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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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