• 'Little Eyolf'

    Repressed desire, jealousy, loss and the love triangle are staples that have been explored with great intensity by writers since the turn of the last century but one, when new ways of living including the growth of travel, communications technology and women’s desire for wider roles in society provided both fresh material and allowed for more explicit dramatic treatments. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, one of his last works, takes these themes and twists them into particularly intricate forms, yielding a complex web of relationships between four people – a man, his wife, his sister and her admirer – in a small lakeside town in the mountains, where tensions wound very tightly are finally broken by a family tragedy.

    Rita Allmers (Lydia Leonard) is desperate for a more physical relationship with her husband Alfred (Jolyon Coy), and hopes that his return from a walking trip – taken to clear his head whilst writing a book – will permit this. Already distanced from her crippled young son Eyolf (Billy Marlow in this performance) and feeling threatened and even suffocated by the closeness of Allmers to his sister Asta (Eve Ponsonby), she is stunned when Alfred ignores her seductive welcome home and, the following morning, announces he has abandoned the book in order to look after their son. The arrival of Asta once more proves the final straw for Rita.

    After a slightly broad beginning, centred around a visit by the travelling ‘Rat Woman’ whose Pied Piper-like message of temptation sets foundations for the future of at least two characters, it is here that the strength of the play begins to show. Rita’s bitterness, self-centred attitude and coldness toward her son are powerfully conveyed by Leonard, this last all the more startling when contrasted with the impromptu dropping of her robe in an effort to remind Allmers of what they could be doing. Coy seems conveniently well-named given Allmers’ rejection of her suggestion, and his reaction to this and Rita’s wondering if Eyolf might have been better unborn – “You’ve got the devil in you, Rita” – is the first of many cutting lines. Another, Rita’s appalling comment that “I bore him but never wanted to be his mother”, is also one of a number of subtle inversions of everyday phrases found throughout this adaptation, which is by its director, Richard Eyre.

    When Eyolf is drowned shortly afterward, seeming to give Rita at least part of her wish, her grief nevertheless seems authentic. But it is now that the nodes and lines made by this trio and a fourth participant, engineer Borgheim (Sam Hazeldine), start to clarify. This is in fact a love quadrilateral, since he is smitten by nervous Asta and she, too, reflects his affections but also bears half of a secret – the incestuous nature of her and Allmers’ love.

    The scene in which Asta – “Big Eyolf” to Allmers, a telling point and the derivation of the title – and her beloved “Freddy” remember their childhood is extraordinarily convincing in its relaxedness and detail of memories shared, a counterpoint to Rita and Allmers’ strained but equally intimate discussion earlier. Ponsonby is very affecting and conveys her split loyalty – split at least three ways, between Allmers, Borgheim and Little Eyolf, whom she looks after – brilliantly.

    It is through the mirroring of its characters’ passions and fates, reflected by those textual inversions of conventional phrases mentioned earlier, that the play finds its purpose.

    Thus we have Rita’s biting stab at Asta, wishing for “beauty to come to an end”; Allmers in his grief accused by Rita of managing “well enough without him when he was alive” and, conversely, a belief expressed that the couple can ensure by their future deeds that Eyolf “didn’t live for nothing”, and even – on a lighter note – Allmers’ unwittingly amusing comment that “the thinking is what’s important, what you write doesn’t matter”.

    The location of the action is also crucial, even if one discounts the flip notion that the northern exposure of Scandinavia equals sorrow. Eyre notes in the programme that he has replaced the three settings of the original by a single prospect from the Allmers’ verandah, and it is through this plain, pale wood portal that we see a dark valley, split at the play’s opening (only, revealingly) by the burning glow of a projected sunrise. This design, by Tim Hatley, works rather less well than the layered claustrophobia of his much more effective work for Eyre’s version of Ibsen’s Ghosts at the same theatre two years ago, and this was one of the principal disappointments for me.

    That said, it may be that the text is allowed to shine through more fully against such a simple background, and here once again the words are strong and effective in building their own picture of the Allmers’ valley. Water is a central element in this setting and the action, with the rats drowning, the ferry on the lake, the shore and of course Eyolf’s death, and this is seen in the lines. Allmers describes – in his only outburst of passion – being “capsized” by his wife’s beauty when they first met, waterlilies provide a final symbol of accord, and so on.

    Waterlilies are properly known as Nymphaea, after the Greek for a feminine spirit, and importantly for a play written in 1894, Ibsen places two strong women at its heart. Both Leonard and Ponsonby acquit themselves well here, rather better I felt than Coy or Hazeldine, and if overall Little Eyolf did not make as strong an impression on me as I’d have liked, particularly given its brief running time with no interval, the feeling in their delivery for the sharpness of Eyre’s lines was most welcome.

    A slower pace, more nuanced set design and male characters given deeper readings would have improved this production for me, but the pain of the characters and the tang of the text goes a long way toward satisfaction.


    Little Eyolf continues at the Almeida until 9 January



  • 'Orion: The Man Who Would Be King'

    When someone is passionate about what they can do, how far should – and could – they go to achieve recognition and success? What part can fate reasonably be expected to play? And what price is worth paying? All of these questions and many more came to mind when watching Jeanie Finlay’s gripping, amusing and ultimately shockingly poignant film Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, surely one of the most astonishing stories to emerge from the world of popular culture in the last fifty years.

    Jimmy Ellis had a dream – to sing. A working class boy from an industrial city in Mississippi, Ellis found that, in addition to his dark looks and powerful frame, he also had a remarkable voice: strong, rich and distinctive, and well able to carry a tune. Popular in school and in college, he would often delight friends by letting rip at parties, and himself by simply singing as he walked.

    Like many from the southern United States post-war, performing for a large audience and cutting a record for many thousands more to enjoy at home seemed the obvious next step, and it wasn’t long before Ellis landed a contract with a small label. At the same time, however, it became clear that Ellis just happened to sound uncannily like another American singer who also played to huge crowds and had his own record deal – one Elvis Aaron Presley.

    Initially this could only boost Ellis’s reputation although Finlay, through her contributors, is at pains to point out that there was never any intention on Ellis’s part to impersonate The King, to the extent that one of his mid-70s releases was actually entitled "I'm Not Trying To Be Elvis". No, what he really wanted above all else was to be appreciated for himself, and so in that respect only, Elvis’s premature death in August 1977 might have been seen as a blessing for Ellis; in fact, it turned out to be a curse.

    In the first of several twists in the story, Ellis now signed with the controversial Shelby Singleton, new owner of Sun Records. A classic music mogul in the Svengali tradition, Singleton saw his own stars align through such curious circumstance and rapidly reissued genuine recordings by the likes of Cark Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis with Ellis’s voice mixed in and ambiguously tweaked sleeves announcing those established artists as now singing with “friends”.

    In the second, author Gail Brewer-Giorgio – entirely unaware of Ellis – was hard at work on a movie deal for her novel Orion. Written before Presley’s demise, it concerned a fictitious pop singer unable to cope with fame who fakes his own death to escape the pressure. It was Brewer-Giorgio’s friend and collaborator Carol Halupke who alerted her to Ellis as a possible casting or recording choice when she happened to attend one of his gigs.

    At this point the opportunist Singleton elided all of the above by releasing new recordings of Ellis alone (with that voice) in albums whose artwork borrowed (without permission) material from Brewer-Giorgio’s novel and featured Singleton’s one original and crucial contribution to the increasingly bizarre saga – a stipulation that Ellis would only appear wearing a Lone Ranger-style facemask, and only under the name ‘Orion’.

    Thus was born the myth of ‘Elvis Lives’, a conspiracy theory that really was, it seems, a conspiracy, albeit a conspiracy of one.

    Perhaps surprisingly, Ellis-as-Orion released many albums that sold in their hundreds of thousands and also attracted considerable live audiences. Composed of those who simply enjoyed his work for what it was but also those who believed (wanted to believe) that he was Elvis, he finally appeared to be in sight of the success he craved. The only problem, of course, was that it came with the ironic handicap – maintained by the force of a canny contract written by Singleton – of anonymity.

    But this is not the end of the story of Jimmy Ellis.

    The constraints of his assumed (in both senses of the word) identity became increasingly unbearable, something rendered more understandable when, in twist number three, we find out that Ellis was in fact adopted, never knowing either birth parent and spending the first five years of his life in an endless cycle of care home placements. In a touching detail Ellis learned from this that it was best never to unpack a suitcase. And so a man who had – inadvertently – worn a figurative mask for the first five years of his life found himself trapped behind an actual one for even longer. That Ellis’s (adopted) surname was only one letter apart from that of the man he would later be conflated with goes unremarked in all of this, though it seems unlikely no-one had noticed.

    Ellis eventually saw audience dwindling, and ultimately decided – mid-concert – to reveal his true identity. The inevitable messy split from Singleton, success and even this heightened form of reality followed, though Ellis did – again surprisingly – still turn out from time to time, both without and with the mask.

    The very last and saddest twist is best saved for a viewing of the film.

    This was a superb portrait of a man – arguably two men, if Singleton is included – whose desperation for fame and fortune led to perhaps the most bizarre partnership in popular music history. With the genuinely affecting sadness of an aging Ellis forced to sublimate his identity yet again set against the late-1970s, K-Tel cheesiness of Orion’s album covers and associated ephemera, Finlay achieves a perfect balance of pathos and bathos. Stars have never been so dazzling.



  • 'Spectre'

    The first words to appear on screen during a showing of the new Bond are ‘The dead’, followed by ‘are alive’, against a solid black background. It’s a wholly unexpected and initially elliptical opening for a 007 film, made clear only when the pre-credits sequence commences seconds later – it is set during Mexico’s Día de Muertos (day of the dead), when family and friends celebrate the memory of the departed and help them on their journey in the afterlife. This spectacular annual festival – which parallels Christianity’s own marking of All Souls, making Hallowe’en an astonishingly fortuitous day on which to see the film – prefigures the ghosts of the past that will prove to haunt Spectre in more ways than one.

    The audience is immediately absorbed into Bond’s present via an astonishing opening to that initial sequence – a single, lengthy tracking shot that follows a masked 007 along the street, into a hotel room and out onto the rooftops of Mexico City to set up a hit that will change the course of Bond’s life. It is a technical and artistic achievement by Sam Mendes of extraordinary swagger, matched only by the confidence in Daniel Craig’s purposeful stride across the parapets. It sets up a second act within the pre-credits sequence itself, a helicopter ride that is genuinely vertigo-inducing and which segues into the titles.

    Here, Daniel Kleinman’s imagery merges the writhing, naked woman of popular Bond film cliché with an octopus and its tentacles like something dreamed up by the late HR Giger, to powerful and commendably straight-faced effect. More reminiscent of the very earliest films in the franchise, it is simpler yet arguably more disturbing than that from the equivalent scene in Skyfall, and it shares the same nightmarish tonality of illustrator Richard Chopping’s Fleming novel jackets.

    After a London-set interlude, the next international portion of the film sees Bond attending a funeral in Rome. The immense travertine colonnade of the supremely Imperialist Museo della Civiltà Romana (Museum of Roman Civilisation), erected during the last war in Mussolini’s futuristic suburb EUR, plays the part of the burial chapel, whilst in a nice irony the eighteenth century Baroque English country house Blenheim Palace, birthplace of his animus Winston Churchill, is digitally inserted into the nightscape of the city to become a lavish urban villa. These locational sleights of hand are very effective and confirm Mendes’s ability in this tricky area, and this entire section of the film has an appropriately European, arthouse feeling, right down to the Kubrickian moment in which Bond attends a night-time meeting in said villa incognito, a clear reference to Eyes Wide Shut’s near-identical scene.

    Unfortunately, this is also where one the problems of Spectre really begins.

    The car chase that follows, through eerily empty streets and with an eyebrow-raising climax, goes, as it were, nowhere, something later repeated with a plane in the Austrian alps. Both appear played for laughs, and given the infamous London Underground sequence in Skyfall, perhaps reveal one of Mendes’s weaknesses.

    More worryingly, that car chase climax is the first in a series of nods to the franchise’s past that are scattered with increasing frequency throughout Spectre, almost all of which sit uncomfortably alongside the seriousness seen so far. Thus there is also a massively-built, silent henchman, a fight on a night train, a clinic atop a snowy mountain, a villain in a hollowed-out volcano… This last is actually a giant meteor crater, but the point is well made regardless. The same idea just about worked in Die Another Day, the 40th anniversary release, and was widely avoided a decade later in Skyfall, so it is unclear why the temptation was yielded to now, post-Casino Royale, when so much is so very different. Such an approach grates alongside the intelligent, smart and original aspects, and especially their darkness. One character’s suicide, followed by the inevitable result of an untended body where carrion crows are abroad, is simply another example of the growing feeling of discomfort caused by this sometimes crass conjunction.

    There are other issues. The paralleling of the principal villain’s activities by a sub-plot involving the effective privatisation of Britain’s century-old security services is messy, hurried and ultimately unconvincing, whilst sinister groups of corrupt government officials, throw-away mentions of the dangers of the surveillance state and drones and the importance of knowing when not to pull the trigger all duplicate elements of Skyfall and Captain America: Winter Soldier but much less impressively than in either of those films. The new production is also far too long, that is to say over-extended with climax after climax and resurrection after resurrection, of hero, villain and even hero’s companion.

    As the latter, Léa Seydoux is quirky and attractive and there are obvious attempts to echo Eva Green's Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale, but she is in truth given little to do after a strong start, and the fact that she is ultimately seen tied to a chair in a building wired to explode is as disappointing to this viewer as the presence of Christoph Waltz as a particular mittel-European enemy from the past, a casting and writing choice that summarises the real problem with Spectre.

    Just as that organisation is an octopus with tentacles trying to manipulate everyone and everything, so is this film. One of its appendages represents a certain level of intelligence and elegance, but another crudity and near slapstick. A third stands for homage but a fourth for continuity; a fifth connotes leanness and economy, yet the sixth, seventh and eighth, flaccidity and greed. It’s a rare head than can control so many arms, and here Mendes fails.

    Ultimately, the true spectre is that of the past, and here it possesses the present utterly. If the series is to continue, it’s time to let that past go.



  • “The private realm of drawing”

    I’ve always been fascinated by the intimacy and immediacy of drawing; it’s the delicate, very present essence of any design, before the distraction of colour or paint or stone arrives, and links the viewer of today to the artist of yesterday with great directness. By chance, three experiences this week have provided delightful evidence to confirm this view, and across three very different fields at that: five-hundred-year-old images by Leonardo da Vinci and others in the uniquely challenging medium of metalpoint, works in pastel and oil by the relatively little-known eighteenth century Swiss artist Liotard, and the lost art of the architect’s blueprint.

    Three years ago, the Queen’s Gallery’s outstanding exhibition of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings introduced me to metalpoint, whereby a stylus of silver, lead, copper or even gold is used on a sheet of specially-prepared, mildly abrasive vellum or paper to make a fine but permanent mark. The British Museum’s current exhibition on its use by artists over half a millennium, Drawing in Silver and Gold, is a superb follow-up, not least as it provides another chance to see some more of the master’s astonishing works including the fabulously rich warrior bust used on the publicity material which may have acted as an advert for his work. One of the show’s captions also provided the title of this piece.

    Amongst the earliest images on display, executed a dozen years before Leonardo was born, is Rogier Van der Weyden’s portrait of an unknown woman. Far simpler than Leonardo’s exhibition work, the skill with which the folds of her headdress are rendered is nevertheless as high, whilst the tiny pearl pin that sparkles in its centre despite being a couple of millimetres across has to be seen to be believed.

    Hans Holbein the Elder – father of the artist to Henry VIII’s court who painted The Ambassadors – was similarly taken by the possibilities of a woman in a headdress, shaping his portrait sitter’s to fit comfortably within the shape of his paper. Uniquely amongst the metals used for this medium, goldpoint is both permanent and colour-fast, and Holbein did a series of portraits of Augsburg society for an illustrated history of that town.

    As with pencil and pastel, which would later replace it as a portable drawing material, artists used metalpoint to create sketches on the spot as the stylus – to borrow once more the eloquent words of the exhibition text – requires neither recharging with ink nor sharpening. Leonardo and Durer captured animals this way, though this is demonstrated in another way by one of the my favourite exhibits: a single sheet containing at least fifteen studies of a woman’s face, head and neck by Leonardo. A pragmatic piece of research with no pretentions whatsoever to be a finished work, the result is nevertheless utterly absorbing. The tiny studies fill the sheet completely (both vellum and paper were expensive) yet each is in its own space and they barely overlap, showing the characteristic attention which Leonardo gave to this one minor investigation. Indeed one might say they are tessellated across the page, Escher-like, as Leonardo explores angles, musculature and more. Three are clearly successive ‘frames’ of the model’s head turning, something he did frequently in his anatomy work.

    The variety of colours used as backgrounds was notable – red, purple, grey, green, even yellow, with chalk and other material used for highlighting. Both were seen in the magnificent study of two male nudes by Lippi which opens the exhibition. Analysis shows they were drawn one after the other, and each in a different metal – silver for the seated man, done first, lead for the one standing – and the sympathetic tones of background and metalpoint are brought out by the subtle white highlights. The work is 530 years old this year.

    Metalpoint had fallen out of use in Italy by around 1520; the other great artist of the time, Raphael, was the last major practitioner. It survived in the Low Countries for rather longer, not least as its ability to yield very fine, sharp detail made it a useful basis for works that were to be used for engravings. In an appropriately balanced way, the exhibition concludes with examples from nineteenth century artists such as Burne-Jones who sought to revive it, and contemporary figures maintaining that tradition.

    The press view of the Royal Academy’s new exhibition of Jean-Etienne Liotard was something of a revelation. Born in 1702 to a Huguenot family fleeing Catholic France, by the middle of the century Liotard’s reputation as a portraitist was second to none. From exquisite and very personal pictures of his family, friends and patrons to careful ethnographic studies in the Levant (which, along with his knowledge of and penchant for clothes brought back from the region, caused him to be known in England as ‘the Turk’) and dramatic images of royalty from across Europe, almost all of his works are suffused with the particular softness of pastel. This use of pastel, plus Liotard’s preference for daringly casual poses and simple backgrounds, renders even those court pictures far less intimidating and distant than when executed in the usual oils.

    The tricky substance itself, a mix of powdered pigment, filler and binder, was man-made, unlike chalk, its nearest equivalent. Friable and with different colours available in different degrees of hardness (the reds and browns were the strongest), pastel was nevertheless dry, portable and quick to employ, making it peculiarly suitable for working ‘live’ on location rather than in the studio. Indeed Liotard was hired by one group of English Grand Tourists to record the details of what they saw in the souks and streets of the towns they encountered, and Liotard’s beautiful drawings of people or dresses, cups or furniture have the look almost of reportage. Liotard enjoyed the work so much he remained in Constantinople when they moved on and, when he later settled in England, wore a flowing beard.

    Surprisingly, explained exhibition co-curator MaryAnne Stevens when I asked, Liotard was unknown to many of the generation of European Orientalists who revived the tradition at the end of the nineteenth century, such as Alfred Stevens or Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

    All of his portraits have a real sense of life about them, especially in the eyes, which are executed with great skill and have a glint of realism that is all the more impressive given the inherent matte finish of the pastel medium. Many also employ unconventional gestures (there is much pointing) and framing, suggesting an interest in visual experimentation that again foreshadows exponents from much later in the pantheon of visual art. This is clearest in the small number of excellent trompe l’oeil paintings included, here executed in oil, most effectively his startling portrait of Maria Theresa of Austria which appears to be half-hidden, Cornell-like, within a shallow wooden box thanks to a sliding lid, but which is entirely contrived from the application of varnish and paint onto silk.

    Returning to pastel, Leotard was easily capable of working with at a scale more usually associated with oils, and the exhibition includes several such larger works. Here Liotard’s ability to describe differing textures – lace, silk, ceramic – using only this material is shown off by the sheer increase in size, whilst his desire for a very high degree of finish, hiding the strokes of the crayon, can easily trick the eye momentarily into thinking oil has been employed. It was a real pleasure to be introduced to such a figure.

    Finally, research into the architecture of Fitzroy Robinson and Partners’ bank headquarters in the City of London in the 1970s and 1980s provided a useful coda on the power of the pencil, starting with a reminder that until relatively recently, the craft of delineating every single feature of a multi-million pound building still required the hand to grasp an implement and move it across a surface, the thickness and depth of that pressure leaving a mark just as Leonardo did hundreds of years ago. Examining even the microfiches of original blueprints, the inherent warmth of later hands’ own traces remains clear.



  • 'Sicario'

    The word sicario comes from the zealots of Jerusalem

    Killers who hunted the Romans who had invaded their homeland

    In Mexico, sicario means hitman

    Pre-titles caption

    In living memory, wars were fought hundreds or thousands of miles away against enemies who were not only clearly visible but actually identifiable; they wore uniforms, marched to a tune and fought for generals, countries and flags. Over the past twenty years, however, two very different ‘wars’ – the ‘war on terror’ and its proximate cousin the ‘war on drugs’ – have appropriated the term but left behind those accompanying, even reassuring, signifiers. The results have blurred the boundaries between protagonist and antagonist and muddied concepts of location and motivation. Perhaps deliberately, this has at times made the exact nature of such ‘wars’ – if not their actual existence – almost impossible to discern even as casualties litter the deserts, scrubland and streets that are the new battlefields.

    The high level of technology, lethal and otherwise, deployed on and above these new front lines is also notable, including combatants’ own online propaganda and atrocity videos and even – in the case of smart bombs – footage taken by the weapons themselves. It has, though, found a ready analogue in the armouries of those otherwise involved, altering that involvement in the process. For those who have been victimised – the bombed, the displaced, the aggrieved – and are seeking a voice, cheap, rapid and personal photo capture and distribution has been empowering. For the media, this has become an indispensable addition to existing news-gathering channels which have themselves benefited from the ever-increasing ability to immediatise input and output anywhere in the world. And for film-makers aiming to fictionalise such events, relatively low-cost but high-quality digital image creation and manipulation equipment allows their own material to be produced with great verisimilitude and agility and, moreover, the simulation of all of the above with unmatched subtlety. These techniques have allowed exposure and exploration of some of the contradictions inherent in this new kind of conflict, whilst simultaneously reproducing the reality we see on our screens every day with extreme fidelity.

    The new film Sicario, written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by Denis Villeneuve, is the latest iteration of this trend. The fuse that will detonate yet another round of hostilities between Central/Southern America and its Northern neighbour in the fight over narcotics is lit by the discovery of a ‘safe’ house whose secrets give a sickening twist to that concept. Horrified, lead FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is soon drawn into a rapidly tightening web of obfuscation and confusion along which ‘advisors’ Matt (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) nevertheless appear confidently to tread. The questions of what lies at its centre and who the sicario of the title might be power the remainder of the piece, whose heart-stopping pace, tension and atmospheric visuals set the bar higher than ever. In the final act the trio illicitly penetrate first a people-smuggling tunnel under the border and then Mexico itself, with one of their number advancing toward their goal with the inexorability of a needle driven by a syringe. Coupled with the revelation of the sicario’s true nature, a conceit of great audacity, the entire venture might alternatively be titled ‘the heart of darkness’. That the ultimate motivation is to ‘keep order’ comes as no surprise amidst such on-screen cynicism, nor to those familiar with Phillips Noyce’s Clear and Present Danger (1994), one of the first in this wave to explore the territory.

    The clear implication in the closing shots that a fresh generation is being groomed to continue the fight, even if inadvertently, might usefully have been made more concrete and if so would have reflected Berg’s film and brought to mind Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005) too. To quote Churchill: The secret war never ends, only the enemies change.

    All three leads give utterly convincing performances, and the world they inhabit is compellingly believable. Somewhat frustratingly, though, Blunt’s Macer – the only major female character in the film and initially seen as nothing but highly competent – is shown mid-way through to be incapable of defending herself, a situation repeated toward the climax. Although this is organic to the script given the character’s role as its moral centre, it is unfortunate that a woman is used to drive this point home. Macer’s partner Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) also feels redundant, a Greek chorus to the Greek chorus as it were.

    The challenging concepts in Sicario are powerful and invigorating, its political consciousness refreshing for a mainstream Hollywood production. Its feeling for geography and a sense of place is also welcome. The film takes realism even further than has been managed previously, possibly posing a problem for casual viewing but rewarding those who engage.

    It is unsurprising that an entry in this emerging field should refer back to previous examples for its execution as well as its themes, borrowing from and building on them as needed, and in doing so Sheridan and Villeneuve are careful to choose from the best.

    Thus from Michael Mann’s Miami Vice (2006) there is the in media res beginning and minimal backstory for the characters, except one. There is also a near-total absence of expositional narrative that is as welcome here as it was in Mann’s ground-breaking work; the viewer is not simply invited but required to share experiences with the characters as they happen and divine any meaning at the same time they do. As part of this approach a shared knowledge of their professional milieu is also assumed, and so the presence and use of surveillance drones, the gear of military Delta operators and the shorthand or unspoken drills they practise go entirely unremarked and almost unexplained, with audiences trusted to intuit for themselves from what they are seeing and hearing. This applies also to their language, and in that respect echoes Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire (2011) which adopted the same method. This considerably enhances the film’s effect, not least when the rules of engagement are defined with chilling casualness as “weapons free”.

    In defining the ultra-realistic canvas on which these characters function, Peter Berg’s The Kingdom (2007), Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) and especially her Zero Dark Thirty (2012) are taken as a baseline. In creating it, Villeneuve is hugely aided by Joe Walker’s editing, Patrice Vermette’s production design, invisible visual effects supervised by a number of individuals and Roger Deakins’ cinematography.

    The endless plains of Texas and Mexico, filled with tract houses, roads and industrial installations, are presented as near-interchangeable in their emptiness, anonymity and hostility, separated only by a fence whose immensity is dwarfed by the land it pathetically attempts to dominate. Visual references for this grim landscape – an inversion of the classic American West, tough but tempting – appear to have included Edward Burtynsky’s photographs and the real-life situation in Israel. Revealingly, the uncaring, unblinking stare of the long, slow aerial shots that set out this topography recall those of the drones in their low-contrast stasis. It is here, too, that Jóhann Jóhannsson’s dread-filled score of lowering bass notes rumbling like a volcano makes a crucial contribution.

    In complete contrast the hectic kineticism and juddering roughness of a high-speed paramilitary convoy taking Macer, Matt and Alejandro to Mexico to collect a cartel leader from jail imparts a very different feeling of edginess and genuine unpredictability. Menace is present in every doorway, at every turn in the road and under every overhang, the fragmentation of views that Walker’s cutting generates only adding to the genuine sense of unease. Inevitably, this eventually explodes into brisk, brutal combat on the borderline of the Bridge of the Americas, a piece of symbolism echoed in the film’s later descent into the tunnel beneath the same boundary, another liminal place.

    Eight months ago, whilst reviewing Michael Mann’s disappointing Blackhat, I nevertheless suggested that a follow-up on people trafficking might allow Mann a return to form. Denis Villneuve has not only got there already, given this is a sub-theme that runs through Sicario, but has on this evidence taken the Chicagoan’s crown as the king of the contemporary urban action-drama.



  • ‘High Treason’

    Ten years into the future. Nations and old alliances have dissolved. Two major power blocs – the Atlantic States, headquartered in New York, and the Federated States of Europe – have emerged in their place but exist in permanent tension, their armed forces poised and separated only by fortified borders. A worldwide movement, headed by an Anglican clergyman, aggressively recruits new members in an attempt to avoid conflict and points out the lack of a democratic mandate for conflict, whilst a shadowy, multi-national terrorist group seeks to foment war for the benefit of arms dealers. Against this volatile background, a search of a suspect car by troops from both sides at a rural checkpoint results in gunfire...

    That scenario, blending together real-world events and only a very little invention, would be perfectly at home in a contemporary Hollywood speculative-fiction thriller or an HBO television serial. It is, however, a summary of the opening minutes of a film that has already been made – the surprise is not that this occurred, since the potential for drama is obvious, but when.

    Maurice Elvey’s feature High Treason was completed in 1929, just over two years after the release of Fritz Lang’s classic dystopian film Metropolis. Indeed with its impressive vistas of a future New York and a fantasy London punctured by super-skyscrapers, threaded by freeways and criss-crossed with tiny planes and helicopters, High Treason is often considered to be the British Metropolis, but Elvey’s film is far richer than Lang’s in its political depth whilst some of its visuals – though clearly executed on a smaller budget – are comparable in their effectiveness. A screening last night at the BFI as part of their London on Film season provided all of this insight and more, and proved an evening well spent.

    It must be admitted that having the daughter of the peace movement’s leader (Evelyn Seymour, played by Benita Hume) in a relationship with the commanding officer of Europe’s air wing (Jameson Thomas as Major Michael Deane) as the border incident explodes into war is a dramatic convenience too far. The predictable arguments between the pair drive the more intimate of the two plot threads; a review at the time called their affair “slight”, and with good cause. But it does set up the most powerful scene of the film, when Deane finds himself at the head of a platoon of soldiers sent to break a strike led by Evelyn at an all-female weapons store. After pushing the women back yet meeting resistance, Deane finally orders his men to draw their weapons. The rows of gun barrels levelled at the women carries a real charge, one that surprised me with its impact.

    Similarly emotionally is a devastating European air raid on New York, and the effects of a ‘smart bomb’ dropped on the peace movement’s building by a lone aircraft sent by the conspirators to ensure war – scenes of women being pulled from the rubble are surprisingly shocking. Evelyn and Deane struggle to reconcile their opposing views as a bomb planted in the Channel Tunnel(!) destroys a train and hostilities escalate. As the action moves to her father (Humberstone Wright) and the European President (Basil Gill), the former carries out an act that earns the wrath of the establishment despite its positive consequences. It is from this act, which effectively equates to the ultimate sacrifice, that the title of the film is derived.

    The film is based on a 1927 play that was a direct response to the source novel of Metropolis, written by Lang’s wife and published two years earlier. The playwright was Noel Pemberton Billing, an aviator and aircraft manufacturer who founded the firm that eventually became Supermarine, maker of the Spitfire. Crucially for High Treason, Billing – who fought in the Boer Wars and flew in The Great War – was a staunch advocate of strategic aerial bombing, as well as a believer in a conspiracies against Britain (via a network of corrupting homosexuals, no less) and an anti-Communist. Inventor, technologist, and even a member of parliament in the 1910s, Billing is a fascinating figure. He hardly seems a candidate for women’s rights, but his creation of Evelyn is as strong as that of Maria in Metropolis and his secret group undermining Britain has a fictional lineage that extends at least as far back as Buchan.

    It’s therefore important to appreciate just how rooted in real-world events the plot of High Treason is. Britain suffered almost 2,000 casualties from bombing by airship alone in World War 1, including over 500 fatalities – High Treason’s depiction of massed aeroplane raids to achieve the same result anticipates not just the reality of the Blitz a decade ahead but also William Cameron Menzies’ fictional air raids in Things to Come by six years. America’s isolationism throughout the first half of the twentieth century is well known; less commonly appreciated is that at the same time her government prepared detailed plans to prosecute wars against a wide range of countries, including Britain, under a colour-coded system (one, War Plan Orange, formed the basis of its response to Japan’s later actions in the Pacific). The effect of political assassination and border disputes is widely recorded in history.

    It’s clear that Elvey, too, was replying to Lang, and indeed his scenes of the drone-like weapons store women marching reluctantly in and out of their building is a more or less direct copy of the workers trudging to and from the underground factory in that earlier film. The theme is also the same – the subjugation of the individual for the good of the group. Elvey, though, injects more humanity by giving us a glimpse of life before this transformation, as a succession of young girls are forced to shed their bright clothes in favour of dull overalls and caps.

    Tellingly given Billing’s beliefs, both the Atlantic States and Federation troops wear black leather and are hard to tell apart; both are actually armed with real-world German guns. The peace movement dresses in virginal white, meanwhile. London is recognisably London but not, presciently, envisaged as the Federated Europe’s capital even then.

    Of course High Treason is very much a product of its times, and in parts the acting can only be described as amateur. In this respect Metropolis wins out, the excesses of its Expressionist stylisation somehow permitting and so disguising similar problems. But High Treason’s imaginative takes on future life are just as arresting and even thought-provoking. Its jazzy Deco nightclub, complete with the literal one-man-band of the ‘Phantome Orchestre’ mechanically producing music for quirky ‘stop/start’ dancing, generates a genuine sense of decadence and the surreal even before two scantily-clad females begin to fence on a podium to entertain the crowd. Little autogyros land on rooftops, and Evelyn and Deane communicate by video phone, an astonishingly convincing visual effect which generates a serious ‘how did they do that?’ even today.

    This was a real treat, especially as the sound version of High Treason (it was originally shot silent but was quickly remade for the emerging new market) was thought lost until recently. It proves, once again, that convincing future fiction is dependant on imagination and intelligence, not flash and cash.



  • 'War Book'

    It’s often said that, along with sealed orders from the Prime Minister of the day instructing them what to do if they should surface during a nuclear war and find themselves cut off from their government, the commanders of Britain’s ballistic missile submarine fleet are also advised to see if they can obtain BBC radio as a way of checking whether their home country is in fact intact.

    How fitting, then, that – some years after its drama department was last concerned with nuclear war – it is the BBC that has chosen to re-engage with the issue of what might happen if the worst comes to pass with this week’s screening of War Book, an independent feature written by Jack Thorne and directed by Tom Harper. It comes at a time when continuing tensions across the world, not least between Russia and Ukraine, remind us that the issue has not been entirely sealed away, and does so in a way that is impressively coherent and completely absorbing.

    The film takes fact as its starting point, namely a series of theoretical war game scenarios practised by the UK government civil service since the 1950s that are aimed at testing responses to, and developing policy for, crises that could involve nuclear weapons.

    Over three days, seven civil servants of differing grades and departments, a minister and a special advisor come together to take the roles of cabinet members and the Prime Minister and model a new ‘what if’ in which a nuclear device is detonated in India, seemingly by – or at least with the knowledge of – Pakistan. After the social, military, political and other consequences of this shocking event are explored, each new day’s role play is preceded by an update on the situation, a series of increasingly horrific consequences that escalate events dramatically.

    Over the discussions and arguments that follow, each of the nine make their decisions based ostensibly on a fat pack of briefing notes from their respective departments but in reality tainted by their own individual and political prejudices, personal problems and moral beliefs. Adding to the pressure are a road haulage dispute that takes up their time outside the conference room at the end of each day’s exercise and, more disturbingly, hints that the fictional scenario they are testing might just have a more immediate application in the real world than any of them suspect. The climax of an increasingly tense and bitter sequence of exchanges comes when – ‘playing’ as they are the cabinet of the day that is then faced with the ultimate choice – each is finally called upon to make the ultimate decision. The question is, what will they choose, and will it be for the right reasons?

    With the action confined to a single room for the vast majority of the film, this is a film of character and dialogue. Fortunately, both elements are strong enough to carry this. Each of the participants is carefully drawn, not as a selection of stereotypes but as a range of viewpoints. Each is given just enough of a public and private face to convince, and these are rationed out to keep the viewer’s attention.

    In a very good cast, including two alumni of the superb Utopia, Adeel Akhtar and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Ben Chaplin immediately stands out as cock-sure SPAD Gary, needling idealistic liberal Tom (Shaun Evans) and actual minister and political rival James (Nicholas Burns) with snappy and funny put-downs but – in a neat piece of curtain-tweaking by Thorne – looking very convincing indeed when ‘playing’ the Prime Minister.

    Thankfully, most of the civil servants ring true. Sophie Okonedo is exceptional; her words, delivery and body language convince utterly as exactly the right sort of senior civil servant to be in her post, both full time and as co-ordinator of the ‘game’, and I have seen quite a few to know. Finally (fittingly, given the subtlety of his deployment in the drama), none other than Anthony Sher appears and delivers a terrifically understated performance as the quiet, almost clichédly dull David, revealing only in the final scenes his true power and purpose.

    Phoebe Fox, so impressive recently in the BBC’s Bloomsbury Group drama series Life in Squares, is here given rather less to do as the scribe and updater for the exercise (it was made in 2013), and is in addition given a rather thankless moment of sexual objectification as the subject of Gary’s winning but lecherous intentions. Thankfully, however, her emotional response to the final grim briefing report, which speaks of widespread domestic riots and racial murders as society breaks down in the face of imminent nuclear war, is entirely natural and convincing, and prefigures the quality of that work as Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa. Only the stridency of an unrecognisable Kerry Fox (no relation), acting as defence minister and struggling with a health secret, proved too one-dimensional for me.

    Originally, War Book was written as a play. Across all of the cast the script provides potent and poignant lines as a variety of likely problems – border control, medicine rationing, food supplies – is thrown up, cleverly ratcheting up the level of hardship each option within these presents and the commitment necessary to stand by them. Luckily, although the piece was made two summers ago its topicality is astonishing given the current European migrant crisis, inevitable ongoing Middle East tensions and even home-grown industrial, social and party-political arguments.

    My only criticism is that that tantalising plot point – emerging firstly from reasonably close attention played by the viewer, and then lines from Gary – that someone, somewhere, is watching closely and that this ‘exercise’ might in fact have a more immediate relevance to something very real and potentially very nasty is insufficiently developed and essentially left dangling, in favour of a more conventional (no pun intended) exploration of the morality of first-strike nuclear weapons usage. This is unfortunate since the elements are there for the taking and could have been tied together very neatly and very simply, making this film outstanding rather than merely very, very good.

    Throughout, Harper brilliantly maximises the possibilities of the concept as a filmed drama rather than finding himself restrained by its theatrical origins, with nicely-judged moves and shots and a solid command of the edit. Importantly, he makes the interludes between exercise days – which could have been presented as moments of escape – as claustrophobic as the room-set debates, taking place as they do in courtyards and corridors with the true ‘outside’ kept firmly at bay.

    It is clear that War Book draws on two well-established, separate but parallel strands of drama of this type – the ‘pre-apocalypse thriller’, perhaps. One is the American theatrical legacy of Deep Impact, Fail-Safe, Five Days in May, Colossus/The Forbin Project and the like. The second is the British single drama (interestingly, almost all made by the BBC) that inevitably plays out on a smaller but no less powerful scale, such as The Day Britain Stopped, The Man Who Broke Britain and Yellowbacks. More specifically, the Spooks series two episode I Spy Apocalypse from 2003, written by Howard Brenton and directed by Justin Chadwick, is a particularly important precedent, featuring as it does a sealed-room ‘Extreme Emergency Response Initiative Exercise’ in response to a supposed nerve gas attack on London with a double twist.

    Thorne and Harper’s film is a gripping, thought-provoking and necessary addition to this canon, and deserves wider exposure and recognition as such.

    War Book remains available on the BBC iPlayer for 22 days



  • 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'

    It’s taken a long time for the fondly-remembered 1960s American television spy series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to reach the big screen again, after versions of some of its episodes were released as colour theatrical features at the time. First optioned twenty years ago, Guy Ritchie’s new film itself represents something of a victory snatched (sorry) from the jaws of defeat when original lead Tom Cruise pulled out. The release date was then put back by six months, and one press line this week described it as the least-anticipated of the many fantasy adaptations that have proved so bank-balance-increasing for the studios over the last couple of decades.

    Personally I have fond if fragmented childhood memories of the series and its film versions as shown on 1970s and 80s UK television. The smart pairing of blond, cool David McCallum as Ilya Kuryakin and dark-haired, smooth Robert Vaughan – with That Voice – as the wonderfully-named Napoleon Solo actually mattered less to me than the flashy hardware, sexy guns and the plots’ reliance on outrageous Bondian devices. Even then, though, I was conscious of Jerry Goldsmith’s brilliant, driving theme tune, easily as good as that of Mission: Impossible, and the terrifically stylish action direction technique best seen in the opening of The Helicopter Spies that anticipates today’s speed ramping but does so far more fluidly.

    Not being a fan of Ritchie, however, finding out that neither McCallum nor Vaughan – both of whom are still around – had been approached for cameo roles and knowing very little about any of the stars of the new film, I was wary of seeing it. Fortunately, though, I did, which is handy since it’s actually pretty good…

    A dynamic, animated timeline opens the film, taking us from the A-bombs that ended World War 2 into the Cold War and the erection of the Berlin Wall via newsreel clips and press headlines. Soundtracked by Roberta flack's pumping Compared to What? it’s a super-stylish start, even if the song was in fact released in 1969, six years after the film is set. The timeline dissolves into the Wall itself, leading directly into the opening sequence in which ex-criminal turned CIA agent Solo (Henry Cavill) plucks defecting mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from the clutches of KGB agent Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) and takes her to the West in an amusing blend of quips and action.

    It very much sets the tone for what follows, as the two agents are forced by their respective bosses to work together to locate a rogue nuclear scientist who is himself being forced to work for an underground neo-Fascist group in Italy, with Gaby as his niece coming along as fake fiancée to Kuryakin.

    It is of course a well-worn plot at every level, but that isn’t the point – the whole thing is carried out with great élan that you simply can’t help but enjoy it. There is some beautiful production design, a minimal amount of unconvincing CGI and action sequences that, whilst they rely on humour in general and physical comedy in particular, stay just the right side of slapstick and thus retain some in-context credibility.

    Crucially, there is a surprisingly high level of wit in the dialogue, with a few exceptionally funny moments that are genuinely intelligent. This is embodied by the performance and line delivery of Cavill, who for me was something of a revelation. Looking completely the part and deploying an American accent that is not only entirely – and I do mean entirely – convincing (he is in fact British) but which cleverly echoes the cadences of Vaughan’s, Cavill dominates every scene. Bringing exactly the right sort of retro charm to the party, much as Harrison Ford did for Spielberg in Raiders of the Lost Ark, he effortlessly walks away with the film.

    In comparison I found both Hammer and Vikander curiously dull, the former perhaps lumbered with the weaker character (troubled son trying to compensate for dissident father) but not helping with a charisma-free performance and the latter simply not convincing, especially in her undercover role. For a film whose tone is casually light, there is, too, a startling and rather unpleasant shift in the middle with a sadistic ex-Nazi doctor whose introduction includes brief but still distasteful images of his victims and which leads to a prolonged torture scene with an electric chair. The rapidity and clumsiness with which the audience is taken back to the quips and capering seems to confirm the unnecessary nature of this insertion.

    Thankfully, though, there is much to enjoy elsewhere, including much use of doubles entendre (almost all between male characters), visual and aural nods to a range of other films, the return of Hugh Grant, some more excellently-sourced songs and what is easily the funniest scene in the film, as Solo pauses whilst stealing a truck to enjoy an impromptu midnight feast to the sound of an Italian pop song whilst Kuryakin’s speedboat is relentlessly and silently pursued in the backgroud.

    Enjoyably, Ritchie goes to great efforts to capture the period film-making style as well, including using a Sixties font for the opening credits and judiciously (and wittily) deploying split screen in some of the action sequences, although this last is at its weakest in the final assault on the Fascists’ base, becoming confusing and almost certainly covering budget limitations. He does, though, continue the strange distancing from the source material that the omission of McCallum and Vaughan suggests, failing to credit series co-creators Sam Rolfe and Norman Felton and not even bothering with Goldsmith’s theme music.

    Overall, then, this was an unexpected treat, and all the more fun because of it. Whether we will need to open channel D for the sequel plainly set up by the closing-scene formation of U.N.C.L.E. from this disparate group is unclear. For now, it’s an amusing entertainment that is certainly worth your time.



  • 'Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation'

    An unusually spur-of-the-moment decision to see Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the fifth and latest of the series, which is currently showing in London in preview, was driven by a friend’s suggestion, convenient chance, an earlier glimpse of a publicity still or poster and a brief press feature on co-star Rebecca Ferguson. Perhaps, too, my own opinion of the series instalments to date – 1 and 3 good, 2 and 4 bad – might have subconsciously pushed me toward the ticket window for 5; who knows. Anyway, act in haste, repent at leisure, right? Well…

    It starts well. The opening sequence has star Tom Cruise as by-now veteran Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt running along the wing and then clinging, literally, to the outside of a massive A400M military transport plane as it hauls itself off the ground and into the air; we see this last in one fixed shot, looking back along the fuselage as the aircraft banks slightly, bathing Cruise’s face in sunlight. It’s impressive stuff and was done for real, more or less. As I say, a good start, albeit one that is very slightly misleading on one front – despite his status as character and actor, Hunt/Cruise is this time somewhat in the background, content to share the limelight with Simon Pegg in a beefed-up role for his Benji Dunn IT whizz and, especially, Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust, of which more later.

    Of course at its heart the film’s plot is little more than a selection of contemporary spy-fi tropes – the shadowy criminal organisation, the secret widget that has to be stolen, the impossi-tech – strung together, and they’re pretty familiar tropes at that, but I have to admit that in the first half at least it all hangs together nicely, as Hunt starts to encounter the dastardly Syndicate and the mysterious Ilsa, who may or may not be an ally. There are also some neat and rather serious nods toward real-world problems, echoing Marvel’s Captain America: Winter Soldier.

    For me this was the strongest section of the film. There is a sense of genuine mystery as to whose side Faust is on as her and Hunt’s paths cross and re-cross in Vienna and elsewhere. A considerable amount of time is spent in London, and as with Skyfall a pretty non-glamourous view of our city is taken for the most part – the pair actually navigate twisting side streets through a rolling Victorian fog at one point, for example. It’s a welcome re-connection with one of the most successful aspects of Brian de Palma’s 1996 original Mission: Impossible film, with its Victorian garret off of a rainy, atmospheric Liverpool Street.

    It’s also not the only time a recent Bond film came to mind whilst watching M:I 5 (no pun intended, though it works nicely), since importantly there is much that is refreshingly old-school about it and which recalls British thrillers of the 1940s, American crime dramas of the 50s and the heights achieved by the best of the Daniel Craig 007 films and one or two that came before.

    This is no small part down to the stunning Ferguson, who pulls off what could have been a somewhat thankless female role with real aplomb and who – aided by some movie magic, of course, just as Cruise is – convinces whether she is taking down bad guys with Matrix-style wuxia moves, calmly talking business or, in the film’s stand-out scene, coolly stalking her prey through the ropes, sets and galleries backstage at the Wiener Staatsoper during a performance of Turandot whilst wearing a yellow evening gown and heels. Hypnotically but accessibly beautiful, and with a compelling accent thanks to her mixed Swedish-English heritage, she really carries the film.

    It’s also credit to co-writer/director Christopher McQuarrie, who executes that second role with a high degree of competency and not a little flair in parts. He favours high camera angles, his view frequently looking down on a scene to give a God’s-eye view, tipping over the edge of buildings to make clear the drop to come or following a prowling character from above. His action direction is clear and crisp, mercifully avoiding the too-tight framing and quantum cutting that afflicts much contemporary cinema, and this is important since you certainly get a lot for your money, with endless fights, stabbings and shootings (justifying the 12A certificate but further distancing the series from its resolutely pacifist origins), double-, treble- and quadruple-crosses, a car chase and a bike chase, and so on.

    Actually the two Moroccan-set vehicle chases balance each other nicely, with a tight, confined open-air market setting for the first followed by an expansive desert freeway network and mountain roads for the second. Indeed this last is a real adrenaline rush, aided by some extremely good digital work that convincingly places the principals right there in the scenes and, as with the plane, blurs the line positively between fake and real. The M:I series’ own, almost trademarked trope, the near-impossible penetration of a sealed vault, gets an original treatment here – though not entirely successfully, it has to be said – with an aquatic touch.

    That terrific, extended sequence at the Viennese State Opera, though, is a revelation, and demonstrates McQuarrie’s skills in full as Hunt and Dunn take up positions in the packed auditorium to identify a face but soon become embroiled with not one, not two but three assassins in the wings, including the lovely Ilsa. A long sequence, it is played out with very little dialogue but lots of movement, by characters and cameras and in three dimensions as scenery and people are hoisted, jump and fight, yet we always understand what master craftsman John McTiernan calls the geography of the scene and so consequently there is real tension amongst the physicality, aided by some nicely-timed arias. The whole recalls Skyfall’s Hong Kong skyscraper fight and the splendid Pyramids sequence from Lewis Gilbert’s brilliant Bond The Spy Who Loved Me, to continue the Bond analogy, but also the climactic scenes from much tougher productions such as The Parallax View and The Manchurian Candidate.

    Eventually, and perhaps inevitably these days given the demands of such franchise vehicles, things do start to unravel, with one or two twists too many, but it’s a huge amount of fun and gave me a welcome boost after several cinematic disappointments lately. There's virtually none of the smugness of many of the previous films, and the noir touches, the properly rounded female lead and those sparkling action sequences make this one to seek out. Your mission this summer, should you choose to accept it, is obvious…



  • Joseph Cornell: Stories of Elsewhere

    I first heard of Joseph Cornell’s ‘shadow boxes’ more than twenty five years ago when reading William Gibson’s SF novel Count Zero, set some 70 years into the future; in it, a lost Cornell original is subsequently revealed to be a fake, whilst a mysterious ‘maker’ is producing other works that resemble Cornell’s but which are clearly products of the new millennium. Gibson’s descriptions, with their subtexts of yearning, of time suspended and compressed, captivated me, although it was more than a decade before I finally saw a genuine Cornell, in Washington’s National Gallery. Now, more than 80 of the artist’s assemblages – flat collages, selected and arranged items, and, yes, those famous boxes – can be seen in a new exhibition at the Royal Academy. And for me it was a revelation.

    Cornell is a little-known figure on this side of the Atlantic, and perhaps even on the other. He lived with his widowed, domineering mother and disabled brother in the New York of the 1930s to the 60s, and worked as a travelling textile salesman, a job he hated. He enjoyed visiting the theatre, dance halls and the cinema and kept in touch with the art scene, but as New York grew up and reached out to the world, Cornell stayed put. He never left his home state, though he did eventually have the means to do so, and never married or had children. On the face of it, then, he perhaps mirrored the wider America, with its tendency to insularity and self-sufficiency. And yet…

    Spending much of his spare time wandering local second hand shops and flea markets, Cornell bought countless numbers of old books, periodicals, photographs, prints, scrapbooks, parlour games, toys and trinkets, from which he made a variety of carefully cut flat collages that are startling and intriguing. But he also gathered a vast amount of paper ephemera – used stamps, sent postcards, hotel advertisements, railway timetables, maps – which spoke of travel, foreign lands, faded empires and lost pasts. Afterwards, ensconced in his kitchen or, later, his basement, he proceeded to select, modify, assemble and display this material in a way that is encapsulated in the subtitle of the RA’s exhibition – Wanderlust.

    Cornell began “journeying in his imagination across continents and centuries,” as the exhibition describes the virtual voyages he generated from this repository, in search of “the innocent wonder of our early discovery of the world”. Cases, boxes and containers, some fronted with glass, hold multiple references to time, space and place in an ever-increasing intricacy of layers that belies their apparent simplicity. Many also address the preoccupations and worldview of childhood, perhaps in response to the limitations on Cornell’s own. Mostly made of wood, Cornell initially appropriated commercially available display cases or sample trays but later learned carpentry from a neighbour so that he could make his own. This also allowed him to tailor each to its intended use, and to incorporate drawers, hidden compartments and multiple physical levels, a substrate for the psychological levels he built upon them. They are all intriguing; some are astonishing.

    The first box encountered on entering the exhibition is unusual in being quite representative, but it still projects (and contains) a sense of mystery and serves to introduce Cornell’s wider themes. In Palace (1943), a winter forest presses in behind the façade of an immense Renaissance-style building reminiscent of a royal residence from Europe’s gilded age; on closer inspection, each of its windows is a mirror, preventing any view inside and only reflecting its surroundings. At once many of Cornwell’s concerns come to the fore – the Old World and its grand ruling houses, faded elegance, the passage of time. Curator Sarah Lea describes it as his “sleeping beauty” work; in its impassive stillness and suppressed mystery, it reminds me of both the Overlook Hotel from The Shining and Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, and it comes as no surprise to see hotels specifically featuring in Cornell’s later work. His use of mirrors here makes a clear statement; elsewhere, Cornell plays with them and glass and notions of reflection, transparency and refraction.

    The subject of time is also central to Object (Soap Bubble Set) (1941); a stream of bubbles, each containing a fossil, emerges from a real clay pipe, the momentary contrasting with the eternal and the placement of both nodding to Surrealism. Cornell knew Lee Miller, whose marriage to Surrealist Roland Penrose may have influenced her own experiments with the movement, but firmly rejected its more outré aspects, calling them “black magic” as against his own white.

    Cornell’s simpler boxes are charming as well as tantalising. With the delightful Tower of Babel and the Children of Israel (1938), a children’s game is composed from a small red cylinder, a box lined with architectural plans and some red balls, and the work comes with instructions as to how to ‘play’. Yet the religious title speaks of something more profound, the letters on the pieces have been cut out from a German Baedeker guide, whilst the plans are of the great cultural institutions of Berlin’s Museumsinsel that contain the nation’s treasures from the ancient world. Elsewhere, a circular pillbox made of maps contains dozens of similarly-sized discs cut from photographs, pictures and more maps.

    A good example of his more involved pieces is Museum (1949), for which Cornell filled a box with dozens of small paper cylinders that are in fact containers. Some can be opened, and are found to hold the kind of objects gathered by children, but others cannot – their contents create sounds when shaken, all except one, which is silent. On a similar note, Untitled (Music Box) (1947) comprises a box about the size of a coffee can that is entirely sealed with wrapping paper and stamps. It, too, makes a noise when shaken but has never – I assume – been opened so the source of that sound remains unknowable.

    But it was with his more complex works that his intentions and interests were fully demonstrated.

    Cornell often revisited themes and indeed individual works, creating new iterations of previous objects that are together known as his ‘series’. Each of the Hotels series starts with an old hotel advert or poster and extrapolates a story from it. Thus an image of one, prominently titled ‘Andromeda’ (Andromeda: Grand Hôtel de l’Observatoire, 1954), has a pillar placed in front of it with a length of chain hanging nearby, alluding to the mythological princess’s fate. Birds were also a source of inspiration, and for the Aviaries series Cornell fabricated a number of boxes that evoke different emotions including hushed wonder in the case of an owl cut-out perched in its natural habitat amongst tree branches behind deep blue glass to simulate night. And if Cornell was always concerned with time, with a range of other works that use star maps, balls standing for planets and similar items, he expanded the scale of his investigations to the cosmological.

    Appearing to live life somewhat at one remove, Cornell created several boxes as tributes to people he admired as heroes and heroines, including artists, dancers and even figures of legend. He fashioned an entire life in The Crystal Cage: Portrait of Berenice (1934-1967). The whimsical fictional character Berenice is a young girl conducting scientific research, whose fascination with a Chinese pagoda leads to her parents buying it for her and transporting it to America to become her home. Blending original text, found objects and images, Cornell filled an entire valise with the resulting history, even though it was destined originally only for an experimental privately-published magazine. This concept is that of the epistolary novel, which was at that time fifty years old at least if one takes Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a starting point (and which continues to attract – see Doug Dorst’s ‘S’), but from today’s viewpoint one can also make links to other similar work, everything from the elaborate box sets issued by publisher Taschen, through the methods used to create eponymous volumes of Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books to more serious fields, such as the painstakingly falsified pocket contents of ‘William Martin’, the invented officer at the heart of the wartime Allied deception codenamed Operation Mincemeat.

    What astonishes throughout is the richness of allusion embodied in Cornell’s work, and how he made great leaps of time and distance – to far-off lands, civilisations he never saw and people he never knew – yet contained them all in the same small space of a box. That, and the lack of sadness – although the exhibition reminded me immediately of Edward Hopper and his paintings, and both lived somewhat insular lives, producing art that speak of quietude and contemplation, Cornell and his works lack entirely Hopper’s loneliness and are neither depressing nor sorrowful, but alive and enticing; they speak of an intelligent, enquiring, precocious and romantic mind giving itself free reign. That said, it seems to me that much of the motivation for Cornell is found in the simple facts of his life. His works are therefore easily seen as being about escape – he couldn’t physically, his responsibilities being too much, and did so through his boxes.

    But in the end, perhaps Cornell comments on our own lives too – we all, in one way or another, live in boxes, glazed to the outside, which others look into but cannot reach or touch. If that is true, go along to this wonderfully rich, superbly mounted exhibition and open yourself up. Who knows what you might find?

    ‘Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust’ opens on Saturday (4 July) in The Sackler Wing at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London W1 and continues until 27 September 2015.



Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture


The fourth and fifth of my Brand X pieces for The Big Picture, exploring fictional products and brands in films in an innovative way, are now online.

Take a snap shot of technology stocks which you might find familar with a Bloomberg intelligence report, and then read an exclusive interview with none other than Dr Eldon Tyrell...

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