Reviews: December 2020 / January 2021
The irredeemable flesh
Directed by Brandon Cronenberg
Certificate 18, 103 minutes
Released 27 November
The controversial director David Cronenberg has long been an exponent of something he calls ‘the new flesh’, ways that humanity might transcend its bodies. His son Brandon is the same, his new film Possessor concerning the world of cybernetic industrial espionage. Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is an assassin working for a company run by Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), which injects her consciousness into other people as host personalities so that, wearing the clothing of their minds and bodies, she can kill designated targets before being extracted.
Tasya may however have been doing the job a little too long. Inserted into the partner (Christopher Abbott) of the daughter (Tuppence Middleton) of a powerful and ruthless industrialist (Sean Bean) who Tasya is supposed to kill, she finds herself unable to initiate extraction at the end of the job as the host’s suppressed personality fights for dominance over her own.
While the explicit sex and bloody violence clearly make this not a film for everyone, it is nevertheless an intelligent piece of science fiction which confronts tough issues. These characters operate within a ruthless, dog-eat-dog, corporate world where the overriding values are corporate takeover and increased market share. It’s a vision of selfish capitalism pushed to its logical conclusion. Something rotten here comes back to destroy those who perpetrate its rottenness.
This marks Brandon out as somewhat different from his father, whose notorious Crash (1996), was restored for reissue in November, and concerns people exploring post-car-crash sex as a form of self-actualisation. Look behind the apparent affront to morality – an easy target for media hysteria – and Crash likewise confronts serious philosophical issues.
Girder exhibits a real concern for her employee. Outside of that immediate corporate bubble, Tasya’s profession requires she dehumanise people, hardening her heart so that she can kill them. Like an actor, she is constantly working inside another’s skin and presenting a facade to conceal her true purpose and what she really is. After extraction, she briefly enjoys spending time with her estranged husband and small son, but the desire to do that soon passes. It’s a terrifying vision of an existence in which power and control are everything.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic. His work is available at jeremycprocessing.com
Directed by Henry Blake
Certificate 15, 90 minutes
Released 4 December
‘Do you know what an acceptable loss is?’, a voice asks a teenage boy. ‘In your business, you’re the acceptable loss.’ County Lines may be this year’s hardest hitting movie, a British drama about a vulnerable boy groomed into working for county lines drug networks. A tough film to watch that deserves to be widely seen, not least by teenagers, it’s an uncompromising look at a pressing social issue.
An introverted, 14-year-old loner, Tyler (Conrad Khan) gets into fights at school. His low-paid single parent mum, Toni (Ashley Madekwe), works nights and is exhausted struggling to hold their family together. One night, in a local chicken restaurant, Tyler is rescued from the school bully by a stranger, Simon (Harris Dickinson). Over the coming days, Simon loiters in his car near Tyler’s home. The boy’s initial gratefulness leads first to shopping trips for new trainers then to working for Simon taking railway journeys out of town to move drugs.
Far from having Tyler’s best interests at heart, Simon is cynically exploiting the boy who will consequently be exposed to drug dens and run into serious trouble that has grave repercussions. There’s a palpable sense of the child learning the ways of violence as his involvement deepens, and the impact it has on others.
County Lines is the first feature by writer director Henry Blake, who drew on his own experience in recent years as a youth worker, dealing at first hand with children in similar situations. The results are both raw and authentic. The worlds of large comprehensive schools, blocks of flats and fast food takeaways will be familiar to parts of the country. Blake approaches his subject matter-of-factly, eliciting astonishing performances from Khan as the used and abused teenager, from Madekwe as the beset mum and from Dickinson as the inarticulate yet smooth talking dealer. ‘Why do you do it?’, the mum asks the dealer. ‘Because it’s easy,’ comes the chilling reply. Skilfully made, timely and emotionally devastating.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic
On God’s love
Where is Love?: Creation, the cross and the cosmic Christ
Hugh PC Broadbent
Grosvenor House Publishing
This extraordinary book – written since the author’s recent diagnosis of inoperable cancer – is an exploration of agapeic love, written by a priest in the Church of England. Though he wears his learning lightly, Broadbent takes no prisoners. One can imagine Richard Dawkins tossing the book across the room, and then – on more mature reflection – stamping on it. Nor are our politicians spared: ‘The nightmare scenario depicted by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, in which a people is genetically engineered to fulfil pre-ordained roles as Alphas, Betas or Gamma-morons, seems frighteningly close to what our governments seem to desire.’
Broadbent likens God’s lordship over creation to ‘the control that an ultimate Grand Master has over a game of chess. The Grand Master cannot – and would not wish to – control or predetermine his opponent’s moves, but he can nevertheless remain in control of the game.’ On natural disasters, Broadbent stresses the distinction between ‘God’s active will (what God wishes to happen) and God’s permissive will (what God reluctantly allows to happen)’.
Linking theology to evolution, Broadbent says: ‘The scientific discovery that the universe has evolved over billions of years supports the notion that God is rather more patient and subtle in the way he operates than Christians sometimes imagine, and is prepared to take much longer than they would wish to achieve his purposes.’ In an illuminating chapter on the cosmos, Broadbent encompasses the fundamentals of physics, the ‘rationality’ of the cosmos and our kinship with other animals, with a bone-dry wit. (‘The ability to learn from experience is thought by some to have begun, for example, in the flatworm.’)
In short, this book succeeds on every level: it intrigues, it challenges and it inspires. The following quote seemed to me to sum up not only the book but Broadbent’s transcendent spirit: ‘As CS Lewis said: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen – not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”’
Alice McVeigh attends Christ Church United Reformed Church in Petts Wood, Orpington, Kent
Why Old Testament matters today
Justice for the Poor?: Social justice in the Old Testament in concept and practice
Walter J Houston
This book, by one of the United Reformed Church’s greatest scholars, crowns the contributions to theology of the Old Testament. Using historical criticism, textual criticism, rhetorical criticism and more, Houston brings ancient Israel into dialogue with ethical concerns of today like the climate crisis, the Drop the Debt campaign of the 90s, social inequality and capitalism. Houston does not miss a step, moving between disciplines. It’s rare to find a scholar who is at once a nimble historian, a clear-eyed advocate of the marginalised today and a consistently sceptical free thinker.
A caveat: many parts of this book will be challenging. Chapter eight, for example, which considers different reconstructions of forced labour in ancient Israel, may be too fine-grained for a popular audience. General readers might want to start with the bookends: chapters one (on a capitalist economy) and 13 (a clear and balanced consideration of the mixed legacy of Genesis 1 – a must-read for preachers.) Throughout, Houston highlights the fraternity of the Old Testament, its stress on the ‘personality and dignity of all’, that we in the Church sometimes miss in our rush to the New Testament.
The core of the book is chapter ten. Here, building on an influential 1973 article on creation, Houston argues that the phrase ‘justice and right’ originated as the ideology and propaganda of the king, before being transformed into a more general ideal which held everyone to account. The fact that the phrase ‘justice and right’ is missing from the Torah is, to my mind, less interesting than Houston’s explorations along the way.
Please read this book. The only downside is that his account of the 90s makes it feel like a more hopeful time than ours. All the more reason to read it.
Nathan Eddy is Interim Director of the Council of Christians and Jews
Through a Glass Darkly: Journeys through science, faith and doubt – a memoir
Hodder & Stoughton
I admire Alister McGrath for his contribution to Christian apologetics, and for his brilliant rebuttals of the New Atheists. He is a seriously gifted communicator, writing in a very accessible style. McGrath has authored scores of books, and more than 100 academic articles, but this book is a thoughtful memoir of a fascinating intellectual and spiritual journey.
The journey starts with him as an atheist A-level student in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, believing that science had the answer. He swallowed wholesale the then-fashionable Marxist philosophy. But in Oxford, as an undergraduate pursuing his first passion in molecular biophysics, he had a metanoia, an intellectual and spiritual awakening, and converted to Christianity. After becoming a much published scientific professor, he then pursued his other passion, becoming a much published theology professor, and was ordained as an Anglican clergyman en route.
After he had climbed to the top of these two disciplines, he set about synthesising the two passions. He became Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion, and had arrived at the perfect place to discredit the New Atheism of Dawkins, his fellow Oxford professor.
I read Through a Glass Darkly while on holiday, occasionally stopping to read out a well written and pithy quote to my wife. I haven’t enjoyed a book as much in a long time. I happily recommend it to anyone with an interest in science, faith and doubt.
Charles Croll is Minister of Southwold United Reformed Church, Suffolk
Celtic Christianity and Climate Crisis: Twelve keys for the future of the Church
The idea of gaining insights about the climate crisis from Celtic Christianity is attractive and interesting. Ray Simpson, who founded the Community of Aidan and Hilda – an ecumenical body inspired by Celtic saints –, seems fit to write about this. However, a better title for this book would be ‘Personal reflections after a lifetime’s immersion in Celtic spirituality’.
Sadly and frustratingly, the book does not live up to the title. The Celtic theology of creation is covered in just the first chapter, and that only partially supports Simpson’s concluding ‘key’ – that God is at the heart of creation and that we are called to heal creation. Limited congruence between the body of each chapter and the conclusions drawn characterises much of the book.
Readers of Simpson’s previous works may enjoy this one. There is nothing wrong with his 12 keys but he fails to add value about the environmental crisis, and does not provide a convincing case to support his assertion of the unique need for Celtic Christianity.
Peter Skerratt is a member of St Andrew’s United Reformed Church, Ealing, London
An activist’s stories
Faith, Hope and Mischief:
Tiny acts of rebellion
In March 2019, a young man visited two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. He shot dead 51 worshippers and injured 49 more. When the news broke, Andrew Graystone pictured his local Muslim community, who would shortly be making their way to the mosque for Friday prayers. Wishing to offer support and solidarity, he stood near the mosque and displayed a handwritten poster which read: ‘You are my friends. I will keep watch while you pray.’ A picture taken of his modest act snowballed around social media, sparking mostly positive reactions.
While none of the other stories told in this delightful book can match the impact or scale of the mosque incident, they all have common threads of honesty, integrity, good humour, humility and a desire to express the ups and downs of life and faith in a refreshing and inspiring way. I read this book at one sitting, while retreating from Covid-related gloom. Graystone’s stories made me laugh out loud, warmed my heart, and breathed hope into my wearied mind.
Ian Fosten is Book Reviews Editor for Reform
These reviews were published in the December 2020 / January 2021 edition of Reform