Gilbey on Film: lovable Roeg

This great British director's movies are enjoying a deserved revival.

Two pieces of Nicolas Roeg-related good news arrived this morning. The first came in the post: a copy of BFI Southbank's March programme, with its long-overdue Roeg season.

It's no exaggeration to say that I grew up on Roeg; my tastes were shaped, and my horizons broadened, by his films. I came of cinema-going age during what is generally considered the start of his downward slide: the first film of his that I saw at the cinema was Castaway in 1986, followed by the unloved curiosity that is Track 29 -- a freaky, Dennis Potter-scripted adult fairy-tale with a mix'n'match cast (Gary Oldman, Back to the Future's Christopher Lloyd and Roeg's wife Theresa Russell, a regular fixture in his work for 12 years beginning with 1979's Bad Timing). The Witches, Roeg's traumatic 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl's novel, was a gruesome joy right up to the moment of its compromised ending, and went some way toward bringing the director back into favour.

But Cold Heaven, the fraught and creepy psychological thriller that marked his last collaboration with Russell, drifted on to video after a couple of festival screenings; I remember seeing Roeg on a TV arts show around that time, arguing that the film's themes and concerns were not dissimilar from those found in the then-current blockbuster Total Recall. It wasn't a far-fetched claim by any means, but there was palpably the sense that cinema audiences, critics and the industry in general had moved on from Roeg.

Funny to think that films as scandalous (in both formalist and visual terms) as Performance, Don't Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth could have become part of the canon, but maybe that was one aspect of the problem: possibly we felt we had all the Nicolas Roeg films we wanted, and we had no further use for any more. So I mourn the fact that Roeg never got to shoot his much-mooted adaptation of Martin Amis's Night Train, or to bring to the screen Paul Theroux's clammy thriller Chicago Loop with James Spader (Theroux had dedicated the novel to Roeg -- with whom he had conjured up the plot -- and Russell). He remained instead effectively relegated to TV, or forgotten, ever since.

As for the question of whether a falling-off in quality had contributed to this general fatigue in our response to him, that is not something I can answer until I've watched the later movies again. Were I to defer now to my teenage self for an opinion, there's every chance he would rave long into the evening without discernment before asking if anyone knows how to get hold of a "This Charming Man" 12-inch for under £20.

The other bulletin from the world of Roeg is the appearance of Don't Look Now at the top of Time Out's just-published Top 100 Best British Films poll, which proves that he is still greatly treasured after all this time (Perfomance, Walkabout and Bad Timing also make appearances further down the list), but also that we have decided collectively to write off the later films and give obeisance to the accepted masterpieces.

Either way, the recognition is reassuring, considering the debt that modern film-makers (Christopher Nolan in Memento, Alejandro González Iñárritu in 21 Grams and Babel, Steven Soderbergh in The Limey, Julio Medem in The Red Squirrel) owe to the fractured, associative storytelling style pioneered by the likes of Resnais and Roeg. It isn't simply a case of throwing the scenes up in the air and cutting them together in whichever order they fall; there's an intuitive quality to Roeg's mosaic textures, so that colours, sounds, words and visual echoes can cause a sudden ricochet effect in the narrative chronology.

I still think of Roeg as one of cinema's great cerebral and emotional forces, yet I didn't vote for any of his films in my own contribution to the poll: were there too many other contenders, or had he just become too familiar to me, so much a part of myself that I had failed even to notice him any more? A bit of the former but more of the latter, I think.

When I got to interview him in 1995 (before the release of his film Two Deaths), he disputed the long-rumoured story that he liked to leave a cinema halfway through whatever film he happened to be watching so that he could imagine the rest himself. It really doesn't matter that it isn't true because it fits: something in that mixture of perverseness and imagination gets close to the essence of Roeg.

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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism