Accused: Jason Watkins (right) as Jefferies.
Show Hide image

Marked man: the careful kindness of The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies

Christopher Jefferies stands for us all in the matter of what the newspapers can do to a person, should they happen to take against him.

The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies
ITV

The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies (10 and 11 December, 9pm) began by carefully establishing the eccentricity of the retired Bristol schoolteacher whose life was so shamefully trashed by the press in the days following his wrongful arrest for the murder of his tenant Joanna Yeates in December 2010. What counts as eccentric in 21st-century Britain? I think we’re all agreed that Jefferies’s hairstyle, a swirling grey nimbus secured by vast quantities of Elnett (“Extra Hold”), made for a pretty funny sight.

But is it really so weird to live in a flat full of books, to listen to classical music, to sit on various do-gooding committees, to open letters with a paper knife? How unbelievably depressing. I suppose it is quite unusual, these days, to kneel by your bed to say your prayers. But which of us doesn’t occasionally whisper desperately to some higher power? I know that I do and I was brought up by scientists whose feelings for the Church of England were roughly akin to those of Emily Thornberry for the St George’s cross.

Such details – or, the close attention of the film’s director, Roger Michell, to such details – had me worried at first. The most important point about Jefferies, it seems to me, is not his oddness (when I interviewed him, he seemed no more or less odd than dozens of other men I’ve met) but his ordinariness: he stands for us all in the matter of what the newspapers can do to a person, should they happen to take against him.

Still, I soon calmed down. This was such creditable television, so careful and kind, that it was difficult to believe it was on ITV. Peter Morgan’s script was unsensational to the point of minimalism, Michell’s direction delicate without ever prettifying. Most fantastic of all was Jason Watkins’s turn as Jefferies, a triumph of close observation, emotional consistency and fathomless empathy. Best known at the moment for playing the BBC’s egregious director of strategic governance, Simon Harwood, in the comedy W1A, Watkins deserves every prize going.

We all know what happened to Jefferies, the vile lies that were told about him and the way his sense of injustice over this eventually bubbled up into activism (having appeared at the Leveson Inquiry only reluctantly, he continues to campaign against press intrusion). But this was no broad outline. Here was the man in full, his life replete with friendships (long-lasting, teasing) and abiding interests (wide-ranging, intellectual). Here, too, were his stoicism and good manners. Lost for words at the moment of his arrest, his anxiety revealed itself to us only in his fingers, which made starfish shapes, in and out, and in the rapid escalation of his schoolmasterly pedantry: when a copper asked him what he meant by “bluff”, he reeled off a long list of synonyms that ended, rather brilliantly, with the word “unvarnished”.

The unlikely humiliation of the police cells for a man who had never previously received so much as a parking ticket was neatly encapsulated when he chose pasta bake over chilli con carne for lunch – either way, mush that arrived at 10am in a plastic dish, as if for a baby – and, later on, his other-worldliness in a scene set backstage at the Leveson Inquiry, when he failed to recognise Steve Coogan (played by himself).

Back at his flat, he cleaned resignedly in his Marigolds, the police having turned the place over. As he laid out his shaving equipment, lining each item up as a boy would arrange his toy battleships, we understood that for him the comforts of home have to do, for whatever reason, with order and precision. It was a moment that made the chaos of unchecked “facts” and feverish innuendo into which he had unaccountably been sucked seem all the more painful and appalling. I suddenly found myself thinking of an earlier scene: hiding out with a loyal former pupil in order to avoid the press, Jefferies sat Zen-like in a straight-backed chair, a book called The Cultivation of Lilies in his hands. At the time, I had wondered, in a film whose props seemed always to be meaningful, about the title. Now it made perfect sense. No wonder Jefferies sought solace in fragrant plants: anything to overpower the stench.

 

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 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

Show Hide image

Moving on up: why Ira Sachs is king of the "Rightmovie"

Little Men reminds us that Sachs is the the cinematic poet laureate of the gentrification drama.

There’s a nauseating moment at the end of the 1986 film Stand By Me when the narrator reflects on his childhood. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12,” he sighs. “Jesus, does anyone?” That sort of retroactive idealism is a temptation for any coming-of-age movie, but the writer-director Ira Sachs resists it in Little Men. His film charts the blossoming friendship between two 13-year-old boys, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), without stooping to suggest that what they have is somehow purer than anything in the adult world. It isn’t – it’s just subject to different forces. Sachs captures the concentrated joy of youthful larks and loyalty but he is as wise as Fassbinder ever was to the impact of economic and social pressures on our emotional choices.

It’s clear that the film will be discreet from the way the cinematographer, Óscar Durán, shoots Jake and Tony from behind during their first meeting, as though permitting the boys a modicum of privacy away from our prying eyes. Sachs has a knack for finding those pockets of quiet in the hubbub. The opening shot puts the reserved, feminine-faced Jake at his school desk; he’s the still point in the midst of chaos. He takes whatever life – or, in this case, his classmates – can throw at him.

Then Jake gets a bombshell: his grand­father has died. His father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), and mother, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), move with him into the old man’s building in Brooklyn. Downstairs is a cluttered dress shop that was being leased to Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina García), at a cut-price rate that failed to take into account the property boom. Jake’s father considers himself a sensitive man – he is an actor – ­preparing for a production of The Seagull but his life has just become The Cherry Orchard. Family members advise him to jack up the rent or boot out Leonor.

Kinnear conveys the honest terror of a kind man staring into the depths of his conscience and not liking what he finds. García, the star of the superb Gloria, is brave enough to make her character actively disagreeable at times. In her most complex scene, she sacrifices the moral high ground and overplays her hand with a single rash remark.

Yet Little Men belongs to the little men. Sensing the tremors of discord between their families, Jake and Tony stick together. They skate through the streets in a blur as the camera struggles to keep sight of them behind trees and parked cars while the propulsive score by Dickon Hinchliffe of Tindersticks urges them on.

As Tony, Barbieri is the find of the film. He’s twitchy and gangly, his voice a scratchy drawl that belongs to a bourbon-soaked barfly. No one has swaggered through Brooklyn with such aplomb since John Travolta at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever. Then he’ll do something impulsive, such as hugging his sobbing mother by wrapping his long arms all the way around her and clutching her head to his chest, and suddenly he’s a baby again.

With this and Love Is Strange – about a middle-aged gay couple forced to live separately due to financial difficulties – Sachs has appointed himself the cinematic poet laureate of gentrification-based drama. (Call it the dawn of the Rightmovie.) But he isn’t a tub-thumper. He and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, show simply and plainly how money alters everything. Durán shoots the Brooklyn locations in a crisp, summery light that mirrors this straightforwardness. Any poetry springs from the everyday, such as the night-time shot in which blurred blobs of colour from streetlights and headlamps suggest dabs of paint on a palette.

Even the editing (by Mollie Goldstein) speaks volumes. The sudden cut from the gaudy clamour of a disco, where Tony wears a glow band around his neck like a fallen halo, to the chill calm of the subway platform evokes acutely that plunging feeling when the fun is over. As the boys wait for the train, their faces are framed in unsmiling repose in a shot that calls to mind Simon and Garfunkel on the cover of Bookends. And we all know what happened to them. 

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 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times