Ill Fares the Land

In the early 1990s, Tony Judt was in his mid-forties, a fairly obscure British historian specialising in the history of the French left. Then, in 1993, he started writing for the New York Review of Books and found a new voice as an essayist. His timing was perfect. After 1989, modern European history and the debate about communism were exciting. The atrocities of 11 September 2001 followed, and Judt wrote a number of articles attacking Israel and Bush's war on terror. He became one of the best-known public intellectuals in the US.

Two years ago, at the height of his fame, Judt was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. By the end of last year, he was paralysed from the neck down. He appeared in a wheelchair to give a major public lecture on the crisis of social democracy, which was published in the New York Review of Books and became the basis for Ill Fares the Land.

It is hard to imagine a more timely book in the run-up to this year's general election. It is a short, passionate polemic. "Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today," Judt begins. We are obsessed with money and have lost any sense of community. In the 30 years following the Second World War, there was a widespread belief that the state could do a better job than the unregulated market. A benign welfare state would keep us from the poverty of the 1930s. It would protect us from cradle to grave. These assumptions underpinned Butskellism in Britain, the Great Society in the United States and European social democracy.

In the 1970s, confidence in the state and a larger public realm fell apart. Since then, many have lost any sense of the state as either efficient or benign. Instead, we have come to believe, as Margaret Thatcher said, that: "There is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and there are families."

Judt pulls no punches. This new obsession with wealth, privatisation and the private sector is disastrous. The evidence of public squalor is all around us: "Broken highways, bankrupt cities, collapsing bridges, failed schools, the unemployed, the underpaid and the uninsured: all suggest a collective failure of will." The first chapter, "The Way We Live Now", is a passionate argument against the rise of inequality, the collapse in social mobility and the "pathological social problems" that follow. "Economic disadvantage for the overwhelming majority," he writes, "translates into ill-health, missed educational opportunity and - increasingly - the familiar symptoms of depression." Inequality is "corrosive". "It rots societies from within," he says.

This jeremiad is familiar from some of Judt's earlier essays, his attack on Blair and the Third Way at the time of the 2001 election, the chapter on "The New Realism" in Postwar (2005) and the two concluding essays in his outstanding collection Reappraisals (2008). Unfortunately the problems are also familiar.

Oddly, there is too little history. Why were the 1970s the turning point in disillusionment with the state? Because of economic crisis, the beginnings of globalisation and deindustrialisation (all of which feature far too little here), and not, as Judt argues, because of a small group of Austrian intellectuals (Popper, Hayek et al) or because of the "ironic legacy" of the 1960s.

The social and cultural analysis, too, is weak. During the 1980s and 1990s, the new passion for DIY, gardening, cooking, computers and home entertainment was a sign of how the private home had displaced the public realm at the centre of our lives. This new culture was not just about corporate greed or private gated communities for the super-rich. It spoke - and still speaks - to deep aspirations that run right through society.

Perhaps the best part of the book is the bleakest. What underpinned the faith in the postwar state, Judt argues, was trust, a belief that we will pay taxes to help people with "similar lives and similar prospects". The more homogeneous the society, as in Scandinavia, the greater this sense of trust; the more diverse - racially, culturally and religiously - the more this sense of a shared community is eroded. This argument has huge implications, but Judt deals with it far too quickly.

What kind of new politics follows from this? Judt offers no way forward. His heart is in the right place, but his book lacks both a compelling historical overview and any sense of a politics that speaks to the here and now. Coming from one of the best essayists and historians of our time, this is disappointing. Nonetheless, Ill Fares the Land is a start for important debates that will surely follow.

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, GOD

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

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.