Le Week-End: Ongoing saga

This picture downgrades its ambitions along the way. When Nick says he wants to take his and Meg's lovemaking into another dimension, it sounds like an unpromising episode of The Twilight Zone.

Every generation deserves its own escapist entertainment, soft on the eyes and the soul but of minimal nutritional value. So the arrival of Le Week-End, a bit of throwaway fluff aimed at the over-sixties, is to be welcomed. Early on, this story of a couple who return to Paris many decades after their honeymoon there seems to be shaping up as a senior citizens’ spin on the Before series, most obviously the second instalment, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy walk and talk and bicker up and down the Seine. Lindsay Duncan, who plays Meg in Le Week-End, even possesses the tart and twitchy beauty of an older Delpy. Could this be not so much Before Sunset as After Saga?

Sadly not. The picture downgrades its ambitions along the way: it’s a doodle, though not without fizz or merit. It marks the fourth collaboration between the director Roger Michell and the screenwriter Hanif Kureishi. Though their working relationship began 20 years ago when Michell directed the BBC adaptation of The Buddha of Suburbia, their subsequent films together have revolved around the subject of age. In The Mother, a widow in her sixties has a passionate affair with a builder 30-odd years her junior, and in Venus the intergenerational relationship between a young woman and an elderly actor is chirpy but chaste.

Sex in Le Week-End is less a going concern than a running joke. Nick (Jim Broadbent) tells Meg: “Over these past five to ten years, your vagina has become something of a closed book.” She would prefer to see the Eiffel Tower than his “partially erect sausage”. When he says he wants to take their lovemaking into another dimension, it sounds like an unpromising episode of The Twilight Zone.

His wish is sincere. He suggests that they pretend to be other people and Meg laughs, though of course that is precisely why they have come to Paris: to escape themselves, or to re-establish contact with the people they once were. Meg’s prognosis for their marriage is bleak. When Nick claims that “people don’t change”, she replies acidly: “They do. They can get worse.” Nick describes himself as “an anarchist of the left” but also mourns his own mediocrity. He has recently been sacked from his university teaching job for making inappropriate remarks about the hairstyle and economic prospects of a young black student. The sort of misjudgement that has cataclysmic consequences in David Mamet’s Oleanna or Philip Roth’s The Human Stain is consigned here to the realm of “noises off”. The real drama lies in what happens, or doesn’t happen, between Meg and Nick. A discussion about breaking up is interrupted by chit-chat about new tiling ideas for the bathroom; bursts of spite or rage give way in an instant to fondness as the conversational see-saw rises and falls.

None of this is overly compelling. The handsome locations yoo-hoo on cue. Kureishi’s dialogue sounds as epigrammatic as ever: this is manifestly a screenplay that sits more comfortably on the page than on the tongue. But any stiltedness is largely offset by Nathalie Durand’s light, loose camerawork and some lived-in performances. From the latter compliment we must exempt Jeff Goldblum, who is indulged horribly as one of Nick’s old Oxford chums. Perhaps he had it written into his contract that he would be allowed to hijack the part rather than just play it. Either way, the film screeches to a halt whenever he lapses into his extraterrestrial lounge-lizard shtick.

To any criticism levelled against Le Week-End, there is always a built-in riposte in the form of Lindsay Duncan. It remains one of the enduring disgraces of British cinema that she has been so overlooked and underemployed by the medium. She has amassed only a small finger buffet of film work, including her 1983 screen debut in a joyful screwball double act with Stephen Rea in Loose Connections and a cameo turn helping to decipher Joe Orton’s shorthand diaries in Prick Up Your Ears. In Le Week-End she transforms fleeting reaction shots into miniature arias of sighing sadness, then joyfully re-creates the dance scene from Godard’s Bande à part a moment later. “You’re hot,” Nick tells Meg. “Hot but cold.” Duncan conveys both extremes without losing her inner warmth.

Bit of fluff: Broadbent and Duncan in Le Week-End

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 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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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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