Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in the forthcoming biopic “The Theory of Everything”.
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The lure of the biopic: the best of an ever-popular film format

Cinemas are going to be full of biopics in the next couple of months – in preparation, Ryan Gilbey picks the best examples of the form from the past few years.

Biopics have always been with us and they always will: the lure of inbuilt audience familiarity, coupled with a ready-made narrative structure, amounts to a gift-horse that no sane producer would look in the mouth for very long. With numerous examples of the genre either in cinemas now (The Imitation Game, Get On Up) or released in the next month (including Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, about the Olympic athlete turned Second World War PoW Louis Zamperini, and The Theory of Everything, which focuses on the early years of Stephen Hawking), here is a selection of recent stand-out biopics which took a chance and did something innovative with the form:

Gainsbourg (2010)

Just after the animated opening credits in which Serge Gainsbourg swims among chain-smoking fish, but before he is menaced by a four-armed anti-Semitic caricature which has torn itself from a Nazi propaganda poster, it strikes you that this may not be your run-of-the-mill biopic.

Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1994)

A masterpiece among modern biopics, François Girard’s glancing, fragmented approach about the genius pianist avoids all the pitfalls of the genre. “The main temptation is to try to cram everything about a life into one film,” he said. “What you need is a radical idea or perspective; if you decide to show the whole journey, you’re condemning yourself to staying only on the surface. Evocation, rather than being descriptive or exhaustive, is the key. Evoking a territory is preferable to trying to cover it all.”

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)

Todd Haynes has been drawn repeatedly to the musical biopic but his preference is to hide in plain sight: his Bob Dylan movie, I’m Not There, features lots of Dylan music and six vastly dissimilar actors as the musician at different stages of his career, but never mentions its subject by name, while Velvet Goldmine has characters modelled on David Bowie, Brian Eno and Iggy Pop. His 43-minute imaginative essay on the Carpenters singer who died of anorexia is more upfront, though no more conventional – it has a cast of Barbie dolls, as well as digressions into the effect of the rise of kitchen appliances on appetite and consumerism.

Cobb (1994)

Ron Shelton’s largely straight-shooting biopic departs from reality notably and brilliantly when the baseball outfielder Ty Cobb (Tommy Lee Jones) is watching a montage of his career highlights at a Hall of Fame dinner. While the other guests applaud his sporting triumphs, Cobb can see only a showreel of lowlights from his violent, alcohol-fuelled rages.

Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters (1985)

Paul Schrader’s impressionistic portrait of the life and death of the novelist Yukio Mishima views its subject’s life through the prism of his art, foreshadowing the technique used in Love is the Devil (John Maybury’s film about Francis Bacon starring Derek Jacobi and Daniel Craig) and the underrated Kafka (by Steven Soderbergh).

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Part of a new movement – the faux-biopic – which seeks to get at the essence of truth through a tissue of lies. Shadow of the Vampire proposes that the actor Max Schreck, played here by Willem Dafoe, didn’t have to put in too much research to play a bloodsucker in F W Murnau’s Nosferatu since he was, in reality, a vampire himself. This fast-and-loose irreverence, which has its roots in Ken Russell’s bad-taste 1970s biopics such as Savage Messiah and Lisztomania!, can also be found in the completely fictitious Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus.

24-Hour Party People (2002)

Frank Cottrell Boyce has a wealth of biopics to his name, including films about Jacqueline du Pré (Hilary and Jackie), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Saint-Ex) and Coleridge and Wordsworth (Pandaemonium). 24-Hour Party People is his cleverest, notable for a scattershot structure befitting its subject (Manchester’s Factory Records), and a heightened self-awareness dictated by its hero, the late Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan). Typical of its flagged-up fabrications and post-modern tomfoolery is the moment when Howard Devoto (of Buzzcocks and Magazine) turns up to denounce as false a scene we are in the process of watching.

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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear