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.

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge