Gilbey on Film: Hollow men

No wonder David Cameron likes The King's Speech.

Congratulations are in order to everyone involved with The King's Speech after its Oscar haul on Sunday. And commiserations to the losers, although at least David Fincher and his colleagues on The Social Network can content themselves with the certainty that they have made a film which will still be relished and scrutinised once The King's Speech has gone the way of Driving Miss Daisy, Out of Africa, Chariots of Fire and all the other Oscar-laden middlebrow master-classes languishing in prestigious oblivion.

Best Picture winners fall into various categories (including the "It's About Time" camp, which can benefit anything from Scorsese's The Departed to the third and least deserving Lord of the Rings instalment, or the "They Do Make 'Em Like That Any More" vote which enabled The Sting, Chicago and Gladiator to win). By and large, with exceptions like The Godfather Part II and The Hurt Locker, the Best Picture needs to represent some kind of balm. That might be embodied by the subject matter, which tends toward the familiar -- the historical, biographical or literary. It could be there in the tone, which should be reassuring (even One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which won at the height of the American New Wave, packaged counter-culture rebellion in a way that the aged Hollywood orthodoxy could applaud). It may even be simply in the warmth of the characters, which is my theory for how No Country For Old Men, brutal for the most part but anchored by a meditative, sympathetic Tommy Lee Jones, came to beat the transparently superior There Will Be Blood, which is bereft of anyone to cherish or root for.

In this context, The King's Speech can be viewed as not so much a movie as a machine to win Oscars. It is, from first frame to last, an extended exercise in comfort; it's all balm. It has a cosmetically massaged historical background, purged of any messy details, and divided into heroes and rogues. It has characters whose only purpose is to send waves of warmth off the screen and toward us in the auditorium -- characters who have struggles and moments of uncertainty, but nothing to dent or compromise their decency. Where is the tension? The tension is in the question of whether the speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) will cure King George VI (Colin Firth) of his stammer. Spoiler alert: he does. As James Franco -- admittedly not an unbiased observer given that his film 127 Hours, directed by Danny Boyle, was up against The King's Speech in several categories -- put it: "It's a success story. Is he going to make the speech? You know he's going to get it. He has a little coach, like Mr Miyagi in The Karate Kid, and he gets through it and makes the speech. It's pretty safe."

He's right, of course. (Even better was the New Yorker's Richard Brody, who described the film on Twitter as a "prune stew of a movie".) And beneath that Karate Kid surface runs an overly cute strain of class tension which appears to play in favour of the commoner's irreverence, and its potential to cut through royal pomp and formality. Not so. Logue, and the film, are deferential to the last. Rather than insisting on an essential equality between its characters, the film celebrates the class system and the monarchy's intrinsic oppression of their subjects. Nothing quite grates like the reaction shots of Logue as he savours his magnificent patient, or the coy comedy of manners that unfolds when Mrs Logue stumbles upon royalty in her living room, and fumbles the necessary etiquette. In their vulnerability, and their smiling tolerance of ordinary folk, the image of the royal family today and throughout history is fortified by the movie. There isn't a critical, insightful or searching frame in its entire running time. It is a natural Best Picture winner.

No wonder it swiped the main prize from The Social Network. Fincher's film offers no certainties, no pat conclusions, no life lessons, no succour. It doesn't tell us whom to cheer or hiss. It doesn't try to improve us or stir us: it digs into human behaviour at its murkiest and most suspect, and invites us to arrive at our own conclusions about its characters. What nerve. How any of us ever thought a film like that could have beaten The King's Speech is beyond me. It's almost touching, really, the faith that we fans of Fincher's film had in the plain power of its excellence. Such footling considerations as quality, daring and vision matter not to the voters, many of whom will have helped Shakespeare in Love secure its victory over The Thin Red Line, or Dances With Wolves trounce GoodFellas.

The Best Picture winner must, wherever possible, be as safe and innocuous and fragrant as a Radox bath. The King's Speech is all those things and frothy with it. As a critic I cannot applaud such a hollow film. But as an exercise in how to win Best Picture, and send audiences home from the cinema feeling coddled, it is a masterpiece of calculation and cynicism. No wonder David Cameron is proud to stand behind it.

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.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The paintings designed to better sculpture

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour, as a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery shows.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle