Reviews Round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Alan Hollinghurst, Aravind Adiga and Franny Moyle.

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

"This novel, sleek, seductive and a little sly, appears on first sight to address a bankable, but by now surely rather threadbare, theme: the stately homes, and homos, of England," writes Keith Miller in the Telegraph. "While some passages are so arch you could slip on a toga and process in triumph through them ("They're very fond of each other... in the Cambridge way"), there's also a lot that is purely and simply very funny."

The Guardian's Theo Tait writes that "the new book certainly falls somewhat short of Hollinghurst's best work - The Swimming Pool Library, The Folding Star and The Line of Beauty. Unlike them, it's merely very good: it doesn't leave you dazed, page after page, with the brilliance, wit and subtlety of its perceptions. Is this an ungrateful line of criticism? Probably: The Stranger's Child will no doubt be one of the best novels published this year."

In an enthusiastic review in the Independent, Richard Canning writes: "Throughout The Stranger's Child we are given the thrilling impenetrability and imprecision of lives as they are truly experienced. Nothing falls tidily or neatly into fictional resolution." He concludes that, "The Stranger's Child is a remarkable, unmissable achievement, written with the calm authority of an author who could turn his literary gifts to just about anything."

"The Stranger's Child" will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the New Statesman.

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga

"Dominating the narrative is Mumbai itself, once again one of the mightiest cities on earth," writes Peter Carty in the Independent. "Adiga lays out this most frenetic of megalopolises before us, by turns fascinating, sensual and horrifying, as his writing takes an impressive step onwards."

Allan Massie writing in the Scotsman says: "This is a very fine novel, wonderfully rich in detail and the evocation of everyday life. It is a social novel full of memorable individuals. It has a range, ambition and humanity which one rarely finds in contemporary British or US fiction: further evidence that the true successors to the European novelists of the 19th century are now to be found in the Indian sub-continent and the Arab world."

The Telegraph's review by Mark Sanderson is equally laudatory; "The end is both savage, sordid and ever so sad. However, Last Man in Tower, in its dizzying portrait of Mumbai, contains plenty of comedy and dark humour. One example will have to suffice. Shah's mistress, Rosie, is summed up thus: "her voice always had its knickers down"."

Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous life of Mrs Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle

"Oscar lay in the gutter and looked at the stars. There weren't many stars bigger than his wife." So says the Spectator. "To the extent that we do consider the question of his wife, we probably imagine a dowdy old boiler (in modern terms a 'beard'), dutifully providing a couple of sons but otherwise keeping well out of the way. The truth was far more complicated. It always is in the best stories, and this is a very good story, very well told."

A firmly engrossed Robert Douglas-Fairhurst writes in the Telegraph: "Constance Wilde has usually been thought of the same way, as the long-suffering wife who remained loyal to her husband Oscar even after he was convicted of "committing acts of gross indecency" (that is, consensual sex) with other men... Fortunately, the evidence of Franny Moyle's fine biography, the first to draw on more than 300 of Constance's unpublished letters, is that she was far more interesting than this."

Claire Harman is less convinced, writing in the Evening Standard: "Despite the access which Franny Moyle has had to stacks of Constance's unpublished letters and other family documents, and the intelligent use she has made of them, the inner workings of the Wildes' relationship remain obscure. At what point did Constance understand what her husband's tastes were and how much did it matter to either of them?"

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

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.