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.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism