Marc Warren plays The Gentleman in Jonathan Strange. Photo: BBC
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1864 and Jonathan Strange both suffer for being modern

Jonathan Strange is an oddly lacklustre affair, aimed, it seems to me, at a generation brought up on Harry Potter.

1864
BBC4

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
BBC1

It takes a while to get your head around 1864 (Saturdays, 9pm and 10pm), the new series from the people who brought us The Killing and Borgen. For this is a Denmark that extends far beyond Copenhagen, and which belongs to the 19th century, not the 21st. Here, all your favourite Danish actors (Sidse Babett Knudsen, Pilou Asbæk, Lars Mikkelsen . . . call their names like numbers on a bingo card) are in corsets, long skirts, breeches and medals, and talk neither of police procedure nor coalition-building, but of the glory of a Greater Denmark, a land given to its people, they insist, by God. “Danmark!” they yell. “Danmark! Danmark!” It’s really quite unnerving.

Everyone who reads this column knows that Borgen bored me to sobs. Two hours in to 1864, however, and I was longing for someone to whisper something reasonable about social democracy into a mobile phone. In the years between 1851 and 1864, as this series has it, Denmark was overcome by a weird nationalist euphoria. People began to believe they could fight the Prussians for the duchy of Schleswig and win. It was folly, naturally, but the men signed up nevertheless and duly went off to be slaughtered by Bismarck’s armies.

Here, the director Ole Bornedal tells the story through a large country estate, a microcosm of Denmark. It belongs, as most of the country does, to aristocrats, whose sons are so debauched that they force themselves on cows, and whose tenants are so poor, they have no shoes. Our attention is on three such tenants in particular: the bookish Peter (Jens Sætter-Lassen) and the sexy Laust (Jakob Oftebro), who are brothers and in love with the same woman: Inge (Marie Tourell Søderberg), the daughter of the estate manager. Strong, loyal and true – aren’t the poor always so on television? – they have joined the army because they want to see the world. It has not yet occurred to them that the foreign vistas on which they’ll soon clap eyes will be veiled in blood.

I find all this soapy and heavy-handed, and to make things worse, it’s framed by a clunking and wholly unnecessary modern storyline in which, in 2014, a troubled young girl whose brother has died in Afghanistan visits the same estate, where she stumbles on Inge’s diary. (Do they really think we’re so dumb we can’t see the parallels?) My Danish is non-existent but even through subtitles it’s also apparent that no one in the main story is behaving in a terribly 19th-century manner. They’re all so . . . frisky. The only character who remotely intrigues me is Bishop Monrad (Nicolas Bro), whose job it is to stoke the nationalism of politicians and voters alike. (Monrad was a pioneer of constitutional Denmark and the president of its council from 1863-64.)

A crisis of confidence – a form of political performance anxiety – has taken the good bishop to the door of a Shakespearean actress, Mrs Heiberg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who works him up into such a frenzy behind the closed doors of her drawing room that he could be having a heart attack, or an orgasm, or both. Bro plays him beautifully, masochism and fervour oozing from his every meaty pore.

Is Monrad enough to keep me with 1864? I’m not sure he is – though there’s no doubt that I’m madly in need of something new to watch. I had moderately high hopes for the hyped adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Sundays, 9pm), starring Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan as the two weirdos who restore magic (perhaps I mean magick) to England during the Napoleonic wars. However, central performances aside, it’s an oddly lacklustre affair, aimed, it seems to me, at a generation brought up on Harry Potter and still feebly in mourning for it. I mean, there are CGI talking statues, for heaven’s sake.

It’s true that at one point Marc ­Warren wandered on looking like he’d just got back from a heavy night at the Blitz, circa 1982 (he was some kind of dead magician Mr Norrell had conjured up . . . I think). But I am fairly certain this was more by accident than design, because coke-fuelled, Blitz-style anarchy is precisely what this series lacks. Sensibility-wise, it needs to be a touch more Steve Strange and a touch less J K Rowling – and if I’m showing my age by saying so, well, hang it. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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Lady Bird is fit to stand beside the most glittering examples of female coming-of-age films

Greta Gerwig’s light touch avoids cliché and gives everything the smell of fresh laundry.

There are many female coming-of-age films directed by women: Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda and Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk are among the glittering examples that Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is more than fit to stand beside. The picture takes its title from the self-appointed nickname of the strawberry-haired, milk-faced Christine (Saoirse Ronan). It is 2002 and she is on the cusp of graduating from a Catholic high school in Sacramento where she is a benignly defiant low-level rebel.

She heckles an anti-abortion speaker, gets caught with her hand in the wafer jar (“They’re not consecrated!”) and unnerves the faculty with her “Lady Bird for President” campaign posters (“It’s just a head on a bird’s body”). Gerwig’s deft screenplay and Nick Houy’s snappy editing keep these vignettes popping, never lingering too long on anything; they’re the colourful dots that form a pointillist portrait of Lady Bird’s life.

Boys drift in and out. She nurtures crushes on a budding actor, Danny (Lucas Hedges), and a cool-cat guitarist, Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). But her priorities are limited to goofing around with her sweetly dopey pal, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), plotting to get into a college far from home and battling with the defining force in her life: her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who lives by the principle that if you can’t say anything nice, it’s better to be brutally frank instead.

Marion has the unique ability to start a sentence as her daughter’s champion and end it as her most withering critic, but it can flip the other way just as easily. As they snipe at one another while shopping for a prom dress, their rancour is forgotten in an instant when Marion plucks from the rails a plausible contender and the pair of them descend into oohs and aahs. Metcalf, who was brilliantly flinty in the blue-collar sitcom Roseanne, excels once more at conveying shame and inferiority based on class. Her reaction when she learns that Lady Bird has been referring to their neighbourhood as “the wrong side of the tracks” amounts to a fleeting wince of inexpressible heartbreak.

The struggle between homely familiarity and big-city sophistication, clinging parent and spirited child, is familiar to the point of cliché. But the film’s light touch, and the affectionate sparring of Ronan and Metcalf, gives everything the smell of fresh laundry. Gerwig is known primarily as an actor, though she has shown a gift all along for writing candid, twitchy comedy, first in the “mumblecore” genre (no-budget DIY rom-coms) and then with her partner, the director Noah Baumbach, on Frances Ha and Mistress America. In those films she riffed on her kooky persona, but more importantly she prioritised stories of female friendship over the usual boy-meets-girl narratives. That continues here. The men in Lady Bird, including Christine’s depressed father (Tracy Letts), are sharply drawn, but the clinching moments all involve women negotiating conflicts between their own ambitions and the value of loyalty to one another. Gerwig dramatises this most beautifully in a simple, wrenching shot near the end of the film: the camera is fixed on Marion as she wrestles with her conscience, the oblivious sun beating down on her face.

Though Gerwig has denied that Lady Bird is entirely autobiographical, she did grow up in Sacramento, eventually fleeing it to study at Barnard in New York, and she has sprinkled the movie with choice details from her life. The man on whom the character of Danny is based staged the high-school version of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along that we see in the film, while his grandmother, who once taught Gerwig to fold decorative napkins, does the same thing here for Lady Bird. The densely packed detail which makes this such a luminous work shows Gerwig to be an uncommonly alert filmmaker. “Don’t you think love and attention are the same thing?” asks a nun who reads Lady Bird’s essay about her home town. That comment sheds light on the mother-daughter relationship but it applies also to the film itself. “It took time to realise that Sacramento gave me what home should give you, which is roots and wings,” the director has said. Her film has those, too. It’s grounded in experience – and it soars. 

Lady Bird (15)
dir: Greta Gerwig

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 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist