A night at the Baftas

Ben Affleck steals a march in the race to the Oscars.

On Sunday evening the British Academy Film and Television Awards (better known as the Baftas) were held at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. The red carpet was a soggy scene, and Hollywood’s hottest intoned for many hours on meteorology. It was a happy television audience when Stephen Fry eventually brought his purple prose to the pulpit.

Ben Affleck won for his direction of Argo, which in turn was named best film, gaining it more yardage in its sprint toward Oscar success. Lincoln has been reclining in an armchair on the edge of the finish line for months, and may very way topple over it, with a yawn, by Oscar night. This is very difficult to call, but Argo’s thighs are certainly pumping after a resplendent Sunday in London. Quentin Tarantino’s original screenplay for Django Unchained was honoured. This makes coy amends for Tarantino’s inexplicable exclusion from the director category.
 
The acting categories went according to expectations – for the most part. As inevitable as Stephen Fry getting a gag about lubricant into his script, Anne Hathaway was awarded best supporting actress for her role as Fantine in Les Miserables, and the sun shone on the nothing new as Daniel Day-Lewis was named best actor. One is in mild emotional limbo as his performance in Lincoln wins another award (and continues its course toward an Oscar); not because it is undeserving, but because Joaquin Phoenix must remain un-lauded, left clawing at his beard at the back of the hall, having delivered such a performance in The Master, so twitching and boggled and brilliant. Christoph Waltz was awarded best supporting actor for Django Unchained, and in his studied and choppy English delivered a charming speech in which he praised Quentin Tarantino – "You silver-penned devil!" – against impending tears. This builds on his victory at the Golden Globes, though it would remain a surprise if he defeats Tommy Lee Jones, Alan Arkin and Philip Seymour Hoffman at the Oscars considering he took the statue for a comparable performance in Inglorious Basterds.
 
The British Academy’s compliance ceased at the best actress category, however, as they chose Emmanuelle Riva over Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain. Although one’s money is still safest behind Lawrence for the Oscar, the pluck it took to choose a 85 year old, whose heyday was the French New Wave, might re-conjure the dissident poltergeist which spooked the American Academy into voting for The Artist, and open minds to the possibility of making Riva their unlikely recipient. 
 
A number of the technical categories this year can be treated with more interest than the shoulder-shrugging they usually receive. Les Miserables was given the award for best sound in recognition of its recording technique, wherein actors perform their pieces live, dictating the tempo of their numbers rather than miming to a pre-recording (reservedly labeled ‘revolutionary’ in the making of musicals). In addition, Life of Pi was given the special visual effects award for a project that included the lavish creation of Richard Parker, the digital tiger, work which has been credited with making a significant contribution to the union of technology and art. 
 
Below is a complete list of the winners.
 
BEST FILM: Argo- Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck, George Clooney 
 
OUTSTANDING BRITISH FILM: Skyfall - Sam Mendes, Michael G.Wilson, Barbara Broccoli, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan 
 
OUTSTANDING DEBUT BY A BRITISH WRITER, DIRECTOR OR PRODUCER: Bart Layton (Director), Dimitri Doganis (Producer) – The Imposter
 
FILM NOT IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE: Amour- Michael Haneke, Margaret Ménégoz 
 
DOCUMENTARY: Searching for Sugar Man- Malik Bendjelloul, Simon Chinn 
 
ANIMATED FILM: Brave - Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman 
 
DIRECTOR: Argo – Ben Affleck
 
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Django Unchained - Quentin Tarantino 
 
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: - David O. Russell 
 
LEADING ACTOR: Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
 
LEADING ACTRESS: Emmanuelle Riva - Amour 
 
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained 
 
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Anne Hathaway – Les Miserables
 
ORIGINAL MUSIC: Skyfall - Thomas Newman 
 
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda 
 
EDITING: Argo - William Goldenberg 
 
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Les Miserables - Eve Stewart, Anna Lynch-Robinson 
 
COSTUME DESIGN: Anna Karenina - Jacqueline Durran 
 
MAKE UP & HAIR: Les Miserables - Lisa Westcott 
 
SOUND: Les Miserables - Simon Hayes, Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson, Jonathan Allen, Lee Walpole, John Warhurst 
 
SPECIAL VISUAL EFFECTS: Life of Pi - Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer 
 
SHORT ANIMATION: The Making of Longbird - Will Anderson, Ainslie Henderson 
 
SHORT FILM: Swimmer - Lynne Ramsay, Peter Carlton, Diarmid Scrimshaw 
 
THE EE RISING STAR AWARD (voted for by the public): Juno Temple 
 
OUTSTANDING BRITISH CONTRIBUTION TO CINEMA: Tessa Ross 
 
THE BAFTA FELLOWSHIP: Alan Parker 
Ben Affleck at the Baftas (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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