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Slow horses and flying starts – the glittering career of Gary Oldman

6 January 2023

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

Like many viewers, Rakewell has only just become aware of Mick Herron’s Slough House series of spy novels through the recent television adaptations. Series one was an unexpected delight and series two got your correspondent through a couch-bound Christmas. For anyone still unfamiliar with either the books or the Apple TV series, Herron’s books (there are 8 so far) follow the adventures of a group of MI5 officers who have made mistakes that are big enough to get them demoted as dunces, but not quite big enough to get themselves fired. (The catalogue of errors includes a high-flyer shutting down Stansted Airport during a training exercise and a protection officer sleeping with the wife of his diplomatic protectee.)

Our relegated, demoralised anti-heroes are referred to as ‘slow horses’ for working out of Slough House – a joke that the supposedly more nimble ‘dogs’ in internal security at MI5 can’t help repeating. And, as if being made to sort through piles of rubbish and pore over flight manifests isn’t punishment enough, they have to work for Jackson Lamb, a former field officer in the Cold War, who does everything he can to make them miserable and push them out of the service. Gary Oldman plays the greasy-haired, belching old pro with an unsentimental sense of duty in what has to be a career highlight. You can tell he’s having fun, without worrying about him chewing up the scenery.

No one needs reminding that Oldman is a great actor, but after something of a homemade mini-retrospective over the holidays, Rakewell can say that his Beethoven in Immortal Beloved is very much better than the critics led us to believe; his Rosencrantz, always at a loss in the screen adaptation of Tom Stoppard’s play, is quite riveting. But the actor’s greatest role to date is that of director. No one could call Nil By Mouth (1997) a cheerful watch (not even your correspondent, who has been known to watch The Battle of Algiers on Christmas Day) – but it is disheartening to think that a genuinely great film didn’t lead to a second gig for its maker. (Meanwhile… Richard Curtis.)

Animal Locomotion, Plate 626 (1887), Edward Muybridge. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Animal Locomotion, Plate 626 (1887), Eadweard Muybridge. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

It’s no surprise Oldman has stuck to the less punishing path of an in-demand actor; he eventually had to finance much of the film himself. But the actor has long had a script up his sleeve, based on the life of Eadweard Muybridge – and Rakewell can’t think of anything they’d like to see more. Some clues about where his interest in the photographer lies can be gleaned from the documentary Exposing Muybridge (2021), but no more than clues. And who knows if the IMDb description of the project and its working title was ever accurate? One thing, however, is certain: from Slow Horses to Flying Horse would be a thoroughly welcome progression for film-lovers everywhere.

Got a story for Rakewell? Get in touch at rakewell@apollomag.com or via @Rakewelltweets.