In praise of Anthony Hopkins

The actor's performance in "Hitchcock" is a reminder of just how good he is.

Not much love out there for Hitchcock so far. I don’t mean the director, of course. He got plenty last year. But Sacha Gervasi’s film Hitchcock, which weaves a fanciful art-refracted-through-life tale out of the making of Psycho in 1959, has been conspicuous by its absence from the awards nominations. Helen Mirren has had a few nods for her performance as Hitchcock’s wife Alma, but I am surprised to see a complete snub for Anthony Hopkins in the title role. His performance is so good that it demands I adapt a famous advertising slogan which was used in the 1990s to relaunch a breakfast cereal long taken for granted: Have you forgotten how good he is?

Perhaps the movie’s one measly Oscar nomination for make-up is intended as a back-handed compliment: a suggestion that it’s the (highly accomplished) prosthetics work that deserves the acclaim, rather than the performer underneath. The inhibiting power of an extreme physical metamorphosis surely demands a higher than usual level of charisma: in other words, the actor, physically muffled, is going to have to do a lot more projecting than a screen performer might otherwise be called upon to do. Well, Hopkins is your man.

It’s easy to take for granted how magnetic he is, to think that his showboating vaudevillian flourishes are confined to memories of Hannibal Lecter (in The Silence of the Lambs and, less notably, Hannibal and Red Dragon). But his performance in Hitchcock is a good refresher. In keeping with the heightened tone of the film, he plays the persona as much as the man, and maintains a delicious comic knowingness whether taunting journalists at a press launch (“Try the finger sandwiches: they’re real fingers”) or receiving therapy from the killer Ed Gein (the inspiration for Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). As you might have gathered, this is no straight-up biopic but an imaginative doodle in the margins of the history of Psycho. Hopkins is such a nimble performer that he can bring both the lightness of touch required by the material, and the gravitas necessary to make the director more than the sum of his fetishes, foibles and neuroses - to play, in other words, the legend and the man simultaneously. He has the poise, the posture, the lemon-sucking pout, but he has an inner light too.

That the film is frothy and fun should not distract us from noticing that the actor is as impressive here as he was in his finest recent work, Nixon, where his bullishness and swagger in the title role bridged the obvious physical disparity between him and Tricky Dicky; The Silence of the Lambs, where he created with Jodie Foster one of the great (and most perverse) romantic couples in modern cinema; and his achingly inhibited turn as Mr Stevens in The Remains of the Day. And I would also recommend his delicate work alongside Lucy Punch in Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger; their scenes are the high-point of a movie which, like Hitchcock, is no less intriguing for being flawed.

Hitchcock opens in the UK on 8 February.

Anthony Hopkins at the London premiere of "Hitchcock" (Photograph: Getty Images)

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.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times