Just another gigolo

Woody Harrelson gives a waspish performance in this story of a male escort

<strong>The Walker (15

Nearly 30 years ago, Paul Schrader's American Gigolo featured one of the strangest love scenes since Narcissus caught sight of something rather pretty in the water. Richard Gere, playing a self-absorbed Beverly Hills escort, was called upon to arrange a selection of spiffy shirts and ties across his bed while pondering what to wear for the evening. Gere swooned. The camera swooned. It was love. Schrader's latest film, The Walker, has many similarities to the earlier picture: it could even be called American Gigolo: the Autumn Years. Some people might mourn how the Uomo Vogue look of American Gigolo has been replaced by varnished interiors straight out of House and Garden, but not me. Bring on the tallboys and the escritoires, I say. You do miss Blondie's "Call Me" on the soundtrack but, hey, you can't have everything.

The Walker also concerns an escort, Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson), but the duties this gay man performs for the bejewelled and lonely wives of politicians in Washington, DC extend only to accompanying them to operas and functions, and passing round titbits of toxic gossip at the weekly game of canasta. The film features a poignant reprise of that American Gigolo love scene, with some striking differences. When Carter surveys himself at his dressing table, he is no peacock admiring his majestic feathers. Alone at the end of a day full of chatter and glitz, he removes his toupee, exposing a smooth, gleaming pate, and returns the rug to a stand in its own little cupboard. You have to take your hat off - and your toupee, for that matter - to Harrelson. Hollywood stars playing gay characters is one thing. But gay and bald? The guy eats taboos for breakfast.

Carter spends his days bitching and sniping with a witches' coven of clucking companions, played by the formidable trio of Lauren Bacall, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily Tomlin. He also has a lover, the political artist Emek (Moritz Bleibtreu), but remains unable to commit fully to their relationship. Whether anyone could commit to somebody who toils over such achingly relevant, Abu Ghraib-influenced canvases is a moot point, but this is not the time to ask why fictional artists in films always produce such dreadful work.

The film hinges on the question of whether or not Carter will be able to forsake his air of camp detachment when the occasion demands it. In short, it's yet another story about male fear of commitment, but in dandy's clothing. When a close friend of Carter's, a senator's wife called Lynn Lockner (Scott Thomas), comes to him in a panic because she has found her lover dead, Carter agrees to pretend it was he who discovered the body, thus sparing Lynn the scandal of having her infidelity exposed, but placing himself under suspicion of murder.

The Walker is an affectionate character study, but unfortunately it also wants to be a thriller. The supposedly suspenseful part of the plot amounts to four questions. Will Carter be charged with murder? Did Lynn kill her lover? If she didn't, who did? And will anyone give a hoot when the handling of these points is so perfunctory? In fact, the film is so unconvincing whenever it strays from Carter's social life that I began to wonder if its ineptness was deliberate; perhaps Schrader was commenting on the futility of modern thrillers. But deep down I know that there's the benefit of the doubt, and then there's just stupid.

Still, The Walker does boast Harrelson giving the performance of his career. This might not set your heart aflame with excitement, but watching him here is like discovering that someone you knew as a cartoonist also has an impressive flair for portraiture. Just as Carter is forced to abandon his facade to save his bacon, so Harrelson has broken free of the tics and mannerisms that have endeared him to audiences but restricted him as an actor. He swaps his macho looseness for a waspish drawl and a permanently cocked pinkie, and provides the pulse in a film that is at its most thrilling when it isn't trying to be a thriller.

Pick of the week

Transylvania (15)
dir: Tony Gatlif
Gypsy road movie from the director of the splendid Gadjo Dilo.

The Hoax (15)
dir: Lasse Hallström
Intriguing true story of Howard Hughes’s bogus biographer, played by Richard Gere.

Rush Hour 3 (12A)
dir: Brett Ratner
Comedy-action shenanigans with the shy and retiring Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan.

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 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide