it would be tantamount to incinerating a Union Jack. On Radio 4 last night I heard a news item in which the film was described as -- let me get this right -- a metaphor for the Anglo-American relationship, with the irreverent speech therapist Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush) as the funky, straight-shooting US figure helping the uptight Brit to loosen up. This, the reporter suggested, was why the film had gone down so well in America. Despite the fact that Logue was, erm, Australian. And that the only American character in the film, Wallis Simpson, is roundly disparaged.

A similar kind of consensus has built up over the Golden Raspberry awards -- better known as the Razzies -- where the nominations give new meaning to the idea of easy targets. The Razzies were once prized as an antidote to Hollywood sycophancy, and there was usually a comingling of scorn and affection for the films that figured on their radar. These days, they have an orthodoxy of their own that's every bit as blinkered as the one promoted by The King's Speech cheerleaders.

Rather than singling out the genuinely pitiful but supposedly prestigious lows of the year -- The American, say, or Black Swan -- the Razzies are an unpleasant reflection of adolescent fanboy prejudice. You can find some informed objections to the awards' agenda (such as: Why do they aim most of their barbs at teen idols or gay icons?) here and here.

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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times