In the Critics this week

Laura Miller on "Girls", Leo Robson on Zadie Smith and Kate Mossman on Bob Dylan.

In the critic’s section of the New Statesman this week, Leo Robson reviews Zadie Smith’s NW and finds, unsurprisingly, that the very specific setting dominates the novel. “The setting of the novel is a microclimate, not a microcosm or metaphor, and a place that defines itself in wilfully parochial terms,” explains Robson, though “not everyone who lives in north west London can lay claim to this tag… the area seems to comprise Kilburn and Willesden – Kensal Rise at a push”.  He goes on to explain how, because of its limited definition, the setting takes on a symbolic aspect. Towards the end of the novel a character finds herself at a funeral and notices “Caldwell people, Brayton people, Kilburn people, Willesden people. Each marking a particular period.” From this, Robson picks out the idea of people representing periods and the movement of time as a key theme in the book, noting that “to achieve her desired effects, Smith draws on conventions from all over and the use she makes of them is, if not necessarily counter-intuitive, then counter-traditional – successful in the face of precedent.” Robson declares that “NW is less a patchwork panorama than a refusal of panorama; at times, its title seems to be freighted with irony, or fringed with shadows, suggesting all the disparity and distance that can exist within a 'community', the elusiveness of what we think we know.”

In this week’s Critic at large essay, Salon’s Laura Miller offers an appraisal of Girls. The television series, which follows the lives and relationships of four young women in New York, has been stirring up controversy in the US and Miller opens her review with the claim that the first season is “the most argued-about five hours of American scripted television in recent memory.” Written, directed and starred-in by 26-year-old Lena Dunham, it was originally lauded for being fresh and exciting; when it first appeared it generated glowing reviews. However, it has subsequently come under fire for presenting an unrealistic depiction of the lives of young women, with complaints that the characters are too privileged and unlikeable. “Girls will arrive in the UK trailing clouds of these debates,” predicts Miller, “this sort of show can’t be meaningfully separated from the highly digitised conversation about it.” But she brushes aside the dismissals of the show as a hipster iteration of Sex and the City, insisting that, despite the fact that the focus of the series is on the bonds between the young women, “nobody is likely to covet this foursome’s lifestyle, copy their outfits or, when visiting Manhattan, make a pilgrimage to their favourite cupcake shop. Girls isn’t aspirational. Not, that is, unless you aspire to average wardrobes, exploitative starter jobs, cramped and grubby apartments, exasperated parents and marginally unemployed boyfriends. Authenticity, not glamour is the calling card of Girls.” It is this authenticity that Miller admires and feels makes the series worth watching.

Elsewhere in the Critics section George Eaton reviews Christopher Hitchens’s posthumously published Mortality, a collection of the pieces he wrote for Vanity Fair throughout his battle with oesophageal cancer, supplemented with a closing chapter  consisting of the fragmentary jottings made in his last few days. “Hitchens’s strengths – his mastery of irony, his range of reference, his contempt for euphemism – are all in evidence here but there is a timeless, aphoristic quality to these essays that distinguishes them from his writings on politics and literature,” he observes. “Wit, irony, the consolations of philosophy . . . are the reserves we draw on when medicine can do no more,” says Eaton “and rarely were they more formidably deployed than by Hitchens.”

Also in Books, Helen Lewis finds Naomi Wolf’s latest offering Vagina: a New Biography a disappointing read, filled with psychobabble and bizarre, unsubstantiated mysticism. “Despite the repeated invocations of cutting-edge scientific research, the smell of patchouli pervades throughout,” she says. “Brace yourself,” is her warning to potential readers. Lewis concludes that “the science was not engagingly presented, the transcendentalism left me cold, and the remedial advice – that men should pay more attention to their female partners’ pleasure and maybe give them a nice surprise once in a while – is banal in the extreme.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: Kate Mossman on Bob Dylan's new album Tempest, Ollie Brock on translated fiction, Anthony Seldon on Andrew Adonis and Antonia Quirke on the idea of "the other woman".

The cast of HBO's Girls, with Lena Dunham second from the right (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Broken and The Trial: From Sean Bean playing a priest to real life lawyers

A surprisingly involving depiction of a clergyman provides the saintly contrast to the sinner being judged by a real jury.

I was all set to scoff at Broken, Jimmy McGovern’s new series for BBC1 (30 May, 9pm). A drama about a Catholic priest and his impoverished parish in a “major northern city”, it sounded so hilariously McGovern-by-numbers (“Eh, lad, give us the collection bowl – the leccy wants paying”) that on paper it could pass for a spoof. Even funnier, Sean Bean, late of Game of Thrones, was to play the clergyman in question.

Naturally, I adore Bean, who comes from the major northern city that is Sheffield, as I do, and who is so terribly . . . virile (though when I interviewed him in a car park behind King’s Cross Station a few years ago, and a security guard in a high-vis jacket approached us furiously shouting the odds, he ran and hid in his trailer, leaving yours truly to face the music). But let’s face it: he’s not exactly versatile, is he? The idea of him in a cassock, or even just a mud-coloured cardigan, made me laugh out loud.

Settling down to watch the series, however, I soon realised that no scoffing would be taking place. For one thing, Broken is hugely involving, its Dickensian plot (no spoilers here) as plausible as it is macabre. For another, in the present circumstances, its script seems to be rather daring. Not only is Father Michael Kerrigan shown – cover my eyes with the collected works of Richard Dawkins! – to be a good and conscientious priest, but his faith is depicted as a fine and useful thing. If he brings his besieged parishioners solace, he is sure to be carrying vouchers for the food bank as well.

The flashbacks from which he suffers – in which his mammy can be heard calling him a “dirty, filthy beast” and a spiteful old priest is seen applying a cane to his hand – are undoubtedly clichéd. But they are also a device. Forty years on, he is happy to nurse his dying mother, and his love for God is undimmed: two facts that are not, of course, unrelated. How weirdly bold for a television series to set its face against the consensus that denigrates all things Christian as it never would any other faith.

I don’t for a minute buy Anna Friel as Christina, the gobby, broke single mother Kerrigan is determined to help. Even when covered in bruises – a bust-up at the betting shop – Friel manages to look glossy, and she never, ever quits acting (with a capital A), which is a drag. But Bean is such a revelation, I was able to ignore the voice in my head which kept insisting that a Catholic priest as young as he is – in this realm, “young” is a couple of years shy of 60 – would surely be Polish or African (I’m not a Catholic but I am married to one, for which reason I occasionally go to Mass).

He plays Kerrigan, whose overwhelming desire to be kind sometimes makes him cack-handed, with great gentleness, but also with an uninflected ordinariness that is completely convincing. Part of the problem (my problem, at least) with Communion is the lack of rhetorical passion in most priests’ voices, something he captures perfectly. One other thing: Line of Duty fans need to know that Adrian Dunbar – aka Ted Hastings – can also be seen here wearing a dog collar, and that he looks almost as good in it as he does in police uniform.

On Channel 4 The Trial: A Murder in the Family was an experiment in the shape of a murder trial in which the defendant – a university lecturer accused of strangling his estranged wife – and all the witnesses were actors but the lawyers and “jury” were real. Over five consecutive nights (21-25 May, 9pm), I found it pretty tiresome listening to jury members tell the camera what they made of this or that bit of evidence.

Get on with it, I thought, longing again for the return of Peter Moffat’s Silk. But I adored the lawyers, particularly the lead ­defence barrister, John Ryder, QC. What an actor. Sentences left his mouth fully formed, as smooth as they were savage, his charm only just veiling his mighty ruthlessness. Drooling at this performance – which was not, in one sense, a performance at all – I found myself thinking that if more priests came over like barristers, our dying churches might be standing room only.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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