Books in Brief: Andrew Lycett, Robert Calderisi and Tom Cheshire

Three new books you may have missed.

Auguste and Jean Piccard, along with Auguste's wife Jeannette, on another expedition in May 1934. Image: Getty
 
Wilkie Collins: a Life of Sensation
Andrew Lycett
 
Andrew Lycett, a biographer of Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle, has done some investigating into the father of the detective novel and in this biography reconstructs Wilkie Collins’s tangled domestic life, which revolved around two mistresses. The writer who specialised in family secrets had secrets of his own. He also had a limitless capacity for drugs and a place at the centre of Victorian cultural life – he was a friend of Charles Dickens and the painter John Everett Millais. Here is the author of The Moonstone as a character from one of his “sensation” novels . . . except that this is all true.
 
Hutchinson, 544pp, £20
 
Earthly Mission: the Catholic Church and World Development
Robert Calderisi
 
The former director of the World Bank takes a balanced look at the contradictory and controversial stances of the Catholic Church, which has been criticised for its position on birth control, abortion, child abuse and priestly celibacy. Here, Robert Calderisi points out that 65 per cent of Catholic schools are in developing countries and that in some parts of Africa it provides up to 50 per cent of health and education services. It is also a provider of antiretroviral drugs to combat Aids and has established credit unions to promote economic self-sufficiency. There are two sides to the Catholic coin.
 
Yale University Press, 304pp, £20
 
The Explorer Gene
Tom Cheshire
 
The Swiss family Piccard has a habit of going higher, deeper and further than anyone else. In 1931 Auguste Piccard reached a height of 51,775 feet in a balloon, higher than any man before him. His twin, Jean Felix, then promptly went higher. Auguste’s son Jacques went to the deepest place on earth, the Mariana Trench, in a family-designed submarine, and his grandson Bertrand was the first person to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon. Tom Cheshire tells the story of these high – and low – achievers and examines what pushed them ever onwards.
 
Short Books, 301pp, £20

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

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 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories