Congratulations to television producers everywhere – it took them years, but they have finally found a new stock-hero to sit alongside doctors and the various branches of law enforcement. No, not the superhero – vigilantes, after all, being more or less cops with powers – but the hacker. They love a trend in TV land, and they’re really giving the hacker the hard sell – indeed, every one of those superheroes has his trusty hacker and one keyboard cowboy might even contribute to the undoing of President Underwood in House of Cards.
Were he alive, I wonder if Thomas Carlyle would add a lecture to his great work On heroes, hero-worship, & the heroic in history called The Hero as Button Pusher. Perhaps, given his admiration for flawed heroes and revolutionaries, he would; but of course he wouldn’t be championing the sort of misogynistic malcontent who steals naked pictures of celebrities. No, for Carlyle it would have to be the Anonymous or Occupy type of activist. But, hélas, those groups have no concept of leadership, heroic or otherwise, so what is a 19th century thinker to do?
No matter, Mr Robot (Amazon Prime) gives the 21st-century thinker enough to ponder. A gifted young hacker called Elliot, played as a vacant goon by the gifted Rami Malek, falls in with a group of hacktivists called fsociety (no caps in the dark web, please) and their efforts to take down E Corp (Evil Corp in Elliot’s unstable mind), the sort of ‘tentacle company’ for which everything is usually to blame in sci-fi films, and change the world. An admirable thing, and though their politics runs in the revolutionary-infantile mode, they are saved from naivety by Christian Slater’s delightfully manic turn as their leader, the eponymous Mr Robot, a man who doesn’t balk at suggesting that some people might be killed in the struggle to cast off the shackles of capitalism.
Like all television heroes – particularly doctors and cops – both Mr Robot and Elliot are egomaniacs in their own way. Could there be anything more arrogant than deciding that you are the one who is going to change the world? Elliot, however, is sinister and megalomaniacal in other ways: much like the security agencies he no doubt reviles, he has no problem hacking the people he cares about, and we’ll touch on his intimacy issues later, for their own good. Well, Flaubert said it best: ‘In every revolutionist beats the heart of a policeman.’ And, whether you’re Anonymous or Jeremy Corbin, you cannot fool the public: they know that every good intention is laced with malice, don’t they?
It follows, then, that if Elliot were simply a brilliant hacker and a regular guy we’d hate him, so he has to have a little bit of sympathetic padding by way of a semi-tragic backstory, linked to Evil Corp – natch – and consequent social anxiety. But equally, we couldn’t possibly be expected to sympathise with a complete weirdo so, despite an aversion to any routine physical contact, he has casual sex with his drug dealer and, oh yes, a drug problem. This is the manner in which we relate to people in the minds of TV panjandrums, but why can’t anyone on television just take a narcotic like a normal person without it ruining their life? – Sorry, forgot about the War on Drugs for a moment.
Nevertheless Elliot, plus the most unlikeable cast of supporting characters on record, and, to move things away from the computer screen, his awkwardly exciting adventures make for interesting viewing. On the debit side, things fall apart a little in the fourth episode with an extended withdrawal-induced dream with a talking fish that reminded me enough of The Sopranos to make me wish I was watching that again, but then a part of me always wishes I were spending time with those cumpàs; and the portrayal of the tech-executive villain is a quite a bit too hammy. Overall, however, the performances, no matter how unlikeable, are mostly engaging, the dialogue doesn’t have too much meaningless jargon, and they have resisted the temptation to render CSI-style visual representations of the workings of the net, for which they have my sincere gratitude.
Speaking of hams and hacks, The Dresser (BBC Two) could’ve been a drama so overblown that it would’ve been the end of acting as we know it, but Sirs Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellan did not combust upon appearing in the same shot and gave two markedly restrained and affecting performances in this play about an ageing theatrical tyrant and his dresser. And by restrained I don’t mean that they were underwhelming, Hopkins and McKellan have the talent of growing as big as their roles require.
In this play, as ‘Sir’, we see Hopkins coming in and out of lucidity, mirroring the role he is preparing to play that evening, King Lear. I’m not familiar with the play but I wonder if the onstage bits, the play within the play, as it were, take place offstage in the original, but I am grateful for the snippets of King Lear we see in this film because they were thrilling – certainly more thrilling than a banal production I saw earlier this year. Despite the fact that everyone refers to Hopkins’ character as ‘Sir’, and his faux-wife as ‘her ladyship’, we learn that this is all a charade, and I like to think, when discussing ‘His Majesty’s taste’ in giving a knighthood to a rival actor, there is vintage Hopkins’ mischief at work, musing on his and his co-star’s own honours. There is always an intelligence as sharp as one of Hannibal Lecter’s knives at work behind a Hopkins’ performance. (I note that we can look forward to seeing him on the small screen again next year in HBO’s remake of Westworld. That’s sure to be a deranged treat.)
Similarly, there’s always something else going on in a McKellan character: in The Dresser the tippling Norman goes from doting dotard to malicious queen – is it the drink, genuine hurt or years of buried resentment that prompts him to mock his dead employer’s corpse? You can see all of these conflicting, or perhaps complementary, emotions throughout the whole film, creating a rounded character, not one who switches from dark to light – but we’re used to this, would you trust McKellan’s Gandalf anymore than his Magneto? I haven’t seen his film Mr Holmes, from earlier this year, yet but I imagine Sherlock to be the perfect part: cold on a personal level, but utterly humane in spirit.
Hopkins’ character, during the intermission, tells a young actress that she must be prepared to give up what most people would think of as an ordinary life to succeed as an artist. The play – unlike, say, a Woody Allen film – runs with this, he does not, when he has the chance, do the ‘right’ thing, he dies true to art above all else – keeping the faith, as he puts it. Whether you will see this as a tragedy or not, will depend on your aesthetic, but should anyone ever question the necessity, the use, of art to you – quote Lear’s words to them: ‘Reason not the need’. If they still persist, bellow Lear’s other words right in their face: ‘Howl, howl, howl, howl! Oh, you men are made of stone!’
From Lear to The Merchant of Venice and the first episode of new series of imagine… Shylock’s Ghost (BBC One). I have spoken before about Howard Jacobson’s magnificence as an arts documentarian and also that Alan Yentob cannot carry the cultural load alone, so I’m glad the BBC have listened to me and paired them both up to discuss Shylock and antisemitism. One can just imagine the forums on the hate groups raving about this – two Jews discussing the acme of Jewish stock-characters? Why, it must be a zionist plot! One can imagine it, and shake one’s head in disbelief – but not in surprise: in a documentary about the Ku Klux Klan a few weeks ago, one of them described Auschwitz as a ‘holiday camp’.
Is Shylock, or the play, antisemitic, then? Probably. At a time when Jews were believed to drink the blood of Christian children – and this because they needed to replace the blood lost through menstruation… – Shakespeare, history’s greatest entertainer, would’ve known that audiences do not leave their prejudices at the entrance to the pit. Had Shylock been written as a hero instead of a villain – we’d probably call him an antihero now – the audience would still lend him their fears.
As well as being a bit of a promo for Jacobson’s forthcoming reimagining of The Merchant of Venice, part of a series of such novels by an array of authors (look out for Margaret Atwood’s version of The Tempest!), this was also a build-up, presumably, for next year’s Bardomania. There will probably be a great many people questioning what there could possibly still be to be said about Shakespeare, but those people will be churls and what do we say to them? Howl.