Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Will Ellsworth-Jones, Robert Macfarlane and John Updike.

Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall by Will Ellsworth-Jones

Banksy is an endlessly intriguing figure. This latest inquest into the man’s life asks probing questions of the Bristol-born artist’s life and legacy. “[Ellsworth-Jones's] book isn’t a biography, exactly,” write Tim Roby in the Telegraph, “it would be hard to write one when you’ve opted not to reveal the identity of your subject.”

Wynn Wheldon, writing in the Spectator, found much to like about this “competent, broadly sympathetic and enjoyable book”. He finds it an entertaining and informative story of a man Wheldon himself is charmed by, yet oddly uncertain about. “Will Ellsworth-Jones’s book hardly reveals ‘the man behind the wall’,” he writes, “but it does make clear how voracious a beast the art market is, and charts lucidly the way in which Banksy, a brilliant organiser, has tried to manipulate it to his own ends”.

Peter Conrad, in the Observer also finds the title of Ellsworth-Jones’s book slightly wanting, noting that the author does more to enhance the myth than he does to deconstruct it.  “Breaking the promise of its subtitle, Ellsworth-Jones's book catches no glimpse of the man behind the wall. All he can do is contribute to his mystique …But as in the case of Father Christmas, the legend, as Ellsworth-Jones says, is ‘better than the real thing’". He does, however, find the more journalistic probing of larger questions about the artist admirable. “Ellsworth-Jones writes perceptively about the 'ethical dilemmas' created by Banksy's marketing techniques… [Banksy] is shown by Ellsworth-Jones to be as capitalistic as his hero Damien Hirst. Banksy once wondered whether an artist should make money from work that was intended to draw attention to world poverty, and solved the problem by calling it ironic.”

 

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane is a man known for his long walks and thoughtful prose. His first book, Mountains on the Mind, was what Rachel Cooke, writing in the Observer, called a “meditation on altitude”. His next, The Wild Places, was the story of “all that is left untamed on our islands”. The Old Ways, she writes, is “a book about the consensual, habitual manner in which paths are formed and maintained down the ages,” one that “now completes this loose trilogy on the various ways we're shaped by landscape”.

Cook calls this collection of tales from Macfarlane’s rambles along the trails of the British Isles “an unwieldy rucksack of a book”, flitting as it does from location to location, from Sussex to the outer Hebrides, Tibet to Palestine, tracing the footsteps of famous poets and meeting tramps, travellers and shamans. On a walk with the author, Cooke acknowledges his great capacity for naturalism and romanticism: “The thought occurs that Macfarlane doesn't stumble on enchantment; he creates it. It is as though – batty as this sounds – it follows him about, the landscape and even the weather rising to meet the challenge of his prose.”

Sam Leith, in the Spectator, finds Macfarlane’s prose equally enchanting and joyfully unforced. “There’s little more tedious in a novel,” he writes, “than ostentatiously fine writing…It’s normally bad writing. But fine writing — in the sense of precise, careful and original prose; lyrical without being pretentious — does exist. Macfarlane is an example of it. His virtuosity isn’t unobtrusive, but his tics of style become familiar without drifting, quite, into mannerism or gimmickry.”

He applauds Macfarlane’s inspiring use of language and capacity to conjure up scene, setting and sentiment, and to engage the reader. “You see these trees and pathways; you hear those birds. And there really are few prose writers who take such a poet’s care with cadence…. . If you submit to its spell you finish it in different shape than you set out: a bit wiser, a bit lonelier, a bit happier, a whole lot better informed, and a bit more tempted to pop in to Millets.”

 

Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism by John Updike

This collection of essays and criticism cuts a nice cross-section from the journalism of the late John Updike. Adam Mars-Jones writes for the Guardian: “Once or twice in the book Updike excels himself, once or twice he falls short of his own standards, and once or twice he produces work which stands at an odd angle to his usual preoccupations.” He is particularly impressed with Updike’s witty and surprisingly enjoyable musings on golf. “The pages on this subject provide some of the book's high points," he writes. “This is an America not much written about in the last half-century, not even by Updike.”

Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times praises Updike’s literary versatility: “Updike was that rare creature: an all-around man of letters, a literary decathlete who brought to his criticism an insider’s understanding of craft and technique.” Although she notes it “lacks the deeply thought-out literary essays” of previous anthologies, as well as containing a few “disposable scraps of writing”, overall she concedes that it “offers the reader plenty of palpable pleasures, reminding us of the author’s sorcererlike ability to evoke the worlds other artists created with a simple wave of his wand, and his talent for making scholarly topics feel utterly immediate and real.”

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst uses his review for the Telegraph to celebrate a writer whose “prose had the sort of swaggering brilliance that surpassed his readers’ expectations and left them wanting even more”. Again, he sidesteps the “weaker pieces” and chooses rather to focus on Updike’s deft critique of artists and writers such as F Scott Fitzgerald and Vermeer. “It will be required reading for Updike’s many fans,” he concludes, “but it also serves as an excellent pick ’n’ mix introduction to his omnivorous intellectual range.”

A piece of Banksy artwork gets shelter under a plastic cover in North London, May 2012 (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
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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