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

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

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 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue