Gilbey on Film: The perils of transplant casting

Cross-generational filmmaking is a tricky business.

Filmmakers drawn to the generation-spanning yarn often fail to foresee or sidestep a structural booby-trap that comes with the territory. A few weeks ago, in my review of Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights, I referred to the problem as "transplant casting", so let's stick with that phrase: the passing of one character between two or more different performers, with all the hazards this entails.

In Arnold's case, the shift from the earlier incarnations of Heathcliff and Cathy (played by Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer) to their slightly older selves (James Howson and Kaya Scodelario) caused a rupture from which the last third of the movie struggled to recover. Not that it's impossible to make such a transition without the film suffering. Another of this year's finest British movies, Peter Mullan's Neds, used two actors to portray at different ages its protagonist, a bright schoolboy in 1970s Glasgow who veers dramatically off the rails in adolescence. As the younger model, Gregg Forrest is a gawky and uncorrupted naïf, a lamb thrown to the lions. When Conor McCarron shows up to shepherd the character through his teens, the plausible differences in manner, physique and attitude tell us all we need to know about how the boy has hardened like a scab in the intervening years, despite still having a face that would look more at home staring out of a pram.

Why does the handover work so powerfully in Neds? Well, both actors are equally compelling, and there is synchronicity between their performances, accidental or otherwise. This must owe a great deal to the continuity of Mullan's script and direction. Also, the full horror of John's descent in the second half can only be experienced in the context of our memory of his younger self, and all the early potential that was squeezed out of him by factors economic, social and domestic. The entire subject of the movie is contained within that piece of transplant casting. It had to work, otherwise there would be no film. Into the same category I would place Fred Schepisi's Last Orders, which matches up beautifully the youthful performers (notably JJ Field and Anatol Yusef) with their older equivalents (Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins respectively).

When it goes wrong, it can be one of the most brutally disruptive elements in narrative cinema. I'm no cheerleader for Billy Elliot, but Jamie Bell's performance was miraculous -- whatever euphoria the movie provoked was largely attributable to him. So to cut, in the final scene of that movie, from the young Billy to his adult self (as played by the dancer Adam Cooper) bounding across the stage in Swan Lake, felt positively callous. Put it down to the cinematic inexperience of the director Stephen Daldry, or the kowtowing of Lee Hall's screenplay to the conventions of the rags-to-riches formula, but it was a snub both to Bell and to the audience which had cheered him on over the preceding 90 minutes. The impression was of an athlete denied a victory lap.

If a film solicits our investment in one group of actors, it's hardly surprising if we experience something like separation anxiety when those objects of our affection are snatched abruptly from us. I feel that ache even in a work as accomplished and far-reaching as Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, in which the sadness of bidding farewell to the enthusiastic younger cast members after 70 minutes or so should by rights be cushioned by the fact that their successors in the roles include the likes of Robert De Niro and James Woods. Hardly amateur hour. And yet the first section weaves such a potent spell that it is always with reluctance that I move on to the remainder of the film: not a reflection of its quality so much as the perils of transplant casting.

One simple if time-consuming answer is to use the same performer at different stages of his or her life. I have already written here about the forthcoming projects by Michael Winterbottom and Richard Linklater which are being shot over the course of many years (five in Winterbottom's case, more than a decade in Linklater's), thereby removing the need for multiple cast members in the same parts. Lindsay Anderson (who made three films with Malcolm McDowell as Mick Travis: ...If, O Lucky Man! and Brittania Hospital) and François Truffaut (whose key creation Antoine Doinel, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, appeared in five films, beginning with The 400 Blows) provide only the most well-known instances of directors dropping in repeatedly on the same character and actor.

My favourite example is one manufactured entirely retrospectively when the footage of a young Terence Stamp from Ken Loach's Poor Cow was recycled as flashback material for the character played by Stamp 30 years later in Steven Soderbergh's The Limey. The only downside is that history may come to regard the earlier film as a beast bred expressly for the purpose of donating its organs. Even this innovative species of transplant casting, it seems, is not without its risks to both donor and recipient.

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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis