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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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood