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Review: Beauty

The most disturbing study of repression you'll see all year.

Every film is perfect during those few seconds after the lights go down, the curtains part and the projector starts whirring. Some maintain that high standard even longer. Beauty, a new South African picture that’s easier to admire than to like, is a work of considerable control, consistency and intelligence. From its masterful open­ing shot, we know we are in safe hands even as the director Oliver Hermanus leads us on to dangerous ground.

Like American Beauty, with which it almost shares its title, this is a story of a bored, middle-aged man obsessed with one of his daughter’s friends. There the similarity ends. Beauty begins at a wedding reception in Bloemfontein. The camera gazes out at the guests mingling, drinking, laughing. As the long lens creeps further into the crowd, a face emerges gradually as the focus of its attention – a sublimely handsome young man in his early twenties. A ten­tatively played piano makes itself heard, banishing other sounds and bestowing on the fellow an air of wistful romantic idealism. We are enchanted.
So is François (Deon Lotz). This married timber merchant is plainly dazzled by Christian (Charlie Keegan), a part-time model who is training to be a lawyer. Christian is a chum of François’s daughter and the son of one of his old army buddies. The lad is courteous, smart and eager to please: he talks cheerfully to François, deferring to his professional experience. He can’t see that the older man’s feelings towards him are defined by a desire both ravenous and resentful.
François is the beast in Beauty. He wears an amused smile that can’t conceal the disgust with which he regards the world, and himself. The one explicit glimpse we get of his secret sex life is characterised by weirdly outdated iconography – fuzzy VHS pornography, rather than the online variety, plays in the background of a scene that is a contender for the most unappetising sexual encounter this side of Salò – but the film is clearly reflecting Fran­çois’s own rancid self-loathing, rather than wallowing in the sordid.
François’s temper is frighteningly close to the surface, like those outwardly placid businessmen who will tear off your arm at the shoulder if you jostle their Telegraph on the morning commute. Lotz is such a lucid actor that we would pick up on this even without his character’s visit to the doctor, where he is gently reminded how to keep his anger in check. “I haven’t lost control,” he protests, his words sore with scar tissue from past outbursts. The scene is muted, like the whole film, but you would need to be unconscious not to detect the sound of gnashing and churning.
Discovering that we have been looking through those eyes during the film’s first sequence induces at first a horrified shiver, like waking up to find you’ve been sharing your bed with a monster. It gets worse. François dominates every moment; if he’s not in a scene, we’re looking at it through his eyes: the camera keeps imprisoning us in that poisoned perspective, making us complicit in the manipulative plans he hatches to get what he wants. Nothing else intrudes. It’s less like sleeping with a monster than being physically possessed by one.
Films that attempt to immerse the viewer in a character’s warped psychology are ten a penny but Beauty is one of the most persuasive examples. It would be overrating the picture to put it in the company of Vertigo or Taxi Driver but it has more in common with the intoxicating, expressionistic style of those works than it does with superficial character studies such as the recent Shame or Michael. Everything in the film feeds into its central thesis of the malignancy of repression; there has been no more articulate cinematic study of the nature of homophobia.
Ben Ludik’s score suggests the gentler parts of Pino Donaggio’s work for Brian De Palma in movies such as Carrie and Dressed to Kill, the difference being that in Beauty the musical calm never builds to a storm; there’s no crescendo, no release. The film keeps a lid on its horrors. After everything finally boils over, that lid simply goes back on and the whole miserable cycle is ready to start again.

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 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis