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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear