In the Critics this Week

T C Boyle on nature, Queen Elizabeth's face and the sins of the Empire.

In the critics' section of this week's New Statesman, Tim Adams considers Queen Elizabeth's many portraits and observes that although she possesses "perhaps the most frequently depicted features in all history, she remains faceless". Of those who have taken her photograph or painted her portrait, "[Lucian Freud] made her wear the most exposing crown... made her look almost masculine in her dourness, and the crown seems to sit anachronistically on her clayey flesh," Adams writes.

Historian Amanda Foreman reviews Running the Show: Governors of the British Empire by Stephanie Williams. It is Williams's misfortune, Foreman writes, to have written a paean to the Empire just as evidence has emerged of British abuse in Kenya, where "prisoners were routinely starved and tortured to death, but the colonial authorities knew about the abuse and even tried to cover it up". Foreman criticises Williams's "incompatibilities of tone and subject matter," arguing that "some crimes are just too great to sandwich between letters about high tea and elephant hunting". The Books Interview this week is with T C Boyle, who reflects on the presence of nature in his fiction and his indifference to modern technology. "To take a walk down the beach with your headphones in is missing the point," he suggests.

An "oppressively grisly movie... of unvarying sadism," Ryan Gilbey remarks of I Saw the Devil, directed by the Korean Kim Jee-woon, while Rachel Cooke takes on The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, an ITV period murder mystery based on Kate Summerscale's book of the same name and declares the drama "painfully stretched and slight". NS Culture editor Jonathan Derbyshire reviews The Art of the Enlightenment exhibition at the National Museum of China in Beijing, which opened just as the Chinese authorities were demonstrating the limits of their embrace of Enlightenment values with the arrest of the artist Ai Weiwei. Finally, our radio critic Antonia Quirke finds The Organist Entertains on BBC Radio 2 "as pleasantly depressing as a Cath Kidson apron".

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

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 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era