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Cosmopolis – review

Vague prophecies of doom dampen R-Patz’s stellar turn.

“Prepare to be surprised” runs the poster copy for David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis over a moody shot of the film’s star, Robert Pattinson. Well, there’s the first surprise: Pattinson has until now been the preserve of Twilight devotees hung up on his depleted pout. They’re sure to be surprised in Cosmopolis when this dreamboat gazes vaguely into a woman’s eyes while a proctologist uses him as a glove-puppet. But the tag line is aimed more at admirers of Cronenberg who are sceptical about this teen idol. Any fears are misplaced: while R-Patz (as he is known) pushes himself up several gears, it is D-Crone (as he is not) who cruises on automatic.

Most of Cosmopolis is confined, as readers of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel will know, to the inside of a white stretch limousine ferrying Eric Packer (Pattinson) across Manhattan to have a haircut. It’s a road movie of sorts, despite notching up only half a kilometre on the clock. A presidential visit has brought gridlock to the streets (how would you notice in New York?) but Eric insists on taking the car. Serving as a mobile office, doctor’s surgery, bedroom and boardroom, it also provides sanctuary from a stalker who has been issuing death threats. Eric is an obscenely wealthy assets manager barricaded from the disintegrating city by a bulletproof vehicle cork-lined to muffle the outside world. Eric’s hands pass over computer panels that give off a retro jukebox glow; he watches as excerpts from the fall of western civilisation are relayed to him on TV screens. “Complex,” he purrs at a televised assassination, as though admiring a dish prepared from esoteric ingredients.

Soon the chaos is playing out on the other side of Eric’s tinted glass, where anti-capitalist demonstrators rampage while brandishing dead rats. (A line from Zbigniew Herbert’s poem “Report from the Besieged City” –“a rat became the unit of currency” – prefaces novel and film.) Eric ventures occasionally into the hubbub to confer with his new wife, Elise (Sarah Gadon). They first liaise in the back of a cab into which Eric has slipped from his adjacent limo in one elegant movement like a fan-dodging Beatle in A Hard Day’s Night.

Mostly he receives visitors like a spoilt king; the film is careful never to show these guests arriving or leaving, so that they register to us as human non-sequiturs or baffling pop-ups along the sleek superhighway of Eric’s existence. Among them is Didi (Juliette Binoche), an art dealer who breaks it to Eric that the Rothko Chapel is not for sale. “It belongs to the world,” she explains gently. “It’s mine if I buy it,” he shoots back. The line is typical in distilling perfectly the capitalist mindset, while ringing false as something that anyone would say – or at least anyone not intent on personifying a discredited economic philosophy.

Perhaps we should expect nothing more from a film set inside a slow-moving metaphor. If the limo idea ever seemed smart, it doesn’t now – and not only because Cronenberg has already explored the ultimate human/car symbiosis in his film of J G Ballard’s Crash. The flaws lie more with the chassis DeLillo has supplied than with the director’s spray job: everything is pared back to the level of the symbolic, from location and dialogue through to Eric’s expedition to the homely barbershop that will reconnect him with his youth. There’s nowhere cinematically for Cronenberg to go and nothing for the actors to play other than the author’s disaffectedness.

In its favour, the film has Pattinson. Part of his success in evoking Eric’s contradictions is down to physiognomy: the upper half of his face, where his oversized eyes bulge from beneath a curved shell of forehead, seems engorged by cerebral activity, while his boxy jaw juts forward a fraction like Ted Hughes’s Iron Man. He brings hunger but also delicacy. Asking his driver where all the limousines go at night, he’s like Holden Caulfield fretting about Central Park’s ducks when the lake freezes over. It’s human experience that Eric finds hard to process. His sensibility is so rooted in abstraction, he barely notices the demonstrators vandalising his limo; he can’t see that they have turned it into a makeshift Rothko, spray-painting a red-and-black fuzz across its windows.

Cosmopolis is not the first Cronenberg film to question the enfeebling progress of technology, or to use a subversive band of renegades to provide dramatic tension – Videodrome and eXistenZ did both a good deal less laboriously. What is new, and regrettable, is the air of detachment expressed in a reliance on state-of-the-nation epigrams (“I feel located totally nowhere”; “Money has lost its narrative”) over argument. Though fortuitous in gaining topicality from the Occupy movement, the film’s vague prophecies of doom are at best superficial. Its characters may be on the road, but Cosmo­polis is rooted in the pedestrian.

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 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare

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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