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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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

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.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories