Silver Linings Playbook - review

The excess baggage in this film is thankfully relieved by Robert De Niro's grumpy-funny turn.

Silver Linings Playbook (15)
dir: David O Russell

It’s clear that the hero and heroine of Silver Linings Playbook are made for one another from the moment they meet. He asks her immediately how her husband died, having been warned not to raise the topic, while she quizzes him about the medication he’s on now that he has been discharged from a mental institution. It turns out they’ve both taken many of the same meds. Small world! He is Pat (Bradley Cooper), trying to put his life back together after being found guilty of a violent attack on his wife’s lover. She is Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), whose response to bereavement has been to sleep around at the office, drawing the line only at the coffee machine.

Of course, Pat and Tiffany don’t know they are right for each other. They’re in a film, whereas we are watching one and have doubtless seen many such odd-couple stories of love among the antidepressants (Benny and Joon, say, or Mike Figgis’s underrated Mr Jones). Hollywood’s attitude towards mental illness has typically been patronising or simplistic but then so has its attitude towards most disabilities. Why should the mentally ill get special privileges? Silver Linings Playbook is no exception, though it does have instances of authentic feeling distinct from its ingratiating tone.

After leaving hospital, Pat moves in with his parents, who have their own problems – his mother (Jacki Weaver) is jittery; his father (Robert De Niro) has more than his share of superstitions and OCD. Pat’s friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) is falling apart from the effort of pretending that all is dandy in his life. “People like Tiffany and me, maybe we know something,” Pat decides, and the film seems to concur. The writer-director David O Russell peddles the line that anyone declared to be suffering from a mental illness has simply got their diagnosis ahead of the rest of us.

That’s not to say Pat doesn’t have conspicuous issues. He talks a mile a minute and kids himself that he and his wife are working on their marriage, overlooking the restraining order she has against him. He expresses his dissatisfaction with A Farewell to Arms by throwing the book out of the window, which would be fine if he opened the window first. His is a photogenic condition that manifests itself in charming eccentricity – ordering cereal on a dinner date, exercising overenthusiastically while wearing a bin liner – rather than in drooling and swaying. When Pat suffers a relapse, the script piles on the mitigating circumstances. He keeps his temper in check after seeing his psychiatrist racially insulted. He holds back even when the man is assaulted. But once the miscreants start on Pat’s brother –well, that’s too much. Let us be grateful no one saw fit to add an injured orphan into the mix.

It’s disappointing to find such cautious filmmaking from Russell, who has in the past aimed for the funny bone via the cerebral cortex rather than the tear ducts or the heartstrings. His 1994 debut, Spanking the Monkey, a breezy story of mother-son incest, announced a talent for finding comic tensions in dysfunctional families.

Russell pursued this in the screwball adoption comedy Flirting With Disaster (1996) and The Fighter (2010), a boxing movie in which the most electrifying spats were verbal and domestic. So it follows that the strongest moments in Silver Linings Playbook arise when large groups of people are barking and bantering in humdrum living rooms, lit by the cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi with celebratory brightness. (He shoots the whole film in a kind of beige dazzle.)

Cooper, known primarily for the vulgar Hangover films, nails Pat’s mania but not the mournful side of the character. Lawrence, who at 22 has given enough outstanding performances (Winter’s Bone, The Hunger Games) to seem like a veteran already, is nicely abrasive.

The biggest surprise comes from De Niro, whose previous comedy work has drawn from a shallow well: however amusing he was in Midnight Run or Analyse This, he was being grumpy-funny, De Niro-funny. Playing Pat Sr, he locates in himself a lightness that has no overlap with his past roles. In proving that it is possible to cast off cumbersome baggage, he expresses in his gentle performance the same message that the film takes two hours and much superfluous huffing and puffing to convey.

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook".

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 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?

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Herman Melville's mystery: was Billy Budd black?

A newly unearthed photograph identifies the African-American Trafalgar survivor who appears in Melville’s final novel. Could the book’s hero have been black, too?

The photograph below tells a remarkable tale. I discovered it in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle while researching my new book. The image, taken by John Havers, was acquired by Prince Albert in the 1850s and it portrays veterans of Trafalgar at the Royal Navy hospital in Greenwich in 1854. Sitting on a bench overlooking the Thames, these aged faces and bodies were a familiar sight in south London in their 18th-century-style frock coats and cocked hats, earning them the nickname “Greenwich geese”.

One figure in particular stands out. Using the hospital records, I identified the third man from the left as Richard Baker, an African American, born in Baltimore in 1770, who served at Trafalgar on HMS Leviathan; he entered the hospital in 1839. Seventeen men born in Africa fought for the British during the battle; 123 from the West Indies. There is a black man portrayed on the Westminster-facing bronze plaque on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. But the records show only one Trafalgar veteran from Baltimore: Baker, who is likely to have been a freed or even escaped slave.
Richard Baker (third from the left, with a cane) with fellow veterans of the Battle of Trafalgar in Greenwich in 1854. Photo: Royal Collection Trust

This is a powerful story. But this man also has a special literary significance. On his visit to London in 1849, Herman Melville visited Greenwich and met “an old pensioner in a cocked hat” on the river terrace. It was a vivid encounter that he recalled more than 40 years later in his last and most evocative book, Billy Budd, Sailor. This “Baltimore Negro, a Trafalgar man” was almost certainly Richard Baker. He told Melville how many men had been taken from jail to serve in the navy.

Billy Budd is impressed from a merchant ship that is symbolically named the Rights-of-Man. Melville had written with empathy of people of colour in Moby-Dick, including a scene in which the tattooed Pacific Islander Queequeg and his white bed-mate, Ishmael, declare themselves man and wife. In the opening of Billy Budd, Melville introduces the idea of the “Handsome Sailor”, who, flanked by his fellow mariners, is a “superior figure of their own class, moving along with them like Aldebaran among the lesser lights of his constellation”. One “remarkable instance” of this higher breed occurs to him – a black sailor he had seen in the Liverpool docks ten years earlier:

The two ends of a gay silk handkerchief thrown loose about the neck danced upon the displayed ebony of his chest; in his ears were big hoops of gold, and a Scotch Highland bonnet with a tartan band set off his shapely head. It was a hot noon in July; and his face, lustrous with perspiration, beamed with barbaric good humour. In jovial sallies right and left, his white teeth flashing into view, he rollicked along, the centre of a company of his shipmates.

Was Billy Budd, the Handsome Sailor at the heart of the book, black? Scholars such as John Bryant believe that there is internal evidence in the manuscript of the book – found in a bread tin after Melville’s death in 1891 and not published until 1924 – that the author had played with the idea of making his hero a man of African heritage. Billy is loved by all the crew and is described as blond and blue-eyed later in the story. Yet the sensuous descriptions of the Liverpool sailor and the Greenwich veteran elide to create a counterfactual version in which Billy becomes a black star at the centre of his constellation of shipmates.

Indeed, some critics – most notably, Cassandra Pybus at the University of Sydney – have suggested that another 19th-century anti-hero was a person of colour. In Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, two years before Melville’s visit, Heathcliff is described as a “regular black”, an orphan found in the Liverpool docks – an intriguing notion explored in Andrea Arnold’s brilliant 2011 film adaptation.

Melville witnessed great changes in the fortunes of black Americans. Moby-Dick is an allegory of the struggle against slavery in the run-up to the American Civil War; the Melville scholar Robert K Wallace believes that the writer heard the fugitive slave-turned-emancipationist Frederick Douglass speak in the 1840s and that they may have even met. Nor is it a coincidence that Captain Ahab goes in pursuit of a white whale. It is both the elusive other and the pallor that might appal: Melville suggests that whiteness does not necessarily represent the pure and the good. It’s also a fable that has since found resonance in George W Bush’s pursuit of Osama Bin Laden and the illusory weapons of mass destruction, and in Donald Trump’s crazed crusades.


Terence Stamp as Billy Budd in Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film. Photo: Alamy

Melville wrote vituperatively about the use of flogging in both the American and the British navies. Billy Budd’s back­story is the 1797 naval mutiny in the Thames Estuary, during which mutineers attempted to blockade London and set up a “Floating Republic”. All of these themes are played out in Melville’s parable. Billy, the Handsome Sailor, is beloved of all the ship’s crew, including the captain. But Claggart, the jealous master of arms, frames him as a potential mutineer. Faced with the charge, Billy instinctively hits out and accidentally kills the officer. The captain has no choice: the state demands the death of the “fated boy”. “Struck dead by an angel of God!” he says. “Yet the Angel must hang!”

Having served on whaling and navy ships, Melville knew intimately the hierarchies at sea and the way they echoed the abuse of imperial power. Many men were stolen twice over: as African slaves, then as impressed sailors. Living in Manhattan, he saw other casualties of a period of revolution and international disruption, the 1840s. In Redburn (1849) written as the Irish famine was creating a new trade in people, he records the impact of mass migration to the US. To those who ask whether “multitudes of foreign poor should be landed on our American shores”, he replies, “If they can get here, they have God’s right to come; though they bring all Ireland and her miseries with them. For the whole world is the patrimony of the whole world.”

Melville’s humanity shines across time and space. In 1953, when detained on Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay, the Trinidadian-born writer C L R James saw Ahab’s tyranny as a precursor of the modern cult of personality and an indictment of McCarthyite accusations. As Melville’s last, elegiac word on the subject – having exiled himself as a customs inspector in the same harbour – Billy Budd spoke out against injustice. In the image of Richard Baker, with his grey hair, cane and Trafalgar medal, we see that sensibility brought back to life. Isolated in the unfeeling city, Melville looked back to his lost past in his poem “John Marr”:

Ye float around me, form and feature;
Tattooings, ear-rings, love-locks curled;
Barbarians of man’s simpler nature,
Unworldly servers of the world.

He knew who the true barbarians were. And as his white whale resurfaced as an allegory for a nuclear age, so his Handsome Sailor became the embodiment of the alien, the beautiful and the wronged. His innocent body was hymned by E M Forster and Eric Crozier in their libretto for Britten’s Cold War opera in 1951. He was bleached blond for Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film starring Terence Stamp – a clip of which appears on the banks of TV screens watched by Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Budd’s sacrifice mirroring that of the character played by the flame-haired David Bowie. Newton, a refugee in time and space, falls to Earth like a comet to warn us of nuclear and environmental destruction – and is imprisoned for his sins. “This is modern America,” the authorities say, “and we’re going to keep it that way.”

If Moby-Dick acquired elements of science fiction (Andrew Delbanco, the author of Melville’s most recent major biography, describes Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey as a “very Melvillean film”), then Billy Budd’s ritual continually reinvents itself. In 1999, the French director Claire Denis reset the story in northern Africa in her film Beau Travail – a kind of eroticised ballet of bare male bodies set to Britten’s music (and played out on the same shores from which new refugees now set off for western Europe). Through all these incarnations, the Handsome Sailor persists: from black star and hanged man to alien and avatar.

And at the centre of it all is Richard Baker. His ship, HMS Leviathan, had long since been consigned to the mud of Portsmouth Harbour as a prison hulk for convicts about to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was then known. Baker, also stranded on a foreign shore, looks over the reflecting Thames as it reaches out to the sea – that same mutinous waterway that at the century’s end would lead to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. With his medal pinned proudly to his chest, he looks out of his past into our future, quietly aware of his power.

“RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” by Philip Hoare is published by Fourth Estate

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder