The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

George Catlin: American Indian Portraits. National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, 7-23 March

The National Portrait Gallery’s latest exhibition is a collection of over 50 portraits by Pennsylvanian-born artist George Catlin (1796-1872). His portraits were intended to document the Native American peoples and their way of life. They are regarded as an important and evocative record of America’s indigenous peoples. This will be the first time that they have been shown together outside America since they were returned in the 1850s. 

Opera

Written on Skin. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2, 8 -22 March

Award-winning director Katie Mitchell brings new light to a tale of deception and guile by author Martin Crimp and composer George Benjamin. Written on Skin draws on a 12th-century Occitan legend about a rich lord, Guillaume de Cabestanh, who commissions a book of  illuminations by an artist. The lord hopes the book will immortalise his political power, as well as documenting a sense of domestic order embodied by his obedient wife Agnes. The process of creating the book is the catalyst for his wife's rebellion. After a first successful attempt at seduction, Agnes uses her new found intimacy with the illuminator to modify the content of the book, forcing the husband, in a final act of provocation, to see her as she really is. Themes of passion, violence and love are given a lick of contemporary paint as the drama unfolds under the gaze of angels who watch over the stage. 

Film

Kinoteka, 11th Polish Film Festival. Various Locations (London, Liverpool, Belfast, Edinburgh) 7- 17 March

This week sees the 11th edition of Polish film festival, Kinoteka taking place in a number of locations in the UK. This year, along with a mix of films by fresh and established directors, Kinoteka will be hosting free film workshops for participants of all ages. These workshops include sessions for writers and directors, and animation workshops for children aged between 10 and 14. A brand new short film competition, held in conjunction with the festival, seeks entries from UK filmmakers inspired by Roman Polanski. 

Theatre

This House. National Theatre, London SE1, until 11 May 

“This country is being kept alive on aspirin, when what it needs is electric bloody shock therapy”

The year is 1974. The location, the House of Commons. The UK faces an economic crisis and a hung parliament. In parliament there reigns a culture hostile to co-operation, where party votes are won or lost by the slenderest margins and fist fights in the Commons bars are a regular occurrence. James Graham’s This House pares down politics to the realities of behind-the-scenes horsetrading.  This House examines some of the main issues facing the Wilson and Callaghan governments up to the vote of no confidence in March 1979. 

Native Americans are the subject of the George Catlin exhibition at the NPG
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The Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

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 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue