Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender (maybe) and Domhnall Gleeson in Frank.
Show Hide image

What does it mean when you hide your leading man under a papier-mâché head? On Michael Fassbender in Frank

I'm not saying it isn't Fassbender under Frank Sidebottom's mask, but the playfulness that comes with doubting it adds a chemistry that is essential to the very best cinema.

Michael Fassbender is the star of the skew-whiff new comedy Frank. Or is he? For most of the film, in which the brilliant Irish director Lenny Abrahamson works in the deadpan register of Aki Kaurismäki or Roy Andersson, Fassbender’s face is concealed within a giant papier-mâché-and-fibreglass head with painted-on features. If you don’t already know anything about the movie, perhaps the penny has dropped: this Frank, played (allegedly) by Fassbender, is inspired by Frank Sidebottom, the Mancunian musician woefully under-served by the words “idiosyncratic” and “eccentric.” The Frank in Frank is American and his music harsh and unrelenting, whereas Sidebottom (real name: Chris Tievey) fostered a shrill, trebly, amateurish, novelty-record sound on songs such as his sort-of Sex Pistols cover “Anarchy in Timperley”. The character in the film is still recognisably Frank Sidebottom, with bits of Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnston thrown into the stew. How far it can be said to be Michael Fassbender is another matter.

I’m not really suggesting that audiences who got to see Frank are being hoodwinked. But there is an interesting tension at play when a well-known performer is both present and unseen in a movie. John Hurt wasn’t famous enough when he made The Elephant Man for that example to be comparable. And Jim Carrey was too recognisably himself, even through the distorting layers of make-up, for his ferocious performance in The Grinch to spark any doubt about who we were watching. Likewise Gary Oldman in Hannibal. But the combination of the tease of a great actor hidden entirely from view, and our child-like act of faith in believing that it really is who we’ve been told it is, creates an unusually complicit relationship between movie and audience. We will give the film our trust. It, in return, will give us access to an extra layer of pleasure derived from the playfulness and uncertainty of the exchange.

There is an element of irreverence, too, in the act of hiring someone as mighty (and, we might as well say it, as passable-looking) as Michael Fassbender and then keeping him under wraps for all but a few minutes of screen-time. Robert Altman was fond of thumbing his nose at the conventions of Hollywood glamour, the etiquette of bowing and scraping before stars (just look at the lack of fanfare he gives Julie Christie in McCabe and Mrs Miller). And it’s no secret that there can be a thrill in the withholding of revelation, of anticipated thrills. Hiding Fassbender is a naughty delight to rank alongside the 100-minute wait imposed before Bruce Willis is allowed to fire a weapon in The Fifth Element.

All movies rely on an element of trust, and a degree of deception: no industry which employs so many body doubles and stand-ins and stunt doubles can be said to be playing it straight. We must simply accept that this somersaulting body or that naked behind or this manicured hand shown in close-up does not necessarily belong to the actor with whom it is connected via the editor’s scissors. No one would storm out of the cinema in protest upon discovering that it wasn’t really Roger Moore dangling from a Union Jack parachute at the start of The Spy Who Loved Me, or that Jennifer Beals used a body double in Flashdance.

Fassbender’s appearance in Frank isn’t quite the same: even though he is largely unseen, this is still a performance of immense physical and vocal stridency. That’s no stand-in under there. And yet… still we cannot be completely sure. It all feeds rather neatly into some of the themes of Frank: about how genius can’t be quantified or pinned down or even marketed. It just is, and we have to trust our gut reaction to it. Besides, a bigger question for me is whether the film plays tricks with Frank’s painted face. Depending on the tenor of a particular scene, you would swear that his expression changes—that he can look variously agitated or placid, menacing or endearing. Did Abrahamson employ subtly different versions of the Frank head, just as Sidney Lumet moved the walls of the set closer on castors to heighten the claustrophobia in 12 Angry Men? Or is this simply the amorphous alchemy of subtle acting and filmmaking? May we never find out.

Frank opens on 9 May.

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.

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis