Kate Winslet as Jeanine in the adaptation of Veronica Roth's Divergent.
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Shailene Woodley and Kate Winslet: The bright spots at the centre of Divergent

Kate Winslet's part in dystopian drama Divergent might just represent the ideal new character type for the English actress: ice queen.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the film version of Veronica Roth’s Young Adult novel Divergent and I wasn’t meant to be—even in the most flattering light, I’m no Young Adult. But there are two very fine performances in this futuristic drama set in a dystopian version of Chicago. One is from the 22-year-old star, Shailene Woodley, who plays Tris, the young woman whose wide-ranging talents make her anathema to the system of classifying civilians according to their specialities (the physical, the intellectual, the pastoral and so on). Tris proves that you can be good at climbing up buildings or leaping from great heights, but you can also work out complicated maths problems without counting on your fingers. Science fiction it may be, but the essence of the film is that timeless adolescent conundrum: who am I?

The other bright spot in Divergent comes in the form of a brief appearance from Kate Winslet as the Sinister Representative of Authority. That’s not her character’s name—I don’t recall if her character has a name—but this is indisputably her function, along with power-dressing to kill and generally looking amazing and evil and perfecting the ability to simper and scowl at the same time. She shows that Tilda Swinton need not have the monopoly on ice-queens.

It’s strange to admit but I had forgotten all about Kate Winslet until seeing her in Divergent. Yes, I know she had a new film out only last week (Labor Day) but that was very much in the grain of tasteful, middle-class, middle-brow, book-of-the-month-club projects like The Reader and Revolutionary Road (inflammatory novel, that, but a tame movie). Divergent doesn’t take any risks either, but it does provide an opportunity for Winslet to play a pantomime villain, something she hasn’t attempted before. With a few more chances like this, she could corner the market in classy, withering villains in Hollywood cinema, much as Alan Rickman (who is directing Winslet in her next film, the period drama A Little Chaos) did in the 1980s and 1990s.

That may not in itself sound like much to aspire to, but I’m all for actors rejuvenating themselves by darting off in unexpected new directions. Winslet showed she could be cruel from the very start of her film career: she played a teenage murderer in Peter Jackson’s chilling 1994 picture Heavenly Creatures. She acts infrequently now, and chooses scrupulously, but her decisions (with the exception of her magical cameo as herself in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s sitcom Extras) can err on the side of worthiness. Though her CV does not want for daring choices (Jude, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), it’s been a while since she felt new or unknowable on screen. That at least can be said of her brief, gleeful performance in Divergent.

Divergent is released 4 April.

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.

Photo: Alamy
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Chain of command: how the office lanyard took over corporate culture

“I realised that I had to sort myself out with a new lanyard or I was going to struggle with my tribe.”

Compulsory lanyards arrived at BBC Broadcasting House in January 1991. Until then, a cursory flash of your staff card to the uniformed commissionaire would do. The Gulf War changed all that.

News trainees like me were pulled back from our regional radio attachments across the nation to serve the so-called Scud FM. In 12-hour shifts, we recorded CNN output on giant reel-to-reel tape machines, cutting packages to feed the rolling news. There were so many new faces, and the bead-chain lanyards gave a semblance of organisation.

Barely out of university, some of us were thinking: emergency civic responsibility. We had only seen lanyards worn in those 1970s and 1980s panic films such as WarGames. We were young outsiders getting access to the establishment.

Two 1990s television shows gave us our figureheads: Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files, flashing her FBI ID at every opportunity, and later Allison Janney’s C J Cregg in The West Wing, who embodied the idea of the female who had broken through, thoroughly qualified to run the operation. The lanyard was their symbol of arrival and as much of a challenge to the old order as their brightly coloured pantsuits were.

In a recent reassessment of the liberal love affair with The West Wing, Current Affairs magazine mocked fans who “think a lanyard is a talisman that grants wishes and wards off evil”. But it’s a good summary of how it felt then.

The novelist Bill Beverly, who grew up in the US Midwest, confirms my suspicion that the lanyard’s 1990s appeal lay in its historic gendered status: “They were for gym teachers and coaches. A lanyard for one’s whistle, for one’s stopwatch, for other elements of communication and control.”

Unlike military dog tags, which remained hidden, the lanyard was about publicly declaring that you belonged. Corporations, introducing them long before electronic scanner-gate entry became the norm, benefited from their identity as a symbol of cool access. Think of the Wayne’s World films, in which the backstage VIP lanyard is a celebratory badge of entry.

Over the years, lanyards have come to reveal so much about status. One charity worker, who asked to remain anonymous, has noticed who does and doesn’t wear them outside NHS hospitals: “I used to get the Tube into London Bridge and you’d see all the young doctors from Guy’s wearing their lanyards, quite proud. You never saw nurses or porters wearing theirs.”

At a big charity with compulsory lanyards for security cards, she saw tribal divisions: “The fundraising and facilities people all wore the work lanyard they gave you. But in public affairs and marketing and design, we all wore our own lanyards and turned our photo ID around. The electronic thing still worked, but no one could see your face. I realised within weeks that I had to sort myself out with a new lanyard or I was going to struggle with my tribe.”

When she moved to a small women’s charity, a more conventional rebellion emerged over corporate conformity: “I noticed they still needed an electronic card to get into the building. I was used to wearing a lanyard with one on, so I took a handful of nice ones in with me and gave them each one, and every one of the women just looked at me and went, ‘We’re not wearing that.’ It was the absolute opposite of command and control.”

At the Labour party conference last September, she saw how lanyards affected the mood. She observes that, as well as the standard union-sponsored lanyard, many members of Momentum were wearing a special lanyard with the Palestinian flag colours. “They really stuck out because they were like a party within a party,” she recalls. “Inside, they moved in packs. It was like the savannah – much more divided, even among the MPs.”

Journalists in the US have a tradition of bonding through novelty press cards on lanyards. One enterprising hack made them during the 1996 O J Simpson civil trial, with mugshots for each significant calendar date: Hallowe’en horror, Christmas, a Thanksgiving one featuring Simpson in a pilgrim hat with a turkey and the slogan “I’ll carve”.

Such small-scale rebellions over how we wear our lanyards are a distraction. Wearing our data around our necks, even displaying it boastfully, seems, in hindsight, a preparation for the normalisation of giving out our personal data online to corporations that can predict where we’ll go and how we’ll consume. If you have nothing to hide, what does it matter?

Twenty-six years on from my first encounter with it, in the new open-plan BBC Broadcasting House, lanyard-based security is much tighter for many reasons (including a break-in by a bunch of teens who found an unmanned door to the newsroom and wandered around posting rather giggly videos online).

There are still gestures of defiance. One colleague used to wear 20 or more lanyards collected from dozens of BBC buildings, twisted into a kind of giant wreath, like a Grand Prix winner.

My defeat lies in the way that I wear a second special labelled lanyard around my neck for the one day in the year that I might need access to a tiny, cordoned-off BBC area outside the Royal Albert Hall to record a line of voice track in an outside broadcast van.

Lanyards may have given us access but in accepting the myth of entry to august institutions, we are tagged and controlled for ever. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder