Have we met before? The mutable Oscar Isaac.
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Welcome to Oscar season — Oscar Isaac season, that is

Oscar Isaac exploits his unique charisma and mutable appearance in two of the biggest films released this awards season.

A Most Violent Year (15)
dir: J C Chandor

Ex Machina (15)
dir: Alex Garland

I’m a sucker for Oscar season. Oscar Isaac season, that is. When I failed to recognise him last year in Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January it occurred to me that this Lonely Planet compendium of a man (he has Cuban, Guatemalan, French and Israeli branches in his family tree) might be a born star. In that sun-kissed Patricia Highsmith adaptation, it was tantalisingly unclear whether his true designs were on a chirpy young bride or her shady older husband. Where had this matinee idol sprung from? It was as though the film-makers had travelled back in time and kidnapped Ramon Novarro.

I’d seen Isaac only a few months earlier in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. He looked entirely different with his inky beard and his curls like black lianas; his sleepwalking presence as a forlorn folk minstrel was spellbinding. The magic is in those coolly insinuating eyes, not so much “Come to bed” as: “Come back to bed, we haven’t finished yet.”

It transpires that Oscar Isaac amnesia is a common ailment. At the premiere in Cannes of the Coens’ film, reporters wondered if he was a real folk singer. All memory of him as a smouldering jailbird in Drive had been erased. (His turn as a piano-playing security guard in Madonna’s WE had also been forgotten, which was probably a blessing.) Now Isaac has arrived, as proven by his presence in two new films and the next instalments of X-Men and Star Wars. But do the movies know what to do with him?

The answer, in A Most Violent Year, is: sort of. He plays Abel Morales, an immigrant businessman whose rise as New York City’s leading fuel supplier in the early 1980s is threatened by competitors. His drivers are being ambushed and his fuel stolen. Still he never raises his voice above a soothing rumble. Stalking the concrete plains of the city’s waterfront, all weeds and warehouses and crumbling walls, Abel is like a magnificent lion in his desert-coloured, box-shouldered camel-hair coat. What a pity that his pronouncements – “I like to own the things I use”; “I will not allow the weaknesses of others to affect me” – make him sound like a capitalist fortune cookie.

Imagine a New York version of The Long Good Friday and you’ll have some idea of where the plot is heading. Jessica Chastain, as Abel’s brassy mobster wife, even seems to be channelling Helen Mirren. Unfortunately, the writer-director, J C Chandor, extinguishes drama at every opportunity. When he isn’t resorting to ponderous wide shots of men exchanging briefcases under the gaze of the grey Manhattan skyline, he is filling the screen with tasteful images of the Morales family home; this tale of crime, corruption and soft furnishings resembles a Sunday-supplement Scorsese. Abel has two young daughters who pop up only when the plot needs them (one finds a loaded gun; the other has her birthday party interrupted by police) but there’s not a toy to be seen in the house. These lives don’t look lived-in.

A Most Violent Year draws any potency it has from its leading man. His strongest scene, when Abel is teaching the sales team to captivate customers (“Hold the eye contact longer than you’d like – you see what happens”), is like an Oscar Isaac acting masterclass. Ex Machina also exploits his unique charisma and mutable appearance. He swaps Abel’s sleek hair helmet for a shaved head and a beard like a hairy nosebag; his face seems to be on upside-down.

Isaac plays Nathan, a billionaire who is developing artificial intelligence at his remote mountain hideaway. He invites a young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) to spend time with his synthetic creation (Alicia Vikander), to determine if she can pass for human. There are sweeping helicopter shots and chic cinematography but this three-hander isn’t cinema: it’s a Ted talk shot in a boutique hotel, with ideas about consciousness and evolution itemised rather than dramatised. Isaac delivers a detailed study in derangement, whether breaking into a dance routine or experiencing perverse delight as the megabytes hit the fan (“This is fucking unreal!”). But if it’s complex female characters you want, stick with the Fembots from Austin Powers.

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 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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