Film in 2013 - the year of DiCaprio unchained

What to look out for on the big screen this year.

Since the dawn of time, mankind has been guided through life by the passing of the seasons, the phases of the moon and the patterns of the film release schedule; 2013 is no different. There is the usual January logjam of awardsseason heavyweights: you shall know them by their extravagant length. One, Quentin Tarantino’s slavery revenge thriller Django Unchained (18 January), is one of three new films starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Having at last shed his formerly foetal demeanour, DiCaprio is up to the job of playing his first villain, a sadistic plan - tation owner. The actor will be a good fit, too, in the title role of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (May), opposite Carey Mulligan as Daisy. Before the year is out, he’ll be seen as the jailed stockbroker Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, his fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese. (There’s an extra DiCaprio treat: a Valentine’s Day rerelease of Luhrmann’s febrile Romeo + Juliet. A new film of the play, adapted by Julian Fellowes, follows in October.)

Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Great Gatsby"

The appetite of Park Chan-wook for Jacobean excess far outstrips mine but I am looking forward to Stoker (March), the Korean director’s forthcoming horror film starring Nicole Kidman and the translucent Mia Wasikowska. Oldboy, the gruesome thriller that made Park’s name, will rise again in October in the form of Spike Lee’s US remake. Anyone fancy putting a few squid on whether its star, Josh Brolin, will replicate the original film’s unsimulated liveoctopus- eating scene?

Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams in the upcoming Terrence Malik film "To the Wonder"

We can no longer look to Terrence Malick for tantalising hiatuses between projects – a mere two years after The Tree of Life, he offers To the Wonder (February), featuring Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and very little dialogue, and has been shooting his next two movies simultaneously. Fortunately Wong Kar-wai is available to take up the mantle of Elusive Genius. Hopes are high for The Grandmaster, his first film in five years, starring Tony Leung as Yip Man, the martial arts master who trained Bruce Lee. The picture opens the Berlin Film Festival in February. The wait has been even longer for fans of the British director Jonathan Glazer. Nine years will have elapsed since his last film (Birth) by the time we see Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel Under the Skin. Scarlett Johansson wears a brown wig to play an extraterrestrial on a killing spree in Scotland.

Blockbusteritis prevents me from mentioning 2013’s numerous sequels. However, the film about which I am most excited is also technically a sequel, albeit a belated and idiosyncratic one. After ambling through Vienna in 1995 as twentysomethings in Before Sunrise and breezing around Paris nine years later in their thirties in Before Sunset, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) hit middle age in Greece in the conclusion to Richard Linklater’s freewheeling trilogy. One wag has pointed out that the new film’s title, Before Midnight, surely refers to the hour that Jesse and Celine have to be in bed these days.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in "Before Sunrise"

As someone the same age as the characters, I can chuckle knowingly at that. I’ll be seeing the movie – just not at a late show.

Leonardo DiCaprio in Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained". The actor stars in three big releases this year.

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 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

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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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