Cumberbatch and Hardy: the action to the word, the word to the action, with special observance

Stuart: A Life Backwards: a review

We’ve all had the discussion: is the film better than the book? Is the book more meaningful than the film?  In the case of Alexander Masters’s book, ‘Stuart: A Life Backwards,’ the answer is, absolutely, that both are equally impressive.

Alexander Masters’s book is an account of his unlikely but poignant friendship with Stuart Clive Shorter. Alexander is an academic, a campaigning librarian who lives in Cambridge and Stuart is a drug and drink addict, a criminal  with a past crammed with violence. The contrast between their backgrounds, their lives and their attitudes makes for a friendship which is, at times, difficult but it is also rewarding and thought-provoking.

The film, directed by David Attwood in 2007, is a triumph of matched and complementary performances from two of the outstanding actors of our generation. Alexander, with his middle-class lifestyle and comfortable home, his ambition and his desire, is a great foil for homeless Stuart who has muscular dystrophy and is a loner, a philosopher and a genius in his own right.

The story shows us two very different lives and then, slowly, brings them together in a friendship which is bittersweet and which demands both characters to accept the other’s shortcomings in order to form a bond which goes beyond class and background.

There are scenes which entertain: Stuart invites Alexander to his temporary home and makes a chicken curry, putting the meal together in a way which would have chefs quaking in their aprons. Alexander takes Stuart to stay with his friends in the country. Initially, this looks like another recipe for disaster as Stuart describes their tea as ‘lapsang shoe pong.’

It is a story which digs deeply into the reasons for prejudice: the initial suspicion and hostility between Alexander and Stuart develop into a close and symbiotic relationship based on integrity and intelligence equally matched despite, and because of,  their difference.

There are some horrific scenes: Stuart has a tendency towards violence which is not easy to watch, violence which is quickly turned on others as well as himself. The flashback to Stuart as a child where he first throws a punch is edifying.

It would be easy to say Tom Hardy steals the show: his shuffling gait, his vocal creaks, his wounded facial expressions make for a fully brilliant performance but Benedict Cumberbatch, reflective and responsive, is his opposite and it is the chemistry between the two characters which creates  alchemy.

Master’s title is Stuart’s idea: he decides that a chronological life story of his own traumatic thirty years would be better told backwards. It is Stuart’s creative genius which allows Masters’s narrative to work best, both in the book and the film as, told backwards, the denouement and climax are most powerful and dramatic .

Stuart asks ‘How did I get to be like this? What murdered the little boy I was?’ Masters’s book and Attwood’s film provide staggering answers. ‘Stuart: A Life Backwards’ is thought-provoking, poignant and pertinent to our time. 

Read the book. Watch the film. Enjoy the actors: revel in two outstanding performances by two consummate players who can create multi-faceted characters which are simultaneously thrilling and heart-breaking. Unmissable.



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