Face-off: detail of Self-Portrait (2014) by Derren Brown
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Derren Brown’s tricks of the eye

Helen Lewis meets the illusionist and secret portrait painter. 

It began with drawing his teachers. The young Derren Brown – a quiet, nervous boy – discovered that he could impress his fellow pupils at the Whitgift School in Croydon by caricaturing authority figures. “It was all a big play for attention,” he says now. “Magic’s also a bit like that – a distancing measure; a way of being impressive if you don’t feel impressive.”

Performing tricks and illusions on television has been Brown’s day job for more than a decade now. Throughout that time, he has also painted celebrity caricatures on vast canvases, further cluttering his taxidermy-stuffed house. In 2009, he gathered them into a book called Portraits. Its cover features a monochrome Clint Eastwood, whose hard-eyed stare is perfectly recognisable despite being placed in a face shaped like a butternut squash.

At 43, though, Brown feels that he has finally grown out of the need to caricature. In his latest portraits, displayed at the Rebecca Hossack gallery in central London, he has resisted his natural urge to distort his subjects’ faces. “It was a conscious effort to move away,” he says. “I just feel more grown up.” Instead, the new paintings are hyperreal: layers of acrylic paint give astonishing detail to hair and skin.

Brown’s own appearance has followed a similar path away from the OTT – the Mephistophelian goatee has gone, as have the Gothic outfits. Today, he is wearing a flat cap; it’s warm, but it also reduces the chances of being recognised.

Being so well known must make it difficult to capture the street photographs that make up part of the exhibition, I say. “I’ve always been used to keeping my head down, but once you start taking pictures like this, it’s the opposite. You have to be very engaged and very open. I was very struck that it didn’t make any difference – I didn’t get any more stopped or less stopped.”

The controlling, superior image that it is necessary to project in order to be a successful hypnotist brings its own problems: “I have had friends who have said that, the first few times they met me, they thought I was ‘doing something’ to them.” It was only several meetings later that they realised he was honestly trying to be friendly, rather than playing an elaborate mind game.

I tell Brown that the caricatures seem more like the natural product of his stage persona. “Yes, because they’re warping and controlling. Once, a student had a massive go at me – he launched into a tirade about how I clearly have to take the world, and shift it, and control it . . . before I can accept it.” He smiles equably. “I don’t think that’s the case.”

Brown also feels that his magic has matured: he now does fewer television shows and concentrates instead on touring in theatres. “I’ve moved away from doing magic on TV now, because you’re in people’s homes. What we hear on TV, we’re used to that being gospel. That’s a different context to being on stage, where it’s a show and you’re clearly seeing an entertainer.”

What does that mean? “You have greater licence. Ultimately, my job is to entertain. There are a couple of magicians I really like, but they insist on never lying to the audience, which is an interesting choice. I think it’s misguided. When I see the show, I’m screaming in my head: just lie to me. It’s fine.”

He does not, however, apply that rationale to his portraits, which are honest to the point of brutality in recording laughter lines and other human flaws. “Mum doesn’t like hers,” Brown says. “She was a model when she was younger. She’s a beautiful lady but, clearly, it’s not very forgiving.” 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

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 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump