"It was meant to be an acted metaphor. It became a bloody reality": Goltzius and the Pelican Company.
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The play’s the thing: Peter Greenaway’s Goltzius and the Pelican Company

Critics and audiences may have long given up on British painter-turned-director Peter Greenaway, but his sensuous, smart, arty films are asking questions few others would dare to contemplate.

Goltzius and the Pelican Company (18)
dir: Peter Greenaway

If one were called on to explain to a young cinemagoer now the position in the 1980s of the British painter-turned-director Peter Greenaway, it might be helpful to say that he combined the intellectual mischief of Slavoj Žižek, the formalist precision of Wes Anderson, the provocations of Lady Gaga and the commercial appeal of chlamydia.

His reputation was made in 1982 with his second feature, The Draughtsman’s Contract. So vital was it to have a take on this period puzzle that the Evening Standard ran a two-page feature canvassing opinion-makers on what the film might possibly mean. His 1985 follow-up, A Zed & Two Noughts, about zoologist twins whose wives perish in a car crash caused by a swan (no, really), held the record at one swanky London cinema for the most walkouts in a week – until it was beaten by his sumptuous and disgusting 1989 thriller The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Greenaway’s house style involved painterly, pedantically-detailed compositions, a creepily gliding camera and surging Michael Nyman scores. There was cannibalism, sexual degradation and, in one disturbing instance, an acting role for the comedian Jim Davidson.

Alan Parker, another British director from the period whose stock has plummeted, was so repulsed by Greenaway’s cinema that he promised to decamp to the US if he was allowed to go on working. Greenaway did continue making films – Goltzius and the Pelican Company is his 15th – but audiences stopped watching them.

He delivered his harrowing masterpiece, The Baby of Mâcon, in 1993 but critics decided they had reached peak Greenaway. That film depicts 17th-century actors crossing the line between performance and reality as they mount a morality play. The notorious sequence in which a woman is raped by 208 men at the behest of the Church prompted the Guardian to label it “one of the most misogynistic films of all time”. On the contrary, it is as admirable in its staging and control as it is unequivocal in its condemnation of religiously sanctioned abuse.

Goltzius and the Pelican Company revisits some of the ideas and iconography of that widely loathed picture, minus the 208 men. Once again, the action takes place before an on-screen audience that applauds the floor shows mounted for its delectation. We are in the court of the Margrave of Alsace (F Murray Abraham, best known for his role as Salieri in Miloš Forman’s Amadeus). The painter Hendrik Goltzius (played by the former Dutch poet laureate Ramsey Nasr) arrives in 1590 to seek funding for a printing press in order to produce an edition of the Old Testament brimming with candid illustrations. To sweeten the deal, Goltzius agrees for his company of workers to perform six biblical scenes for the Margrave exploring sexual taboos, from incest (Lot and his daughters) to paedophilia (Potiphar’s wife and Joseph). As in The Baby of Mâcon, life starts trespassing on to the stage. Woe betide the actor called upon to play John the Baptist.

Greenaway has likened the origins of printing to the beginnings of the internet, comparing the illusion of limitless sexual exploration promised in both cases. With its disquisitions on free speech, prompted by the violence doled out to the company’s playwright, Boethius (Giulio Berruti), the film is not short on examples of pertinence. Visually, Greenaway has always been prescient: long before we were all opening tabs within windows within panels within screens, he foresaw the aesthetic texture of the future with his 1991 film Prospero’s Books, in which Paintbox computer technology made possible overlapping text and images. We think of James Cameron or Pixar Animation Studios as being at the vanguard of CGI but Greenaway shouldn’t be Photoshopped out of that snapshot.

Text in the new film is layered on to bodies that shimmer with ripples of light from unseen water, while multiple images play out in compartmentalised boxes. Miniature lectures on the history of art bring the picture perilously close to PowerPoint territory at times. The sense of jeopardy in the action (not to mention equal-opportunities nudity) rescues it from the purely academic.

Audiences not won over previously by Greenaway are unlikely to undergo a conversion with Goltzius and the Pelican Company. I wonder, though, if the director’s experience of having been roundly rejected accounts for some of the rueful, new-found hurt discernible in his usually dogmatic voice. Near the end of the picture, Goltzius says mournfully of his production: “It was meant to be an acted metaphor. It became a bloody reality.” It can’t be a coincidence that Greenaway has returned to the play-within-a-film format of his most hated work to denounce the hypocrisy of those who claim to prize intellectual and artistic inquiry only to yank up the drawbridge when reality bites.

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.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

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 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood