Michael Winterbottom, the British director, has made upwards of 20 feature films in little more than 25 years, as well as some documentaries and no small amount of television, but it would be wrong to say he has a signature style. His body of work is eclectic, resisting easy categorisation, and it’s more apt to talk of a signature energy: Winterbottom makes films that are restless, urgent, robust, inquisitive and intelligent. He seems unafraid of taking risks, be it blending the boundaries of genre (The Road to Guantanamo, Welcome to Sarajevo) or shooting full penetrative sex (9 Songs). Now and again he fails, though not abjectly. His films are never lowbrow, but he can subvert highbrow, rendering it both enchanting and accessible.
What makes people love Winterbottom is the love he carries for his characters. In its purest form you can see this abiding affection in the charming BBC six-part television series The Trip, in which Winterbottom allows Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon to talk – and talk, and talk – as they drive around the north of England visiting restaurants for Coogan to review. The hilarious, rambling intelligence of their discourse exists on screen because Winterbottom embraces the hilarious, the rambling and the intelligent: he knows how to elicit play from his actors, and you generally get the sense that they’re having a good time. Even in his strange, unflinching, uncomfortable Butterfly Kiss, he makes Amanda Plummer’s deeply unlovable, damaged murderer both plausible and riveting. In Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, he again pairs Coogan and Brydon. The warmth he feels for the multiple characters they play is evident in the film’s unconventional structure; a film about an attempt to shoot Laurence Sterne’s famously unfilmable novel, it is both a clever cinematic doppelganger of the shaggy-dog-tale source material and an acerbic satire on filmmaking and its discontents.
Winterbottom’s best film is the very funny 24 Hour Party People (Steve Coogan stars, yet again), about impresario Tony Wilson and the ecstasy-fuelled birth of the Manchester music scene in the ’80s. The structural chaos of its narrative is counterbalanced by the deeply literate intelligence of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s screenplay, and by the way in which Winterbottom gives Coogan free rein to portray Wilson as being both extraordinarily pompous (much of the comedy comes from the character’s cringeworthiness) and generous (the film is genuinely moving). In one scene a reporter – Rob Brydon again; Winterbottom is nothing if not loyal – ambushes Wilson in a corridor, asking how he reacts to the charge that he’s a fascist, since the band he’s just signed, Joy Division, is “named after a group of women captured by the SS for the purpose of breeding perfect Aryans”. Few films would attempt to make comedy out of Wilson’s curt reply: “Have you never heard of Situationism? … D’you know nothing about the free play of signs and signifiers?”
For Winterbottom, when he directs comedies, mischief will always trump tonal neatness. But comedies make up only about half of his body of work. Genova, starring Colin Firth as a grieving father, is mannered, precise, gentle filmmaking. Code 46, somewhere at the more poetic, haunted end of the science fiction spectrum, is not an entirely successful film, but lingers in the consciousness like a distant scent for some time after you see it. Jude, Winterbottom’s 1996 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, is a solid enough workaday rendering of the novel.
Winterbottom has returned to Hardy with his latest film, Trishna (in national release 10 May), a loose adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles set in modern-day India, where provincial Rajasthan and vibrant Mumbai stand in for Hardy’s nineteenth-century Britain, with the rural poor feeling the encroaching forces of modernisation. Freida Pinto is Trishna, a young woman living in rural poverty who meets Jay (Riz Ahmed), an Anglo-Indian gadabout hooning through India with his buddies. Jay is soon to take up a post working, somewhat reluctantly, in the hotel resort his father owns. In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the character Alec d’Urberville rapes Tess, and she has problematic relationships with both Alec and Angel Clare. Winterbottom seems to have collapsed the two characters into one – in the novel, it’s a career as a parson, not in hotel management, that Angel resists – and then made it entirely unclear whether Trishna is raped by Jay or has an unhappy consensual experience with him; the scene happens off-camera, and we merely see Trishna in the teary aftermath.
It’s an odd choice, though we get what’s going on here. Contemporary rural India is probably as good an analogy as anywhere for Victorian England, in terms of the status of women and obstacles to emancipation. Sex outside of marriage here is its own kind of shame.
Not so in Mumbai, where Jay’s program of Trishna-modernisation in that most cosmopolitan city swings into action. “She little divined the strength of her own vitality,” wrote Hardy of his character Tess. But Jay is callow, and a cad, and Trishna, sophisticate though she becomes, is also, as Jay’s mistress, little more than chattel.
Downgrades of fortune ensue, accompanied by misery.
Winterbottom moves the short scenes along at a cracking pace, often with jump cuts, and the film has a compressed economy to it. But something happens that is rare in his work: it begins to sag, in places. The real problem may be that Jay is never a very interesting character, so we never get invested in what Trishna is up against, psychically speaking.
In Tess of the d’Urbervilles Hardy wrote of Tess, in relation to Angel, that “at every discovery of the abundance of his illuminations, of the distance between her own modest mental standpoint and the unmeasurable, Andean altitude of his, she became quite dejected, disheartened from all further effort on her own part whatever”. If Winterbottom’s Jay were, in fact, a cad of more Andean elevation, we might wish for some good old-fashioned dejection in our heroine: something for the drama to flex its muscles with. But Jay’s descent into darkness, and all that it engenders, feels like nothing more than a trope.
If Winterbottom is all about the robust, Delicacy (in national release 3 May), a frothy but pleasant French confection from first-time sibling directors David and Stéphane Foenkinos (adapted from the former’s novel), is all about, well, the delicate. Audrey Tautou, Gallic cinema’s go-to waif-naïf, is Nathalie, a young woman in love with the perfect boyfriend in a Paris only marginally less picture-postcard than that portrayed in Woody Allen’s recent Midnight in Paris. The story in the first act seems to be that all is going well in the relationship. My twee-meter was ringing off the scale, and after 20 minutes I wondered what I was doing still watching the film.
Then – spoiler alert; terribly sorry about the short notice – the boyfriend dies tragically, as don’t they all, and suddenly the film becomes interesting, because we discover that it’s a comedy, and at times, for the next hour, a delicately funny one. All this is less to do with Nathalie than with the man with whom she will eventually throw in her lot, after an improbable courtship and two acts of greatly delayed gratification.
In the aftermath of the boyfriend’s death, Nathalie is frozen by grief. Three years pass, during which time her only advancement seems to have been rising within the organisation for which she performs some unspecified task. Co-worker Markus (François Damiens), a gawky Swede with tombstone teeth, bad posture and even worse dress sense, is the guy least likely. He’s a kind of lumbering innocent, accepting his sexless lot in life. When Nathalie kisses him for the first time, the tale of the Frog Prince springs to mind. The next day, when Markus, a man newly in love, brings up the kiss, she doesn’t so much regret the out-of-character moment as not even believe it happened, as if grief were a subterranean cavern from which Eros erupts, like a geyser, once every few years.
“But that would be like forgetting the present,” he tells her, astonished.
Despite both the social opprobrium of co-workers, and Nathalie’s backtracking into ‘I like you as a friend’ mode, Markus comes alive, in his own moderate way. He doesn’t at first think he’s worthy of her attention. “It’s tiring, this situation,” he says. “It’s like Liechtenstein were walking with the United States.” But if he’s not innately debonair, he’ll work out how to approximate it, in tiny steps, and with patience.
An American version of this film would be ‘sassy’, but annoying. Delicacy works, when it’s not being twee, because its subtleties are warm and charming. When Markus googles “evening out in Paris” in anticipation of his first proper date with Nathalie, there’s a beautiful back-story hidden in the moment, because the lonely Swede has already been living and working in the city of light for 15 years.
Tautou does Amélie-brand Tautou very well, but Damiens is the pleasant discovery here. “I adore your hair,” his character says to Nathalie, falteringly. “I could go on holiday in your hair.” The film is paper-thin, but there’s something endearing about seeing a child in a man’s body, in uncensored wonderment.
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