The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert Galleries, London, SW1 & W1: Bridget Riley - Works 1960 – 1966, 23 May – 13 July

Bridget Riley’s meticulously crafted monochrome canvasses were something of a sensation in the 1960s. This exhibition - held in both of Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert’s London spaces - will be the first ever solely dedicated to Riley’s black and white paintings. On their notoriously “optical” and “trompe l’oeil” qualities, Riley wrote in 1965: “The basis of my paintings is this: that in each of them a particular situation is stated…I have never made any use of scientific theory or scientific data, though I am well aware that the contemporary psyche can manifest startling parallels on the frontier between the arts and the sciences.” Whether you call her work painterly or mathematical, it’s undeniably as engrossing as it was 40 years ago.

Literature

Asia House, London, W1: Festival of Asian Literature, until 31 May

Asia House, the UK’s “leading pan-Asian organisation”, is currently hosting a two week festival that celebrates the writing of the Asian continent. Founded in 2006, the festival can proudly call itself “the only festival in the UK that is dedicated to writing about Asia and Asians, from the Persian Gulf to the Pacific.” This year sees another engaging program of events, debates and discussions that will touch on themes such as Women, Power and Politics, The Arab Spring and Asia, The Geo-Politics of Oil, Women and Water in Pakistan, Persianate Poetry and more. There will also be family friendly events like cooking classes and yoga.

Exhibitions

London Transport Museum, London, WC2: Mind the Map: Inspiring art, design and cartography, until 28 October

Opening today, this intriguing new exhibition at the London Transport Museum probes the “inspiration, history and creativity behind London transport maps”. Promising to be the largest of its kind, and drawing extensively from the museum's impressive archive, expect to see gorgeous cartographic works that map not only a city, but evolving perceptions of design, functionality, journeys and identity. The display with include “geographical, diagrammatic and decorative” transport maps, as well as – of course – an exploration of the impact of the iconic London Tube map on “cartography, art and the public imagination”.

Festivals

Weavers Field and Brick Lane, London, EC2: Boishakhi Mela, 19 and 20 May

This explosive celebration - now in its 14th year - rings in the Bengali New Year with a two-day bash that sees the self-titled “Banglatown” district of Bethnal Green transform into the consummate outdoor festival, with a line-up of acclaimed international performers, parades, music, dance, rickshaw rides and culinary delights. Having worked closely with the Tower Hamlets Council, Boishakhi Mela aims to showcase the best in Bangladeshi talent, arts, heritage and culture. While the primary fanfare will be taking place in Weavers Field, the nearby Brick Lane will also soak up the atmosphere, with most restaurants opening up for alfresco dining and live music.

Various UK Venues: Museums at Night, 18 – 20 May

Museums at Night is Culture24's annual after-hours celebration when the UK’s museums, galleries, and historic properties promise “to come alive when darkness falls”. With hundreds of evening events across the country, this will be an almost inescapable three days of glorious late-night madness and cultural curiosities. Amongst the many highlights: Experimental culinary craftsmen Bompas and Parr stage a jelly installation onboard the SS Great Britain in Bristol, Terry O’Neil discusses his photography at the Ragged School Museum in London, torch-lit tours through the Museum Discovery Centre in Leeds, sleepovers and midnight feasts in Dover Castle, the Sunderland Winter Gardens and the British Museum, and a late night-soiree a the Somerset House. What bliss!

Bridget Riley in 1963. (Photo: Romano Cagnoni)
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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

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 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump