Back to the OK Corral: Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee (right) star in Slow West.
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New indie western Slow West is filled with resonant emotions

The Beta Band's John Maclean makes his directorial debut with a wry, rootsy love story.

Slow West (15)
dir: John Maclean

In the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, John Cusack calmly announces to his colleagues at a Chicago record shop that he will sell five copies of the album The Three EPs by the Beta Band. He then proceeds to play their song “Dry the Rain” over the shop’s speakers and to make good on his prediction. This formerly revered Scottish band, which broke up in 2004, is rarely spoken of these days, but at least one member, John Maclean, is doing fine. Slow West, his debut as a writer-director, is every bit as wry, rootsy and idiosyncratic as anything the Beta Band recorded.

It charts the journey of the lovestruck 16-year-old Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from Scotland to Colorado in the 19th century. He is looking for Rose (Caren Pistorius), who fled the country with her father under circumstances best described as messy. Jay, who doesn’t know there is a price on his beloved’s head, is certain that he and Rose have a blissful future ahead. He is, it must be said, ill prepared for the ravages of the frontier. He has in his favour only optimism, a copy of Ho! For the West (a kind of 1850s Lonely Planet guide) and a gun. The gun turns out not to work, so forget about it.

Silas (Michael Fassbender) happens upon the young romantic being held at gunpoint by a bounty hunter. Killing the miscreant and reasoning that there are others loose in the immediate vicinity, he offers to provide safe passage for Jay to Colorado. Safe-ish. This is a heartless land, where parents turn to banditry in front of their children. Enter a general store and the owner will demand that you lay your guns on the counter before browsing. You don’t get that at TK Maxx.

The dynamic between Silas and Jay is familiar not only from other westerns (Ride the High Country, Unforgiven) but from buddy movies in general, where gnarled veterans tutor naifs in the ways of the world. Wouldn’t it be nice for once if it were the other way round? Slow West heads in that less-travelled direction. When Jay tells Silas that he knows why the older man needs his help, there is a pregnant pause. “Oh yeah?” Silas replies, thinking Jay has realised that he was mulling over the bounty on Rose. After all, $2,000 could buy a lot at the general store. But no. Jay believes Silas needs him because he is lonely.

He could be right. Silas is verbose in his narration: “The way I saw it, you knock over a rock and most likely a desperado with a knife would crawl out and . . .” Yeah, yeah, yada-yada. In conversation, he is frugal in a way that suggests too long spent on his tod. When Jay argues that there’s more to life than simply surviving, Silas responds with some matchstick philosophy: “That’s right. There’s dying.” The film shows visually how Jay alters his companion’s outlook. One low-angle shot makes mushrooms sprouting from the ground appear to be bigger than the men inspecting them. This is Jay’s world, full of wonder and weirdness.

Few actors could embody those qualities better than Kodi Smit-McPhee, whose enormous, soulful eyes sit far apart on his face like ET’s. This young man is an old hand at the hazardous ramble, having undertaken at the age of 13 a post-apocalyptic trek in The Road.

Slow West is no walk in the park, either. Silas, whom Fassbender helped shape with Maclean over a number of years, is like an antidote to the sadism that the same actor displayed in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. But there’s not much he can do against a Native American with a bow and arrow, or a mercenary played by Ben Mendelsohn from Animal Kingdom. No one ever said “phew” when they saw Ben Mendelsohn. He’s bad news on legs.

The film is small in scale but filled with resonant ideas and emotions. Maclean’s style is heightened (as shot by Robbie Ryan, the colours sing) and peppered with witty visual puns on phrases like “butter wouldn’t melt” and “pouring salt on a wound”. The film also helpfully answers such questions as, “How did cowboys dry their clothes?” and it includes one scene, showing Silas protecting Jay from UV rays by rubbing silver birch bark against his face, that could really hurt sun lotion sales this summer if word gets around.

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 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times