Fight club: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Atticus in Pompeii.
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All you need is lava: Sparks fly in Paul W S Anderson's Pompeii

The love story between a slave and a noblewoman is clearly influenced by Titanic, but better described as Gladiator with a topping of molten lava.

Tragedy plus time equals disaster movie, as the saying almost goes. The more time, the better, if you’re going to transplant fictional characters into real situations. James Cameron’s Titanic may look like passable entertainment in 200 years but, for now, that film’s implicit suggestion that the ship went down because two young lovers dared to cross the class divide seems tasteless at best. Pompeii, shot in 3D, has the balance right. As it is set in a-long-time-ago AD, it doesn’t breach propriety when imagining the doomed souls who perished as the city was transformed into the world’s largest ashtray. The love story between a slave and a noblewoman is influenced by Titanic but the film could also be described as Gladiator served with a topping of molten lava.

As a child in Britannia, Milo (played as an adult by Kit Harington) sees his mother slain by a vicious Roman leader. No sword-and-sandals hero ever got anywhere without first witnessing the death of a parent and vowing revenge – just ask Conan. Milo is put into slavery and becomes a gladiator with a formidable fighting style and an even more formidable bounce to his ringlets. (I’m betting he uses Miss Jessie’s Pillow Soft Curls.) His owners recognise his special aptitudes for combat and for keeping his stubble the same length at all times. He is transported from Londinium, also known as the Land of Too Few Extras, to the arenas of Pompeii, where vast and unconvincing CGI vistas extend in every direction. His black suede jerkin and the leather bootlaces he wears around his neck suggest that he came to Italy via Camden Market.

In Pompeii, Milo is pitted against the towering African slave Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who has the uncanny ability to sound like he is being dubbed at all times. The two adversaries defy their masters and become allies, clapping each other on the back and swapping tips.

“Your right arm is stronger than your left,” says Atticus.

“You should learn to thrust when you shift your weight,” replies Milo. Boys, please. Get a cubiculum.

Milo also comes to the attention of Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of the city’s ruler, Severus (Jared Harris), and for a few scenes they engage in some light flirtatious simpering: catch one another’s eye, look down coyly, look up again, bite lip. It seems as if it’ll be a fine romance, or at least a contest to see which of them can show the greatest amount of thigh. Unfortunately, Cassia is desired by the tyrant Corvus (played by Kiefer Sutherland), who was a total A-hole to her during her gap year in Rome. More pressingly, Corvus turns out to be the brute who killed Milo’s mother. Hell’s bells! Or, as Severus would say: “Juno’s tit!”

Corvus doesn’t take kindly to Cassia galloping across the countryside bareback with a slave and concocts various punishments, stripping Milo to the waist and doling out 15 of the finest homoerotic lashes.

“I could have prevented that,” gasps Cassia. “What was I thinking?”

“He made you feel alive,” whispers her handmaiden Ariadne (Jessica Lucas), angling shamelessly to write an advice column in one of the Sunday supplements.

Every now and then, there are some violent tremors and an urn falls off a shelf. “It is the mountain,” observes Atticus. “It rumbles from time to time.” Finally, Mount Vesuvius erupts in a fury, possibly in response to the dialogue it has been forced to hear, and all of Pompeii resembles an explosion in a crematorium. A tsunami hits the city, the streets are flooded and, in one of the most unexpected causes of death in history, hundreds of pedestrians are killed by a longship whooshing down Main Street.

It would be hard to begrudge a movie in which Atticus invents the Black Power salute moments before being pelted fatally with magma, while Corvus’s response to being double-crossed by Cassia is to yell: “You bitch!” With scenes such as those, Pompeii has some claim on being the greatest lava story of the year.

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 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia