Talking Movies

August 12, 2019

Jacob Rees-Mogg knows nothing of the Victorians’ work

“A man walks down the street in that hat, people know he’s not afraid of anything”

I missed the appearance of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s The Victorians some months back, so was surprised when reading up on it recently to see the venomous reviews it had received. And then I read a chunk of it on Google Books. The brickbats were well earned. I soaked in the Victorian age for a good portion of my PhD and I simply do not recognise the era which Rees-Mogg purports to present in his monograph for our instruction and improvement. To read Rees-Mogg, one would think the Victorians had all agreed to some very moral premises sometime around 1837 and then gone on simply working them out to reach their logical end-points sometime around 1901. Whereas the true relevance of the Victorians to ourselves is not only that they argued ferociously in any number of quarterlies, clubs, newspapers, weekly magazines, societies, pamphlets, serialised books, and public meetings, but that what they argued about and how they argued about it still informs much of our arguments. The move to drive religion out of education in this country is hard not to relate to Joseph Chamberlain’s connivances to drive religion out of education in England in the 1870s. Rees-Mogg does not cover Chamberlain.

The idea that Rees-Mogg was happy to write down that he had spent 300 hours working on his 464pp tome boggles the mind. That’s 50 days, using Michael Palin’s 1970s working method of 6 good writing hours a day. So for each of his Victorian Titans Rees-Mogg took 4 days, presuming writing his introduction and clearing up citations and proof-reading took him 2 days. 4 days. I could easily imagine myself spending 4 days trying to come up with a list of 12 Victorians to sum up those 60 years, and it surely would not include Victoria and Albert. In fact it would probably include neither – this would fortuitously free up space for Darwin and Dickens. I am not alone in noticing with astonishment Rees-Mogg’s total lack of interest in writers and scientists. The very existence of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Mrs Gaskell demonstrates that his lack of interest in women outside the royal presence was mere peacocking; making himself a martyr to wokeness in preference to doing research. 4 days to tackle a book chapter on Gladstone; whose diaries and correspondence fill 14 volumes. 4! How much research could he possibly have done in just 4 days?

November 1, 2011

In Time

Andrew Niccol, writer of Gattaca and The Truman Show, brings his usual intelligence to a sci-fi actioner which takes Ben Franklin’s dictum ‘time is money’ at face value.

Justin Timberlake stars as Will Salas, a 28 year old living minute to minute – literally. All humans have been genetically engineered to stop aging at 25, and then die one year later unless they can earn more time by working, borrowing or stealing. Salas encounters Henry Hamilton (White Collar’s Matt Bomer), who, like an Anne Rice vampire, just wants to die as his mind has had enough, and has come to the Dayton ghetto to ‘time out’. He gifts Salas a century of time urging him – “Don’t waste my time”. Salas though is almost immediately struck by personal tragedy and so travels to New Greenwich, the richest time zone of them all, to try and use his time to bring down the corrupt system. He’s quickly made by timekeeper Leon and kidnaps time heiress Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried), who becomes an unlikely ally in his crusade.

Timberlake sells the hurried nature of ghetto dwellers well with jumpy physicality, and also conveys a burning sense of righteousness, but, while Seyfried is gifted at comedy, here her huge eyes and pouting lips prove remarkably inexpressive and she’s out-acted by Olivia Wilde – who only has three scenes. Wilde’s stunt-casting concretises the high-concept by being Timberlake’s mother, but the horror on her face when a bus-fare suddenly rises lethally beyond her means is visceral: “But it’s a 2 hour walk. I only have an hour and a half left”, “So run…” Cillian Murphy is superb as Leon. He can’t be bribed, and to Salas’ amazement jumps, runs, shoots, and lets his time run low just like the ghetto inhabitant he used to be, making him formidably implacable. Leon is a great villain as he understands the system is unjust but swore to uphold it. Supporting turns are less nuanced but still effective. Alex Pettyfer is career-definingly loathsome as ghetto criminal Fortius, a sadistic but cowardly psychopath, and Vincent Kartheiser essays another weasel as time magnate Phillipe Weis.

Niccol fleshes out his high concept with numerous delightfully re-imagined phrases, “Do you come from Time?”, but like the best sci-fi this scarifying future is really dissecting our present. A critique of Darwinian capitalism it pits Weis’ “For a few to be immortal, many must die” against Salas’ “No one should be immortal if even one person has to die”. Salas’ motto is essentially an allegorised version of JS Mill’s moral axiom “Every person alive ought to have a subsistence before anyone has more” and is obviously morally right. Niccol though can’t mesh sci-fi brains with action brawn never mind square his allegorical circle. Salas and Sylvia become a latter day Bonnie and Clyde car-jacking the time-rich and staging heists on time-banks to the strains of Craig Armstrong’s ‘Karmacoma’ sampling score before then re-distributing time throughout the Dayton ghetto. We’re explicitly told robbing time-banks cannot break the system, yet that’s all Niccol proffers as ultimate solution to his problem. That and a credit crunch referencing possibility of time-market contagion…

In Time buckles in the third act, feels like it’s missing a detailed back-story between Leon and Will’s father, and features remarkably under-populated cities and a tendency to remove obstacles too easily, especially travelling across time zone borders. And yet it’s so near greatness that you want to like it. Well worth your time.

4/5

September 21, 2009

Creation

A biopic of Charles Darwin that a creationist and Dawkins could go see and both happily leave halfway thru, agreeing that something so boring and utterly wretched wasn’t worth arguing over.

Creation opens with a caption proclaiming Darwin’s idea to be the single greatest in the history of thought, and then, for 109 minutes, casts doubt on whether cinema can communicate ideas at all. Creation is the worst of a biopic sub-genre (Shakespeare in Love, A Beautiful Mind) where great works are reduced to inanity by focusing not on the work, but, to paraphrase Creation’s captions, how the person came to write that work. You would think Darwin came to write his work by years of painstaking research, the formulation of a revolutionary hypothesis, and then months of hard graft writing up his findings by hand – but no! Darwin wrote his work addled on laudanum and guided by conversations with his dead daughter.  This conceit, like the flashbacks to his daughter’s life, is at first preposterous, then annoying, and finally unbearable.

The always capable Paul Bettany, bald but eschewing the beard of popular imagination, seems to be playing his own greatest hits. Darwin is a laudanum fiend and naturalist, like Bettany’s character in Master & Commander, who writes his great idea due to conversations with people who aren’t there, just as Bettany inspired Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. Jennifer Connelly as Darwin’s religious wife is under-served by the script, although she and Bettany shine in the best scene of the film when they finally confront the possibility that their daughter’s poor health was because they married, despite being first cousins. Connelly’s character though is under-served because she is religious and this is a fatal weakness.

If you want true dramatic conflict you must give each character in an argument the possibility of winning or the scene is predetermined and therefore pointless. This holds even ethically – witness the astonishing scene in Sophie Scholl where Sophie is questioned for her anti-Nazia propagandising by a Gestapo officer in an intellectual debate in which every point Sophie makes is eloquently contradicted by him, and he makes points she can’t refute: the scene positively hums with dramatic tension even though he represents genocidal evil. In Creation poor Jeremy Northam as Reverend Innes is given dialogue which is comically bone-headed – his preaching on Genesis’ most absurd passages drives Darwin to walk out of service, while his approach to bereavement counselling for the Darwins involves endless references to God’s wise plan. This loading of the dice dramatically makes these scenes deeply idiotic, and matters are not helped by TH Huxley (Toby Jones appearing for five minutes) being more Dawkins than Huxley in his startling belligerence. Indeed his effect on Darwin in the film leads Innes to deliver his only good line, “I had always regarded you as one of those rare mortals with whom it is possible to disagree without a shade of animosity. I see that is no longer true”.

Evolution is, as Thomas Jefferson might have put it, a self-evident truth, but writers John Collee and Jon Amiel seem to think it so specious that they need a straw-man construction of religion. Ignore this bizarre farrago and instead try to watch the two BBC documentaries Darwin by David Attenborough and Did Darwin Kill God?

1/5

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