Gilbey on Film: from bard to verse

What happens when movies take on poetry?

There's blood on the escritoires over at the Poetry Society. It has been in turmoil for some weeks following multiple resignations, and now there is the suspension of public funds by the Arts Council to contend with -- all in the wake of what the Independent described as a "power struggle" between its former director and the editor of Poetry Review.

What, you may ask, has all this got to do with cinema? Well, I was thinking that we might at last have the germ of a decent film about poetry here -- a back-stabbing Social Network-type affair (Hang 'Em Haiku? Stanza and Deliver?) that could make up for decades of incompatibility between these two art forms, poetry and cinema.

It's common for a film to earn the compliment of being called poetic, but when it comes to engaging with poetry itself, the two art forms feel uniquely out of sync with one another. Whenever cinema and poetry meet, the liaison is invariably punctuated by yawning silences where neither party knows exactly what to say or how to say it. The most visionary directors -- such as Jane Campion in Bright Star -- have caught the essence of verse, but committing the medium itself to film is as simple as nailing two eggs together. Dead Poets Society, Tom & Viv, Poetic Justice and significant parts of the recent Howl -- all have failed to render the passion of poetry without lapsing into the prosaic. At least the version of Walt Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric" set to music in the 1980 film Fame had youthful sincerity on its side.

Lee Chang-Dong's new film Poetry is an exception: it shows that poetry (and, by extension, art) can form part of a person's very survival. Mija (Yoon Jeong-Hee), a woman in her sixties recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's, enrols in a poetry class as a way of holding on to the language that has begun cruelly to desert her. So far, so Hollywood -- sign up Sally Field for the remake.

But where Poetry differs from that formula is in denying the audience an emotional spectacle or catharsis; at the very moment when you might expect poetry as a force to inspire the film's characters to climb upon their desks proclaiming "O Captain! My Captain!", it is reined in, the better to underline Mija's private transformation. Writing poetry changes her (and I will leave viewers of the film to see exactly what form that change takes), but the picture shows how the most momentous internal revolutions often register as no more than a ripple on the surface.

Michael Radford's 1995 Il Postino is not in the same league at all but it does at least argue for the importance of poetry in everyday life. It shows how poetry can be woven into us, and into our lives, whether or not we choose to recognise it; a rose by any other name, and all that jazz. Perhaps that's one of the keys to making a good, unself-conscious film about poetry: to give the words their proper context, to show the life unfolding around them. That's undoubtedly where Bright Star excels. Campion handles John Keats's poems with special informality. The first excerpt to reach our ears -- the opening stanza of Endymion ("A thing of beauty is a joy for ever") -- is delivered in a child's halting, sing-song voice, before her older sister snatches the book from her hands and silently completes the reading herself.

As Keats, Ben Whishaw is endearingly nervy, free of the reassuring hindsight with which so much period drama is played. A.O Scott in the New York Times wrote that viewers should "stay until the very last bit of the end credits, not necessarily to read the name of each gaffer and grip, but rather to savour every syllable of Mr. Whishaw's recitation of 'Ode to a Nightingale.'" High praise.

Poetry opens on Friday.

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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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