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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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories