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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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses