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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit