Gilbey on Film: slight returns

Ken Loach and Woody Allen are back, but their movies display familiar flaws.

In this week's NS I'll be reviewing Ballast and Submarine, two films from first-time directors. Coincidentally, this week also brings new movies by a pair of respected veterans -- Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Ken Loach's Route Irish.

Between them, Allen and Loach have been directing for cinema for a combined total of 89 years. They made their film debuts within a year of one another. Allen's first directing credit was for What's Up Tiger Lily?, his 1966 redubbing of an existing Japanese spy movie, with his first original picture, the mockumentary Take the Money and Run, arriving three years later. Loach moved to cinema from television (a medium to which he has returned consistently ever since) with Poor Cow in 1967.

Both have seen their critical and commercial fortunes fluctuate, and it's instructive to consider their new films through the prism of the sort of expectations (high or low) engendered by artistic longevity. Only those who have never seen anything by Loach or Allen can possibly come to their latest work without years of hardened preconceptions. The consensus with Allen, at least in Britain, is that he has long been in decline -- depending on how charitable you feel, that decline began with The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), which Allen considers to be his worst movie, or Small Time Crooks (2000), or maybe even Mighty Aphrodite (1995), which began a run of calcified, often downright nasty pictures interrupted by the occasional encouraging fluke (Deconstructing Harry, Sweet and Lowdown).

It's interesting that US critics, notably the New Yorker's David Denby and Richard Brody, have taken an admiring view of the London-set pictures made since 2006 -- Match Point, Scoop (which never made it to UK cinemas), Cassandra's Dream and now You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. These are generally regarded in this country as a collective nadir in Allen's oeuvre. Part of the problem may be that UK audiences can't see or hear past the inauthentic cadences and phrasing, and the tourist's-eye view of London. But it's also the case that the moral quandaries and symmetrical dilemmas set up by Allen the screenwriter are poorly served by Allen the director.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger has an elegant construction -- four intertwining plots spark off one another, with each one resolved (or not) in its own deliciously ambiguous ending -- but it's hellish to watch under-directed actors, so stiff with one another that they might have been introduced mere seconds before Allen called "Action", left to flounder on screen. Brody tweeted this week that the film "is not comic romance but noir: it ends with the suggestion of three or four murders to come" -- a brilliant (and accurate) observation, but one which says more about his skill as a critic and interpreter than Allen's as a dramatist or communicator. It's fitting that Allen's recent work should be so strong on structure and so unconvincing in execution, since he directs like someone who never leaves his typewriter. He can't hear how real people speak, and he doesn't see when his actors are bogus.

On the other hand, the few instances of vitality in the new picture come from some of the cast -- in particular the brilliant Lucy Punch, who's stuck with one of those roles (the vulgar, unsophisticated and embarrassing younger woman) that Allen writes in bile, not ink.

It's been the case for a while now that distributors consider it prudent to omit Allen's name from the posters for his own films (see Whatever Works and Vicky Cristina Barcelona), making him the marketing department's equivalent of "the Scottish play." The only way they can get audiences in to see his work is by pretending he wasn't involved; if he can only be persuaded to hire another director to shoot his screenplays, we might be getting somewhere.

Loach's latest film, Route Irish, is no less stilted than Allen's, but its awkwardness arises from a different source. This is Loach and his screenwriter Paul Laverty in thriller mode, with lots of exposition to convey while sustaining a paradoxical atmosphere of realism and improvisation. There has been no protracted decline in Loach's work; he's still exhibiting the same strengths and shortcomings that he always has. In Route Irish, which concerns a private security contractor in Iraq who investigates his best friend's death, or Hidden Agenda (the director's 1990 retelling of the Stalker affair), the demands of genre compromise the freshness that is one of Loach's defining characteristics.

The best of his work has a verité immediacy that spills off the screen, as befits a director adverse to the artifice of film-making. "If Loach could make a film without a camera, he would," observed Trevor Griffiths, after collaborating on the 1986 film Fatherland. "He wants the actors to just be themselves so that everything looks as though it has just happened." On Carla's Song, Loach gave the actor Robert Carlyle the barest bones of preparatory tips for his character: "Your name's George and you drive a bus. Maybe it would be a good idea if you learned to drive a bus."

That process, designed to insulate freshness, starts to break down when what we see on screen becomes subordinate to plot. Route Irish raises some important questions about the carte blanche formerly afforded to private contractors in Iraq. But in the fusion of Loachian authenticity and the conspiracy thriller format, both come off looking bruised.

To take an example, the scene in which the main character extracts information from the villain (and Loach's film is as rigid in its moral delineation as any Hollywood blockbuster) by subjecting him to an improvised bout of waterboarding in a Liverpool lock-up is both thematically right and dramatically ridiculous. In other words, the symbolic justification for the scene doesn't make it any more plausible. Loach and Allen don't have much in common, but it's striking to note that their new films share a fatal flaw: the failure to translate ideas into drama. They're good on paper, but dead on screen.

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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

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