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Animal Kingdom (15)

Ryan Gilbey is impressed by a bold attempt to reinvent the crime thriller.

Animal Kingdom (15)
dir: David Michôd

Nothing in the Australian thriller Animal Kingdom embodies the film's blend of horror and languor quite like its opening scene. Seventeen-year-old Joshua Cody (James Frecheville), also known as "J", is slumped on the sofa beside his mother, watching Deal or No Deal in the middle of the afternoon. That's not the shocking part. As paramedics file in, it becomes clear that the woman is dead, or as good as dead.

J stands aside, his gaze drifting away from his mother to the television. With his slack jaw and plodding walk, the boy has a gormlessness about him but he isn't stupid: he has the wherewithal to add a year to his age when the authorities ask, so that he isn't taken into care. Then he phones Janine (Jacki Weaver), his grandmother. There's not so much as a wobble in her voice when she learns that her daughter is dead from a heroin overdose. Desensitisation runs in the family.

J's mother always kept him away from the rest of the Cody clan. Once he comes to lodge with Grandma, it's easy to see why. His uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) is an armed robber who pops home to intimidate everyone after a spell on the run. Pope is small and ferrety; he doesn't lose his temper or resort to undue force (he even makes a murder resemble an overemphatic embrace). But everyone gets twitchy around him. He keeps nominating himself as a confidant to other men; his goading tone of voice taints the offer with menace.

Another uncle, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), is a drug dealer who chops out lines on the coffee table while Janine looks on fondly. With her habit of adding "hun", "love" or "sweetie" to the end of every sentence, Janine seems harmless and twee but there is something increasingly sinister about her, not least in the hold she has over her sons. The slightest demand for affection sends one of these strapping thugs scurrying over for an inappropriate smooch. It's possible that she got her ideas about parenting from watching Anjelica Huston in The Grifters.

In an earlier age, Janine would have been portrayed as the sort of high-camp criminal matriarch played by Shelley Winters in Roger Corman's 1970 B-movie Bloody Mama. But Animal Kingdom is a subtler and loftier work that acknowledges only in passing the trashy buzz of the crime genre. It goes out of its way to thwart certain expectations, as though serving notice of its elevated ambitions: the heists that have prompted a street war between the Codys and Melbourne's armed robbery unit are glimpsed only in still photographs, while some fussy editing manoeuvres us around a pivotal court case so we get the preparation and the aftermath but nothing in between.

Meanwhile, most of the film's showdowns happen in humdrum settings. One electrifying scene takes place in a supermarket checkout queue where Janine spots Leckie (Guy Pearce), the gentle detective who wants J to testify against the family. There are violent ambushes and callous murders here but the most devastating acts are carried out under the cover of civilised conversation. The grandeur of the film's title contrasts pointedly with parochial details, such as Janine's teatime gossip with her neighbour ("I don't mind his personality but his mouth is so off-putting . . .") or J's alibi when quizzed by Leckie about a shooting (he says he was watching Funniest Home Videos).

The animal theme is taken about as far as it can go by the film's writer-director, David Michôd, who slightly overcooks the metaphor. Antony Partos's sinister electronic score has as its motif a low rumble that suggests a lion's roar and Leckie is saddled with a speech about nature's hierarchy and the criminal food chain. Pope and Craig are seen grappling grotesquely in slow motion like beasts at play and a hunted man tries to escape from his pursuers across a savanna-like plain in the manner of a gazelle fleeing a cheetah. (Only David Attenborough's voice is missing.)

Yet despite some beginner's mistakes, such as an uncertain pace or the lengthy scene-setting narration, it would be churlish to bemoan a film that attempts something as unusual as remaking the gangster movie in the image of Life on Earth and Sylvania Waters.

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 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants

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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