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All the Money in the World: the film from which Kevin Spacey disappeared

 The reshoots may have cost around $10m but they’ve brought interest to a film that is, in most other respects, without note.

All the reshoots in the world won’t change the most fascinating aspect of All the Money in the World: that just six weeks before its release, the sizeable role of the oil tycoon John Paul Getty was played by Kevin Spacey, whose work was then expunged from the film in the wake of sexual abuse allegations against him. Now Getty is portrayed by Christopher Plummer – who, at 88 to Spacey’s 58, didn’t need to spend so long in the make-up trailer each morning to transform himself into the desiccated billionaire. (Spacey looked unrecognisable beneath the prosthetics, and might have put a camp spin on Getty’s bitterness, whereas Plummer goes for dryly amusing disdain.) The reshoots may have cost around $10m but they’ve also brought some interest to a film that is, in most other respects, without note. Save for a pair of performances of absorbing resolve from Plummer and Michelle Williams, it will take its place in history as a pub-quiz question, a footnote to a scandal.

It begins in Rome in 1973 with the snatching of Getty’s 16-year-old grandson, Paul (Charlie Plummer, no relation). Moments earlier he was jokingly bartering with a prostitute, insisting he should get a young person’s discount, which at least marks him out as a true Getty. In the course of the attempts to extract $17m, the Calabrian kidnappers find themselves stonewalled and later haggled with pedantically by the boy’s grandfather, who scrutinises every bill to see if it is tax-deductible.

Fortunately for the boy, he has a resilient mother, Gail (Williams), who has already outfoxed her former father-in-law once when she refused to fight him for a payout after divorcing his dissolute son. “I don’t want your money,” she tells him in a flashback, as proud as Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. Getty is baffled: “Everyone wants my money,” he protests. The old man is her first port of call for the ransom but he won’t budge. Asked by the press how much he will pay for the boy’s life, he says: “Nothing.” Gail falls into an alliance with his head of security, the ex-CIA agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), who boasts of having the old man’s ear. As the money goes unpaid and the kidnappers get desperate, he will soon have the young man’s ear as well.

Scenes between Fletcher and Gail benefit from not being over-egged, though their relationship appears to be missing some connective tissue. One moment she is bashing him in the face with a telephone receiver, the next he is babysitting her children. The screenplay, by David Scarpa, never really finds its centre of gravity. It expresses some sympathy for Cinquanta, a kidnapper who has a crisis of conscience, but audiences are likely to feel sorrier for Romain Duris, who plays him, and suffers a crisis of accent.

The picture is shot and lit with plush banality, Gail’s world seen in warm, mellow hues, Getty’s consumed by a funereal gloom. Standard symbolism abounds. Meat is chopped in close-up, characters move like pawns on chessboard floors and Getty coos over a painting (“my beautiful child”) while his grandson languishes in a cave somewhere. Mist swirls through several scenes without any apparent source and no one says “Man alive, is something burning?” because it’s a Ridley Scott film.

Only Williams, in her stand-offs with Plummer, generates anything close to surprise or spontaneity. She appears to have set herself a challenge to get through the whole film without crying. This results in some halting, high-wire line readings, where she keeps herself teetering on the brink of tears, and a calculated froideur that she hasn’t exhibited on screen before. In her tremendous final shot, she initiates a staring contest with a bust of Getty that looks somehow more human than the real thing.

The story of what happened to Paul next is widely known – the kidnapping came to define him, precipitating drug addiction, a stroke and an early death – and arguably more intriguing than anything in the movie. But Scott has no time for ingredients that don’t fit into a standard-issue hostage drama. Whatever niggling questions arise (why open with Paul’s narration and then never call on his voiceover again?), he just keeps that smoke machine pumping. 

All the Money in the World (15)
director: Ridley Scott

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 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist