Gilbey on film: A matter of life and death

Kazuo Ishiguro and the cinema of mortality.

According to Stephen King, the first contact he ever had with Stanley Kubrick came shortly before the director filmed his adaptation of King's novel The Shining. (Which, by the by, gives me a great excuse to link to this fake trailer, much-circulated but still hugely amusing, imagining that bright-lit horror as a cockle-warmer à la Regarding Henry or A Good Year or Dan in Real Life.) King tells the story of how Kubrick called out of the blue one morning to posit the theory that all works of the supernatural must be inherently hopeful because they propose that there is life after death.

This thought occurred to me a few weeks ago while I was watching Biutiful, which is approximately 99 per cent grim, with a crucial 1 per cent of hope provided by the knowledge that all the suffering endured by the characters will be followed by serenity -- at least if there's any truth in the brief glimpse the film gives us of the afterlife. The spirit may begin its journey clinging to the ceiling, like something nasty you get in your hotel room on a cheap package holiday to Gran Canaria, but at least one dead character ends his days in a peaceful, snow-covered woodland clearing, which stands in stark contrast to the rest of the film's locations: sweatshops, funeral parlours, immigrant detention centres and cramped urban apartments at which even a battery hen would turn up its beak.

Another, more transparently reassuring film about the afterlife -- Clint Eastwood's Hereafter (the placatory spiritual content of which is discussed here) -- also opened last week. Put aside the latter picture's shameless piggybacking on disasters natural (the 2004 tsunami) and man-made (the London bombings on 7 July 2005) and it's clear that Hereafter is providing a necessary and traditional service. On one hand such movies offer the same balm in troubled times as a great work such as A Matter of Life and Death, which in 1946 reassured audiences grieving over wartime losses that an afterlife resembling their mortal existence, right down to the meddlesome bureaucracy, awaited them at the top of a vast staircase. But there is always the question of tone: while Powell and Pressburger's film brings a warm, wry wit to bear on its fantasy, and leaves ample space for the viewer's good-natured incredulity, Hereafter depends for its success on being watched straight; in that context, it leaves you feeling you've been taken for a sucker.

At the other end of the scale on the subject of spirituality and the afterlife is the forthcoming adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, which opens on 11 February. Look out for it: despite the shocking snub it received from Bafta, and the fact that its distributor is effectively throwing in the towel by releasing it on the same day as the Coen brothers' True Grit, with which it will compete for the same audience, it has much to recommend it. Certain details from Ishiguro's novel have been compromised: the main character, for example, has been weirdly stripped of her sexual promiscuity in the apparent interests of good taste, while a key moment pertaining to the title has been completely undermined.

But what remains undiminished is the source material's staggeringly sane perspective in the face of death. The film's director Mark Romanek has already explored death and its attendant taboos from unusual angles -- first in his whimsical 1985 debut Static (a highly original work which, outrageously, he now omits from his CV) and then in the mighty video he directed for "Hurt" by Johnny Cash. Without lessening the cosmic dread around the subject, Never Let Me Go brings to it a sense of resolution, even positivity.

Some reviews of the novel were understandably circumspect in discussing the story's surprises, which were revealed only gradually, but I can say upfront -- because the film does -- that it begins at a boarding school for children who have been cloned to provide organ donations when they reach adulthood. As the characters grow up, their struggle to come to terms with their premature deaths (well, premature to us, but natural to them) mirrors the futile wrestling match with mortality in which we all engage.

"I think we're offering a fairly optimistic story," Ishiguro told me last year.

"How the characters behave to each other provides an optimistic view of human nature. They're not all fighting for their little bit, they're not grasping at material possessions; what they really care about is each other, and if they've done something wrong they want to apologise and put it right. That's why the bleak backdrop is there. It's so we can watch what matters to people when they know they're down to their last few moments. There's a big metaphor about mortality, the human lifespan, in the book but for me the point of the story isn't to say, 'Look folks, we're all going to die, just wanted to remind you!' It's not that. It's more that given we only have limited time, how should we use it? What's actually important? What are human beings like?"

Never Let Me Go is released on 11 February.

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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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.