The World's End: A comedy of ideas as well as gags

Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg return for the final instalment of their "Cornetto" trilogy: a raucous comedy slightly gnarled by its lofty ambitions.

The World’s End (15)
dir: Edgar Wright

The sobering lesson at the heart of the pubcrawl comedy The World’s End – that the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there – is hardly an original one. When L P Hartley wrote that line, he may not have envisaged that the sentiment would be expressed in an apocalyptic comic thriller about a sleepy town quietly infiltrated by a race of alien beings with blue blood. Presumably the colour was chosen for its domestic connotations (think classroom ink or Harpic) and for its liberating effect on violence (you can spill as much blood as you like and still keep your 15 certificate when that blood isn’t red).

The satirical content in the film revolves around the homogenisation of a Britain where every pub is indistinguishable from the next and national idiosyncrasies have been wiped out by branding. “It’s Starbucking,” someone says. “Happens everywhere.” In its role as a comedy of ideas as well as gags, The World’s End places the blame on a force more sinister even than globalisation.

Fear of conformity also ran through Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the previous two film collaborations between the director Edgar Wright and his lead actor and co-writer Simon Pegg. The hero of the new picture, Gary King (Pegg), is a screw-up who never grew up, a fortysomething man-boy stuck in his student years (Sisters of Mercy T-shirt, black trench coat, oil-slick hair). Getting in Gary’s clapped-out Ford, his old pal Steven (Paddy Considine) is amazed to hear the early-Nineties mix tape he made for him back at college. “Where did you find it?” he exclaims. “It was in the stereo,” Gary replies, nonplussed. Development doesn’t come much more arrested.

Even the soundtrack choices comment on it: Kylie’s “Step Back in Time”, Suede’s “So Young”, Pulp’s “Do You Remember the First Time?” Most poignant is the shot of Gary and his friends gathered in the pub snug while Inspiral Carpets sing: “This is how it feels to be lonely . . .” (I always said Inspiral Carpets would come in handy for something one day and no one believed me.)

Gary is haunted by the memory of un - finished business in his home town of Newton Haven. After leaving college, he and his chums tried and failed to complete a 12-stop pub crawl known as the “Golden Mile”. These days, Gary is more 12-step than 12-stop but that doesn’t prevent him from convincing the gang to return to Newton Haven to give it another go. As well as Steven, there’s the Bluetooth-eared estate agent Oliver (Martin Freeman, a master of the gently disdainful reaction shot), the car salesman Peter (Eddie Marsan) and Andy (Nick Frost), the most grudging participant on account of bad blood – bad red blood – between him and Gary. Popping up intermittently is Oliver’s sister, Sam, played by Rosamund Pike, who is so charismatic – whether rebuffing Gary’s charmless propositions or wielding garden furniture like a martial arts master – that it beggars belief that the film sends her off-screen when it runs out of things for her to do.

Frost and Pegg have been playing BFFs since long before the world started talking in impersonal acronyms – as far back as Spaced in the late-Nineties, the fine-grained flatshare sitcom that also established Wright’s magpie-eyed film-making style. Their chemistry seemed exhausted in the science-fiction road movie Paul but there is a genuine ache and anguish to their scenes together in The World’s End. Andy still gets furious whenever Gary suckers him with another lie but mostly he’s mad at himself for being a pushover. Turning from mild to wild during a fight scene, he’s railing not only at his extraterrestrial adversaries but at his lot in the world.

Double-fisted gunplay of the type pioneered by Chow Yun-Fat was once all the rage in the action genre. Here, there’s a sweetly parochial equivalent when Andy takes on all comers with a bar stool in each hand, rather than a Glock. It’s still unfortunate that, after the first two dust-ups, there simply isn’t enough variety to keep the confrontations fresh. Or is it just that those of us raised on the oeuvre of Burt Reynolds will always be resistant to a bar-room brawl?

At least the film has the courage of its convictions where it counts. Rather than foisting redemption upon Gary, the film insists to its final frame that warts-and-all is better than nipped-and-tucked, personality-wise. If that message smacks of A Clockwork Orange, the tone of the film is more reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, John Wyndham or The Thing. Abundant the raucous comedy may be but it never quite cancels out the creepiness of certain images, such as the members of “the Network” emitting blasts of light from their faces that intensify their accusing eyes and O-shaped mouths.

In its final half-hour, the movie gets snarled up in its ambitions; the narrative alters shape so drastically that it becomes impossible for the brain to process the new information in a single sitting. Then again, maybe that’s another way of saying: this one’s a keeper.

Totally slaughtered: from left, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Eddie Marsan.

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 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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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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