I'm not worried about masculinity in crisis: I've seen where it leads

Blood, mud and splinters.

Diane Abbott is not the first public figure to generate headlines with the phrase “masculinity in crisis.” (Though she may be the first to use the ungainly word “pornified” in a speech.) I remember it being quite the bumper-sticker slogan around the publication in 1990 of Robert Bly’s Iron John: a Book about Men which advocated that the male’s proper place was in the woods, gnawing the heads off gazelles and felling trees with his bare hands, usually while shirtless (weather permitting). The burgeoning consensus was that men had been emasculated and feminised by the whole New Man revolution; in the process of changing nappies, watching thirtysomething and waxing our chests (often all at the same time), we had lost something vital and visceral in ourselves.

Having become a parent for the first time in the early 1990s, these matters were occasionally on my mind. It’s true that I did spend a lot of my time pushing the pram; sometimes I even remembered to place my baby daughter inside it first. The concept of masculinity in crisis was not one which affected me personally; if I was not hunting or playing rugby or putting up a shelf any more, it was only because I had never done it in the first place, what with my disabling fear of blood, mud and splinters.

But I had witnessed it played out enough times in films to know that my generation could not reasonably lay claim to its inception. If you have seen John Wayne grappling with his own brutishness in The Searchers, or Jack Nicholson snarling and sniping at the women around him in Five Easy Pieces and Carnal Knowledge, you have seen a phenomenon that predates by many decades Abbott’s slightly bizarre vision of a culture characterised by Viagra and Jack Daniels. Latter-day cinemagoers have not been short of examples, many of them properly connected to the culture of isolation and misdirection that Abbott identifies in her speech as arising from “movements in the labour market”—look at what the absence of work does to the men in Brassed Off or L’emploi du temps.

The new thriller The Liability, starring Tim Roth as a seasoned hit-man taking on a cocky apprentice (Jack O’Connell) for a job in the North of England, provides a neat glimpse of male vulnerability in the context of violence. I should declare an interest—the film’s screenwriter, John Wrathall, is a friend and colleague of mine—but it’s the performances of Roth and O’Connell (and that of Peter Mullan as their imposing boss) that I want to highlight here. Roth has himself been on the other end of this relationship: he was the yapping upstart to an older assassin (played by John Hurt) in Stephen Frears’s road movie The Hit, and there’s a pleasing continuity there. Roth’s character Myron didn’t survive The Hit (few did) but if he had done, it is plausible that he would have grown up to be like Roy, the weary old hand whose irritation at O’Connell’s Adam softens into an intermittently paternal protectiveness.

As the instigator of their gruesome mission, Mullan happens also to be Adam’s mother’s boyfriend, which brings another distorted father/son relationship into the mix. The problem is not merely the fatherlessness that Abbott highlights but the influence of the wrong sorts of fathers. The connective tissue between The Hit and The Liability is helpful here. Myron was already under the influence of a toxic kind of masculinity—the 1980s soccer-yob culture which you can see in the scene in which he smashes up a Spanish bar and everyone in it—but to have John Hurt’s Braddock (as weary there as Roth is in The Liability) as a mentor is never going to keep you on the straight and narrow. Similarly, Adam may have to face his own stepfather in the brutal climax of The Liability, but even if he defeats him, there’s no real prospect of him escaping the cycle of violence given his tutelage by Roy—and by his alliance with another character later in the movie. Think of the eloquent final scene of Scorsese’s Gangs of New York: two violent men lying in the dust. That’s where violence gets us.

So The Hit leads almost 30 years later to The Liability, which leads to… what? Well, perhaps some enterprising writer will put together the next instalment in another three decades, and a canny casting director will have the good sense to hire Jack O’Connell as a grizzled, grown-up version of Adam and we can check back in to see if the cycle has been broken.

The Liability is released 17 May. The Hit screens tonight (16 May) at BFI Southbank, London SE1.

jack O'Connell and Tim Roth in The Liability.

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.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism