A witty, tragic tale of possible murder

Paul Giamatti plays a flawed but forgivable man who might have murdered his friend in <em>Barney’s V

For an actor, your face is your destiny. So it's no surprise that Paul Giamatti has made a career out of playing flawed but forgivable men. He just looks put-upon – two parts naughty schoolboy to one part unkempt software billionaire, with just a dash of sulky artist.

His air of harried sweetness serves him well in his new film, Barney's Version, a rambling picaresque based on the 1997 novel by the Canadian author Mordecai Richler. Barney Panofsky is not, at first glance, a sympathetic character: he neglects his first wife, loathes his second and skips out of their lavish wedding to chase his third. He drinks too much, smokes endless cigars and tries not to talk about sex with his father (played with obvious relish by Dustin Hoffman). Oh, and it's also possible he murdered his best friend. The film travels back through his memories, implicitly asking whether we can trust his "version" of events.

To be honest, it's unlikely that I would have seen Barney's Version if I hadn't been interviewing Rosamund Pike – who plays the third Mrs Panofsky – for the NS. But I'm certainly glad I did, because it's witty, tragic and moving: Pike and Giamatti create a long-standing relationship that feels warm and authentic. (If there's one thing that gets me teary when reading a book or watching a film, it's a well-judged portrayal of love that lasts a lifetime. You should have seen me during Up.)

Yes, Barney's Version has all the problems you'd associate with a book adaptation – it's about 20 minutes too long, for a start (I'd have been tempted to ditch the first wife). Then there's Barney's descent into Alzheimer's, which provides the framing device for the film's reminiscences of the past. In the book – which I confess I haven't read, although I want to – I imagine this is a more gradual process. In the condensed medium of film, however, Barney jumps pretty much straight from forgetting where he's parked his car to sitting blankly on a bench, completely gone, which robs the decline of much of its pathos.

Also, I feel bad that I still don't know the answer to the central question posed by the film – should we trust Barney's memory of the day his best friend died? There was what was clearly supposed to be a revelatory scene at the end of the film but I wouldn't like to say definitively what it was supposed to mean. (Any help on this front greatly appreciated, though you should probably put a huge great SPOILER tag on the comments.)

Still, it's always easier to articulate what you don't like about a film rather than what you do. There's plenty of great stuff in Barney's Version. Dustin Hoffman having a whale of a time, for a start, and giving his son pep talks along the lines of: "You're married to a woman who has a beautiful rack!"

All the actresses playing the wives earn their keep, too. Minnie Driver has the flashiest part, unleashing her inner neurotic as the second Mrs P, but Rosamund Pike brings much-needed dignity to her role as the spunky-but-saintly Miriam. In the end, you feel that Barney must be a decent person because he was loved by her.

Barney's Version is released on 28 January. My interview with Rosamund Pike will appear in an upcoming issue of the New Statesman.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses