A Prophet (18)

Jacques Audiard raises the bar in this prison movie

Václav Havel, who has seen a few cells in his time, once pointed out that while most rookie convicts expect boredom to be the predominant state during incarceration, the opposite in fact holds true. Far from struggling to fill the days, one experiences exhaustion from negotiating the various codes and grudges upon which the social structure of prison is predicated. This fretful climate provides the backdrop for Jacques Audiard's supremely confident thriller A Prophet (Un prophète).

Life inside for 19-year-old Malik el-Djebena (Tahar Rahim) kicks off with a good hiding and the theft of his trainers. Then it turns nasty. The Corsican gang that rules the roost enlists him to murder a fellow inmate. Malik isn't coaxed or bullied - he is simply informed by the ageing gang leader, Luciani (Niels Arestrup), that the job is his. If Santa Claus spent ten years drinking meths on skid row, he would look like Luciani. The damage this man can inflict with a spoon would put you off your prison porridge; even Don Corleone would have thought twice before spilling Luciani's grappa. "Now that you're in on it," he warns Malik, “if you don't kill him, I'll kill you." Well, since you put it like that . . .

Everything about A Prophet starts out small, including Malik. When he arrives, he has a ratty handsomeness (think De Niro in Mean Streets). He moves awkwardly, he's illiterate, and aside from the scars on his back, he's a blank. The glory of the film lies in seeing him take shape, physically and psychologically, over the course of his sentence: it's like watching a stammerer mastering a Shakespearean soliloquy. Audiard and his co-writer Thomas Bidegain take their time with the transformation, but A Prophet needs every one of its 155 minutes. The roving camera, urged on by Alexandre Desplat's score, seems to capture Malik's thought processes as he realises that eyes and ears can be more useful in prison than feet and fists. Gradually, he acquires respect, power, even a hint of nobility (think De Niro in The Godfather: Part II).

As he matures, the scope of the film grows organically around him. What starts as the profile of one convict expands into an indictment of the penal system as a crucible of criminal ambition. During his six-year stretch, Malik commits crimes that could earn him that sentence many times over again. The glaring irony is that the contacts he fosters inside enable him to launch his drug-dealing business on the outside. Not content with demonstrating that prison produces better criminals, Audiard also investigates the shifting ethnic composition of organised crime. "Am I crazy or are they multiplying?" sneers Luciani at the Arabs congregating in the exercise yard. "Good job they're dumb." What he hasn't grasped is that mafiosi are so 20th century.

It's mildly disappointing that this level of scrutiny isn't applied to the area of machismo. The delusion persists, in those prison movies that don't ignore the topic altogether, that sex between male inmates is the sole preserve of sadists (see The Shawshank Redemption or Edmond). To that, A Prophet now adds assassins. Only by feigning interest in the overtures of his intended target can Malik gain the access necessary to carry out his gruesome task. The attack, when it comes, is sudden and frightening, and puts a ghastly new spin on the Judas kiss. Still, there's something conflicted about a film that doesn't skimp on the bloodletting but is too squeamish to admit that sex in prison is not generally a preamble to murder.

In other respects, A Prophet provides the sort of elegant pleasures we have come to expect from Audiard. (His four previous films include A Self-Made Hero and The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Each one is a winner.) It may be a modern cliché to feature a dead character conversing with the living, but when Malik receives counsel from one of his own victims, it's more than mere wackiness - the grim existentialism of the prison movie is being gently undercut. We're not talking Bresson's A Man Escaped by any means. But a dusting of hope or humour in this claustrophobic setting can act like a whole wandful of magic dust. That Audiard liberates this locked-down genre with the suggestion of something equivocal and even spiritual raises his mighty film into a different class

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 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.