I expected to be irritated by Liz Jones's book, I hadn't expected to be bored

Liz Jones's autobiography, Girl Least Likely To, is so drenched in self-pity it becomes draining to read.

In “The Snow Queen”, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, a splinter from a magic mirror ends up in the eye of a boy, Kai. Made by a troll, this mirror distorts as it reflects, magnifying the bad and erasing the good.

Liz Jones sees the world through a similar filter. In her new autobiography, Girl Least Likely To, pitched as advice on how not to be a woman, she amplifies every small slight while every joy is diminished. She confesses: “Nothing was ever good enough for me.”

Jones – fashion editor of the Daily Mail and mad monarch of confessional journalism – is well known for her self-loathing. And it’s displayed here in abundance. She is “in doubt” about her “right to be alive”. Her appearance turns her stomach. “I am unlovable,” she declares, after her marriage collapses.

What is strange is how this is coupled with a clear self-regard. After all, what more powerful way is there to say one’s life matters than to write an autobiography? And Jones is so self-obsessed that she always seems to put herself at the centre of everything. In an article for the Mail in 2011, she retraced the last steps of the murdered landscape architect Joanna Yeates, somehow making this young woman’s death about herself.

In the autobiography, this manifests itself largely in a belief that the whole world is in cahoots against her. When out dancing as a teenager, she is told that her grandfather has been knocked off his bicycle and killed. Jones’s reaction? Irritation that her mother makes her leave the nightclub and that the boy she likes then kisses someone else: “I learned I was never, ever going to get what I really wanted.” On 11 September 2001, much of the fashion press is at New York Fashion Week and witnesses the twin towers collapse. Jones is envious of these other editors, who are part of “this momentous occasion”.

Knowing Jones’s columns, I had expected to be irritated by her book. What I hadn’t expected was to be bored. The sections on her early childhood are so drenched in self-pity as to be draining.

Later, I started to feel sorry for her. Every experience she has with a man – from the boy in the playground who assaults her to her adulterous husband – is awful. And her life has been ruled and ruined by anorexia. Yet this suffering inspires little empathy with others. Even though she hates her own looks, she doesn’t seem to have any qualms about criticising the appearance of other women.

Her best writing is on the fashion industry: the way journalists are bought with freebies, the industry’s cruelty to animals and the branding of waiflike models as “fat”. On the designer John Galliano’s anti-Semitism trial, she raises questions about the duty of care of his ex-employer Dior.

As Jones’s miseries play out in public, that is something the Daily Mail should consider, too. Her writing doesn’t feel cathartic. Like her starving herself, it feels like self-harm.

Daily Mail fashion editor and monarch of confessional journalism, Liz Jones. Photograph: Chris Lloyd/Camera Press.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

Getty
Show Hide image

Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

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 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories