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The corrupted currents

As Jude Law brings a touch of Hollywood to the role of Hamlet, Jason Cowley draws parallels between

. . . If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come; the readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.
Hamlet

On the evening of Hazel Blears’s resignation from the government, I went to see Jude Law in the Michael Grandage-directed Hamlet, the conclusion to the Donmar’s West End season at Wyndham’s Theatre. During the interval much of the talk in the stalls bar was of how appropriate it was to be watching Hamlet on a day of such political drama and intrigue (we did not know what was to come). Certainly there was a sense in the
audience that Shakespeare’s tragedy of thwarted revenge had a startling contemporary resonance; there were inevitably chuckles and nods of recognition as we were told there was “something rotten in the state of Denmark” or Hamlet bemoaned the absence of honest men in the world.

With our political class never before more discredited and voters so alienated, it was satisfying to be reminded, in the heightened artificiality of a West End theatre, that the hugely ambitious and the power-seeking should never be fully trusted and that high ambition invariably drags in its wake profound difficulty and sorrow. Hamlet is, superficially at least, not deeply political in the way of Macbeth, where “nothing is/But what is not”, and Lady Macbeth, like the ambitious would-be politician she is, feels “the future in the instant”, as James Purnell must have done as he wrote the letter he surely believed would bring an end to the Brown premiership. Or of King Lear, where an aged and exhausted monarch looks on uncomprehendingly as those he believed were closest to him scheme to destroy him. Or more obviously of the histories, with their manipulation of the ambiguous space between truth and fiction.

The disintegration of the kingdom of Denmark following an act of regicide, the gathering forces of a distant army set on invasion and the interventions of an unquiet ghost provide the backdrop to what can be easily viewed less as an explicitly political text than as an intensely personal study in confusion, despair and self-reproach. Hamlet’s Elsinore is a place of restlessness and distrust but it does not have the murderous paranoia of Macbeth’s castle in Inverness, and there is no coherent or organised plot to topple the king, Claudius. Hamlet knows from the beginning that if the murder of his father is to be avenged, he must act alone.

Yet Hamlet is a play many great politicians have admired and turned to at moments of stress. Watching the Donmar’s production through the aspect of the contemporary, as recent events inevitably force one to do, I was for the first time more interested in the role of Claudius than in that of Hamlet, in spite of the allure and energy of Law’s interpretation. To watch Hamlet not quite without the prince, but with a keener eye than usual for the contributions of the supporting players, was to understand why a politician as great and complex as Abraham Lincoln was so fascinated by the play, and especially by the character of Claudius, the guilty king who murders without pleasure but for self-interest.

In the Donmar production, with its beautiful and stark monochrome sets and often subdued lighting, Claudius is played with control and grace by Kevin McNally: blithely confident and charming in public, but anguished and self-aware in private. When he delivers the soliloquy that Lincoln thought the finest in the play (“In the corrupted currents of this world . . .”), he falls to his knees, as if in pain or supplication, as
if he is pleading for a forgiveness that he knows can never be his.

By contrast, Law’s Hamlet has only two modes of expression: agitation and anger. He is fit and energetic, with a thick, muscular neck – he breathlessly sprints and struts, bounds and crouches. His diction and delivery are precise and clear, and though often humourless he succeeds, unintentionally perhaps, in conveying just how dislikeable Hamlet can be: narcissistic, self-pitying, cruel. But one never has a sense that this Hamlet, for all his grandeur of expression, is as existentially isolated and despairing as his elevated words would have it, longing for death. Nor does he capture, through nuance or tone, how much Hamlet changes during his long absence from Elsinore.

When Hamlet returns late in the play from England, he is supposed to be calmer, more settled, finally determined to act but also prepared to die (“readiness is all”), so that others might live free from the taint of Claudius’s corruption. But even in these late scenes Law remains as largely agitated as before.
In his time away, there is supposed to have been an important shift in Hamlet’s self-understanding and, for the first time, he openly expresses empathy for others, for Laertes especially and for Ophelia, whom he has bullied to her death:

But I am very sorry, good Horatio,
That to Laertes I forgot myself;
For, by the image of my cause, I see
The portraiture of his . . .

However, Law’s delivery of these important lines was too rushed and perfunctory; he spoke them with purpose but without feeling; nor did he convey the required subtle shifts in character.How old is Hamlet? It is easy to assume, because of his astounding self-absorption and because he returns from university to attend his father’s funeral, that Hamlet is younger than he is. But, according to the gravedigger, he could be as old as 30.One criticism of Law is that he is far too old to play the part; in fact, if you believe the gravedigger, he is rather well cast. At the age of 36, Law is losing the golden sheen of his youth, the gilded, wise-guy frivolity that made his performance in The Talented Mr Ripley so assured and compelling: his hair is receding, his skin is taut but sun-worn and there’s fatigue behind his eyes. Law-as-Hamlet looks less like a student than someone approaching the first crisis of early middle age: not old but no longer as young as he would wish to be, which is fine.

At present, with the crisis in Labour so deep, a week seldom passes without one political commentator or another seeking to draw comparisons between the struggles of Gordon Brown and one of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, and the contemporariness of this particular Hamlet quickened the atmosphere at Wyndham’s. Turning to Shakespeare is one obvious way of trying to make sense of the melodrama of the Brown premiership, with its attendant feuds and media hysterics, even if the plays inevitably end up being misread or misappropriated. For Jonathan Freedland, in the Guardian, Brown’s story combines the jealousy of Othello, the ambition of Macbeth and the equivocation of Hamlet. For Anne McElvoy, in the Sunday Telegraph, he is Lear, a raging autocrat who cannot accept that his time has passed, a victim of his own too-long imperious rule who, confronted by disloyalty, asks if this is the promised end. For others, Brown’s 10 Downing Street is variously Hamlet’s Elsinore or Macbeth’s castle: a place of refuge, sickness and paranoia.

Few would doubt that there is a tragic dimension to Brown’s plight. For so long the commanding presence of British politics, he is the victim both of desperate bad luck and of his own stubborn pride and delusions. Brown is the stealth taxer who, against Labour tradition, embraced the ideology of neoliberalism not as an end in itself, but as the means by which to redistribute wealth; the man who fatally believed he had mastered the free market, bending its forces to his very will (“I have abolished boom and bust”); the man who believed the job of Prime Minister was his as if by natural right but who, in office, has proved so spectacularly ill-suited to the role. In his own self-image, Brown remains more sinned against than sinning.

To watch Brown at Prime Minister’s Questions nowadays is a bit like watching a great heavyweight champion who has spent too long in the ring and who seems intent on defying even time’s arrow itself. Now, more than ever, he is on the ropes, refusing to go down, yet taking blows from the kind of lesser men he would once have swatted aside so casually.

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Other Shakespearean heroes of the G20

Barack Obama Henry V
In the wake of the Iraq War, Henry V made an easy comparison with Tony Blair’s foreign policy. Leaving overseas conflict aside, Barack Obama’s mastery of public oratory upholds the tradition of Shakespeare’s king. His inaugural speech recast the Founding Fathers in the rhetoric of Agincourt: “a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing.” Like King Henry, the president seems to have won his audience over to his cause.

Silvio Berlusconi Falstaff (Henry IV and Merry Wives of Windsor)
The Italian premier has become notorious for his jovial, irreverent behaviour. In April, after downplaying the entire G20 summit as “just a round table”, he displeased the Queen with an uncouth shout to “Mr Obama!” (who, sadly, did not return an “I know ye not”). The following day he skipped the official photograph at the Nato summit, and left Angela Merkel waiting on the red carpet as he chatted on his mobile. As Samuel Johnson wrote of Falstaff, “his wit is not of the splendid or ambitious kind, but consists in easy escapes and sallies of levity, which make sport, but raise no envy”.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva Jack Cade (Henry VI)
When protesters marched on the City of London on Financial Fool’s Day (1 April 2009), the Brazilian president, Lula de Silva, seemed to be the only G20 leader speaking with their voice. The crisis had been caused by the “blue-eyed bankers”, he said. Attacking many other leading G20 member states, he argued that the poor should no longer be the victims of globalisation. Lula may have conducted himself with more diplomacy than Shakespeare’s rebel leader, but he captured the spirit of popular uprising.

Michelle Obama Rosalind (As You Like It)
The true star of the G20 summit was not, for many commentators, even a world leader. First ladies have typically adopted a dated model of stay-at-home femininity, supporting uncontroversial good causes
and smiling for the press. Like Rosalind, Shakespeare’s most enduring heroine, Michelle Obama (Secret Service code name: Renaissance) has brought new individuality to a conventional role. Even the Queen forwent formality to enjoy a quick hug with the jewel of the show. l

John Ridpath

Brown is far too old to be Hamlet and much too young to be Lear – but as he addresses colleagues around the cabinet table he must know that, like Macbeth, “false face must hide what the false heart doth know”. What prevents Brown’s story from being truly Shakespearean – apart obviously from the absence of dead bodies lying scattered across the floor of the House as they were on the stage at Wyndham’s the other night, though before him Brown must daily see the metaphorical corpses of his various victims, Banquos one and all – is that he has not yet had his one true tragic reversal, the one moment of blinding self-revelation that exposes the depth of his suffering and of how much he has been changed by it. Perhaps the truth is that he has not been changed at all, or not quite enough.

Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Macbeth: all are wholly altered before they die. Lear, solipsistic and loft­ily contemptuous at the beginning, dies humbled and in self-forgetfulness, concerned, at the last, only for the fate of his loyal daughter, Cor­delia; it is not he but Kent who, after the death of Cordelia, asks: “Is this the promised end?”

There is no Brown-like defiance in Lear’s closing remarks, only resignation and belated expressions of self-understanding. This Lear, so unrecognisable from the man he once was, would understand the meaning of the words “Let be” as uttered by Hamlet shortly before he dies, as the Prime Minister perhaps would not – at least, in his present position of stubborn defiance, until he hears the final, fatal midnight knock at the door. (If Law’s Hamlet has an ultimate flaw, it is that he does not seem to understand the meaning of “Let be” either, even as he speaks the words, with “letting be” being an act of simultaneous acceptance and release, a letting go of what you most wish to hold on to – in Brown’s case the premiership, in Hamlet’s life itself.)

For now, though he must be hurting, Gordon Brown remains defiantly unaltered, still more sinned against than sinning, seemingly unaware of or refusing to accept how hated Labour is in the country at large. That’s hubris at its most Shakespearean.

“Hamlet” is at Wyndham’s Theatre until 22 August. Details: Wyndham's Theatre website

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!

LAURA HYND FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Rebel with a realist cause

Michael Winterbottom, Britain’s busiest film-maker, discusses cinema, social mobility and how we are returning to the 19th century.

In the early 1960s, Lindsay Anderson was enjoying the power and esteem that he had always thought the English would be too philistine to grant him. His Free Cinema movement, launched in February 1956 with a series of modest, hand-held documentaries and a strident manifesto, had mutated into “kitchen-sink realism”, a series of popular feature films that included Tony Richardson’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and his own This Sporting Life. Anderson seemed dangerously close to becoming the  leading spokesman of mainstream British cinema. But then, as he recalled, “Realism gave way to the myth of Swinging London. The Americans, God bless them, put up a lot of money and the British made a lot of bad films.”

When, bored and broke, the Americans went home, taking many of his colleagues along with them, Anderson stayed behind. He made if . . ., which won the 1969 Palme d’Or at Cannes, and a sequel, O Lucky Man!, and then – nothing. For most of the 1970s, British cinema was virtually an oxymoron. But when the industry came back to life at the start of the next decade, with GandhiChariots of Fire and the formation of Channel 4 Films, he refused to celebrate or capitalise, preferring to tut and clutch his brow.

In November 1985, the month when his former protégé Stephen Frears first startled a general British audience with My Beautiful Laundrette, which updated kitchen-sink realism with new causes (multiculturalism, gay rights) and villains (Thatcher, the National Front), Anderson was making gentle progress on a backward-looking endeavour – a television documentary about Free Cinema, to form part of an initiative he despised called British Film Year. A born dawdler, equally petrified of success and failure, he was having trouble with the stills and inserts. “I finally get the operation organised,” he wrote in his diary, “by insisting that the attractively cherubic Michael Winterbottom be my assistant.”

When I spoke to Winterbottom last year, he told me, “Lindsay Anderson was a director I really admired and I wondered why he had made so few films. Then I met him. There was a lot of messing around” –bickering, procrastination, mischief. And perfectionism: “Even on the Free Cinema documentary, he ended up reshooting ­everything.” Winterbottom wanted to emulate Anderson’s work – the intransigence, the looseness – but he realised that in order to follow those examples and still have a career, he needed to make peace with prevailing industrial conditions and devise a plausible, even hard-nosed working method.

Three decades later, he is constantly in work. Alongside Frears, he is Britain’s busiest film-maker. At any given moment, he occupies two or more points in a process that goes something like: development, financing, casting, filming, editing, festival circuit, domestic release. But where Frears has graduated to working with Hollywood studios, Winterbottom relies on independent financing and employs a no-fuss, often hand-held, digital shooting style. David Thompson, the former head of BBC Films who is now an independent producer, told me, “Michael pioneered a way of working that we tried and failed to get other directors to adopt: if you can’t get the crew in a minivan, then you’ve got too many people.”

The results so far have included 24-Hour Party People, a comedy about the Manchester music scene that captured Winterbottom’s own philosophy of productive chaos, and 9 Songs, in which a climatologist recalls a relationship through nights at rock concerts and uncensored days in bed. Winterbottom’s most recent film, The Emperor’s New Clothes, a documentary about inequality, presented by Russell Brand, was his 28th. And that doesn’t include The Trip, the BBC2 comedy series starring the comedians Steve Coogan – a Winterbottom regular – and Rob Brydon, which was released outside Britain as a pair of films, The Trip and The Trip to Italy: to date, his only sequel.

***

Working alongside the producer Andrew Eaton, Winterbottom has established an atmosphere of rigour and determined focus that allows him to take risks. Eaton, who has known Winterbottom for more than 30 years, told me that “no other director comes to set with such a strong sense of what he’s trying to get combined with a complete openness to what could happen in the day”. When Winterbottom was making the family drama Wonderland in the late 1990s, he took his skeleton crew into London bars that were open for business. Punters became extras. “The people in a place are so much part of the environment,” Winterbottom said. “We were trying to get a different texture, to let the characters interact with the real world.”

Winterbottom and I were having breakfast in a London hotel restaurant. When I arrived, he had just finished a television interview about The Face of an Angel, a rumination on the Amanda Knox trial starring Daniel Brühl and Cara Delevingne, which opened in 2014 to baffled reviews. Winterbottom, who turns 55 in March, still looks like a cherub, but a cherub going grey at the sideburns. He is affable, even happy-go-lucky, but also remote – withdrawn. His gaze carries a slight air of wistfulness, as if he is distracted by some opportunity five yards beyond your shoulder. And though he talks very quickly, he is a specialist in prevarication and reversal. Assertions are parried, questions dodged. But when he’s comfortable, he’s fluent.

Winterbottom continued to tell me about the thinking behind Wonderland, which many consider his greatest film. He compared it to Notting Hill, which was being shot further west around the same time. “As soon as you go in and control everything, you’re destroying the essence of what London is. If you want to catch what normal life is like, you have to work in quite a small way, a hand-held way, in real places.”

Yet Wonderland is never dowdy. Shots of, say, an average night at the Slug and Lettuce or the bingo hall, or yet another frustrating afternoon at Selhurst Park, are offset by the lithe, buzzing images (a 16mm negative blown up to 35mm), the restlessly inquisitive editing and Michael Nyman’s soaring symphonic score. The result far exceeds anything made during the kitchen-sink period in the breadth of its humanism and the range of its social portraiture, and deserves to be recognised as one of the great achievements of British cinema.

The Scottish actress Shirley Henderson said that working on Wonderland, the first of six collaborations, wasn’t like being on a film set, with “caravans” and co-stars. “You were just waiting on a pavement somewhere.” To help Henderson research her role as the working-class Londoner and single mother Debbie, one of three troubled sisters, Winterbottom sent her on what she called “errands”: going clubbing in character, or visiting the sort of hairdresser at which Debbie worked. Henderson added the details garnered on these field trips to a screenplay, written by Laurence Coriat, that was treated as far from sacrosanct. Speaking generally of her work with Winterbottom, she said: “You know the lines – and you might get to say them, you might not. He might run the scene another five minutes after your lines are finished.”

I asked Henderson how Winterbottom’s toss-the-script-aside approach compared with the process favoured by Mike Leigh, who directed her in Topsy-Turvy. With Leigh, she said, “You improvise for hours to find a honed scene that you shoot the next day. With Michael, it’s a quicker process. You don’t rehearse as such. You’re improvising on film. If he’s not got enough, he’ll just go again and again and again.” At breakfast, Winterbottom, who recoils from analysis, defined his ambitions with a shrug: “Try to keep it simple, get as close to the characters as possible, encourage actors to be spontaneous.”

Wonderland was Winterbottom’s sixth feature film and marked a breakthrough for him, in particular a turn away from the professionalism of Welcome to Sarajevo, his polished, starry account of TV journalists covering the Bosnian War, in favour of a realist aesthetic. He told me that he doesn’t see himself as part of any movement – “What, like Free Cinema? No, no” – but his desire to find an alternative to conventional dramatic narrative connects him to a loose group of artists and writers intent on bringing more “reality” into their work. Prominent among them are the authors David Shields, who mentions Winterbottom in his manifesto Reality Hunger, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle series Winterbottom has been reading (“I’m very impressed”). But where Shields and Knausgaard have turned away from the novel in favour of more direct, less dissembling forms such as the memoir and the essay, Winterbottom’s desire to get as far away from artifice and as close as possible to hectic, complex, undramatic life has resulted not in a choice of one form that solves all the problems but a sensibility that he brings to a range of genres.

Winterbottom’s war against tidy artifice has taken various forms. Sometimes it is built in to a project’s conception: he made 9 Songs because he thought that his previous love story Code 46 had been timid in the way it presented sex. It has determined his approach to source material. When he was adapting Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles as Trishna, he combined the roles of the “spiritual” Alec and the “sensual” Angel because, he told an interviewer, “most people are a combination of both”. But with Jim Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me, he took the opposite approach: he found Thompson’s portrait of psychosis so complete, so convincing, that he treated the book “like the Bible”.

Winterbottom’s widely acknowledged formal innovations are a means to an end. I mentioned the editing in his 2008 film, Genova, which constantly prevents exchanges and encounters from settling down into a set piece. He dismissed the idea that he was consciously experimenting. “When you’re making a film, you’re worried about the specifics of what you’re trying to do and then building out from that,” he said. The starting point of Genova is the dynamic between the dad and the two daughters. “I have two daughters [from his 13-year relationship with the teacher and novelist Sabrina Broadbent] and one aspect of the film, like with Wonderland and London, was to portray a relationship that I would recognise. The aim was to not make it dramatic, because your relationships at home aren’t very dramatic.”

***

In his diary, Lindsay Anderson – who often quoted the ancient maxim “Character is destiny”– marvelled at Winterbottom’s ability to attend to things that mattered and ignore the things that didn’t. Where Anderson was an idealist and a perfectionist, Winterbottom was “wholly unsentimental” – “conscientious” in tracking down stills, his assigned task, but “quite happy to absent himself from crucial, if routine stages of finishing”.

It was partly a product of breeding. Where Anderson, scarred by boarding school, loved to defy those with power (having a private income helped), Winterbottom attended the local grammar school in Blackburn and grew up in kitchen-sink territory; a scene in John Schlesinger’s 1962 film A Kind of Loving was shot at the factory where his father worked. When he was a teenager, his favourite book was Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s novel about a farm labourer who dreams of going to Biblioll College, Christminster. Winterbottom made it to the real-world version – Balliol College, Oxford – where, in a desultory, distracted way, he studied English. (In 2012 he returned to Oxford to become the first Humanitas Visiting Professor in Film and Television.)

Winterbottom likes to say that he’s simply attracted to good stories and interested in the same things as “everybody else”, but The Emperor’s New Clothes, which came out in April last year, emerged from his personal history. A product of grammar schools and grants, he considers himself a beneficiary of the “social mobility and access” that burgeoned after the Second World War. (He campaigned for Jack Straw in Blackburn in 1979.) “The idea that to be ‘modern’, you need an unregulated free market that helps the rich get richer is bullshit,” he said, adding that its widespread acceptance has been “one of the triumphs of that ideology”. He continued, “We had a phase of about fifty years where what was ‘modern’ was the idea that things will get fairer – there will be a narrowing of the gap, maybe not in a radical way, but at least a general trend in that direction.

“It’s fairly hard to believe that we used to collectively own the water, gas, coal, trains, telephone. People were being taxed at 98 per cent on unearned income, 83 per cent on earned income. Instead, we’ve returned to the 19th-century idea that if you’re born poor, you’re going to stay poor.”

After his English degree, he completed a one-year course in film-making in Bristol. Then he needed a job.

“There was no way I would have been able to hang around and do ‘internships’,” he told me. “I became a trainee assistant film editor at Thames Television” – which is how he came to work for Anderson and where he was given his first professional directing job, on a pair of documentaries about the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, from whom he learned that if you establish fruitful partnerships and retain a clear sense of what you’re trying to achieve, film-making is “not that hard”. (Bergman may have been “just as complicated psychologically” as Anderson, “but when it came to the work, he was disciplined”.)

In 1993, after the Bergman documentaries and then a run of commissions in television drama, including the opening episodes of Jimmy McGovern’s ITV series Cracker, Winterbottom was itching to make his first feature film. Frank Cottrell Boyce, a friend from Oxford, had written a script entitled Delirious, about car thieves in Liverpool, but it was failing to attract a backer, so they moved on to a new idea: another crime thriller set in Lancashire, but with a difference – it could be done cheaply, with money cobbled together from public funding bodies. “All our anger and frustration about not making the other one went into it,” Winterbottom recalled. “We did it for nothing. It was a very stressful phase. And that was Butterfly Kiss” – in which a pair of chalk-and-cheese lesbians cause havoc on the M6.

In Icons in the Fire, an attack on “practically everyone in the British film industry”, in which Winterbottom is one of the few heads spared, the critic Alexander Walker recalled his surprise when the director followed up Butterfly Kiss with a “period drama”. But Jude – the first of Winterbottom’s three Hardy adaptations – was fast-moving and stark, not at all Merchant-Ivory. After Jude, there came, in swift succession, “Bosnia war reportage, period western, East End soap opera, Ulster social comedy, glam-rock clubland, overland asylum-seeking” – the films in question being Welcome to SarajevoThe ClaimWonderlandWith or Without You24-Hour Party People and In This World. (Walker forgot I Want You, which should probably be characterised as Hastings psychosexual noir – still, somehow, a genre of one.) “Bewildering,” Walker concluded: “at the same time, curiously courageous for a British director.”

***

Winterbottom has continued in this bewilderingly courageous way, combining speed with variety, adding to his genre hoard and keeping the operation small. While former collaborators such as Rachel Weisz and Kate Winslet have been starring in globetrotting thrillers and 3D blockbusters, or, in the case of Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Peter Capaldi, playing Doctor Who, Winterbottom has carried on telling intimate tales about what he calls “home, family, things like that”; among them Everyday, a drama about a struggling mother (played by Shirley Henderson) that was shot over five years. Where his near contemporary Danny Boyle went off to make Slumdog Millionaire, Winterbottom made Trishna, an Indian adaptation of Tess, described by its star, Freida Pinto, who was also the lead actress in Slumdog, as “a hardcore independent project”.

Generally, his dealings with the US have been marked by resistance. On its release in 1997, Harvey Weinstein’s company Miramax distributed Welcome to Sarajevo – even screened it at the White House for Bill Clinton. But when Weinstein offered Winterbottom $1.5m to direct Good Will Hunting the director said the script wasn’t good enough. It took him months of conversations with the novelist John Irving to reach the same conclusion about another Miramax project, The Cider House Rules. (Each film won an Oscar for its screenplay.) Winterbottom didn’t make a film on American soil until 2009, when he went to Oklahoma to shoot The Killer Inside Me, a thriller whose violence against female characters prompted outrage and earned him a nomination for the Sexist Pig Award from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. (He lost out to Mel Gibson.)

On two occasions – both before the sexist pig accusation – he had been approached by women bearing offers too good to refuse. In 2004 Angelina Jolie brought him A Mighty Heart, an adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s memoir about her husband, the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. Then, a few years later, Naomi Klein approached him to make an archival documentary based on The Shock Doctrine, her book about disaster capitalism. (Klein later changed her mind about the format – she wanted something more topical and responsive – and the film was made without her input.) But on the whole, the ideas for Winterbottom’s films have emerged from Revolution Films, the production company he started with Andrew Eaton in 1994.

In 2001 Winterbottom and Eaton were developing a project about illegal immigrants but couldn’t decide on a starting point. Then the 9/11 attacks happened, and within a few weeks Winterbottom and the writer Tony Grisoni were wandering around a refugee camp in Peshawar, looking for young Afghan men willing to play a version of themselves and do the trip to London for real. (“I thought it was going to be in English,” David Thompson, one of the executive producers of the film that emerged from the trip, recalled. “I was somewhat surprised when it came back in Pashto.”)

The year 2003 marked the high point of Winterbottom’s acclaim. In February, barely a year after Winterbottom had touched down in Peshawar, In This World – the asylum film’s eventual title – was accepted to show at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won three prizes, including the Golden Bear. When it was released in Britain, the critic Sukhdev Sandhu, who was born in 1970, called it the best British film of his lifetime. Soon afterwards, Winterbottom appeared in a Guardian critics’ poll of the best directors currently practising. The citation announced: “British cinema would be lost without him.”

Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian critic who wrote that citation, has been less impressed with the films he has made in the past decade. “It’s all very good letting narrative and all those traditional things go hang,” he said recently, “but it does make for a rather miscellaneous experience in the cinema.” He described the films’ “rough-and-ready quality”, which he identifies in all Winterbottom’s recent work except for The Killer Inside Me and The Trip, as “more lax than loose”, and added: “I often wonder whether he’s thinking about the next project.”

Eaton identifies misunderstanding in both criticisms. To the idea that Winterbottom’s work since around Wonderland has been lax or slapdash: “Do you have any idea how hard it is to make stuff as natural as that, to have that flow?” To those who say Winterbottom makes too many films: “If Michael was a plumber, and you asked him to do work on your house, he wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I’m far too creatively exhausted, I couldn’t possibly do it.’ It’s just the next job.”

Thompson offered a more matter-of-fact reflection. “That’s just the way he works –he does these things in a white heat,” said. “He’s finished them before you realise he has shot them. It’s like writing a song. Some film-makers spend two years fiddling with a film. Michael would go crazy. And I don’t think the result would be any better.” (Bradshaw conceded that “part of his mojo is to keep moving – something we critics don’t understand”.)

Thompson added, “Some of his films work better than others – he knows that.” In 1997, when he had made four films, ­Winterbottom reflected on the benefit that Ingmar Bergman derived from a hefty back-catalogue: “There’s actually enough volume that if he does a comedy that doesn’t succeed, it’s merely a blip in the overall work.”

***

A few days after I first interviewed Winterbottom, I went to the Revolution Films office in Clerkenwell, central London, to meet Melissa Parmenter, the composer who is now his regular producer (Eaton serves as an executive producer). Parmenter has a fondness for rhyme: “totes mahotes”, “okey-dokey”, “good plan, Stan”. Instead of “meltdown”, she says “granny panic”. She described Michael Nyman’s music for Wonderland, not inaccurately, as “an insane score – the best score ever”.

At first, Winterbottom and Parmenter, who live together and have a four-year-old son, seem an unlikely partnership. Where Winterbottom can be evasive, perhaps defensive, Parmenter is open and unguarded. She seems clearer about who Winterbottom is than he is. She is also more outwardly passionate. During my talk with Winterbottom, he used the word “love” twice – about Nyman’s music and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller. Parmenter, by contrast, said she “loves”, among other things, The Killer Inside MeGenova, “the melancholy bits of The Trip to Italy”, Nyman, and “the fact that Michael does what he wants”. But under the Noughties colloquialisms and granny-panic veneer, Parmenter is grounded and – to use a phrase that she might – on it, a total convert to Winterbottom’s heads-down ethos. She resembles her own description of Tracey Emin, whose 2004 film Top Spot she produced: “She looked like she had no idea what she was doing, but she knew totally what she was doing.”

“We make quite different films,” she told me. “It’s weird. What’s Michael’s most commercial film? But he doesn’t aim for that. He just makes what he wants to make.”

I asked Parmenter why he is so good at winning permission to do that. “Well, the idea of all his films is interesting. I mean, Road to Guantanamo: who wouldn’t want to see the story of the Tipton Three? It’s got to be made. Or 9 Songs – we’re going to show real sex. Filming Everyday over five years – that’s an amazing idea. We went to Tessa Ross at Channel 4 and said, ‘We’re going to film these people doing nothing.’ She said, ‘Here’s £1.1m. Bye!’ Obviously we reported back to them.”

It must help, I said, that there hadn’t been any disasters.

“That’s down to Michael. He’s so aware of all levels of the film-making process. He’s got his fingers in all the pies. It gets a bit much sometimes. [As Winterbottom told me, “When you’re a director, everything that happens is kind of your fault.”] But if you’re doing a small film, you can’t say, ‘Actors aren’t allowed trailers’ – if there’s a trailer even anywhere near, he goes mental – and then turn around and say, ‘I don’t want to know anything about the budget.’”

When I caught up with Winterbottom last summer, he expressed some frustration that The Emperor’s New Clothes – the documentary with Russell Brand – hadn’t been shown more widely, and that The Face of an Angel – the Amanda Knox drama– had been rounded on by British critics. Yet it was clear that his heart wasn’t really in it: both films were well on their way to becoming past obsessions. He’d been up at 6.30 that morning, doing rewrites for a new project, Russ and Roger Go Beyond, a comedy starring Will Ferrell, about the making of Russ Meyer’s camp musical Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (I asked if Ferrell was someone he knew socially and he replied: “No, strangely not.”) Although the script originated in Hollywood and the production, based in Los Angeles, would almost certainly involve trailers, Winterbottom talked about Russ and Roger less as a necessary commercial compromise (“the money isn’t vastly better”) than as a much-needed break. He reminded me that “developing a film from scratch comes with a burden of effort”.

Still, it turned out that his heart wasn’t really in that one, either. Just before the end of the year, he quit. Someone muttered something about creative differences. Burdensome or not, it seems he prefers success – and failure – on his own terms: working under the Revolution banner with a small, familiar crew and room for improvisation with actors he calls friends. It is said he’s getting ready to shoot The Trip to Spain.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?