In the Critics this Week

Philip Pullman on the Anglican tradition, misunderstanding what it means to be secular and commentar

The "Critic at large" in this week's New Statesman, Philip Pullman, explains what it means to be a "Church of England atheist". Asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the magazine's guest editor this week, to define his relationship to religion, Pullman redefines himself according to what David Eagleman calls a "possibilian", writing that "just because I haven't seen or heard from him, it doesn't mean that God doesn't exist." But despite his lack of belief in a higher authority, Pullman writes that it is his cultural experience of being brought up in the Church of England tradition that helps to define his sense of self. "I am English and I was brought up to go to church every Sunday, to say my prayers, to behave in certain ways in church... We can't abandon these early memories, by which I mean both that it's impossible and that it would be wrong."

Film Critic Ryan Gilbey praises director François Ozon's sense of comedy and subtle thoughtfulness in his latest film, Potiche, where an unglamorous Catherine Deneuve shines as an overlooked housewife. "With its 1970s factory-floor settind and battle-of-the-sexes themse, the picture may resemble for UK viewers a visually sumptuous version of Carry On at Your Convenience". "Ozon has made an authentic romp with an underlying prickliness," he writes, "[this film] is candyfloss laced with barbed wire."

The Books Interview this week is with Cees Nooteboom. The Dutch author talks to Duncan Robinson about the cathartic nature of writing and discusses how his work has evolved since he wrote his first novel at the age of 22. Terry Eagleton offers his thoughts on what it means to be secular as he reviews a new collection of essays, The Joy of Secularism, edited by George Levine and published by Princeton University Press. "Most recent defences of secularism, not least those produced by "Ditchens" (Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens), have been irate, polemical affairs, powered by a crude species off-the-peg, reach-me-down Enlightenment," he writes, "This present collection of essays, by contrast is a much less fiercely contested affair...Indeed, the blandness of some of the book's contributors could benefit form a judicious dose of Hitchens-like waspishness."

Elsewhere, the NS's television critic, Rachel Cooke, is captivated by Case Histories, a new detective drama set in Edinburgh and based on Kate Atkinson's crime novels. Will Self comments on the mass irrationality that is perpetuating the senseless conflict in Afghanistan, and radio critic Antonia Quirke sharpens her claws to take a dig at Radio 1Xtra's Tim Westwood. "I suppose we're talking about a natural process here, this movement from "Oh God, that man's such a twat" to "proud to be a twat" to "loveable twat" to "national treasure"...It's a very British idea", she writes "But Westwood? Somebody stop the wheel."

Further reviews and comment: the New Statesman's culture editor Jonathan Derbyshire reviews Graham Swift's latest novel, Wish You Were Here, Helen Lewis-Hasteley talks to Alan Moore about his epic novel, Jerusalem, and Maurice Glasman explain why politicians shouldn't take David Brooks so seriously as he review his newest book, The Social Animal: a Story of How Success Happens, which offers a "readable presentation of research findings from the fields of behavioural and cognitive psychology, as well as neuroscience, and also guide to how to become a better person."

Getty
Show Hide image

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