Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

Cambridge Film Festival, 13 – 23 September

The Cambridge Film Festival is, simply put, a celebration of cinema’s past, present and future. Well-regarded enough to attract big names yet still intimate and approachable, you won’t get a better opportunity this year to discover some brilliant new work and then find yourself chatting to the writer or director afterwards at the bar. CFF takes over the Arts Picturehouse in the centre of the city for the duration of the festival, but their real passion is bringing cinema to spaces that would not normally be used for that purpose. The outdoor spaces are always used to maximum effect, so if you fancy seeing some films en plein air at venues such as Grantchester Meadows, the steps of Cambridge University Library or even an open-air swimming pool, now is your chance.  

Theatre

This House, National Theatre, 18 September – 22 December

The only original play to feature in the National Theatre’s autumn season, this political drama by James Graham starring Phil Daniels (Quadrophenia, Eastenders) and Philip Glenister (Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes), should be big hit. Set in 1974 as the country faces economic crisis, the play opens up the engine rooms of Westminster to reveal the Labour whips behind the scenes and their attempts to coerce a hung parliament.

Dance

God’s Garden, Laban Theatre, London SE8, 19 September

Back by popular demand, award-winning choreographer Arthur Pita’s God’s Garden is a darkly comedic, Madeira-set family drama based on the parable of The Prodigal Son. It includes design by Jean-Marc Puissant as well as live fado music and, incredibly, the ages of the cast range from 23 to 84. An absorbing tale of jilted lovers and revenge, it’s like magical realism in dance form.

Events

The People Speak, The Tabernacle, London W11, 16 September

The People Speak is an international initiative which seeks to tell the events of history through the voices of everyday people – the dissenters, rebels and visionaries of the past 1000 years. This one-off event, which celebrates the publication of a new book, is led by actor Colin Firth and editor Anthony Arnove. It features names such as Rupert Everett, Ian McKellan, Celia Imrie and Emily Blunt, who endeavour to bring to life the forgotten voices included in this book. It sounds like an intriguing project.

Art

Liverpool Biennial, Tate Liverpool, 15 September – 23 November

The 7th edition of the Liverpool Biennial, opening this weekend, will explore the theme of ‘hospitality’ as it invites artists to showcase new interpretations of this concept in our increasingly globalised times. The biennial exhibition, An Unexpected Guest, is comprised of sixty exciting international artists and, in addition to this main exhibition, pieces of artwork (both existing and newly-created) will be installed in public spaces around the city. Highlights include installations by Oded Hirsch and Jorge Macchi, and a concert presented by Rhys Chatham as part of the opening weekend.

Cambridge provides beautiful outdoor spaces in which to enjoy films. Photo: Getty Images
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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