The Curzon redesign is either a comment on fragile society, or a gimmick. Photo: Flickr/Camilo Rueda López
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Pink concrete, optical tricks and ferried olives: inside the redesigned Curzon Bloomsbury

Cinematic changes.

To Russell Square in London last Thursday evening for the launch of a new six-screen cinema, the Curzon Bloomsbury, on the site of the old Renoir. When a rebranding was first mooted cautiously back in 2008, I wasn’t a fan of the idea. I’m still not. But having explored the spectacular £4m redesign job, I’m an admirer of the building itself. It is now one of the few cinemas in London where the experience of watching a film will actually be enhanced by the surroundings. Let’s refer to it as Renoir: Fully Loaded.

The designer and architect Takero Shimazaki hosted a short presentation in which he shared the inspirations behind the radical new look. The first image he unveiled was a still from Stalker - a dank, peeling, dripping room in which several disconsolate figures are clustered. This, he said, was what he showed the Curzon management when he took on the job. Nervous titters all round. What Shimazaki was doing here was highlighting the mix of sobriety and playfulness that is discernible in his designs, as well as making us the first-ever witnesses to Tarkovsky-based humour. It’s a niche area but it works. Not unlike the cinema itself.

He showed several photographs of the building in various states of disrepair and construction. Why, he wondered, pondering over an image of scaffolding and ladders and plastic sheeting, could an audience not watch a movie in a setting like that, with a screen hung at one end? Ah, a man after my own heart. Anything to stem the flow of servers ferrying bowls of olives and flutes of champagne to cinemagoers who have mistaken their local cinema for dinner theatre or something on the chicken-in-a-basket circuit.

Shimazaki didn’t go as far as to put the auditoria in the midst of a building site but there is a hint of the austere to the Curzon Bloomsbury, plush as it is. Grey mottled high-ceilinged corridors lead you in a curve around the side of the largest screen. The one named “Renoir”, that is; the one with the word Renoir hung on the back wall in white letters. None of that “Screen 1” and “Screen 2” business. Each one here is named after a London cinema - Minema, Lumiere, and so on. One exception is the Bertha Dochouse screen, which will be devoted permanently to a programme of documentaries.

There is also pink concrete in evidence on the stairs. You don’t see much of that around, do you? And an optical trick in one of the corridors as you pass a series of glass panels, staring into them in a search for your reflection - vainly in both senses of the word, it transpires, since these are windows that look onto the parallel corridor. You may see someone you know in there but you can’t reach them because the glass is in the way. You have to go to the end of the corridor and double-back instead. This is either a comment on the fragile divides which separate one human being from another, or a gimmick that is going to get very old very quickly. I’m going with the former, even if it does suggest the makings of a Paul Haggis film about how we should all just get along and, you know, connect.

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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage