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Why you should watch Harry Styles in Dunkirk

If you think casting the former One Direction star sounds like a disaster, you’re wrong.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk features an all-star British cast: Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy… and the former One Direction member Harry Styles, whose acting experience amounts to a terrible cameo in the Nickelodeon kids’ show iCarly. But if you think casting Styles sounds like a disaster, you’re wrong. His turn comes during a period of self-reinvention. Earlier this year, he released a 1970s-influenced album that would prick the ears of the most boy-band-sceptic dad rocker. This film, pitched at an older, masculine audience, could be part of the same game plan.

Over the last couple of decades, it feels like we’ve had more and more musicians-turned-actors: Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Lopez, Will Smith. But the concept of a pop pin-up at their peak swaggering into the movies thanks to their sheer charisma seems to belong to another time: Elvis in Jailhouse Rock, Frank Sinatra in Guys and Dolls, Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan. But this is what it feels like to watch Harry Styles in Dunkirk.

In the action-heavy, dialogue-sparse film, there’s not a whole lot for Styles to mess up – I assume the casting directors scoured CVs for skills such as “sharing dark looks” and “sweating profusely”. But he’s good. He plays Alex, a difficult British soldier trying desperately to survive long enough to make it on to a boat back home. His ad-libbed swearing works; you buy his aggressive brand of fear and, yes, he looks amazing wet. In a scene of intense peril, he even says the words “sauerkraut sauce” in a way that doesn’t make you snort with laughter.

Who are the Hollywood heart-throbs of the past decade? Zac Efron? Robert Pattinson? Liam Hemsworth? All handsome and adored, but in a slightly anaemic way. In 20 years, will teens be posting pictures captioned, “Wow. Young Zefron”? What’s the modern equivalent of a shirtless Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise, or Leo in Titanic? Could it possibly be Harry Styles? 

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

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear