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Cynically commercial, Atomic Blonde is a total waste of Charlize Theron

David Leitch's film forgets that a driver is only as good as her vehicle.

Atomic Blonde has been in development for a good few years now but it was the success of Mad Max: Fury Road, starring Charlize Theron as an unsmiling, one-armed, shaven-headed trucker, that accelerated production. One of the new picture’s 19 producers must have arrived at a simple equation (Theron + action = dynamite), forgetting in the excitement that a driver is only as good as her vehicle.

Theron has hair this time, as well as a full complement of limbs, though there’s still precious little smiling. Her acting here comes in two modes: sunglasses off and sunglasses on. Mostly on. She plays a British spy named Lorraine, which sounds a bit Birds of a Feather for MI6, but then this is the 1980s.

We are in pre-unified Berlin shortly before the Wall comes down, which means lashings of neon, spray paint and cigarette smoke, as well as the use of pop hits including David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”, already associated with two other films (Cat People and Inglourious Basterds), and Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom”, the theme from the TV series Deutschland 83. Four names are credited with music, but does it really take that many people to pinch soundtrack ideas from other places?

Dressed in a series of raincoats that scream “Look at me! I’m a spy!”, Lorraine is on the trail of a stolen microfilm containing a list of her colleagues. “If the Russians get that, we’ll be buggered sideways,” declares her boss, which sounds like an agreeable outcome compared to what Lorraine does to her enemies. One adversary she stabs in the face with a set of keys. They just hang there from his cheek. At least he’ll know where they are when he needs them.

Her counterpart in Berlin is the uncouth David Percival (James McAvoy). “You’ve got some balls breaking in here: I’m impressed,” Lorraine says after discovering him in her hotel room. “You should see my balls,” he replies. “Then you’d be really impressed.” Not sure that quite works.

Luckily he’s better at his job than he is at repartee. He has made contact with a former Stasi officer (Eddie Marsan), who has memorised the contents of the microfilm. Lorraine will need to protect him but can she trust her fellow spies? The director David Leitch thinks not. He is fond of beginning scenes with the camera lying on its side before rotating it 90 degrees to an upright position. He could be trying to evoke visually the topsy-turvy world of international espionage. It’s as good a guess as any.

These pointless affectations would be easier to tolerate if he could shoot an action sequence fluidly. Mad Max: Fury Road proved that stunts will always be more effective if we can see they’re happening for real, but this is not a lesson that Atomic Blonde has taken on board. A high-speed chase is rendered fuzzy by the computer-generated imagery that allows the camera to perform impossible manoeuvres inside the car.

A protracted fight on a stairwell, which gives the impression of having been shot in one take but contains plenty of swish-pans in which cuts can be hidden, is gory without suggesting actual jeopardy. When Lorraine dispenses with six assailants using a saucepan, a hose and a refrigerator door, the whole under-lit episode feels painfully sluggish. No other director has choreographed a dust-up to the low-tempo sound of George Michael’s “Father Figure”, and now we know why.

Success for MI6 depends on getting the Stasi man safely out of town, but a more pressing race is the one between Theron and McAvoy, both likeable enough actors, to see which of them can squander the audience’s goodwill the fastest. Lorraine isn’t a person so much as an attitude. She goes ten rounds with suspects then soothes her bruises in ice-cube baths before hitting the vodka; it isn’t assassins she needs to worry about, it’s alcoholism and hypothermia. She comes close to caring for the female agent Delphine (Sofia Boutella), with whom she shares a sex scene, but this isn’t progress for gay women in the action genre so much as an attempt to get fanboy hearts beating that bit faster. Even an actor as good as Theron can’t turn a set of cynical commercial considerations into a character. 

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 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon