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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis