Remembering Antonia Bird

The British filmmaker, who died last week, made an impressive contribution to British cinema in the 90s - most memorably in "Safe", "Face" and the genre-bending opus "Ravenous".

Antonia Bird, who died last week aged 62, was a big deal in British cinema of the 1990s, and made at least one notable contribution to filmmaking the following decade: her taut and troubling television film The Hamburg Cell, about the preparations for the 9/11 hijackings. Her work is not, sadly, that widely known or discussed any more. The one that tends to be—Priest, which starred Linus Roache as a closeted Catholic clergyman in Liverpool—was hobbled by a didactic Jimmy McGovern screenplay (if that isn’t a tautology). Her best work with actors can be seen in Safe, a scrupulously tough 1993 BBC film about homelessness, where she coaxed brave, bruised performances from Aidan Gillen, Kate Hardie and Robert Carlyle; and in Face, a 1997 heist movie: not a great piece of cinema itself but one in which Ray Winstone and Phil Davis bringing aching tenderness to their old-lag roles.

Bird worked in Hollywood with mixed results (the 1995 Mad Love, a teen romance with clumsily handled mental illness themes, was an unhappy experience for its makers and its audience alike). But I still admire her most bizarre and uncharacteristic movie, Ravenous, the 1999 cannibal horror-comedy-western that she was brought in to salvage after two previous directors had already jumped or been pushed. It’s mere inches away from being a truly great movie. But it is an enjoyably berserk one. Parts of it reach giddy heights of operatic intensity, helped by a churning and inventive score from Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn (the latter had acted for Bird in Face).

The look of Ravenous is pure McCabe and Mrs Miller—pastoral snowbound plains through which grizzled soldiers trudge on a mission to find the half-masticated human remains spoken of by an unhinged stranger (Carlyle, daft as a brush, mad as a hatter). The tone is half-revue, half-snuff movie, as the corpses mount up and the jokes get ever more grisly. An acquired taste, perhaps, but the eccentric cast (including Guy Pearce, David Arquette and Jeffrey Jones) add spice. Perfect for Halloween, too.

Raoul Bova, Youssef Chahine and Antonia Bird at the Venice Film Festival in 2004. Photograph: Getty Images.

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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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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