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Review: The Turin Horse and iLL Manors

Stillness teaches you far more about life than action, writes Ryan Gilbey.

The Turin Horse (15)

dir: Béla Tarr

iLL Manors (18)

dir: Ben Drew

A veteran film-maker bids farewell this month, apparently having exhausted his creative voice, only to have his place filled by a cocky newcomer. Out of cinema’s multi-storey car park goes the 56-year-old Hungarian heavyweight Béla Tarr in his majestic, plodding horse and cart. And into the space vacated screeches Ben Drew, aka Plan B, in his metaphorical Porsche 911. Drew now adds writer-director to a CV that also includes rapper, singer, songwriter, actor and, for all we know, manicurist and milliner.

I would love to report that it is Drew who has made the existentialist study of life on a tempest-ravaged rural plain, while Béla Tarr has shot the hip-hop thriller about grungy east London gangsters, but the truth conforms more narrowly to expectation. The Turin Horse, which Tarr has promised will be his final film, opens with a voice recounting the tale that lends the work its title and its mournful mood: in late-19th-century Turin, Friedrich Nietzsche flung his arms around a horse that was being whipped, and descended into silent insanity. The picture has sparse dialogue, but that is usually the least vital part of any Tarr film, not to mention the most pretentious. Meaning is discernible largely through Fred Kelemen’s stately grey cinematography and Mihály Víg’s score – a remorseless, circular organ figure that suggests a carousel operated by inconsolable pessimists.

On an isolated farm, a woman (Erika Bók) wakes and dresses her father, Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi). She trudges to the well and back, hair whipped by the furious wind into Rorschach splats against the white canvas of sky. Ohls­dorfer staggers into the dust-storm to retrieve his horse from the stable. But the beast, no idiot, it seems, refuses to budge even on pain of a thrashing. What can he know? Possibly that it never ends well for animals in art-house cinema (Au hasard Balthazar, anyone?) and that, all things considered, he’s better off staying put. Back inside, Daughter makes dinner. It’s potato. (It’s always potato.) Ohlsdorfer claws apart the steaming orb on his tin plate. This is what it means to live in a world without mercy, without hope, without Spudulike.

Unusual events disrupt the characters’ near-mute tedium. A neighbour arrives to borrow some pálinka and starts ranting uncontrollably like Lucky in Waiting for Godot. (What must he be like after he’s knocked back the pálinka?) A gypsy wagon careers on to the land uninvited. As father and daughter stare into the empty well, or face each other across the dark room, Tarr achieves a distillation of misery and futility. The director said recently: “You know what I want? You have to resist. You have to resist, against me. If you do, I’m glad.” I think a lot of people who see The Turin Horse are going to make him very glad indeed.

Tarr’s cinema has always had the air of the endurance test, coupled with an emphasis on quantity as well as quality. The Turin Horse is divided into six days, a pointedly biblical number that hints at his decision to bow out of film-making. (On the seventh day, presumably, he rested.) At its most extreme, his long, mobile, unbroken takes can result in a seven-and-a-half-hour work such as Sátántangó. But even in The Turin Horse, a mere foal at 146 minutes, our sense of the hours passing is crucial to its weight.

In each minute that elapses without any lily-livered cuts, there is an implicit tension. As I watched the film, I used the five-bar-gate method (as seen, perhaps not coincidentally, whenever convicts mark time in a prison movie) to note each new shot. In the whole two and
a half hours, there were only 30 cuts, which is roughly the number of edits in the first few minutes alone of Drew’s iLL Manors. It would be invidious to judge the two films using only this yardstick, but it is still fascinating to compare the baked-in suspense achieved through Tarr’s prolonged takes to the more superficially rousing cutting style that characterises the cinema of attack.

iLL Manors seeks to expose the truth of “broken Britain”, but it is to the titillating species of action cinema and misery porn that it belongs. The busy-bee screenplay flits across an assortment of dealers, crooks and junkies as well as the greenhorns drawn into their orbit. Drew casts a sharp anthropological eye over the street-corner pecking order. The preyed-upon repair their wounded egos by snacking on those lower down the food chain. Somehow there is never any shortage of tasty young lambs.

The cycle of abuse links each character, from the dealer Aaron (Riz Ahmed), whose haste to apportion blame for a theft leads to the sickening exploitation of an innocent woman, to the trafficked immigrant Katya (Natalie Press), whose baby is sold for a couple of grand in a pub. Everyone here is connected through six degrees of degradation.

A special relish reserved for violence and sexual humiliation, cut together in excitable montages, betrays the immaturity of the storytelling style. The pop-video interludes are stubbornly uncinematic; you don’t need to be Robert McKee to see that these backstories crassly packaged as lyrics (“She was once a princess/Now she’s a mess/Sexually abused as a child . . .”) don’t do the job of screenwriting. As for a film that begins by warning viewers that they are in for a harrowing ride – well, can’t we be the judge of that? There are uncomfortable scenes, to be sure, but by the time a junkie dozes off in front of a three-bar fire with a child locked in the next room, the film has strayed into parody.

iLL Manors is no disgrace, but a director who aspires to authenticity should leave room for leavening humour. And Drew might cock an eye at The Turin Horse for pointers on achieving dramatic effect without giving in every time to an itchy editing finger. The still or restrained camera can be an impressive dramatic tool, the extended shot a piece of cinematic vocabulary to make viewers sweat and squirm like snitches. The sequence of the wagon arriving over the horizon in The Turin Horse, shot entirely from the farmhouse window in real time, is more gripping than anything in iLL Manors.

What makes Tarr’s work so bracing is that it reminds us how to watch films properly; that is, to give everything to the experience or nothing at all. In a culture where a contributor to an arts show can admit without fear of censure to fast-forwarding through passages in a film (as Giles Fraser did when supposedly reviewing Once Upon a Time in Anatolia for Radio 4’s Saturday Review), or when a Guardian columnist confesses to checking emails on his phone at the cinema (that’s Charlie Brooker watching, or not watching, Avengers Assemble), the demands that Tarr places on the viewer feel especially urgent. He chose the wrong time to jump on his horse and skedaddle.

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 04 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The royal makeover

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis