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.

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood