Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Peter Hook, Ali Smith and Sylvie Simmons.

Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division by Peter Hook

This new Joy Division biography by the band’s bassist “isn’t just Peter Hook collecting some already exhausted stories for a quick pay out,” Michelle Kambasha writes in Clash. “It provides a kind of personal insight that most of us haven’t been privy to until now.” The Joy Division story is steeped in layer upon layer of myth. “Hook’s mission,” writes Dorian Lynskey in the Observer, “is to relate the chaotic day-to-day existence of four young men – kids, really – before it was smoothed into legend.” This is accomplished, according to Lynskey, through the author’s characteristic straightforwardness and lack of pretension: “The demystification process starts with Hook's portrayal of himself as a laddish delinquent who, thunderstruck by punk rock, spontaneously decides to form a band with Salford schoolfriend Bernard Sumner.” What makes Hook’s book so refreshing is the lack of linguistic and intellectual showboating, and its simple laying of facts on the line,” notes Tony Clayton-Lea in the Irish Times, admiring Hook’s unaffected style. The book emphasises the band’s focus on music, fun and friendship – famously at the expense of even a semblance of business-mindedness: it was only in 2008 that Hook “discovered neither Joy Division nor New Order had trademarked or registered their names.” But hanging over every youthful anecdote is Hook’s knowledge, shared with the reader, of Ian Curtis’ impending suicide. As Lynskey writes: “So the tragedy infects the farce, as Curtis's ultimate fate casts ostensibly amusing on-the-road antics as symptoms of denial: never mind the worsening fits and self-harming, let's pelt the support band with eggs.”


Artful by Ali Smith

“It's true, I think I am love with Ali Smith,” admits the Independent’s David Hahn halfway through his review of Artful. The inherent bias of the lovestruck reviewer aside, there’s no disputing his boundless enthusiasm for Smith’s latest book: “Inspired, inspiring, exhausting” is how he summarises the work; a genre mish-mash which weaves in and out of fiction as it takes on “the big questions about art”. Although the book consists of “a quartet of lectures on literary-critical themes”, Hahn is emphatic that Smith manages to invest the notoriously dry shores of acedemia with readability through her “smart, allusive, informal, playful” voice; “dense with ideas but sustaining always a heady pace.” Publisher’s Weekly similarly falls over itself in the quest for a higher hyperbole, praising Smith’s “contemplative, electrifying, and transformative book.” Her dexterity as a writer to navigate seamlessly between the academic and the poetic is praised, as are her “riveting reflections” which successfully transform a series of lecture notes into a rich, rewarding testament to the “immutable necessity for art”.

I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons

Whilst conceding that Sylvia Simmons’s new biography on Leonard Cohen is let down by the “inherent difficulty of telling the story of a storyteller”, A M Homes, writing in the New York Times, finds much to praise in this "exhaustive" biography. Homes is most approving of Simmons’s ability to direct her writing to creating an enriching experience of Cohen’s music, successful enough to make even seasoned fans fall think different about Cohen’s famed poetics: “Crucially, her book helps you add more detail and understanding to his lyrics”. Despite noting a slight lack of “historical context or counterpoint” in Cohen’s early life, Holmes avers that “as soon as you finish reading it you feel an overwhelming impulse to go back and begin again, revisiting the story with what you’ve learned along the way”. Fiona Sturges, writing in the Independent, is equally approving of the even-handed manner in which Simmons takes on this “serious artist who demands serious, if not too reverent, treatment”. She praises her extensive research, original interviews with Cohen himself, which “she elegantly splices … into the narrative”, as well as her uncovering of “delicious morsels that even dedicated Cohenites might find surprising”. And – crucially – Simmons has succeeded in investing a biography with a high level of readability. Tackling the book is like reading a “beautifully plotted piece of fiction”.

Leonard Cohen on stage at the Olympia, Paris. Photo: Getty Images
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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.