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Review: The Kid with a Bike

The latest Dardennes film is small-scale but forceful.

The Kid with a Bike (12A)
dirs: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

The Kid with a Bike puts its own modest spin on Bicycle Thieves, that defining work of Italian neo-realism. Instead of a father and child searching for a missing bicycle in Rome, we have a child on a bicycle searching for a missing father in Liège. The hardships are comparable even if the scenery manifestly is not.

Cyril (Thomas Doret) is a stub-faced 11-year-old with darting, disconsolate eyes and a sprig of ginger hair. He lives in a children's home but spends most of his time trying to find his way back to the father who dumped him there. When trapped, Cyril will do whatever it takes to escape: he'll bite, punch, kick or stab his way out of any corner. He scales fences and trees, and even clambers out of a fairground ride that has begun its first revolution.

The red T-shirt and tracksuit top that he wears in most of the film suggest a visual joke about his velocity; this furious blur of a boy is like a stop light that's always on the go. When he finally falls asleep or passes out, it's as jarring as if the Tasmanian Devil were to grab 40 winks in a hammock.

Thwarted at first in his attempt to trace his father, Cyril blunders into a doctor's waiting room and clings to the first person he knocks over. That's Samantha (Cécile De France), the manager of a hairdressing salon. As luck would have it, she happens to possess the space and the inclination to allow this not-undemanding lad to stay with her each weekend. The ease with which Samantha accommodates her new ward is a trifle disconcerting. You may harbour suspicions about her agenda for some time before it hits you that, yes, the film-makers really do regard her as a beacon of uncomplicated beneficence.

While in Samantha's care, Cyril falls in with Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a tough-nut with slicked-back hair and delusions of Fagin. Wes is a proxy father no less likely to punish or abandon Cyril than his biological one. This is the way the waffle crumbles when you are a character in a film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian brothers who combine the solemnity of Robert Bresson with the social conscience of Ken Loach.

Only seven directors can claim to have twice won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and the Dardennes are two of them. The Kid with a Bike, which had to make do with second prize at last year's festival, is typical of their work.

It's set in the defeated Belgian suburb of Seraing, where the directors were born. It employs a predominantly handheld camera, which stalks the actors so doggedly that the cinematographer risks incurring a restraining order. And it concerns a disenfranchised outcast buffeted by fate - see also the protagonists in the directors' Palme d'Or-winners, Rosetta (a penniless girl scratching around for menial work) and The Child (a thief who sells his own newborn son).

The Dardennes will never make a film featuring CGI monsters or intergalactic spacecraft; there's even a nice joke gesturing toward this fact, when a playmate urges Cyril to join him at the cinema because "it's in 3D and it'll be fun". Nevertheless, their work is as formulaic in its way as any Michael Bay IQ-killer. Doubly so in the case of The Kid with a Bike, which follows a narrative template (pure-hearted child lured off the straight and narrow) that has been road-tested in everything from Dickens to Loach's Sweet Sixteen.

There is a structural drawback, too: the perils of the criminal life can hold little horror when we've already seen Cyril endure a painful meeting with his pitiful father (Jérémie Renier) early in the movie. Nothing else can look quite so terrible after that.

Although minor by its directors' standards, The Kid with a Bike has its share of emotionally forceful moments, all of them attributable to little Doret's controlled performance. And there's a small but noteworthy anomaly: the use on the soundtrack of a single Beethoven phrase to bestow something like sanctity on any image it accompanies. It provides the one surprise here, music in the Dardennes' work being generally as rare and incongruous as square wheels on a bicycle.

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 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible

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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