Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his father (Ethan Hawke) in Linklater’s family drama.
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In Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, time fades away

Made over more than a decade, this is a film that reminds us life is seen by children from a different angle.

Boyhood (15)
dir: Richard Linklater

Boyhood is Richard Linklater’s new film, though in another sense it’s also Richard Linklater’s old film. The prolific 53-year-old director set aside a month each year from 2002 to 2013 to shoot it piecemeal in between the other pictures he was making (among them School of Rock and A Scanner Darkly). The cast of Boyhood remained intact and can now be seen to age before our eyes, thanks to that most special of effects: time. It’s a shame in a project of this nature to find that one particular opportunity for product placement was passed up. When a character brandishes a jumbo bottle of fizzy drink, it feels almost perverse for it to be Sprite when that beverage is so similar to another that shares its name with the film’s main antecedent – the British television documentaries, still ongoing, which began with Seven Up! in 1964.

The pioneering Up project has called in on its subjects’ lives every seven years since then. No maker of fiction could hope to equal that endeavour but Linklater has come closest. (Michael Winterbottom’s 2012 film Everyday tried the same trick over five years – what a lightweight!) Long before Boyhood, he was picking apart the cogs and clock springs of time. When someone in his 1991 film Slacker apologises for being late, a woman replies: “That’s OK. Time doesn’t exist.” (It really didn’t in his 2001 animation Waking Life, set in one man’s subconscious.) That his characters tend to be college kids, dreamers and doofuses should not distract us from noticing that he is continuing the temporal experiments of Nicolas Roeg or Alain Resnais – that he has made his Don’t Look Now, Dude or his Last Beer at Marienbad.

Linklater’s Before trilogy (which culminated in 2013 with Before Midnight) tracked a romantic relationship at nine-year intervals. Boyhood is more compressed. It distils the youth of the blearily blue-eyed Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who lives in Texas with his sister, Samantha (played by the director’s daughter, Lorelei Linklater), and their mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette). The picture reminds us that life is seen by children from a different angle and not only because they’re closer to the ground. Watching the cryptic emotional transactions between their estranged parents from the bedroom window (Ethan Hawke plays their father), Mason and Samantha pass back and forth a pair of dinky yellow binoculars like anthropologists observing an alien species. In the first scene, Mason is six, burbling from the back seat in his dreamy-insistent way as Olivia drives him home from school. Nearly three hours later, he is 18, behind the wheel himself, heading to college. What occurs in between is both prosaic and profound: nothing at all and yet everything there is.

Time passes wordlessly through haircuts, music, models of computer. Understatement is paramount. When the family has to decamp to another part of Texas in a hurry, Olivia warns her children: “Don’t look back!” That could be Linklater speaking. Diversions into sentimentality or irony are rare. One amusing exception occurs when Mason and his father decide that there won’t be any more additions to the Star Wars series (cue our rueful laughter: Episode VII has since gone into production). The past is generally given short shrift. When one of Mason’s friends pedals after the family as they drive out of town for good, the car easily out-speeds him. He shrinks into the distance and is gone.

Boyhood wears its process lightly but the artistic gains are felt in every frame. There’s a crisp visual metaphor for this during a long, unbroken take showing Mason walking with a school friend. Throughout their conversation, the ground they have covered is always visible over their shoulders: we can see at every point how far they have come.

It is difficult to imagine after this movie how any film-maker can resort to the conventions of multi-decade storytelling – ageing make-up, dusty wigs – without appearing unforgivably lazy. Steven Soderbergh came up with a poignant innovation in his 1999 thriller The Limey: any flashbacks to the salad days of Terence Stamp were scenes from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow, shot three decades earlier when Stamp didn’t even know what the word “wrinkles” meant. But perhaps the idea of cataloguing time has not been attempted on Boyhood’s scale because it’s already something that film evokes effortlessly. Actors age from one movie to the next, with exceptions such as Nicole Kidman, whose recent work suggests she is living a one-woman remake of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Linklater placed a bet with Boyhood – on the potency that might accrue and on his lead actor, whose face sharpens over the course of the movie like a leisurely Polaroid. This isn’t a director who stamps his identity all over a film but the generosity of spirit is identifiably his. Snuggling up to sleep, Mason asks if there is any magic in the world. His father tells him of a creature in the ocean that uses sonar to communicate and has a heart as big as a car and arteries you could crawl through. Mason is nonplussed (“There’s no elves, though?”) but we may file the image alongside the Blue Whale Removal Company that shifts Olivia’s furniture, the deep-sea frieze in Mason’s bedroom and the sparkling lake into which Mason and his father plunge on a camping trip. Almost without us noticing, Boyhood makes the ordinary world magical and miraculous and innumerable fathoms deep.

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 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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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