In the Critics this week

Ryan Gilbey on Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, Douglas Hurd on David Hannay, George Saunders interviewed and Kate Mossman discusses Les Misérables.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Ryan Gilbey reviews Steven Spielberg’s upcoming release, Lincoln. Gilbey praises screenwriter Tony Kushner for his creation of a “fine-grained procedural drama” that is abundant with “unique structural and linguistic strengths”. Spielberg doesn’t go without praise, though, particularly where  the portrayal of slavery is concerned. Gilbey notes that this is a significant improvement on his 1997 brush with the subject in courtroom drama Amistad. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as the 56-year-old president Abraham Lincoln is “genuinely mesmerising” with interesting comparisons drawn with the younger Lincoln depicted by Henry Fonda in John Ford’s 1939 Young Mr Lincoln. Gilbey picks up on the questionably unintentional continuity between the characters, and the “baked-in wisdom and joyfulness” that is clear in both actors’ portrayals. Despite painting an “intimately gruelling” picture of the civil war, Spielberg achieves a kind of “magisterial grandeur” in the film’s cinematography.

In Books: Douglas Hurd reviews Britain’s Quest for a Role: a Diplomatic Memoir from Europe to the UN by diplomat David Hannay (“We shall need plenty of new Hannays if the opportunities of this century are not to be thrown away”); Maragret Drabble discusses John Burnside’s collection of short stories, Something Like Happy (“His characters are are reconciled to being almost happy when most alone”); Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s by Graham Stewart is reviewed by Stuart Maconie (“It is a largely consuming book, crammed with detail, anecdote and juxtapositions”); John Sutherland on Lara Feigel’s The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War (“An innovative exercise in this genre”); and Helen Lewis gives her opinion on Navel Gazing: One Woman’s Quest for a Size Normal by Anne H Putnam (“There are barely any characters other than the author and her stomach . . . it’s a one-woman-and-her-body-show”).

In the Books Interview, Sophie Elmhirst talks to George Saunders about his latest novel, Tenth of December. Saunders says: “When you bring morality up in relation to fiction, people think you’re propagandising and that, I think, is totally anti-art”.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Kate Mossman sings the praises of the film adaptation of the musical Les Misérables; Rachel Cooke is unimpressed by the second series of Borgen on BBC4; Antonia Quirke discusses the power of Radio 4’s Open Country; and Leo Hollis talks design at Missorts art project in Bristol.

Steven Spielberg with Daniel Day-Lewis at the recent premier of film Lincoln. Photograph: Getty Images
Sienna Miller and Charlie Hunnam. Getty
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Rumbles in the jungle: highlights from the Berlin Film Festival

Upcoming releases include drama about a trans woman and an adventure in south America.

It was blisteringly cold for the first few days of the Berlin Film Festival but there was plenty of heat coming off the cinema screens, not least from Call Me by Your Name. This rapturous, intensely sensual and high-spirited love story is set in northern Italy in the early 1980s. The perky and precocious 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is drawn to Oliver (Armie Hammer), an older, American doctoral student who’s arrived for the summer to assist the boy’s father, an esteemed professor (Michael Stuhlbarg). Their friendship passes through stages sceptical, fraternal, flirtatious and hostile before arriving at the erotic.

Movies which insist that life was never the same again after that summer are a pet peeve of mine but this one is as ripe and juicy as the peach Elio snatches from a tree and puts to a most unusual and intimate use. (Think American Pie with fruit.) Luca Guadagnino has form as a chronicler of the holidaying rich, but his best-known films (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) discovered trouble in paradise. In Call Me by Your Name, it’s all pleasure. A distant sense of sadness is signalled by the use of a few plaintive songs by Sufjan Stevens but what defines the picture is its vitality, personified in a star-making performance by Chalamet which combines petulance, balletic physicality and a new kind of goofball naturalism.

The clammy heat of the jungle, with all its danger and mystery, are strongly evoked in The Lost City of Z, a stirring adventure based on fact, which catapults its writer-director, James Gray (The Yards, We Own the Night), out of his usual sooty cityscapes and into uncharted South America in the early 20th century. Charlie Hunnam plays Percy Fawcett, a colonel who grudgingly agrees to referee the mapping of borders between ­Bolivia and Brazil on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society, only to be seduced by the legend of a city populated by a sophisticated civilisation. The film, which I will review in more detail next month, felt deeply satisfying – even more so than correcting American colleagues on the pronunciation of the title.

There was a less effective expedition movie in the main competition. Joaquim dramatises the journey of Joaquim José da Silva Xavier (aka Tiradentes) from colonialist stooge and hunter of gold smugglers to revolutionary icon. There is an impressive level of detail about 18th-century Brazilian life: rudimentary dentistry, a haircut undertaken with a machete. Joaquim’s severed head provides a posthumous introductory narration, presumably in tribute to the ultimate expedition film, Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God, which featured a noggin that continued talking after decapitation. Yet the hero’s conversion to the cause of the exploited Brazilians is confusingly brisk, and the film feels both inordinately long and too short to have sufficient impact.

We remain in scorching heat for Viceroy’s House, in which the director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) chronicles the events leading up to the partition of India in 1947. Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson are Lord and Lady Mountbatten, pottering around being frightfully nice to the locals. Polite, lukewarm and almost entirely without flavour, the film closes with an uplifting romantic reunion that is somewhat eclipsed by the killing of an estimated two million people during Partition.

Away from the on-screen sun, it was still possible to feel warmed by two splendidly humane films. A Fantastic Woman is a stylish, Almodóvar-type drama about a trans woman, Marina (played by the captivating transgender actor Daniela Vega), who is subjected to prejudice and violence by her late partner’s family. Its Chilean director, Sebastián Lelio, made a splash in Berlin four years ago with Gloria, his comedy about a Santiago divorcee, but this new picture puts him in a whole other class.

The Other Side of Hope, from the deadpan Finnish genius Aki Kaurismäki, follows a bright-eyed Syrian refugee (Sherwan Haji) and the poker-faced Helsinki restaurateur (Sakari Kuosmanen) who takes him under his wing. Kaurismäki’s mixture of absurdity and altruism feels even more nourishing in these troubled times. On Saturday the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear, went to On Body and Soul, a Hungarian comedy-drama about two lonely slaughterhouse workers. Still, Kaurismäki was named Best Director, while Lelio and his co-writer, Gonzalo Maza, won the Best Screenplay prize. Not too shabby.

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 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit