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Behind closed doors

The Aristocrats - review.

The Aristocrats
Channel 4

If you’ve been paying attention, you will know that I usually like very much indeed the work of the documentary-maker Patrick Forbes, the man who brought us the BBC’s sublime series about English Heritage and Channel 4’s The Force, for which he was embedded with the Hampshire Constabulary over a period of many, many months. Forbes is a master of the form, able to deal with pathos and high drama, but with an eye for the absurd, too. So when I heard his next project would be called The Aristocrats and would take in some of Britain’s grandest stately homes, I rubbed my hands in glee. What fun. The high comedy of yellow corduroys matched, perhaps, with the tweedy flat cap of a little light class war. Houses like wedding cakes, only built of brown toast. Labyrinthine family trees, dark secrets weighing down their every creaking branch. This, I’m afraid, is my idea of heaven.

Sometimes, though, what should be the easiest target turns out to be anything but. The first film in the series had the title the Battle of Blenheim (22 November, 9pm), and it was about the struggle of the Marquess of Blandford, aka Jamie, former drug addict and ex-convict, to convince his father, the Duke of Marlborough, aka Sunny, four times-married former guards officer, that he is fit and willing to inherit one of Britain’s biggest palaces and its estate. In 1994, Sunny (the nickname comes from his courtesy title, the Earl of Sunderland, and is ironic, because he is, or used to be, famously grumpy), tried to disinherit his son. Jamie fought this and eventually a compromise was reached: he would be Duke, and live at Blenheim, but the estate would be controlled by a board of trustees that would include his younger brother, Edward. In the years since, father and son – Jamie has been clean for five years – have grown a touch closer, and over the period in which Forbes’s film was made the younger man had decided to try to wrest back a little more power.

As battles go, this felt a little worked up, because whatever happens in the future, the trustees will be there, ready to step in. This wasn’t why the film failed, though. It felt too much like an episode of the BBC’s recent series about Chatsworth: all gift shops, horse trials and jaunty music. Meanwhile, Forbes – I presume it was him – could be heard in the background, laughing at the non-jokes of duke and marquess alike. The drama, such as it was, came from a new lavatory block the duke was constructing in a stable. Would it be finished on time? Or would the forelock-tugging masses merely have to make do with the old loos? Exciting! The lavs, incidentally, were eventually opened by the local MP, David Cameron, whose minders would not allow him to be filmed with the duke, for all that he is a regular visitor.

The duke played the documentary team for a fool, wanting the publicity the film would bring but resolutely refusing to do anything like a proper interview. The only psychological insight we got into his character was the observation that he is obsessed with neat verges. I wanted to know more about his latest wife, Lily, who is a rich Iranian-born Indian some three decades his junior, not to mention the other three, among whom was Athina Onassis – for it’s in this familial silt that the key to Jamie and his addictions must lie (I believe an older brother died as a small boy, though this wasn’t mentioned in the film.)

I sensed, too, that Forbes was nervous of Blandford. Not that you could blame him. The marquess’s bonhomie was thin as Parma ham, rage breaking through at the slightest provocation. I thought he was ghastly: lazy, dim, entitled, graceless, self-pitying and petulant – though this doesn’t mean that he might not also be extremely unhappy. Had he told Forbes that he would not discuss his past? Perhaps. Even so, you longed for a serious question or two to be lobbed in his direction. I couldn’t care less about the fountain he wants to build, or his polo team. I’m interested in his burden, whose outward symbol is John Vanburgh’s extraordinary allegory of triumph. Blenheim Palace has 187 rooms, many of which are open to the public. But whenever I have visited, it has been the question of what lies behind all the locked doors that fascinated the most.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

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.