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.

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

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 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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