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Carnage (15)

Roman Polanski loves a nice apartment

Roman Polanski loves a nice apartment

Carnage (15)
dir: Roman Polanski

At a time when property markets have sustained heavy bruising, it's reassuring to see that Roman Polanski hasn't lost his love of a good apartment. Among his recurrent themes are persecution, paranoia and insidious power struggles, so it's only natural that he should have taken a prolonged interest in real estate.

Like any estate agent, Polanski has an acute eye for accentuating the positive. Take Rosemary's Baby, where you get a roomy New York residence with fantastic light. Yes, your neighbours are Satanists but what a small price to pay for a property overlooking the park. In The Pianist, you have the run of some delightful Warsaw lofts and apartments. The one downside is that it's 1940 and you are Jewish.

Any threat in Carnage comes from the quartet of smug parents bickering in a tasteful Brooklyn apartment. Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) and her husband Michael (John C Reilly) are hosting an informal summit with the Cowans - Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz). In a neighbourhood park, the Cowans' son used a stick to inflict some brutal amateur dentistry on the Longstreets' boy. This is undisputed. What shifts gradually and violently is the balance of blame and the consequences of a random act of unkindness.

Theatregoers will recognise this film as God of Carnage, Yasmina Reza's horror-comedy of manners, which she has adapted with Polanski. Film can direct our attention more decisively than theatre and there is a special delight as the camera registers each estrangement and rapprochement. One of the joys of the writing is how fluidly the allegiances change; the characters keep switching sides like a wrestling tag-team with loyalty issues.

Discrepancies are at first semantic. Alan, a lawyer, objects to the suggestion that his son "disfigured" anyone; Michael proposes "momentarily disfigured" instead. By the end of the film, each person has had the objects by which they define themselves, and even the language they favour, jeopardised or destroyed.

The catalyst for all the chaos is a humble stick: as with the script's references to Darfur, the air of savagery undermines any apparent sophistication. The narrow corridors and hallways of the apartment expose these people as rats in a lavish maze. Michael, a caveman in meat-coloured knitwear, fears rodents and lizards - they're too low to the ground for his liking. He must know how close he is to them. When he crashes to the floor, or Nancy scrambles around retrieving the contents of her handbag, the gliding camera joins them down there, where they really belong.

Claustrophobia, and a performance by Waltz that evokes callousness without caricature, are the film's greatest assets. And the device of reeling the Cowans back in whenever they are poised to leave has echoes of Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel, not previously apparent. But I missed Tamsin Greig, who played on stage the role now given to Winslet. Greig's vulnerability challenged the cruelty of the text: she was a lovely bag of nerves whose sanity hung genuinely in the balance. Even under fire, Winslet is formidable.

At least she isn't disastrous. That honour goes to Foster. Think of a screen performer with a dainty comic touch and it will be several months before Foster's name occurs to you. The darting eyes and panting delivery that should lend themselves to comedy are, in her, warning signs of an anxiety potent enough to kill off any humour.

Gains have been made in the adapting. The sound design, with its distant wailing sirens and barking dogs, provides a wry commentary. Alexandre Desplat's score builds from anguished strings to thundering timpani. But there are a corresponding number of losses. Where the play could be uproarious, the film is often merely shrill. (And is cobbler a funnier-sounding dessert than the clafoutis of the original? I think not.) The debit and credit columns cancel one another out. It's not a poor film, merely a neutralised one.

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 06 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lucky Dave

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

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