Gilbey on Film: Situation critical

A genuine critic doesn't use tricks or tomfoolery.

In his introductory column last week, the Telegraph's new film reviewer, Robbie Collin (late of the late News of the World) set out his stall with a comforting introduction for the paper's readers, who are easily frightened and don't take kindly to shocks, especially if they haven't yet had their lunchtime medication. It was just as well that Collin's tone evoked jolly japes and matey cuddles, as the sight of a new face on the arts pages will have alarmed many after nearly a decade of film writing by the stimulating, unorthodox Sukhdev Sandhu.

(By the by: one of those to leave a comment on Collin's piece, under the handle "corgimajor," did the unspeakable and raised the subject of the outgoing critic, which is rather like pitching up at a chap's wedding and mentioning his bride's ex: "I was disappointed not to see an acknowledgement, in Robbie's introduction of himself, of the great work Sukhdev Sandhu has provided for this section of the Telegraph over the years. Could someone at least let me know...where I might find his work in the future?" At the time of writing, no one at the website has yet answered this reader's enquiry. The comment did, though, provide a reminder of the way in which readers are expected to simply adjust to new arrivals. To editors, we are but the children of divorces, waking up in the morning to find that Mummy has a new boyfriend.)

Before issuing a rather baffling warning about two species of Naughty Critic (those who write exclusively to impress other critics, and those who serve to flatter the stars or filmmakers) and insisting that he belongs to neither group, Collin laid out what he considered to be the requirements for anyone writing about movies. Such people should, he said, "watch films and then write about them in a way that is honest, well-informed and entertaining. We should tell you what a film is about, put it into context, explain what we think works and what doesn't, and do all this in a way that is pleasurable to read."

Well, yes. But put in those terms, it sounds at best like a set of instructions for the home assembly of a bookcase, and at worst like a nurse preparing you for a mildly invasive procedure which will nevertheless have lasting beneficial effects. What Collin describes are the rudiments, the skills that should get a writer past reception. When I think back to the critics who first inspired or thrilled me, the common ground is not that they met the Collin criteria, but that they did so much more besides, spinning off into unpredictable or far-flung areas of their subject, while always throwing illumination back onto it.

The first person who made me realise what could be possible in critical writing was Anne Billson, whose sparky, playful prose never fails to bring her subjects to life (even the half-dead ones: I remember laughing aloud in my school lunch-break at her short Time Out review of Wild Geese II). In the interests of transparency I should point out that she has since become a friend and colleague (as well as a predecessor, having served a stint as film critic on the NS) but my admiration for her was already cemented a good decade before we met.

I also got a big kick, obviously, out of the New Yorker's Pauline Kael, that liberating force of nature, and Victor Lewis-Smith, the then-television critic of the Evening Standard. (I recommend the latter's prickly collection of columns, Inside the Magic Rectangle). But if you put a gun to my head and asked me to name my favourite critics, I would say, "What are you doing? Put that gun away for goodness sake! I'm more than happy to tell you my favourite critics without the threat of injury or death." Then, after disqualifying my esteemed NS colleagues in the interest of neutrality, I would produce for you a roll-call that included the following:

Nancy Banks-Smith Sadly no longer writing about television in the Guardian (although she still contributes a splendid monthly Archers column), she is an embodiment of so many qualities to which a critic should aspire: her mixture of the frothy and the weighty, her ear for a delicious or telling phrase, her instinctive feel for articulating the shape and shading of whatever she is writing about, and her palpable love of her subject. If she's ever written an indulgent or wasteful sentence, I haven't read it. I wrote a fan letter to her many years ago, partly to balance out the karma of having written to a director on the same day complaining about his latest terrible film, but mostly because if you love anyone that much, it's only right to let them know.

Giles Smith The ceaselessly witty sports-on-TV critic at the Times. His columns are collected in Midnight in the Garden of Evel Knievel and We Need to Talk About Kevin Keegan. Here's a measure of how good his writing is: I read him whenever I can and I don't even like sport.

Adam Mars-Jones Former film critic at the Independent and the Times, and now a literary critic at the Observer. There's no one more thorough, or more capable of making the forensic funny, although Steven Poole's book reviews in the Guardian's Saturday Review supplement run a close and satisfying second.

Nigel Andrews Film critic at the Financial Times. It's not only that Nigel Andrews knows his onions (and everyone else's) or that he writes with an enviable mixture of deftness and muscularity; there's also fact that he has been writing professionally for around four decades, and still has the nimblest pen in film criticism.

Anthony Quinn. Film critic, the Independent. I go to Anthony Quinn for the crispness of his prose, the sophistication of his insights, the purity of his perspective (he didn't read anything about Avatar before reviewing it -- nothing at all!) and his passion for the underrated medium of solid storytelling.

Then there are writers who may not be moored to particular posts: Dennis Lim, whose star has not waned since he was waved off five years ago by short-sighted cost-cutters at the Village Voice; his former VV colleague Jessica Winter, now arts editor at Time magazine; David Heuser, who writes on film infrequently and for his own pleasure, but who produced one of the richest film essays I have read in the past few years (about Noah Baumbach's Greenberg: read it here) and who has done the impossible and made Inception sound interesting. I also want to recommend a brilliant site of critical writing by Chris O'Leary about David Bowie: Pushing Ahead of the Dame takes a fine-toothed comb to Bowie's work, dissecting each song in obsessive detail. It sounds tediously nerdy but doesn't read that way; O'Leary's weightless writing inflames rather than kills your interest in the music.

So what can we learn from this subjective list of favourites, other than that it helps to have "Smith" somewhere in your surname if you are going to be a better-than-average critic? Only that each conforms in his or her own way to the most pertinent piece of advice that any creative person could ever wish to receive. And no it isn't from Robbie Collin. It's Maupassant:

Talent... is a matter of looking at anything you want to express long enoughand closely enough to discover in it some aspect that nobody has yet seen or described. In everything there is an unexplored element because we are prone by habit to use our eyes only in combination with the memory of what others before us have thought about the thing we are looking at. The most insignificant thing contains some little unknown element. We must find it. To describe a fire burning or a tree on a plain let us stand in front of that fire and that tree until for us they no longer look like any other tree or any other fire.

It is in this way that we become original...

Whatever we want to convey, there is only one word to express it, one verb to animate it, one adjective to qualify it. We must therefore go on seeking that word, verb or adjective until we have discovered it, and never be satisfied with approximations, never fall back on tricks... or tomfoolery of language to dodge the difficulty.

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496