Show Hide image

Away We Go (15)

Sam Mendes and a hip literary couple deliver a shockingly smug movie

Plenty has been written about the population explosion, but there is another kind of proliferation associated with the birth rate. Newspaper columnists, sitcom writers and sensitive novelists have between them ensured that our culture is not wanting for self-deprecating accounts of parenthood, actual or imminent.

Into this overcrowded world, Away We Go is born. Some will offer congratulations to the proud parents, the literary couple Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. Their screenplay has been delivered to the screen by that noted midwife, Sam Mendes (whose last film, Revolutionary Road, was a messy forceps birth). Others will wonder if the duo couldn't have considered the greater good and exercised some restraint prior to the point of conception.

Verona (Maya Rudolph) and Burt (John Krasinski), both in their thirties, lead a cosy, ramshackle existence in Colorado. She illustrates medical textbooks, he sells insurance. But they wonder if they shouldn't have put down roots by now. Or, as they ask one another: "Are we fuck-ups?"

This anxiety is heightened by Verona's pregnancy and the realisation that they don't have anywhere that feels like home. What better way to explore this dilemma than to stop in on various wacky friends across the US and Canada while scouting for somewhere to raise their daughter?

There have been road movies with more tenuous starting points, but not many. People say it isn't the arriving that makes a trip worthwhile, and that must be doubly true of any film where the climactic realisation is that “All we can do is be good for this one baby. We don't have control over much else." But in Away We Go, the getting there isn't much fun, either. The film's mechanical premise might have been undercut if the chums whom Verona and Burt encountered on their road trip neglected to offer straightforward tutorials or threw Burt's idealistic hopes of giving his daughter an "epic, Huck Finn-y" childhood into turmoil. Fat chance. What we get is an inventory of sentimentality and spite in which every character is either a beacon of parental perfection or a pressing case for social services.

In the latter category is Lily, a banshee who belittles her husband, loudly belittles her introverted children, and makes Beverly
from Abigail's Party resemble Joan Bakewell. When Lily expresses puzzlement that her golf club application has been rejected - shortly after we've heard her screeching about the effect on her breasts of child-rearing - the film-makers are inviting us to collude in their snobbery, to take the side of the elite against her.

The sin is compounded by casting Allison Janney as Lily, bringing new meaning to the concept of waste. I'm no West Wing enthusiast but, next to this, CJ was Hedda Gabler.

There's worse to come when Verona and Burt visit LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is not so much a character as a list of traits despised by the screenwriters. She is still breastfeeding her four-year-old, rejects pushchairs in favour of holding her children close, and practises a "continuum" household where the children share their parents' bed. The whole encounter is staged as the movie's big comic set piece, but it's a hateful scene that ends with Burt coaxing LN's son into a dreaded pushchair - in effect overruling her concept of parenting - and asking her partner: "What is it exactly that you do?"

As Burt and Verona scamper off down the road, hooting over their tirade against LN, you realise you're watching a celebration of
a pair of smug squares. No matter how much the scales are tipped against the likes of LN and Lily, you have to wonder at the wisdom of a screenplay that incorporates so much warts-and-all eccentricity, then places a boringly blemishless couple at its centre.

It's not merely that the film is banal. Banal alone would be excusable. But it's also hostile. In the paranoid world dreamed up by Eggers and Vida, bad people get children they don't deserve while good people suffer unforeseeable trauma. Anyone who thinks
that a script this lacklustre could not be made any worse has underestimated Sam Mendes, who takes Away We Go to a new plane of awfulness by imposing on it a soundtrack of winsome acoustic numbers by Alexi Murdoch.

As Verona and Burt cuddle at the roadside, exchanging sweet nothings over another of Murdoch's jangly compositions, it's impossible to escape the feeling that you're being sold 300 free minutes of airtime on your mobile network.

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 21 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Citizen Ken

Youtube Screengrab
Show Hide image

Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis