Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Mark Pagel, Grace McLeen and Paul Preston.

Wired for Culture by Mark Pagel

For Robin McKie, Pagel provides an assured and illuminating account of the history of human evolution and its inextricable relationship to cooperative culture. Writing in the Observer, he is convinced by Pagel's theory, remarking that "There is nothing pre-ordained in our genes to account for the societies we have created". Rather than the innate selfishness of our genetic make-up dictating how we behave towards one another, Pagel posits that it is in fact our ability to forge and learn from meaningful relationships that leads to human advancement. McKie highlights Pagel's account of honour killings, and their acceptance in some cultures, as an extreme manifestation of the natural leaning to uphold a good reputation: "we hold open doors, stand aside for others, help the elderly, give to charity and even risk our lives to save animals. It is all done to build up our own reputations so that others will seek us out and co-operate with us".

Tom Chivers in the Telegraph takes a more measured approach, pointing out that Pagel's work makes for less of a stark distinction from Dawkins's seminal The Selfish Gene, and more of a complementary thesis that re-examines what appears to be co-operative behaviour. Though Pagel charts examples of the long history of cooperation between humans that has fuelled social and technological progression, this is tempered by an underlying selfishness to make advantageous alliances to safeguard our own genes: "our psychology ... is full of tensions between the need to advance the interests of culture, and the benefits of looking out for number one".

The Land of Decoration by Grace McLeen

"Deep, fantastical and powerful" is how Viv Groskop describes McLeen's debut novel in the Independent on Sunday. She notes how McLeen has brought her own experiences of growing up in a religious fundamentalist family to bear upon the novel, creating a strongly believable voice in the form of Judith, the book's ten-year-old narrator. Though the world into which Judith is drawn is often sinister, full of bullies, strikes and hatred, Groskop is charmed by the humour of the novel and the Land of Decoration in the title, a playtime paradise through which Judith attempts to alter real-life events to her advantage.

Writing in the Observer, Nicola Barr also testifies that the book lives up to the widespread hype, praising the "beautiful" way in which McLeen allows the language of Christian texts to infiltrate Judith's world. Burr observes that the book works on a wider, social level, despite it featuring an inward-looking narrator: "this young writer has done a bold, brave thing, writing what is effectively a religious allegory set in the mid-80's Welsh valleys".

Although Alexander Larman in the Spectator adds his plaudits to the chorus, he's left underwhelmed by the book's concluding stages, which don't seem to match the "strange, rich world" that McLeen so admirably crafts. Nevertheless, he comments on the "compelling, and at times, hideously tense narrative" and adds to the general consensus that this debut novelist "approaches a potentially absurd subject with great moral clarity and purpose".

The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Preston

Giles Tremlett describes this as "an essential read for anyone wishing to understand Spain and its recent history". Preston's work, he writes in the Guardian, sheds some much needed light on the abhorrent acts perpetrated by Franco's dictatorship, and in turn "destroys the myth cherished by some Spaniards that he was a 'soft' dictator". The titular holocaust is bound to grab attention and is clearly intended to shock, but, says Tremlett, Preston adopts the word with good reason. Only until recently have Spaniards have been facing up to the extent of the atrocities committed by the regime, such was the lasting power of Franco's brainwashing campaign: "Preston charts the prejudice that led Spain's reactionary right into this bloodletting. Decades of dictatorship, and the ensuing silence after Franco's 1975 death, have kept this out of Spanish minds. Only over the past decade, as campaigners have dug up mass graves, has a desire for knowledge burst through".

In the Financial Times, although Victor Mallet concedes that "his sympathies indeed lie with the Republicans", he states that Preston nonetheless retains his focus on the "civilians and their suffering, as well as the class enmities and twisted ideologies that lay behind the conflict". Similarly to Tremlett, he warns that the book is not for the faint of heart, as it provides in-depth accounts of the systematic slaughter of 200,000 men and women: "Piling horror upon horror, Preston leaves no room for doubt that the events he describes were exactly that: crimes so appalling that they negate out humanity".

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

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.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era