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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage