Ben Kingsley as Damian finds himself upgraded into a well-muscled 35-year-old body. Photo: Alan Markfield/VVS Films
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Farce, philosophy and fantasy: body-swap films have the perfect cinematic formula

Body-swap storylines are the perfect premise for filmic fun, so why is the most recent offering in the genre, Self/Less, so disappointing?

Body-swap stories have always been reliable currency in cinema. No wonder – one of the things for which the medium is best equipped is placing us effortlessly in other people's shoes and behind other pairs of eyes.

It isn’t much of a leap from there to speculate on what it might feel like to inhabit an entirely different skin.

The new thriller Self/Less stars Ben Kingsley as a dying industrialist who pays $250m to undergo a procedure called “shedding.” What this means in practice is that his body, and a body into which his consciousness is about to be decanted, are each placed inside neighbouring machines that resemble giant illuminated tumble dryers.

When Damian wakes up and looks in the mirror, he sees a new, younger man named Edward (Ryan Reynolds), though inside he is still his old self. Asked if he’s happy with his replacement form, he says: “It has that new body smell.”

That car metaphor turns up again when he finds that unfamiliar memories are impinging on his thoughts. “You thought you were buying a new car,” says his doctor. “Turns out it has a few miles on the clock.”

That’s putting it mildly. Damian is in danger of being overwhelmed from the inside by Edward, who once had his own life, memories and family.

It’s a premise that owes much to the body-swap sub-genre, and in particular the disquieting 1967 thriller Seconds, starring Rock Hudson. But it’s easily one of the weakest renderings of a format that has shown itself in the past to be all but foolproof.

The director Tarsem Singh usually throws everything – including, but not limited to, the kitchen sink – at his movies. His best film, The Fall, and his battiest one, The Cell, drench the eye in beauty and colour without forsaking human intimacy.

Why, then, is Self/Less such a plain Jane? Perhaps Singh feels he has touched on this subject before and is therefore trying to distinguish new work from old.

Both The Cell and The Fall have their own points of overlap with Self/Less. In The Cell, a psychologist (Jennifer Lopez) enters the mind of a serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio) – and takes us with her.

And in The Fall, a hospitalised stunt-man (Lee Pace) improvises a fantasy story for a little girl in exchange for morphine from the medicine cabinet: large chunks of that movie, too, take place inside the main character’s head.

In stripping down Self/Less to its bare bones, making everything from production design to performances frill-free, there’s no danger of trespassing on the past, whether it’s Singh’s previous work or any of the movies that have employed a similar scenario.

Even that slash in the title recalls the punctuation of the most delirious of all body-swap (or, in this case, physiognomy-swap) pictures: Face/ Off, in which John Travolta and Nicolas Cage undergo a face transplant and then spend the rest of the movie impersonating one another (which turns out to be much more fun for Travolta than it is for Cage).

So successful is Self/Less in distancing itself from its influences that by the time Edward is wandering around a New Orleans junkyard, the sight of plaster body parts from old Mardi Gras float displays piled high behind him doesn’t seem at all like the in-joke it could have been.

It was only at that point that it occurred to me how little history Self/Less owns up to. It does what Damian’s doctors were unable to do: it creates a clean slate, a complete break from the past. What’s missing is a personality of its own. A viewer could be forgiven for feeling envious of Damian, his head buzzing with woozy, action-packed hallucinations.

Also absent from Self/Less is a sense of the giddy fun that might come with surrendering your identity. It’s fair enough that the movie didn’t want to play the Face/ Off game and have Reynolds do a feature-length Ben Kingsley impression (though that idea sounds nigh-on irresistible to me). But that wouldn’t have been the only option.

Comedy is often the first port of call for the body-swap movie: it’s pure farce, being caught in someone else’s wrapping and having to pass yourself off as them. There’s no shortage of comic shenanigans when the mother and daughter exchange lives in Freaky Friday (whether it’s the 1977 one with Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris, or the 2003 remake with Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan).

Steve Martin is at his most dexterous trying not to show that the spirit of Lily Tomlin is writhing around within him throughout the joyous All of Me. Tom Hanks gave a complex and funny performance as a child trapped in a man’s body in Big, while the teen market has been treated in recent years to the likes of 17 Again and 13 Going On 30.

Existential dread would have been another route for Self/Less to take. In David Lynch’s Lost Highway, a murderer simply vanishes from his prison cell, replaced without explanation by a young mechanic. In Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique, two women (both played by Irène Jacob) who have never met experience a kind of amorphous synchronicity of emotion.

But you can have it both ways. My favourite example of this narrative species is the 1993 curiosity Suture, which combines the comic and the philosophical in the tale of two identical brothers (played by Dennis Haysbert and Michael Harris, the former black, the latter white) whose identities become confused after an accident.

You’re not meant to take too seriously any film that features a character named Dr Renee Descartes, or a scene in which a man sustains serious facial burns while Ring of Fire plays on the soundtrack. If I was laughing during Self/Less, it was only the memory of Suture that had me in stitches.

Self/Less is released on Friday.

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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Don’t worry, Old Etonian Damian Lewis calls claims of privilege in acting “nonsense!”

The actor says over-representation of the privately educated at the top of acting is nothing to worry about – and his many, many privately educated peers agree.

In the last few years, fears have grown over the lack of working class British actors. “People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today,” said Dame Julie Walters. “I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now.”

Last year, a report revealed that half of Britain’s most successful actors were privately educated. The Sutton Trust found that 42 per cent of Bafta winners over all time were educated independently. 67 per cent of British winners in the best leading actor, actress and director categories at the Oscars attended fee-paying schools – and just seven per cent of British Oscar winners were state educated.

“That’s a frightening world to live in,” said James McAvoy, “because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part. That’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”

But have no fear! Old Etonian Damian Lewis is here to reassure us. Comfortingly, the privately-educated successful actor sees no problem with the proliferation of privately-educated successful actors. Speaking to the Evening Standard in February, he said that one thing that really makes him angry is “the flaring up recently of this idea that it was unfair that people from private schools were getting acting jobs.” Such concerns are, simply, “a nonsense!”

He elaborated in April, during a Guardian web chat. "As an actor educated at Eton, I'm still always in a minority," he wrote. "What is true and always rewarding about the acting profession is that everyone has a similar story about them being in a minority."

Lewis’s fellow alumni actors include Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne – a happy coincidence, then, and nothing to do with the fact that Etonians have drama facilities including a designer, carpenter, manager, and wardrobe mistress. It is equally serendipitous that Laurie, Hiddleston and Tom Hollander – all stars of last year’s The Night Manager – attended the same posh prep school, The Dragon School in Oxford, alongside Emma Watson, Jack Davenport, Hugh Dancy, Dom Joly and Jack Whitehall. “Old Dragons (ODs) are absolutely everywhere,” said one former pupil, “and there’s a great sense of ‘looking after our own’." Tom Hollander said the Dragon School, which has a focus on creativity, is the reason for his love of acting, but that’s neither here nor there.

Damian Lewis’s wife, fellow actor Helen McCrory, first studied at her local state school before switching to the independent boarding school Queenswood Girls’ School in Hertfordshire (“I’m just as happy to eat foie gras as a baked potato,” the Telegraph quote her as saying on the subject). But she says she didn’t develop an interest in acting until she moved schools, thanks to her drama teacher, former actor Thane Bettany (father of Paul). Of course, private school has had literally no impact on her career either.

In fact, it could have had an adverse affect – as Benedict Cumberbatch’s old drama teacher at Harrow, Martin Tyrell, has explained: “I feel that [Cumberbatch and co] are being limited [from playing certain parts] by critics and audiences as a result of what their parents did for them at the age of 13. And that seems to me very unfair.”

He added: “I don’t think anyone ever bought an education at Harrow in order for their son to become an actor. Going to a major independent school is of no importance or value or help at all.” That clears that up.

The words of Michael Gambon should also put fears to rest. “The more Old Etonians the better, I think!” he said. “The two or three who are playing at the moment are geniuses, aren’t they? The more geniuses you get, the better. It’s to do with being actors and wanting to do it; it’s nothing to do with where they come from.”

So we should rejoice, and not feel worried when we read a list of privately educated Bafta and Oscar winners as long as this: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dulwich College), Emilia Clarke (St Edward’s), Carey Mulligan (Woldingham School), Kate Winslet (Redroofs Theatre School), Daniel Day-Lewis (Sevenoaks School, Bedales), Jeremy Irons (Sherborne School), Rosamund Pike (Badminton), Tom Hardy (Reed), Kate Beckinsale (Godolphin and Latymer), Matthew Goode (Exeter), Rebecca Hall (Roedean), Emily Blunt (Hurtwood House) and Dan Stevens (Tonbridge).

Life is a meritocracy, and these guys were simply always the best. I guess the working classes just aren’t as talented.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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