Gilbey on Film: beyond Harry Potter

Treacle Jr is exactly the kind of British film that needs government support.

I don't know what the Prime Minister's plans are this weekend but should he find himself in receipt of a few idle hours I would urge him to hotfoot it over to a branch of the excellent Picturehouse cinema chain in either Clapham or Greenwich. There he can see the superb new film Treacle Jr, which explores the friendship between an incorrigible (and often comically unintelligible) Irish goofball (Aiden Gillen) and a lanky out-of-towner (Tom Fisher) who is sleeping rough after deserting his wife and child.

I know Mr Cameron takes a keen interest in new British films -- he's quite the cineaste, having expressed enthusiasm recently for The King's Speech. (Never let it be said he doesn't go out on a limb in his tastes.) Oh, the delicious and unselfconscious irony in celebrating a success that would not have happened as it did without the UK Film Council, which Cameron's government then killed off in an act of staggering short-sightedness and philistinism.

That said, what looked like a clueless bit of axe-swinging did begin to assume a certain obscure logic once I listened to a news item this week about St Basil's Cathedral and heard for the first time the story of how Ivan the Terrible was rumoured to have gouged out the eyes of the architects after the cathedral was completed, so that they might never again create something of comparable splendour. Could The King's Speech be to St Basil's Cathedral as David Cameron is to Ivan the Terrible?

But back to Treacle Jr. The Prime Minister will doubtless be aware that Jamie Thraves, the film's writer-director, found acclaim eleven years ago with his debut feature, The Low Down. That picture was an atmospheric tale of aimless twentysomethings haunting the streets, pubs and walk-ups of Dalston, east London. Treacle Jr is shot through with some of the same amorphousness and melancholia, as well as the earlier film's attentive use of locations (south London this time) to nourish characterisation. In Gillen's eye-catching, lapel-grabbing, jaw-jabbering performance, Treacle Jr also features the sort of scene-stealing work on which voters can seize helpfully come awards time. Fisher is also excellent in the much quieter part, effectively the straight man to Gillen's tomfoolery.

I only bring the Prime Minister into all this because it just so happens that Treacle Jr is being released on the same day as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (which I reviewed last week). That's two British films, both admirable pieces of work in their own ways, situated at opposite ends of the budgetary spectrum. One will have a release supported by limitless publicity and advertising before opening with a screen count well into triple figures, as one would expect from a major studio's blockbuster-to-end-them-all. The other is arriving on two screens, with more to come if it proves a success -- which is why, if you are intending to see the movie (and you should), then it's imperative you go this weekend to guarantee it doesn't drop off the circuit.

Cameron could really do his bit for the UK film industry here. It's all very well championing the Harry Potter films, as he did late last year. That's the easy bit. The franchise is already popular and cherished, and it has provided extended employment for hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Cameron's support of it brought to mind Giles Smith's analysis (in his book Lost in Music) of a pre-1997 Tony Blair's admission of musical preference:

[A]sked in an interview what kind of pop music he liked . . . Mr Blair came up with REM, Seal and Annie Lennox . . . If the party had commissioned an expensive advertising agency to spend seven months in collaboration with a public relations firm researching this declaration, it's hard to believe they would have come up with anything so beautifully poised. REM, Seal and Annie Lennox: an American rock group and two British singers, one black male, one white female, with fingers in pop, soul and dance, an ample musical spread, economically achieved . . . Note how the balance tips in favour of the British artists, to avoid the suggestion that Mr Blair might be somehow in thrall to American culture.

Smith goes on to identify the tinge of the mainstream and the modern in Blair's choices (which went on the record pre-Britpop); these suggest implicitly that the future PM was no dinosaur, and no elitist either. Would that Cameron were so sophisticated. All he does is plump for the blindingly obvious, the populist choice that not only needs no leg-up from him but which no potential voter could respond to with belligerence or bewilderment: no Middle Englander, if such a creature still exists beyond the grounds of Hogwarts, would be heard exclaiming "Harry who?" or "Why on earth didn't he promise a generous stipend to Terence Davies?"

Cameron could rehabilitate himself now by coming out in support of Treacle Jr, which would show not only an enthusiasm for vitality in British cinema, but an ideological consistency on his part. After all, what could be more resourceful, go-getting and Big Society-esque than re-mortgaging your own house to make a film? That's exactly what Thraves did to raise the majority of Treacle Jr's £30,000 budget (as he tells Time Out here).

The one very real danger in soliciting Cameron's endorsement is that it could deter audiences from seeing a film they would otherwise have greatly enjoyed and admired. Anyone who was young in the 1980s will remember Margaret Thatcher praising the band Thrashing Doves on Saturday morning television. Chris Briggs, head of A&R at the group's record label, put it best: "What worse thing could happen to a young band than having Thatcher tell the nation's youngsters they were jolly good?"

"Treacle Jr" is released on Friday. To find one-off screenings of Treacle Jr accompanied by Q&A sessions, go to www.nbcq.co.uk

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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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

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 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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