Archive for category Film
As always, a couple of caveats. When I say ‘the best’, I mean the stuff I really really liked. So I’m quite comfortable with you disagreeing – if you didn’t like something I did, then probably the reverse is true, and that’s totally fine. Secondly, whilst I’ve tried to avoid spoilers in what follows, read on at your own peril if you haven’t seen the programme/film concerned.
We’ve watched crime dramas from around the world – Cardinal (Canada), Crimson Rivers, No Second Chance and Les Dames (France), Darkness (Those who Kill) and Follow the Money (Denmark), Greyzone (Denmark/Sweden), The River (Norway), Night and Day (Spain), Trapped (Iceland), The Team (Denmark/Netherlands/Germany/France), Harrow (Australia), Perception and The Sinner (USA). These are a mixed bag – not all these series are ones we will follow up if we get a chance – and you may note a significant omission. Spiral is currently airing but at the time of writing we haven’t yet watched it – it’s accumulating on the BT box and we’re saving it up as a treat once it’s complete. Those are the rules, sorry. We’re also part way through Deutschland 86 which is excellent, and so extraordinary to contemplate how the world and the mindset of the GDR were due to disintegrate so completely only three years later.
Obviously, there’s plenty of home-grown crime too. Again, they’re a mixed bag – we weren’t entirely persuaded by Cheat, The Bay, Trust Me or The Widow, although they were entertaining enough. Baptiste, Innocent and Informer all had strong plots and strong casts, and emotional heft as well. The Le Carré adaptation, The Little Drummer Girl, was excellent too.
But in their own league were:
Endeavour – this keeps on getting better. The final episode was superb, and very moving. But for my money, the writing and acting in a brief scene between Bright (Anton Lesser) and Thursday (Roger Allam) was television at its finest. They were talking about the women they loved and feared (or knew) they were losing, how they had met them – and as each of them reminisced, it was as if they were each in their own world of memory, their words interweaving in a way that was somehow operatic (whilst being very understated, as befits the two characters).
Killing Eve season 2 was widely reckoned to be not up to the first. I can see some of that. But it was still quite deranged, deliciously wicked, and wickedly delicious. Whether a third season is a good idea, I don’t know, but will give it a go – I can’t think of any other series that has delivered the utterly unexpected quite so frequently. And Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh totally deserve all of the praise they’ve received for their performances.
Line of Duty was as nail-bitingly tense as ever. The elements are familiar now but the twists and turns of the plot are still gripping, and the performances excellent. I think before the next season, whenever that lands, we will have to re-watch the whole thing from the beginning, because it’s clearly all interconnected and I’m sure all the clues as to who is H (if indeed there is an H) are there somewhere… (and no, of course it isn’t Ted. Don’t be silly).
After all that murder, we do need the occasional laugh. I’m super-critical of comedy. I’ll give a new programme a try, but if it makes me wince more than it makes me laugh it doesn’t get a second chance. These passed the test.
This year saw the last Big Bang Theory – there was a point when I thought it had exhausted the comedic possibilities of the sitch and the central (male) characters, but bringing the women into the foreground gave it a new lease of life, and the final season was funny and often touching. Young Sheldon turned out to be excellent, the Cooper family drawn and performed with real affection and warmth.
We got to Fleabag rather late in the day but it was brilliant and funny. I was starting to find the glances to camera slightly irritating, when she changed the rules again in Season 2, with the hot priest noticing and asking her about it. Weirdly, Gentleman Jack also used the same trick (no idea who was copying who).
Derry Girls was fabulous, and silly, but never let one quite forget the context. The events around the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and Bill Clinton’s visit to Derry may have been mere background as far as the teenagers were concerned, but were heavy with meaning, at a time when the GFA seemed under threat from a no-deal Brexit. (It may still be – only a fool would attempt to make predictions at present.)
And The Good Place took us into unexpected realms of moral philosophy whilst being very funny along the way. (We’ve just finished season 2.)
Of these, I’m going to pick Derry Girls as my fave. I love those girls (and boy). And Sister Michael, obvs.
Having welcomed the Thirteenth Doctor in 2018, we had just the one episode of Who to sustain us through 2019, a New Year’s Day special. But the trailer’s out now for the new series, ‘coming soon in 2020’ so will just have to be patient till then…
Agents of Shield continued to be complex and compelling drama. The latest season ended with another unexpected swerve. My only quibble – and it applies to the next programme too – is the tendency to appear to kill off a key and beloved character and then renege on death. It’s something that happens a lot in fantasy/sci fi, given that there are myriad ways in which death can be cheated or reversed, but just because you can, doesn’t mean you should… Cumulatively, it can mean that the next death doesn’t move you because you kind of know they’ll be back.
Star Trek Discovery is still excellent, even without Jason Isaacs. And the arrival of Captain Pike was most intriguing, given the tie in to original Trek as well as to the reboot movies. There are some great characters (I’m especially fond of Ensign Tilly). Too much death-reversing (see above). But thoroughly enjoyable, exciting, unexpected.
Walking Dead has come back from a real creative slump. The war with the Saviours just went on too long, and was over-reliant on our supposed fascination with Negan. But with a jump forward in time, we’ve now (in Series 10) got a really creepy and interesting new threat, which also weaponises the zombie hordes, who had come to seem almost irrelevant during the Saviour wars. The mid-season finale (or should that be semi-finale?) was a classic example of key character doing something utterly stupid that endangers nearly every other key character – but it did it well, and the other plot strands that were left as cliff-hangers were powerful too. I’m glad I didn’t give up on it.
Hard to pick one – but I’ll go with Shield.
Years and Years almost qualifies as sci-fi. This Russell T Davies near future dystopia deals extensively with tech and how it affects every detail of people’s lives. But its main focus is the rise of a cynical, populist politician, who through a mixture of public support and chicanery gains power and uses it to horrific effect. It being RTD, this is emotionally intense, often funny, always scary.
Gentleman Jack stars the wonderful Suranne Jones as the early nineteenth-century lesbian diarist Anne Lister. She’s a fascinating character, particularly when one sees her through a contemporary lens – her sexuality and determination to follow her own path in that regard, despite all of the obstacles that society places in her way on the one hand, her belief in the class system and the interests of the landowning aristocracy on the other. It’s a hugely entertaining account, which reminds us that it’s based on Anne’s encrypted diaries with her asides to camera (as noted above, very Fleabag, even to the extent of having Anne’s lover notice at one point and comment on it).
More conventional costume drama in Poldark which reached its final season, so no more lingering shots of Ross riding along the Cornish clifftops or Demelza gazing out to sea. There are more books in the Winston Graham series than have been televised, but I think they focus on the next generation, so who knows, there might be a Poldark 2 at some stage, but without Ross, Demelza, Dwight, Drake, evil George… Of course, it would still have the staggeringly beautiful north Cornish coast, and a fascinating and turbulent period in terms of national and social history to explore.
World on Fire takes two families, one working-class, one wealthy, in late 1930s Manchester, and through the various family members and an American journalist explores the build-up to and the first couple of years of the war. That it relies on coincidence to connect these individuals with so many key events of the period (the fall of Poland, Dunkirk, the sinking of the Graf Spee, the Nazi euthaniasia programme, the occupation of Paris…) is absolutely fine. It’s a dramatic device, but it works. However. I’m happy to suspend disbelief at the aforementioned coincidences, but I cannot for the life of me see how Grzegorz gets from Gdansk to Warsaw to the Soviet occupied area of Poland and then within a period of less than nine months, without false papers, crosses most of Nazi Europe to turn up at Dunkirk and blag a place on a boat. It feels like there’s a whole story there to be told, if we’re to accept it at all, but instead we just jump from Soviet Poland to the beaches at Dunkirk. I would be less hard on this if I didn’t like the series so much in every other respect, but I shouted at the telly a couple of times over this strand of the narrative and no further explanation was forthcoming. Hmmm.
Stephen Poliakoff’s Summer of Rockets explores Cold War Britain, through the family of a Russian Jewish inventor recruited by MI5. It’s a fascinating portrayal of the world into which I was born (it’s set in 1958) but which I don’t recognise at all. Keeley Hawes is as splendid as ever, amongst a strong cast. Beautifully written and filmed, it’s thoroughly intriguing and quirky.
Best of these – another hard choice but I’ll go with Years and Years.
This year the children of 7 Up turned 63. We’ve been following them for decades now – they’re our contemporaries, and have been part of our lives for so long that we feel they’re almost like distant relations, who we only see every few years, but still kind of care about. I wonder how many of them will continue with the series (some of them said that their continued participation depends on Michael Apted, who’s now 71). Not only that, but whilst we have so far weathered divorces, the loss of parents, serious illness, and the death of one of the cohort, it can only get tougher from here on in. But for as long as they continue, we will continue to check in with them. Whatever the flaws in the original conception it’s been the most extraordinarily fascinating series.
One more doc, The Yorkshire Ripper Files. The last thing I watched about the Ripper, the drama-doc, This is Personal, gave me horrific nightmares. It ostensibly focused on the investigation but dramatized at least one attempted murder, and it took me right back to the fear that we lived with in Yorkshire whilst he was out there, killing women. I used to come back from work, always hoping that Karen from next door would be on my bus, and that we would scurry back from the bus stop to our road, feeling marginally safer for being together, but not feeling fully safe until we were home and the door shut and chained. And every night, those nightmares. The Yorkshire Ripper Files focused on how the investigation was derailed not just by the hoax tape but by the conventional attitudes of the time, fixating on the fact that some early victims were sex workers, and thus discounting attacks on women who were not, even when one of those women provided a chillingly accurate description of Sutcliffe. There was much I didn’t know, despite having followed the case so closely at the time, and it was a powerful reminder of how far, in many ways, we’ve come since the 70s, even if much still needs to change.
The Big Screen (even if seen on DVD on the small screen…)
It’s been a Marvellous year in the cinema. We had the arrival of the most powerful Avenger, and then the culmination of the Avengers saga with the mighty Endgame. I can’t be doing with the auteur-led dismissal of the superhero genre – my cinematic world is broad enough to encompass enigmatic French art films where nothing happens at considerable length AND epic battles between good and evil, packed with action (also at considerable length) but also with wit and heart. I’m contemplating a lengthier defence of the genre for this blog at some stage but for now, Scorsese, et al, leave it out. As well as the two major films, there were hugely enjoyable outings for Ant Man and the Wasp, and for Spiderman (both in the form of Tom Holland and in the animated Into the Spiderverse).
Leave No Trace was a beautiful, subtle piece of film-making, full of warmth and compassion, and faith in people. So many situations where one feared the worst but where people turned out to be decent, to be doing their best, to be kind. It hurt my heart, but it soothed it too. I know not everyone is ok, but perhaps sometimes we need to be reminded that most people are.
Bad Times at the El Royale was fairly bonkers, a lot of fun, with fantastic performances from Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo in particular. The body count was pretty spectacular, but again, there were instances where people turned out to be better than one might have feared, rather than worse.
Erivo turned up again in Widows, one of a number of excellent films we saw this year with predominantly black casts. A heist movie wasn’t what I would have expected from Steve McQueen after Twelve Years a Slave, but as the Empire reviewer put it, ‘with the help of a staggering ensemble cast, Steve McQueen has made an intelligent, emotional thriller that contemplates contemporary American politics as confidently as it does blowing shit up.’
Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman got some stick for preaching to the choir, for making the contemporary parallels too obvious, and for making the KKK too stupid to be scary. I’m not sure that I agree. The final scene in which the lead players chuckle at their victory would be far too complacent and cheesy were it not for the news footage that follows, of Charlottesville and the contemporary equivalents of those bigots, still here, still spouting their hate. Lee’s film is often very funny and yes, a lot of the laughs come at the expense of the Klan. But there’s plenty here – even without the bookending of the 1950s racist PSA and the Charlottesville fascist demos – to shock and disturb. Denzel’s son, John David Washington, and Adam Driver, are great in the leads.
We only saw Jordan Peele’s Get Out this year, but had managed to avoid having much idea of what happened, beyond the initial premise of a young black guy visiting his white girlfriend’s family for the first time. It builds brilliantly – initially things are just that bit awkward, a bit clumsy, but we could be in for social comedy at this stage. We see Chris (brilliantly played by Daniel Kaluuya) initially smiling along – his whole life he’s been encountering the many and varied forms of white racism, and he knows there’s no point in calling it out, not at first. But then it gets weirder, and wronger, and every time you think you know where we’re heading, you’re wrongfooted…
Peele’s most recent film, Us, is ‘a superb doppelganger satire of the American dream’, which, like Get Out, builds its terrors gradually and relentlessly, and pulls surprise after surprise. Its mythology is more opaque than that of Get Out, but it resonates very powerfully nonetheless, and the chills and shocks stay with you. Lupita Nyong’o is absolutely mesmerising.
Sorry to Bother You is madly satirical sci-fi. It may sound mundane: a young black telemarketer who adopts a white accent to succeed at his job. Swept into a corporate conspiracy, he must choose between profit and joining his activist friends to organise labour. But whilst there’s an absolutely dizzying swerve part way through that no one could possibly have predicted, there are elements right from the start that mark it out as not social realism.
If Beale Street could Talk is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel, and it’s so very beautiful. It’s even quietly optimistic and hopeful about humanity, despite everything that happens to the protagonists, because it portrays real and lasting romantic love, and real and powerful family love. The Guardian said: ‘Here is a film almost woozy with its own beauty and dignity, a film going transcendently high in the face of a racist world going low. It is a tribute of quiet passion extended to those lives fractured by injustice, and seems to serenely offer up their hard-won heroism to ward off bigotry’s corrosive evil’.
There have been fewer opportunities to watch French art-house movies of late, but we did see Agnes Varda’s final film, which gives us the delight of spending two hours in her very engaging company, through interviews and clips from her movies. Varda by Agnes should take one immediately to seeing all of her films. We also caught Non-Fiction, which is about as archetypal a French film as one could find – populated by writers, publishers, actors and their ilk, all of whom are sleeping with each other, when they’re not having intense debates about the future of literature in a digital age. It’s clever and funny and very enjoyable.
The Farewell was great too – very touching and funny, about families and about cultural differences. As it opens we see Billi, the protagonist, in New York, juggling cultures adeptly as she talks on her phone to her grandmother in China and telling her what she wants to hear. But the grandmother is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the family follow tradition in not telling the patient of her prognosis, all gathering in China for a slightly rushed wedding in order to say their farewells without actually saying farewell…
Booksmart was a ridiculously funny and smart coming-of-age film, starring Beanie Feldstein (the best friend in Lady Bird) and Kathryn Dever. They carry the film completely – parents and potential boy or girlfriends are in a way peripheral. The Guardian review said: ‘there are sequences that will feel familiar to anyone well-versed in high school comedies, but Wilde manages to grace her film with a distinctive aura all of its own. For one, romance and sex are relatively low down on the list for the girls while friendship, feminism and the pursuit of fun are of more importance, turning them from archetypes into fully fleshed, and flawed, young women.’
If I have to pick from these, my top three films would be Avengers: Endgame, If Beale Street could Talk, and Us.
Allons-y to 2020!
These are my picks for films of 2018. As usual, I’m resisting the urge to rank these, because they’re so diverse, but there is a top 3 which I will reveal shortly.
2018 had two huge additions to the Marvel cinematic universe. Black Panther has a significance that goes way beyond its contribution to the Avengers’ narrative arc. It gives us, all of us, a cast that is overwhelmingly made up of people of colour. Good guys and bad guys and somewhere in between. And not just guys – a whole lot of magnificent, clever women too. The film had, as one might have expected, a huge impact on black audiences. It’s not that they hadn’t ever seen people who look like them on screen, or even in superhero movies, but up front and centre? All over the damn screen? But it had an impact on all of us, I think. It didn’t make a big deal of what it was doing, it just got on with it, as this review in The Daily Telegraph, of all places, points out:
The film walks into the multiplex like it’s insane that it hasn’t been allowed in there all along. And it is. For one thing, an entire subset of younger cinema-goers are only just about to experience the dizzy uplift of watching a title character in a superhero movie who looks like them under the costume. … Black Panther seems to overcome the genre’s long-standing neuroses around creating rounded, exciting roles for women by just getting on with it.
It worked on every level – there was much fighting, and things exploded, and there was moral ambiguity, and there was witty dialogue. And it was visually stunning – our first view of Wakanda was breathtaking.
And then there’s Avengers: Infinity War. Now normally I walk out of the cinema after a Marvel movie with a big daft smile on my face. Not this time. I was braced for deaths – I thought I knew what was coming and did a bit of advance grieving for my most-loved Avenger (Captain, oh, my Captain). What we got was much more confusing than that. We lost so many, but not the ones we expected to lose – in fact, many of those who we saw turn to dust were the ones we know absolutely can’t be gone. It’s fine that in fantasy death is not always the end – why bother creating a fantasy world if it has to obey all of the same rules as the real one? – but the risk is always that death loses its sting if we too often can just nod sagely to each other and say, ‘they’ll be back’. So, which of these deaths are going to stick, and which will be reversed? We have to wait until April 2019 to find out.
The Last Jedi features
a scene … that’s both revolutionary and dead simple: a circle of women, soldiers and warriors all, … handily discussing how they’re going to tackle their latest military offensive. While Star Wars has always featured strong women … Johnson’s film integrates them into all aspects of the story.
As I’ve said previously, Star Wars isn’t my thing, although I’ve very much enjoyed The Force Awakens, Rogue One and this one. But I don’t feel quite the exhilaration that the true fans feel at the resurgence of the series, nor can I understand the sense of betrayal from fans who believe that the recent films get it wrong.
Annihilation was released on Netflix so we saw it on the small screen. It’s a shame – it’s visually stunning and would have really benefited from being shown in the full cinema setting. However, it’s a superb sci-fi film, which has the courage to leave plenty of ambiguity, right to the end. And, refreshingly, the crack team that’s sent in to try to investigate the mysterious ‘Shimmer’ is made up of women – scientists and a paramedic. That’s one of the areas of ambiguity – were they chosen solely because of their specialist expertise, regardless of gender, or is their gender a factor in their selection, that the failure of successive teams of military men to emerge from the Zone is actually to do with gender?
A Quiet Place was one of the tensest ninety minutes I can recall (and I endured Forest’s last ditch Championship survival on goal difference a couple of seasons ago). It was initially a hard sell – you watch this film, you have to sign up to the discipline of no coughing, no rustling of crisp packets or sweet wrappers, no sotto voce asides to your neighbour. Silence is survival in this world, and we rapidly become part of it, as we see how this family has adapted every detail of their life to enable them to function in silence. It’s made very clear early on that the peril is real, and it gets realler. We watched this on the small screen but there was never any question of hitting pause to fetch a cuppa or go to the toilet. We sat so very still that my Fitbit thought I’d had a 90 minute sleep…
First Man was 60s science fiction become reality, portraying the build-up to the 1969 moon landing, focusing on Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on another world. Armstrong (as portrayed here by Ryan Gosling) was in many ways a hard man to root for, his emotional distance shown vividly in the final scene, where after his return to earth and still in quarantine, his reunion with his wife is through the barrier of a pane of glass.
A rather odd (and atypical) review in The New Yorker complained that:
there’s no sense of what Neil’s perspective might be on the Twist, the Beatles, or anything else going on in the turbulent sixties.
I can’t say I was particularly troubled by that – it is actually refreshing to reflect that probably most people in the sixties were not caught up in that cultural maelstrom. The reviewer goes on to claim that:
Chazelle openly mocks people who thought that the moon money was spent foolishly—those pesky intellectuals, blacks, and Hispanics who go on TV or into the street demanding “gimme” while the likes of Neil and his exclusively white, male colleagues uncomplainingly put their lives on the line to accomplish historic things in the interest of “mankind.”
This seems to me an extraordinary claim. Nothing in the movie suggested to me either that Armstrong’s emotional closedness was being lauded (indeed, the damage to himself and to his family was very clearly shown), or that Chazelle was pushing some kind of MAGA patriotic agenda. A much more perceptive – but not uncritical – review appeared in The Culture Vulture .
One of the most striking things about the film was the sensation of the physical reality both of the machines that transported these men into space, and of the claustrophobia of being strapped into those machines – the sheer noise, the jolting and juddering, the shots of sheets of metal held together by nuts and bolts. We’re used to space craft as bright white shiny machines, not as something that might have been built in someone’s garage. I watched that first landing on TV, having been allowed a special dispensation to stay up after normal bedtime. Back then it might as well have been sci-fi – in First Man it’s science, it’s engineering, it’s mechanics and it’s fragile human bodies making it all work.
Three Billboards featured the redoubtable Frances McDormand, who was as magnificent as one might have expected. McDormand’s Mildred wasn’t readily likeable, even when she was being admirable, and she got it horribly wrong in many ways, but she was a powerful presence.
The heart of the film was Woody Harrelson’s police chief, trying to find the best in everyone. And the moment that touched me most was when as they confront each other he is racked by a cough that spatters blood over both of them, and she says, ‘oh, baby’, as she realises how very ill he is. It’s often a brutal film, and often brutally funny.
Cold War is a musical history of postwar Europe, shot in luminous black and white, a story of doomed lovers who find and lose and find and lose and find each other, always searching, never settling. The film’s last line is “Let’s go to the other side. The view is better from there”.
The lovers’ story is told through music, from the raw rural folk that Wiktor and Irena are attempting to record, to the ‘Stalinisation’ of that tradition, the Parisian jazz and chanson that they immerse themselves in after their defection and back to the bastardised pop of Zula’s final performance. The chill referred to in the title is political and personal. Irena stands up during the first full-on Stalinised performance and walks out, never to be seen, or spoken of again. Zula admits in passing to having informed on Wiktor. Those were the realities, but they’re not underlined or over-explained. It’s beautiful and devastating.
My final pick for 2018 is Lady Bird. Saoirse Ronan is wonderful, as is Laurie Metcalf (always one of the best things about Roseanne). As a former teenage girl, and more recently as the mother of a teenage girl, I identified with both the eponymous Lady Bird (aka Christine) and with her mother Marion. This was real, and touching, and often very funny. There were scenes that I could swear were ripped from my own life:
Do you really need to use two towels?
Ah… No, I guess no.
If you need two towels you just have to say so because this affects my whole day. Because I have to do laundry before work, and I need to know if there are more towels that I need to wash.
Family life, summed up in one short exchange. And then there’s the sequence where mother and daughter attempt to choose a prom dress. I laughed and winced.
OK, so I kind of committed myself to a top 3. Black Panther, A Quiet Place, Three Billboards. Such very different films, which is why I’m not willing to rank them within that top 3. I hope the comments above explain why I’ve chosen them.
Honourable mentions to: Death of Stalin (Jason Isaacs!), the Showroom’s Bergman season of which I managed to see only Persona and Smiles of a Summer Night, and their Varda season of which I saw only Jacquot de Nantes. Both seasons whetted my appetite for more from those directors. I particularly loved the humour and warmth of Agnes Varda’s love letter to her husband, Jacques Demy. Also the first part of the new adaptation of Stephen King’s It, which was infinitely better than the previous version, and the second part of which I await eagerly.
It’s also important to recognise the old movies that I enjoyed this year. A bit of a Powell & Pressburger retrospective with Blimp, A Matter of Life & Death, and I Know Where I’m Going. Lord, those guys were brilliant. And a couple of Billy Wilders – the familiar (Some Like it Hot) and the new to me The Apartment (I’d seen the Bacharach musical based on the story but not the movie). Rewatched West Side Story as a birthday treat, and had my annual sobfest watching It’s a Wonderful Life just before Xmas.
Small screen will have to be a separate blog. Given current family pressures, it may be more of a list than a blog, but hey-ho, that’s how it goes. I also hope to look at how the Bechdel test stands up in terms of contemporary films, where it still has validity and importance and where it falls down.
Thanks to those who’ve shared these cinematic pleasures with me (Arthur, Viv, Martyn, Liz).
Women in Hollywood. Women wearing black to the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, wearing Time’s Up badges, white flowers at the Grammys, standing up at the Oscars, women saying #MeToo.
Much has been said about the way in which the voices of women, silenced for a long time by fear of retaliation or of lawsuits, of humiliation and denigration, of career suicide, are now being raised, and amplified, and the way in which this has given courage to women in other professions and environments, to speak up not only for themselves but for women who have even more to lose.
I’m not going to be directly addressing these events. But I am talking about the culture of Hollywood – a culture in which women are marginalised and isolated on screen as they are off-screen. And it’s all connected.
I’m going to look at ways in which we can assess the movies we watch, and analyse their portrayal of women, and think about what change might look like on the screen. I will touch on other aspects of diversity but I can’t do justice to it all!
The Bechdel Test has been around since 1985. But the essential idea actually goes back a lot further than that:
All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. … And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. … They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that … (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929)
There are actually only three requirements for passing the test:
(Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For)
It’s been developed slightly since then, and the usual formulation now is that the film must:
- feature at least two named women
- who talk to each other
- about something other than a man.
The first thing to say about these criteria is that they set the bar pretty damn low. (Just think for a moment about how many films would fail if you reversed the genders here. Er, no, me neither). Indeed, Alison Bechdel never intended the test to do anything other than to draw attention ‘to the severity of the problem by showing how low you could set the bar and still watch Hollywood executives trip over it’. Because an awful lot of films still fail, and a surprising number only scrape through with a bit of special pleading.
Does this matter? Well, yes it really does. When we – girls and women – go to the cinema, do we see ourselves on screen? Do we see the kind of women we are, and that we work and live with, that we encounter in all aspects of our lives – women who make decisions and have opinions, women who act and change things in their lives and in the world around them? If we don’t, that doesn’t stop us being that kind of woman, but it makes it harder, given that it’s already hard, to keep on keeping on in the face of everyday sexism.
Given the howls of horror from some men when a rare film does feature lots of women doing stuff, or when the Ghostbusters or Doctor Who are reimagined as women, it’s clear that the status quo is comforting to those men who would much rather we didn’t make decisions and have opinions, that we didn’t act and change things in our lives and the world around us. And it is very relevant to note that when we get one – ONE – superhero movie with an overwhelmingly black cast, there are trolls on Twitter ready to call it racist. Dear lord, one could so easily despair. But one won’t.
If I ever doubted that it’s powerful to see ourselves on screen, I had two reminders last year. Firstly, I went to see Wonder Woman.
It passes the test. It’s a while before we see a bloke at all, and when we do, he needs rescuing. By a woman. I’d underestimated how intensely exhilarating and moving it would be to see those scenes of the Amazonian women on Themyscira, and to see Diana Prince sorting out all the blokes who tried to tell her to ‘just wait there’. I wanted to weep and punch the air.
And then, not long after, we heard that the Doctor would be a woman, and at Christmas I watched as he regenerated into she, and she said, oh, brilliant. And it was.
But back to the test. It’s important to recognise that passing the test doesn’t make a film a good film, or a feminist film. Elle passes the test, as does Fifty Shades of Grey, apparently, but both are intensely problematic in their sexual politics. And Dunkirk unequivocally fails but is a brilliant film that would not have been enhanced in any way by shoehorning in some Bechdel-conforming female characters to supplement the unnamed WRENs and nurses.
It’s also important to remember that – once you’ve achieved the ‘two named women’ criterion – it’s not primarily about how many women there are on screen. If there are only one or two significant female characters, then the female characters may have to carry the burden of representing their whole gender, something male characters are rarely required to do. But the most important thing is not the number of women but, as Neda Ulaby put it, ‘the depth of their stories, and the range of their concerns’, women as characters rather than as cliches. If there are loads of women on screen but they say very little (an analysis of Oscar winning films shows that men have the vast majority of words, even in films that pass the Bechdel test) then we cannot really see and hear them as rounded characters. And if the women that are there on screen, however well-written they are individually, are disconnected from one another, connected only to the men, we’re still not getting what we need.
I had a look at the films that I’ve seen over the last year or so, to see how they measure up.
FAIL – Baby Driver, Thor: Ragnarok, War for the Planet of the Apes, Dunkirk
Maybe just about scrape a pass if you’re very indulgent – Spiderman: Homecoming, Logan, Rogue One, It. (NB my inclusion of Rogue One in this category is disputed…)
PASS – Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Wonder Woman, Twentieth-Century Women, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Elle, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Black Panther, Lady Bird, Annihilation
Now, obviously my movie list is a personal one and reflects my particular preferences. Nonetheless, the balance isn’t so far out of kilter with wider ranging surveys. A recent analysis showed that one-third of 50 movies from 2016 failed. Between a quarter and a half of my list fail.
However, of those that pass, several pass gloriously.
I’ve already spoken about Wonder Woman. And The Last Jedi features
a scene … that’s both revolutionary and dead simple: a circle of women, soldiers and warriors all, … handily discussing how they’re going to tackle their latest military offensive. While Star Wars has always featured strong women … Johnson’s film integrates them into all aspects of the story.
Twentieth Century Women lives up to its title, with women front and centre in the movie and on the poster. Hidden Figures similarly features three women at the forefront – and those women are black.
Hidden Figures is a reminder that the Bechdel test addresses only one aspect of diversity. Which is one of the reasons that a variety of alternative or supplementary tests have been proposed.
Some of these look behind the camera to the involvement of women (currently around 18%) and/or people of colour in the writing, direction, production of the film. Clearly this is crucial. When the vast, overwhelming majority of films are written and directed by white men, this will skew the presentation of women. Not necessarily through conscious sexism, but because a male writer will inevitably identify more with the characters on screen who are most like him (the I-guys, as Stephen King calls them), and will then think of the other characters in relation to the I guy. They may well not even notice that the women are under-represented, under-developed, under-used.
There are tests that directly address ethnicity AND gender. If white women find it difficult to see themselves on screen, it’s so much more the case for women of colour. One test asks that a film features a black women who’s in a position of power and is in a healthy relationship. Another that there is a non-white, female-identifying person in the film who speaks in five or more scenes and speaks English. Against the first of these, most films fail. The second does better. We could apply the same kind of methodology to the portrayal of gay characters, transgender characters, disabled characters. But I suspect we know what the outcome would be (and we’d have to address the issue of straight actors playing gay, cis actors playing trans, actors without disabilities playing disabled).
A more qualitative approach is to focus on how women are portrayed on screen. Do films show
women as characters who have needs and desires and who take actions stemming from those desires over the course of the film. (You know, they act like real people.) A surprising number of films fail to do even that much basic character development work with women. Often, women are reduced to stereotypes or tropes as soon as they’re introduced and then don’t get developed any further. And female characters frequently serve little purpose beyond causing plot problems for male protagonists, or having a baby with a male protagonist, or dying to raise the stakes for a male protagonist.
Some of these tests are quite subjective. Whether we can identify and empathise with a character on screen may vary according to our own experiences, our age, ethnicity, sexuality, etc etc. But whilst these more complex tests may not be as easy to apply, they reflect what we’re actually responding to. That niggling dissatisfaction we feel may well be because the women we are watching don’t have needs and desires that they pursue through dramatic action, because we see them as stereotypes, because what they do matters only in relation to the male protagonists.
Another way of looking at it is the proportion of women in supporting roles or even in crowd scenes. What if half of all one-scene roles go to women, if the first crowd scene features at least 50 per cent women (currently it averages 17%), and/or the supporting cast is 50 per cent women?
You’ll note that none of the tests involve counting the number of ‘strong women’ on screen. Not all women are strong, and no women are strong all of the time. As Helen Lewis put it, ‘nowadays the princesses all know kung fu, and yet they’re still the same princesses’. You can’t solve the problems of the representation of women just by inserting a strong woman into the plot and thinking, there, job done. We want women characters who are rounded human beings, fallible and flawed, but not dependent on men to make decisions or to solve problems. Some of these women may indeed kick ass, but they don’t all have to. We want a variety of women characters – not all beautiful, not all clever, not all strong, but, well, like real people. Just imagine!
Actually we don’t have to just imagine because if you watch TV these days things are very different. It’s fairly unusual to see a crime drama without a woman in a lead role (e.g. Spiral, Scott & Bailey, The Bridge, No Offence, Unforgotten, Marcella, Line of Duty, Broadchurch, Witnesses, Fargo, Vera). And in the realm of fantasy, just think of Orphan Black, Agents of Shield, Star Trek: Discovery, The Walking Dead and, of course, Doctor Who. These shows smash the Bechdel test, and many of the alternative tests noted above, without apparent effort.
TV’s not perfect, obviously, but writers for that medium don’t seem to have been getting the message that aspiring screenwriters in Hollywood were not very long ago.
I had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. …“The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.” … According to Hollywood, if two women came on screen and started talking, the target male audience’s brain would glaze over and assume the women were talking about nail polish or shoes or something that didn’t pertain to the story. Only if they heard the name of a man in the story would they tune back in. By having women talk to each other about something other than men, I was “losing the audience.
- Oscar-nominated films with a woman in the starring role are more profitable than their male-led counterparts.
- Female-led films (defined as films where the female actor had the first starring name on Internet Movie Database) earn higher box office returns – despite usually lower production budgets, according to BBC analysis.
- On average, every dollar invested in a female-led film earns back $2.12 (£1.53). For male-led films this figure is $1.59 (£1.15).
- Just 28% of films nominated for an Oscar since 2013 have had an actress taking top billing.
The film walks into the multiplex like it’s insane that it hasn’t been allowed in there all along. And it is. For one thing, an entire subset of younger cinema-goers are only just about to experience the dizzy uplift of watching a title character in a superhero movie who looks like them under the costume.
I should say, not all films have to be about women, or even to include women. It would be entirely unreasonable to demand that every film carry the burden of representing the diversity of the human race. For example, there is no reason on earth why a film should not be set in an environment where, for given reasons of historical accuracy or realism there are no, or almost no women present (I refer you again to Dunkirk). It’s just that when no such reasons apply, we should expect to see ourselves on screen, in the crowd scenes, in supporting roles, AND in key speaking roles that play a part in the action and that relate to each other as well as to men.
It is particularly disappointing when realism is ditched in favour of a science fiction/fantasy universe, but things don’t change as much as they could have done. Why be constrained by gender and racial stereotypes when you could tear the whole thing up and start again? I suspect that one reason is that this genre is traditionally assumed to be the white boys’ province. You create whole new universes, and want to run them all? Well, I don’t think much to that.
Things are changing. We’ve got Wonder Woman and Black Widow and Scarlet Witch and Captain Marvel and Valkyrie and Gamora and Nebula and the Doctor. And in Black Panther alone we’ve got Shuri and Okoye and Nakia and, as The Daily Telegraph (yes, really, again), says:
Black Panther seems to overcome the genre’s long-standing neuroses around creating rounded, exciting roles for women by just getting on with it.
And Frances McDormand (my hero!) had two words for us at the Oscars. Inclusion rider
This refers to a proposal by Stacy Smith, director of USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative:
“What if A-list actors amended every contract with an equity rider? The clause would state that tertiary speaking characters should match the gender distribution of the setting for the film, as long as it’s sensible for the plot,” Smith wrote. “If notable actors working across 25 top films in 2013 had made this change to their contracts, the proportion of balanced films (about half-female) would have jumped from 16 percent to 41 percent. Imagine the possibilities if a few actors exercised their power contractually on behalf of women and girls. It wouldn’t necessarily mean more lead roles for females, but it would create a diverse onscreen demography reflecting a population comprised of 50 percent women and girls. In other words, reality.”
I may be being naive, but it seems to me this could be huge. Already, Brie Larson, Michael B Jordan and John Boyega, among others, have said they’ll use this as a way to bring about change, on and off screen. Let’s hope.
We’re half the human race. We’re all races and religions, all shapes and sizes, all political persuasions. We have disabilities and we have none, we are healthy and we suffer pain and indignity, we are independent and we need help to get by. We have money to burn and we have nothing at all. We are mothers and we are daughters and sisters, we are friends and wives and lovers. We are beautiful and we are ordinary. We are gay, straight, bi, cis, trans, and every variant or combination of the above. We are feminists, and we are ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ and we are most decidedly not feminists. We believe in our right to choose, and we believe that women’s fertility should be controlled by the state, by the church, by men. We wear pussy hats, and ‘Make America Great Again’ hats.
That should provide the screenwriters of Hollywood plenty of scope.
And just to make the point, that I don’t, I really don’t, want to see nothing but white middle-aged middle-class short bespectacled women when I go to the movies, I had the same emotional response to Black Panther as I did to Wonder Woman. I wanted to weep, and to punch the air.
Because ultimately, it’s not Me me I want to see there. It’s all of us. The human race in all its wild and ridiculous and glorious diversity. And if some straight white guys have to hutch up a bit to make room, well, Time’s Up, dudes.
It was a good year for superheroes. Most specially because of Wonder Woman, not because it was the best of its genre this year necessarily but because for the first time with a superhero movie I didn’t have scroll through hundreds of images to find one where a woman was centre screen, in charge. I wrote about the film, how it made me feel, the exhilaration of seeing all the tropes I love about superhero movies but with a woman, a glorious, magnificent woman, where usually there is a man, or mainly men (quite possibly glorious and magnificent in their own right, but still).
I loved Guardians of the Galaxy 2, warming to it despite a phase when I wearied of some of the schoolboy humour, until I realised what that was telling us about these lost children, and how they were forming a strange, new family. There was plenty of daft humour too in Thor: Ragnarok, as one would expect given that Taika Waititi was directing (responsible for last year’s delightful Hunt for the Wilderpeople and for What we do in the Shadows). And it was perhaps a sign of changing times (and not a moment too soon) that Valkyrie is played as a cynical, world-weary, boozy mess who comes through when she is needed, such a male archetype. As well as obviously kicking ass in a most splendid way. Spiderman: Homecoming was charming, funny and really used the notion that Spidey is an adolescent boy, cleverly and with heart. Logan, though, of all the films that belong broadly in that genre, was the one to break your heart. With gripping valedictory performances from Jackman and Stewart, and a mesmerising and terrifying one from Dafne Keen.
Star Wars is not so much my thing. I did enjoy the first trilogy, albeit critically, but I never felt them to be mine, and I have never even seen the prequels (nor do I intend to). But I loved The Force Awakens, and I loved Rogue One, and I look forward to seeing The Last Jedi before long.
War for the Planet of the Apes was brilliant – referencing Biblical epics, Westerns, Apocalypse Now, Schindler’s List and probably other genres and specific films as well, whilst maintaining the power and emotional heft of its predecessors.
My efforts to find an image for each film in which a woman is prominent were doomed in the case of Dunkirk. That’s fair enough, given the premise, I didn’t expect women to feature other than in traditional roles – as nurses, or serving tea and jam sandwiches. There has been a more serious issue raised, that of the absence of non-white faces. I don’t honestly believe this was a deliberate whitewashing, nor do I accept that just because Farage liked the film it was a pro-Brexit parable. But it would have taken very little to ensure that there were visible representatives of the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies, or the lascar crewmen on British merchant vessels that took part in the evacuation. They were there, and this could have been conveyed without changing the basic structure of the film and its deliberately narrow focus on a few of the rescued and rescuers. But having said that, whilst watching the film such considerations never crossed my mind. I was overwhelmed, by that intense focus, by the score which built and built the tension until it was almost unbearable (and the use of the Elgar Nimrod as the first of the little ships appeared reduced me, predictably enough, to sobs), and by the non-linear structure which forced one to concentrate, to hold those strands together even as the direction teased them apart.
The opposite for the next two movies – three women foregrounded in each of them. I wrote about Twentieth-century Women for International Women’s Day,
and Hidden Figures we missed at the cinema but caught on DVD – uplifting and inspiring even if, oddly enough, the sexism and racism they encountered was actually ramped up for the benefit of the story. Who would have thought that could ever be necessary?
Baby Driver was beautifully described by Empire as:
not a film just set to music. But a film meticulously, ambitiously laid over the bones of carefully chosen tracks. It’s as close to a car-chase opera as you’ll ever see on screen.
Even if the narrative arc (young man in debt to gangster does ‘one last job’ and finds out there’s no such thing) is traditional enough, the choreography, the seamless blend between diegetic and exegetic music, make it entirely original and massively enjoyable.
La La Land inspired me to write about musicals. It was gorgeous and delightful and poignant and much more that I wanted to say was expressed so well in a piece on the marvellous That’s How the Light Gets In blog.
And one more cinema outing, a rather lengthy but entirely captivating one, for Bertrand Tavernier’s Journey through French Cinema. It is what it says, a journey and a personal one at that, through French film from Tavernier’s first childhood moment of enchantment, on through the decades as he goes from a kid in the audience to a film maker himself. I believe there’s a follow-up in the making, bringing his journey more up to date, to which I will happily commit as many hours as it takes, as soon as it’s out.
Mind you, speaking of French cinema, I should really note that we did go to see Elle. However, my feelings about that film are so predominantly negative, that despite my overwhelming admiration for Huppert, and despite moments of brilliantly black comedy, I shall pass over it without substantial comment.
On to the smaller screen.
As always a good deal of crime fiction. The dramas noted below are not an inclusive list of what we watched. There were others that were workaday, or that strained credulity with plot craters and characters who behaved with a stupidity that was at the same time predictable and utterly inconsistent with what we already knew of them. I’m not going to name the guilty parties, just those that we were gripped by and that managed to avoid the worst clichés and pitfalls of the genre.
Sherlock: The Final Problem certainly didn’t give us genre cliché. What it all meant, and indeed, whether it meant anything at all or was just a clever game, is uncertain. The Guardian‘s reviewer was a bit cross about it, but identified two main strands in the narrative:
One was a subtle, beautifully crafted backstory about Sherlock’s childhood. The other was a fun if unfulfilling gameshow of wild hypotheticals, where everything was at stake yet it often felt as though very little was.
It was frustrating and baffling but it didn’t make me cross, I was perfectly willing to believe both that it did mean something and that it was just a fascinating puzzle that I would probably have no chance of unravelling.
Line of Duty series 4 was just superb. Thandie Newton’s Roz Huntley was absolutely compelling, and the plot twisted and turned as we were made to question everyone’s motives and integrity, at least briefly. It had the classic LoD set pieces in the interview room, plus shoot outs and chases, and a plot that at least started to weave together strands from series 1-3, whilst leaving plenty to look forward to in series 5, which cannot come around too soon for me.
The Missing had only one character in common with series 1, the grizzled detective (Tchéky Karyo) who I was very glad to spend another few hours with. Keeley Hawes and David Morrissey were both excellent, as always. The narrative begins, in a sense, at the point that one might expect it to end, with the return of their missing daughter. Of course, it’s not that simple, it’s complex and agonising, and unexpected.
Broadchurch 3 was much better than 2 (which I quite enjoyed at the time but actually struggle to recall what it was all about, really, apart from Joe’s not guilty plea). The handling of the rape case was generally excellent even if the resolution left a few dangling plot threads that didn’t quite make sense. Julie Hesmondhalgh was wonderful, as were, obviously, Tennant, Colman and Whittaker.
Strike was an excellent adaptation of the first two of Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling)’s Cormoran Strike novels. Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger were perfect in the lead roles, and I look forward immensely to the adaptation of the third and any future novels in the series.
I Know Who you Are was a fairly bonkers Spanish series in which most characters were pretty despicable, and one of the two genuinely sympathetic people didn’t make it out alive. The only morality that prevailed was Family and within that there was a hierarchy of loyalty – to attempt to murder one’s sister in order to protect one’s son was seen by most characters (including the intended victim) as pretty reasonable. It was all thoroughly enjoyable.
Unforgotten 2 was profoundly different, as Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar unpicked another cold case. They are both deeply sympathetic characters and the whole thing is imbued with a kind of compassion and empathy that draws in the damaged people whose lives have been twisted in various ways by the past crime.
Rellik very cleverly subverted the way in which the detective story must follow a retrograde narrative path, starting with the crime and working backwards, by starting with the crime’s (apparent) resolution and working backwards and backwards, until in its final episode it leapt back to the beginning/end and a shocking dénoument. The structure took a bit of getting used to and never quite stopped being unsettling, but we thoroughly enjoyed the ride. It was produced by Harry and Jack Williams (The Missing) and featured, amongst other excellent performances, the wonderful Rosalind Eleazar as an early suspect.
Witnesses was the second series of the French crime drama starring Marie Dompnier. This one also stars Audrey Fleurot, who we know from Spiral, and whose return in that series we look forward to impatiently. Witnesses was compelling and baffling and ended most enigmatically (none the worse for that – I’d rather have honest to goodness open endings than ostensibly tidy endings that actually leave loose threads all over the place).
Fargo 3 brought us not one but two wonderful female cops. Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) and Winnie Lopez (Olivia Sandoval). And not one but two Ewan McGregors, as he plays twin brothers. One David Thewlis was more than enough, however – his villain was quite the most revolting, viscerally unpleasant character I’ve seen on screen for some time. That’s a compliment (I think) to the writing and the acting. Lord knows where this one is going next but we’ll be more than happy to go along. Fargo also introduced the wonderful phrase, ‘unfathomable pinhead-ery’ into our vocab, for which we are truly thankful.
Telly sci-fi had an altogether brilliant year.
Agents of Shield had an outstanding season with a multi-layered narrative that messed with our heads and our hearts. Beautifully played and written, and quite breathtaking.
Orphan Black reached its fifth and final season, having maintained its form throughout the four years that it has been running. The weight of the series is carried – seemingly effortlessly – by the awesome Tatiana Maslany, who plays not only various clone ‘sestras’ but at various times plays one of them masquerading as one of the others. It’s dazzlingly done. It also stars the rather wonderful Maria Doyle Kennedy as Mrs S.
We’re not far through Star Trek: Discovery yet, but from episode 3 on were hooked. Yes, OK, that coincides with the arrival of Jason Isaacs, but it’s not just because Jason Isaacs. Sonequa Martin-Green is excellent, as is Anthony Rapp, and Mary Wiseman as cadet Tilly. It’s visually brilliant, and the plot is loaded with moral ambiguity from which it does not flinch. It promises much and we look forward to it developing further.
I remain loyal to The Walking Dead even though no one could claim that it’s unproblematic. The tone and pace are extremely uneven and it depends far too often on (a) plot armour, (b) magically inexhaustible ammo and (c) people who we know are capable of good judgement behaving with unfathomable pinheadery. Nonetheless, I cannot envisage giving up on it. I have to see how this plays out – and there are episodes which grip and compel and convince.
Possibly the only one of my top TV shows which features in the critics’ lists is The Handmaid’s Tale. I also read the book for the first time, as part of my 60 books in 60 days challenge. So much has been said about the series that I don’t feel I can add anything especially insightful – it was horrifying and terrifying and brilliantly done.
And of course there’s Doctor Who. I wrote about the (to me, brilliant) news that the next Doctor will be a woman. Nonetheless, much as I look forward to seeing what Jodie Whittaker brings to the role I will need to grieve first for Peter Capaldi’s doctor, who I have loved – and for Pearl Mackie who has been a wonderful companion. PC’s final series was excellent, and the finale was heart-stopping and moving.
“I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that… Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point to any of this at all. But it’s the best I can do. So I’m going to do it. And I’m going to stand here doing it until it kills me. And you’re going to die too! Some day… And how will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.” — The Doctor
Three docs worth mentioning. Suzie Klein’s Tunes for Tyrants explored 20th century music in the context of Nazi and Stalinist oppression. She’s an excellent presenter and the material – and the music – was fascinating and powerful.
