Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Charles Moore, David Sedaris and Damian Barr.

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not For Turning by Charles Moore 

Charles Moore’s biography has been 16 years in the making and is based on unrestricted access to all Margaret Thatcher's papers, as well as on  interviews with her and all her major colleagues.

For Anne Applebaum, writing in the Telegraph, Moore’s work is the "definitive account" of Thatcher’s life. She celebrates Moore’s ability to "‘make Thatcher’s story fresh again" and to create a "multi-faceted picture of a compelling and unusual life".

Similarly, Jane Merrick of the Independent claims that Moore’s exhaustive work provides us with "enough new material (including previously unpublished correspondence with her sister, Muriel) to offer a fresh, even vulnerable person behind the mythology". That said, Merrick is wary of the "Establishment-backed and largely uncritical" version of events presented by Moore.

The Guardian’s Andy Beckett is more reserved in his praise. Whilst admiring the book's flashes of "dry wit" and acknowledging the "thoroughness and skill" involved in writing such a large tome, Beckett argues that the writing tends towards hagiography - Moore’s telling of her Grantham upbringing is "reverent" and "sepia tinged". Moreover, Beckett echoes Merrick’s assertion that the biography is lacking in honest criticism - "a sense of the British establishment granting favours to one of its own hangs over this book, and is never quite dispelled".

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

David Sedaris presents his new collection of essays from his journeys around the world. Occasionally, David Shariatmadari of the Guardian writes, Sedaris’s writing can appear "contemptuous" and hard "to like". Nevertheless Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls "also sings about how brilliantly clever, inventive and funny he is, a poet for everyone who wouldn't live the ordinary life if you paid them".

Whilst Max Liu of the Independent praises Sedaris’s humour, he is critical of his forays into fiction, describing them as "clumsy". When writing about his life, Liu argues, Sedaris is "poignant and amusing, but it's hard to recommend a slim volume of autobiography padded with forgettable stories".

This view is shared by Tom Cox, writing in the Daily Express. Cox argues that Let’s Explore Diabetes… gives unfortunate credence to the notion that Sedaris was at his best when writing about the menial jobs he did in his twenties and thirties, and now must resort to wringing comic episodes from his life as a rich author, catching aeroplanes between his multiple residences and spoken word shows. To fans of Sedaris, Cox claims, this may feel "flimsy", but to those new to Sedaris the book will provide "some of your biggest laughs of the decade so far".  

Maggie and Me by Damian Barr

Maggie and Me is Damian Barr’s blackly comic memoir about growing up gay during the Thatcher years. Although critical of the "brassy finale" in which Barr "squanders the subtlety that went before it" by giving in to a "forced Thatcherism", the Observer's Adam Mars-Jones praises Barr’s "shrewdly constructed" memoir. It is, he writes, imbued with a "winning dry humour" and manages a "very sharp control of irony".

In a similarly laudatory review, Andrew Holgate in the Sunday Times praises Maggie and Me as "full to the brim with poignancy, humour, brutality and energetic and sometimes shimmering prose, the book confounds one’s assumptions about those years and drenches the whole era in an emotionally charged comic grandeur. It is hugely affecting."

This view is also shared by Olivia Cole of GQ: "[F]or all the pain, Maggie and Me is a tremendous, surprising read". She is also quick to praise the "honesty" and "difficulty" of Barr’s record of his experiences, praising the author as an "exemplary figure".

Margaret Thatcher on election day in June 1987 (Photo: Getty Images)
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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

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 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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