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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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.