Bronagh Gallagher, Bob Goody and Mackenzie Crook in Jamie Stone's Orbit Ever After.
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Bafta Shorts 2014: Eight small wonders, stocked with infinite space

The short film, unlike the short story, is a stray with no home - which is why a cinema release of the eight short films that competed at the Baftas is a joyous subversion of the norm.

The short film is a form all its own, with different rules and pitfalls from its feature-length cousin. It can act as both calling card and initiation, as it has done for some of today’s visionary British film-makers (Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold spring to mind). What it can only rarely do is be shown. Short stories are routinely rounded up into anthologies but the short film is at best a stray whose sole hope of adoption in the market is to go viral, or win an award.

A cinema release for the eight shorts that competed at the recent Baftas – five in the live-action category and three in animation – is therefore a happy anomaly. Crystal-ball-gazers are too late to speculate on the winners. For anyone interested in playing a long game, though, a flutter could be had on the probable identity of the next Ramsay or Arnold.

Jane Linfoot occupies the same approximate milieu as those film-makers: Sea View is a tart picture-postcard from a seaside B&B where a gruff bruiser arranges a tryst with a teenage poppet who is as babyish and breakable as a Farley’s Rusk. Some of the details are wince-making (the landlady mistaking the couple for father and daughter; the prosaic shifting of an interloping table before shunting the single beds together). The film peters out slightly, but even that tailing off feels faithful to the subject, with its inbuilt guarantee of anticlimax and curdled dreams among the scratchy blankets and UHT milk.

A different sort of coastal claustrophobia is given a screwball spin in the lively Island Queen, in which a tour guide, Mim (Nat Luurtsema, who also wrote the film), decides to jazz up her life with motherhood. The rapport between Mim and her pal (Sam Pamphilon) is almost too winning; we quickly realise what they don’t – that they’re made for one another.

Those shorts are vignettes, whereas some in the programme have the feel of potted pictures unsuited to the abbreviated running time. Keeping Up With the Joneses is the slickest film here but it is also the one that most ignores the demands of the short; watching it is like stumbling in on the final reel of a 90-minute thriller. Maxine Peake is superbly coiled as the wife of an MP whose business deals have landed him in serious bother with a pair of thugs. When they take her hostage, her integrity works its magic on at least one of them. The other, whose explosive temper provides an excuse for some passé Tarantino-style comic violence, is beyond hope. The director, Michael Pearce, a National Film and Television School graduate, has control and cunning but he hasn’t embraced the short format so much as made a dry run for a feature.

Orbit Ever After also has the swagger of a much bigger picture. Set on a drifting spaceship where people mingle with farm animals among junk-shop bric-a-brac, it feels like a junior Gravity but its plot is at least tailored to the miniature. Thomas Brodie-Sangster, the love-struck scamp who evaded airport security implausibly at the end of Love Actually, is now a love-struck teen swooning over a female astronaut who’s making eyes at him across the cosmos. His family doesn’t approve but he is determined to take the leap – literally. The film has the cluttered look of early Terry Gilliam and a mordant punchline that drops out of the blue like an asteroid.

Detail is the key in the short animations. Everything I Can See From Here, in which a football lost in a dun-tinted watercolour landscape is returned by a Day-Glo alien with a floodlit smile, scores aesthetic points only, as does I Am Tom Moody, about a musician with a personality disorder, where form (moist, twitchy stop-motion) is more sophisticated than content. Both lost the animation Bafta to Sleeping with the Fishes, a love story that brings together a fishmonger and her trout-like suitor. The distinction between the species is academic, the tone an unlikely mix of the wistful and the macabre.

The live-action winner was also a work that respects the confines of the form properly. Room 8 brings some Twilight Zone alchemy to a pocket-sized tale set in a prison cell. Its location is deceptively cramped but hidden in the narrative are compartments of infinite physical and philosophical space. And if you are searching for a definition of the sort of advantage that a short film can have over a feature, I just gave it to you. That was my best shot.

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 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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In Kid Gloves, the stories tumble out like washing from a machine

Adam Mars-Jones' has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism