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

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.