Gilbey on Film: laugh till you drop

Joe Wright's <em>Hanna</em> draws on a rich vein of assassin comedies.

There is so much to relish Joe Wright's film Hanna, which is part comic thriller, part fairy tale and part irresistible "What If?" (as in: "What if Rainer Werner Fassbinder had designed a big-budget Hollywood action movie?").

The movie is named after its teenage heroine (Saoirse Ronan), who has been raised as a single-minded killer by her father (Eric Bana) in a remote snowy wilderness. With her tentative relationship to the modern world, and her ruthlessness and near-immortality, she's like the Terminator crossed with Nell.

Dad is a former special agent who went rogue after the killing of Hanna's mother; father and daughter have spent the intervening years preparing for their only mission -- to kill the special agent (Cate Blanchett) responsible for the murder. The picture begins with real snow and real swans, but by the end we have seen a kitsch alpine nightclub routine in a Berlin bar, and the characters are stalking one another through an artificial landscape where giant plastic swan boats bob on the water and a cottage is adorned with fake snow.

The effect is to seal the film and its violence inside a fairy-tale world. (Presumably this is what has allowed a 12A-certificate to be attached to a movie in which people are shot in the head or stabbed in the neck with with pens.)

Blanchett is a treat as the wicked queen of the story. In the flashbacks, she looks like she could have walked straight out of Fassbinder's 1979 terrorist thriller The Third Generation. In the present-day scenes, she wears a lipstick-slashed smile to rival Jack Nicholson's in Batman. She bends her body at sharp angles as she ascends a set of steel steps, like a beautiful robot designed with the sole purpose of negotiating staircases in an elegant fashion.

Ronan, who had a pivotal role in Wright's film of Ian McEwan's Atonement, brings lightness to a part that could have come across as an automaton. The Chemical Brothers' urgent, aggressive score pushes the action forwards, and even dovetails nicely with some of the more industrial production design: there's a long sequence set in a version of CIA headquarters which, with its vast cylindrical concrete tunnels and ducts, could pass for a hot new club on Berlin's gay scene.

Perhaps Tom Hollander, channeling the spirit of gay hit-men Mr Wint and Mr Kidd from Diamonds Are Forever, would be a regular there, along with his neo-Nazi sidekicks/concubines. (That's another great thing about Hanna: where else could you expect to find itsy-bitsy Hollander trading blows with the strapping Eric Bana, the sensitive action hero from The Hulk and Munich?)

For all its glorious oddball elements, Hanna fits into a recognisable cinematic tradition. It's no surprise that cinema has been obsessed with the mythical figure of the solitary assassin as far back as Alan Ladd in the 1942 noir thriller This Gun For Hire; the combination of the romance of the loner, and the inbuilt guarantee of violence, is irresistible. What's unusual is how readily the subject lends itself to comedy. It's not always intentional -- you need only look at last year's preposterous and pretentious thriller The American to see how easily an assassin's story can be undermined by its own solemnity.

But there is strong potential for a delicate comedy of manners in the tension between the monastic demeanour of the assassin, and the possibility that it may be impinged upon by the messy business of life and love. Prizzi's Honour (1985) exploited it beautifully, framing the blossoming romance of two killers (Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner) as a kind of slowed-down screwball; the pace is deliciously, extravagantly unhurried but the script would have tickled Preston Sturges.

Wild Target (the 1993 Pierre Salvadori original, rather than the recent British remake) took similar material into the realms of black farce. Also notable are Jim Jarmusch's excursions into the deadpan assassin comedy -- Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) and The Limits of Control (2009), by which time the joke had worn thin, at least in that director's hands.

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) took a more broadly humorous approach. Here, the assassin's reticence is used as a means of confronting the prevailing concern of post-Fever Pitch New Man comedy: commitment issues. If the comic violence in that picture owed something to Tarantino, Martin McDonagh's In Bruges (2007) felt authentically scabrous and salty in both word and deed.

The best assassin comedy, as well as one of my favourite films of the 1990s, has to be The Long Kiss Goodnight (1997) starring Geena Davis as a mild-mannered housewife whose forgotten past as a professional killer returns not so much to haunt her as to fire automatic weapons and hurl grenades at her. There's great relish in the way the director Renny Harlin depicts Davis's shift from Doris Day to Lotte Lenya's Rosa Klebb . And the picture functions neatly as a tangy satire on family life. Its suggestions that the core of the family unit might be fractured -- yes, your mother could be trying to conceal her bloodlust with cookies and PTA meetings -- are not a million miles away from The Stepfather or Serial Mom.

It's a bristling comedy, an absurdly exciting thriller and a more compelling housewives' wish-fulfilment fantasy than Shirley Valentine or Calendar Girls.

Hanna opens on Friday. Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic

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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser