In the Critics this Week

Jeanette Winterson on Virginia Woolf, Rachel Cooke on House of Cards, Richard Holloway on John Gray and much more.

The Critics section of this week’s New Statesman is lead by Jeanette Winterson’s article on the “joyous transgressions” of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. In her essay, Winterson discusses how Woolf “did away with the usual co-ordinates of biography and set off through time as though it were an element, not a dimension”. Woolf composed the novel as a “savage satire on sexism”, spurred by the Victorian gender roles among which she grew up. Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s lover and the model for Orlando, “often dressed as a man and often had affairs with other women in her disguise as ‘Julian’”, and Woolf responded to this, Winterson argues, in part because of her love for the “scope and the certainty of the Renaissance mind”. Shakespeare could understand the “manliness of a soldier, the intensity of a nun”, and Woolf’s novel enacts a similar full-mindedness. Winterson argues that Woolf wrote a novel which refuses constraints, where “Ageing is irrelevant. Gender is irrelevant. Time is irrelevant”.

In her review of House of Cards, Rachel Cooke is sceptical of the soothsayers who insist Netflix will revolutionise the way we watch television. Will House of Cards really initiate a culture of binge-watching? Though Cooke doubts it, she admits that if anything were to seduce her, it could very well be House of Cards, whose writing and production she praises, alongside Kevin Spacey’s lead performance. Ryan Gilbey thinks far less of the week’s big cinema release, This is 40, directed by Judd Apatow. Gilbey deems it “not so much cinema as four episdoes of Outnumbered set to a coffee-shop playlist”, and ultimately “40 percent Less Funny Than Any Previous Judd Apatow Film”.

In Books, Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, reviews John Gray’s The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, in which the philosopher argues that “our capacity for language has prompted us to create myths that express the riddle of our existence”, yet “humanity’s obsessive search for a cure for its own ills is its most dangerous disease”. George Eaton finds the prose of Richard Seymour in his book Unhitched: the Trial of Christopher Hitchens “tediously inflated”, and his message undermined from the outset “by deploying ‘left’ as a synonym for ‘things I like’ and ‘right’ as a synonym for ‘things I don’t’”.

Elsewhere, Sarah Churchwell reviews A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (“the ethos of this novel is about the value of making things”); Alex Massie reviews On Glasgow and Edinburgh by Robert Crawford (“Edinburgh and Glasgow have never been friends...”); Peter Wilby reviews Calon: a Journey to the Heart of Welsh Rugby by Owen Sheers (“modern rugby involves more than stirring men’s blood against ancient wrongs”); and James Harkin reviews Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (“as mainstream institutions crumble, it’s easy to have a go at cultish organisations”).

 

Plus:

Jonathan Derbyshire interviews Tracey Thorn, whose book Bedsit Disco Queen chews over an essential question for the author: “Do I fit in? Do I want to fit in?” Thorn discusses the mild careerism of her generation in comparison to today’s “terribly organised and ambitious” youth.

 

Elsewhere in The Critics:

Will Self on the elusiveness of raclette in Basel (“I liked the idea of shepherd’s slapping the cheese round down on a griddle by the fire, then scraping off successive wedges of golden deliquescence”); Alexandra Coghlan on the Sensing Memory festival at University of Plymouth (which “teems with compositional creativity”); Antonia Quirke on Radio 4’s latest series, Lyrical Journey which travels to the geographical setting of a famous song with its songwriter; and a poem by Maurice Riordan on the “drawn-out scream” of childhood, entitled "The Lull".

English novelist and critic Virginia Woolf, 1902. (Photo by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

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 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era