What possessed you? Brother Hermes, a Colombian priest, prepares for an exorcism in Bogota. Photo: Getty Images
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Radio 4’s the Exorcist: a restrained yet chilling adaptation

Included the writer’s many nods to literature and film, absent from the film version.

A two-part adaptation of W P Blatty’s 1971 novel about the demonic possession of a child, The Exorcist worked excellently on the radio (20 and 21 February, 11pm), even if the various voices of the demon sometimes sounded confusingly like new characters drifting in and out of the plot. Still, they drifted quietly – this was not an hysterical production and it had relatively little uproar and few expiring cries. “The sound design was a little tame,” was one of the many comments after broadcast, but in fact this was the programme’s chief strength; such low-temperature ordinariness produced something rather chilling, like the ambient sound of a transistor downstairs playing Creedence Clearwater Revival while upstairs echoed a faint scratching on walls.

The demon’s favourite persona was a woman who sounded like a cross between Lady Bracknell and Bill Hicks. Insults emerged in a withering stream: “Jesus? Enough about that Jewboy faggot. The man was a pansy.” After two hours of this, Robert Glenister (playing the disillusioned Father Karras) was completely dried up, little more than a wounded animal pulling himself up to the edge of a cliff. One of the things this adaptation did better than William Friedkin’s 1973 feature film was to show more tenderness of feeling for the possessed girl’s suffering. There are stretches of the film, with its mechanised levitations and vomit-spewing, where you uncharitably wish Regan would just hurry up and croak, so fixed is Friedkin on underlining the ugliness of the world.

On the radio, the novel was mined for its authentic tristesse. Someone remembers the 12-year-old Regan in the early days of her possession bluntly telling a feted astronaut – at a glamorous house party thrown by her famed actress mother – that he would certainly die in space (you can imagine the appalled silence). Blatty’s hundreds of nods to literature and the movies, mostly absent from the film, were here, too: Keats and Hamlet, The Maltese Falcon, P G Wodehouse, Dickens and Top Hat. Nothing decent has been allowed to obtrude on Radio 4 drama in a long time, but this was effectively, wryly forlorn. 

Antonia Quirke is a regular studio guest on “Film 2014” (Wednesdays, BBC1, 11.05pm)

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

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 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era