Breathe In: The danger of looking at Felicity Jones’s face

Drake Doremus's pale blue drama stars Guy Pearce as a middle-aged musician looking for a break from his humdrum life. When British exchange student Sophie Williams (Felicity Jones) arrives, he sees a second chance to regain his youth.

Within the first three minutes of Breathe In, the stage is set for Felicity Jones’s entrance. Keith Reynolds (played by a whiskery Guy Pearce) is a frustrated part-time musician, who, like many an artist before him, has ceded his impulsive and unorthodox life to a regimen of bills, children and regular pay. He is a music teacher who was never meant to be a music teacher. Or so he says. He sits in his office (a sort of shrine to his adolescent self) and groans over letters from his employer (“Hello educators!”) reminding him that a new school year is about to commence. He hides photographs of his old band in a stationary box on his desk.

Keith’s wife Megan, played by the magnificent Amy Ryan (also known as Officer Beadie from The Wire), is drearily co-opted into the list of trivialities that make Keith’s a life worth leaving. She collects and sells antique cookie jars. She also claims to enjoy driving her daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) from place to place. Lauren is a tall adolescent who likes hunky boys and swimming and not reading books, a populist contrast with her bohemian father. When Keith suggests the family might move to New York City, he is laughed at by his wife. What a boring old grown-up she is!

Into the humdrum steps Sophie Williams: a moody, adorably toothy ingénue from the UK staying with Keith and his family for a term, who just so happens to be a reluctant musical prodigy. When she joins Keith’s class he puts her on the spot, asking her to play something for her peers by way of introduction. She angrily bangs out one of Chopin’s warm-up routines, her thick black ponytail hanging over one shoulder as she grimaces at her teacher and host.

Initially indifferent, Keith’s interest is piqued. Here begins a series of will-they-won’t-they moments characterised by longing glances, pregnant silences and slow, staccato dialogue, improvised by the actors according to the method preferred by director Drake Doremus (who directed Jones in 2011 drama Like Crazy). The film, for all its Lolita-esque potential, is remarkably chaste. The pair’s magnetism is driven less by lust than the will to escape everything they see as holding them back. It is never exactly clear who is leading and who is being led.

In the meantime, Keith’s daughter Lauren is busy doing everything that Sophie is just too brooding and aloof to bother with: she is out getting drunk, being jealous and showing the kinds of vulnerabilities that would be expected of someone her age. When we are not being seduced by the handsomeness of Pearce and Jones, the gorgeous pale blue photography, lush interiors and deep, orchestral score (Keith is a cellist), it is the trials of Lauren and her mother Megan with whom we are most able to identify.

But just look at that face. Sophie’s mum, we learn, died when she was a child. She was raised by her aunt and pianist uncle, the latter having recently passed away - facts which might explain both the character’s talent and her dismissive behaviour – that is if she’s telling the truth.

Words pass between Keith and Sophie about “the rules” that keep them from doing what they want - rules which they could ignore, but not without paying for it (at least in the moral universe of US indie cinema). The narrative denouement attempts to compensate for the lingering melancholy by providing an almighty bang, though this dramatic surge isn’t necessarily the antidote required. For all the respect shown to Jones throughout the film (one pool-side scene aside), the simple premise of a middle-aged man constantly staring at a girl the same age as his daughter might have been unforgivable, if not for the fact that by looking at her face he is forced to see his own.

Breathe In is out now.

Breathe In is a film of looking and longing. Photograph: Indian Paintbrush.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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