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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How Ken Loach's radical vision won him a second Palm d'Or

In Loach's films, authenticity is everything, and when his quest for realism pays off, there's nothing as raw in all of cinema.

On 22 May, at the age of 79, Ken Loach became the first British director to win the top prize twice at the Cannes Film Festival. His previous Palme d’Or, in 2006, was for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which dramatised the British occupation of Ireland and the origins of the IRA. This time, he won for I, Daniel Blake, the story of an ailing carpenter wrongly declared fit for work by the callous UK benefits system. No wonder Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, could issue only the most grudging acknowledgement, alluding vaguely to “Brit success!” in a tweet that failed to mention either Loach or the film.

The actor and Cannes jury member Donald Sutherland, on the other hand, called I, Daniel Blake “an absolutely terrific movie that resonates in your heart and soul”. It was an incongruous delight to see Loach posing before swarms of paparazzi. He usually disdains such frivolities; he might be red but he’s hardly red carpet. “As a film-maker, you’re forever involved in things that constantly inflate their own importance,” he once complained. Artifice, hyperbole and celebrity hold no appeal. Even film-making itself is full of irritating impediments. “If Loach could make a film without a camera, he would,” said Trevor Griffiths, who collaborated with him on Fatherland (1986).

Authenticity is everything. Unusually, Loach shoots in sequence, even if it requires moving back and forth at great cost between locations. In the days of celluloid, he would forfeit much of his fee to buy more film stock so that his beloved improvisations could roll on and on. When I visited the set of Carla’s Song near Loch Lomond in 1995, Loach gave the actor Robert Carlyle a good-natured ticking off for speaking to me between takes. “I’d rather he didn’t talk to anyone,” he said, “because then he’ll start thinking about things in terms of technique and who he really is, and it’ll all become conscious.”

When the quest for realism pays off, there is nothing as raw in all cinema. Think of the chilling attack on a family home by loan sharks in his 1993 drama Raining Stones, one of the films that began his most successful period, or the climax of Cathy Come Home, made for the BBC in 1966 and arguably his most groundbreaking film. As Cathy (Carol White) has her children taken off her by social workers and police, Loach films the entire traumatic episode in a wide shot with a hidden camera to preserve the reality. The movie led directly to the founding of Crisis.

Conversely, Loach at his worst can be one of the most simplistic sentimentalists out there. The characterisation of the salt-of-the-earth heroes in recent films such as Jimmy’s Hall and Route Irish, or the pantomime-villain Brits in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, shows what happens when action is overpowered by agenda.

Born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, Loach read law at Oxford but became seduced by theatre directing and acting: he was in a revue for which Dudley Moore composed the music, and understudied in the West End in One Over the Eight. He joined the BBC in 1963, where he brought extra earthiness to Z-Cars before finding his ideal outlet in The Wednesday Play slot that went out after the news. “We were very anxious for our plays not to be considered dramas but as continuations of the news,” he said. He made ten TV films under that banner but it was with his second movie, Kes, in 1969, that he took flight, proving that the gritty and the lyrical need not be mutually exclusive.

His politics was fully formed by this point. Though he has rejected claims that he is Marxist or Trotskyist, he admits that the analysis to which he turned after his disillusionment with Harold Wilson in the mid-1960s was a Marxist one. “The idea of a class analysis was the one we identified with,” he said of himself and his collaborators the producer Tony Garnett and the writer Jim Allen. “What we realised was that social democrats and Labour politicians were simply acting on behalf of the ruling class, protecting the interests of capital.”

This stance was consolidated by a series of run-ins in the 1980s, when he saw his work banned and thwarted by political forces. The transmission of his four-part 1983 television documentary Questions of Leadership, which asked whether the trade union leadership was adequately representing its members’ interests, was delayed and blocked by Labour string-pulling. Which Side Are You On? – a documentary about the miners’ strike – was rejected because of footage showing police violence.

Since his full-time return to cinema in the early 1990s, acclaim has eclipsed controversy. Even if he had not won a Palme d’Or, his stamp is all over other directors who have won that award in the past 20 years. The Belgian social realists Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, The Child) have never hidden their debt to him, while recent winners such as Jacques Audiard (Dheepan) and Cristian Mingiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) exhibit his mixture of directness, compassion and realism.

If there is anything that defines him, it is his fight, which has made it possible for him to remain one of cinema’s angriest and most effective voices. “In the long term, I guess I’m optimistic because people always fight back,” he said. “The reason to make films is just to let people express that, to share that kind of resilience because that’s what makes you smile. It’s what makes you get up in the morning.”

“I, Daniel Blake” is released later this year

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 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad