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Review: The Turin Horse and iLL Manors

Stillness teaches you far more about life than action, writes Ryan Gilbey.

The Turin Horse (15)

dir: Béla Tarr

iLL Manors (18)

dir: Ben Drew

A veteran film-maker bids farewell this month, apparently having exhausted his creative voice, only to have his place filled by a cocky newcomer. Out of cinema’s multi-storey car park goes the 56-year-old Hungarian heavyweight Béla Tarr in his majestic, plodding horse and cart. And into the space vacated screeches Ben Drew, aka Plan B, in his metaphorical Porsche 911. Drew now adds writer-director to a CV that also includes rapper, singer, songwriter, actor and, for all we know, manicurist and milliner.

I would love to report that it is Drew who has made the existentialist study of life on a tempest-ravaged rural plain, while Béla Tarr has shot the hip-hop thriller about grungy east London gangsters, but the truth conforms more narrowly to expectation. The Turin Horse, which Tarr has promised will be his final film, opens with a voice recounting the tale that lends the work its title and its mournful mood: in late-19th-century Turin, Friedrich Nietzsche flung his arms around a horse that was being whipped, and descended into silent insanity. The picture has sparse dialogue, but that is usually the least vital part of any Tarr film, not to mention the most pretentious. Meaning is discernible largely through Fred Kelemen’s stately grey cinematography and Mihály Víg’s score – a remorseless, circular organ figure that suggests a carousel operated by inconsolable pessimists.

On an isolated farm, a woman (Erika Bók) wakes and dresses her father, Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi). She trudges to the well and back, hair whipped by the furious wind into Rorschach splats against the white canvas of sky. Ohls­dorfer staggers into the dust-storm to retrieve his horse from the stable. But the beast, no idiot, it seems, refuses to budge even on pain of a thrashing. What can he know? Possibly that it never ends well for animals in art-house cinema (Au hasard Balthazar, anyone?) and that, all things considered, he’s better off staying put. Back inside, Daughter makes dinner. It’s potato. (It’s always potato.) Ohlsdorfer claws apart the steaming orb on his tin plate. This is what it means to live in a world without mercy, without hope, without Spudulike.

Unusual events disrupt the characters’ near-mute tedium. A neighbour arrives to borrow some pálinka and starts ranting uncontrollably like Lucky in Waiting for Godot. (What must he be like after he’s knocked back the pálinka?) A gypsy wagon careers on to the land uninvited. As father and daughter stare into the empty well, or face each other across the dark room, Tarr achieves a distillation of misery and futility. The director said recently: “You know what I want? You have to resist. You have to resist, against me. If you do, I’m glad.” I think a lot of people who see The Turin Horse are going to make him very glad indeed.

Tarr’s cinema has always had the air of the endurance test, coupled with an emphasis on quantity as well as quality. The Turin Horse is divided into six days, a pointedly biblical number that hints at his decision to bow out of film-making. (On the seventh day, presumably, he rested.) At its most extreme, his long, mobile, unbroken takes can result in a seven-and-a-half-hour work such as Sátántangó. But even in The Turin Horse, a mere foal at 146 minutes, our sense of the hours passing is crucial to its weight.

In each minute that elapses without any lily-livered cuts, there is an implicit tension. As I watched the film, I used the five-bar-gate method (as seen, perhaps not coincidentally, whenever convicts mark time in a prison movie) to note each new shot. In the whole two and
a half hours, there were only 30 cuts, which is roughly the number of edits in the first few minutes alone of Drew’s iLL Manors. It would be invidious to judge the two films using only this yardstick, but it is still fascinating to compare the baked-in suspense achieved through Tarr’s prolonged takes to the more superficially rousing cutting style that characterises the cinema of attack.

iLL Manors seeks to expose the truth of “broken Britain”, but it is to the titillating species of action cinema and misery porn that it belongs. The busy-bee screenplay flits across an assortment of dealers, crooks and junkies as well as the greenhorns drawn into their orbit. Drew casts a sharp anthropological eye over the street-corner pecking order. The preyed-upon repair their wounded egos by snacking on those lower down the food chain. Somehow there is never any shortage of tasty young lambs.

The cycle of abuse links each character, from the dealer Aaron (Riz Ahmed), whose haste to apportion blame for a theft leads to the sickening exploitation of an innocent woman, to the trafficked immigrant Katya (Natalie Press), whose baby is sold for a couple of grand in a pub. Everyone here is connected through six degrees of degradation.

A special relish reserved for violence and sexual humiliation, cut together in excitable montages, betrays the immaturity of the storytelling style. The pop-video interludes are stubbornly uncinematic; you don’t need to be Robert McKee to see that these backstories crassly packaged as lyrics (“She was once a princess/Now she’s a mess/Sexually abused as a child . . .”) don’t do the job of screenwriting. As for a film that begins by warning viewers that they are in for a harrowing ride – well, can’t we be the judge of that? There are uncomfortable scenes, to be sure, but by the time a junkie dozes off in front of a three-bar fire with a child locked in the next room, the film has strayed into parody.

iLL Manors is no disgrace, but a director who aspires to authenticity should leave room for leavening humour. And Drew might cock an eye at The Turin Horse for pointers on achieving dramatic effect without giving in every time to an itchy editing finger. The still or restrained camera can be an impressive dramatic tool, the extended shot a piece of cinematic vocabulary to make viewers sweat and squirm like snitches. The sequence of the wagon arriving over the horizon in The Turin Horse, shot entirely from the farmhouse window in real time, is more gripping than anything in iLL Manors.

What makes Tarr’s work so bracing is that it reminds us how to watch films properly; that is, to give everything to the experience or nothing at all. In a culture where a contributor to an arts show can admit without fear of censure to fast-forwarding through passages in a film (as Giles Fraser did when supposedly reviewing Once Upon a Time in Anatolia for Radio 4’s Saturday Review), or when a Guardian columnist confesses to checking emails on his phone at the cinema (that’s Charlie Brooker watching, or not watching, Avengers Assemble), the demands that Tarr places on the viewer feel especially urgent. He chose the wrong time to jump on his horse and skedaddle.

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 and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The royal makeover