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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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