Bowie’s departure from this dimension was – for me amongst others – the greatest loss of 2016, a year of losses. Bowie – the Last Five Years brought us the final phase of that extraordinary story, as he worked on his last two albums, and the stage musical Lazarus. We were reminded, as if we could forget, not only of his talent, but of his humour and intelligence, his warmth and wit. And that last body of work is not only a worthy finale to his career but imbued with a sense of mortality and the fragility of life.
Neil Brand is one of my favourite music-explainers. Charles Hazlewood and Tom Service have got that nailed in terms of classical music but for the music of stage and screen, for the popular song, Neil is your man, and The Sound of Musicals was a delight.
We loved Poldark, and not just for the scenery.
The Replacement was a bit bonkers but both Vicky McClure (see also Line of Duty) and Morven Christie (also in The A Word, series 2 of which isn’t covered here only because it’s yet to be watched) were excellent.
And another favourite of mine, Suranne Jones, was magnificent in series 2 of Doctor Foster.
We got to see Jodie Whittaker pretending to be a doctor in Trust Me. Plot holes a-plenty (unless they’re just an indication of a second series coming up?) but well done, and well played by JW – looking forward to her being a real Doctor shortly.
Homeland was on excellent form, with the dynamics between Carrie and the new female PotUS adding a new dimension to the plot.
And Spin took us back into the shadowy world of French political manouevering.
It wasn’t all screen based culture. I made several visits to Leeds Grand Theatre for Opera North productions, some of which I reviewed for The Culture Vulture (see the Reviews page of this site, which also features my review of the Sheffield Crucible’s production of Julius Caesar). I also saw at Leeds Grand a magical production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden, at the Crucible, an intense Desire Under the Elms, and in the Crucible Studio various splendid Music in the Round chamber music concerts.
So, thanks to all who’ve shared these delights with me. Liz, Viv, Arthur, Ruth, Aid, Dad, and of course him that I’ve been watching telly and going to the pictures and going to gigs and plays with for >40 years…
MASTER: Is the future going to be all girl?
DOCTOR: We can only hope.
Steve: “This war is a great big mess, and there’s not a whole lot you and I can do about that. I mean, we can get back to London and try to get to the men who can.”
Diana: “I am the man who can.”
NB What follows contains some spoilers… Caveat lector.
It mattered a great deal that Wonder Woman was, well, wonderful. I can cope with Batman v Superman being a bit meh, or the odd entry in the Avengers cycle being less than stellar. But she needed to kick it out of the damn park.
And she did.
It’s not that she’s the first or the only. She herself has been around since 1941, and there have, of course, been other women superheroes (and supervillains) in the comics and on TV and in the movies. But it’s very rare for the one who carries the whole movie, the centre and focus, the one on whom everything depends, to be a woman.
And as much as I love the current Marvel series, a lot of the time they are really quite blokey. The blokes are great – funny and noble (mostly) and gorgeous, so I’m not complaining, not really. But there’s not enough of Black Widow and Scarlet Witch to balance things out. There’s a fine tradition of women heroes – think Ripley, Sarah Connor, Katniss Everdene – human, but with outstanding courage and strength. And there’s always and forever Buffy.
Wonder Woman is different. First off, she’s a half-god. Not an alien, or an inhuman, not technically enhanced, but a straight-up, bona fide, god-almighty daughter of a god. Second, her upbringing on Themyscira sets her in a context where women are powerful, strong, brave, not exceptionally but as a norm.
The opening sequences of Amazonian women training, and then fighting on the beach made me want to weep and cheer at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a bit of a pacifist on the whole, but the simple fact that this small army was comprised of glorious women was somehow very moving.
Of course all these women are beautiful. But they’re beautiful athletes, not beautiful models. They’re magnificent in the way that Serena and Venus Williams are magnificent. Their bodies are toned and lean and powerful and they are in control of them.
Gal Gadot herself is mesmerisingly gorgeous. That Chris Pine spends much of the movie just gazing at her in awe is perfectly understandable – when she is on screen one would need a damn good reason to look elsewhere. (Of course, the men in the movie also spend a lot of time saying variants of ‘just wait here’, ‘leave it to us’ and so on, and Diana doesn’t bother to argue, she just gives them a bit of a look and then does what she has to do. The phrase ‘nevertheless she persisted‘ came inevitably to mind.)
She’s presented, in some ways, as naive. That’s justified by what we know of her origins – what she’s been told, and not told, about the world beyond Themyscira. That doesn’t diminish her – she is rocked by the realisation that things are not as straightforwardly binary as she’d believed, but she recovers from that, regroups her forces and fights on.
“I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then, I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. And I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. A choice each must make for themselves. Something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know, that only love can truly save the world. So I stay, I fight, and I give, for the world I know can be.”
I wrote a while ago about the Marvel universe and why I love it so:
It’s the flawed and fragile beauty of humanity that the Avengers fight for:
“Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. … A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.”
Echoes of the Doctor there, I think. Amongst all of the forces that see the weakness of human beings and want to destroy, some stand with us. The Doctor said that in 900 years of space and time he’d never met anyone who wasn’t important. He tells us again and again that we are in our very ordinariness extraordinary, in our bloody-minded going where angels fear to tread, our curiosity and our moments of courage.
Diana Prince, like the Doctor, like Captain America and all the other heroes, does what’s right because it’s right.
without hope, without reward, without witness
What we see in the movie is her first encounter with the world beyond Themyscira. It baffles her (to comic effect as she struggles to comprehend why a woman should tolerate clothing that hobbles and constrains her), and it troubles her as she begins to realise that the people she encounters cannot be divided simply into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. She is not yet weary as Buffy is, so often, saving the world yet again. She has not yet lost battles, has not got centuries, aeons, of attempting to protect humanity from the forces that would destroy it. But nonetheless she would understand the Doctor.
Winning? Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because, because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun and God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. I do what I do, because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point in any of this at all, but it’s the best I can do, so I’m going to do it. And I will stand here doing it till it kills me. You’re going to die too, some day. How will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand, is where I fall. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help, a little. Why not, just at the end, just be kind?
I was surprised at first at the choice to set Diana’s first encounter with the messy, murky world of humans in the first, rather than the second World War. But I think actually that’s right. The second is too simply a confrontation with evil, with the absolute worst that human beings could be. The first portrays more effectively the messiness and murkiness of it all – the moral questions about who started it and why, who joined in when and why are complex and still generate heated debate today (as was seen in the recent centenaries of the start of that war and of the Battle of the Somme). So the great evil that Diana confronts is not the Kaiser’s forces but war itself. Steve refers to ‘the war to end all wars’ but that description acquires layers of ambiguity, as it becomes clear that it is potentially also the war that never ends.
Interestingly, whilst the humans who represent that evil – chemical weapons scientist Isabel Maru (aka Doctor Poison), and General Ludendorff – are on the German side, the God of War himself is introduced to us as Sir Patrick Morgan, a British politician who is, it appears, attempting to negotiate an armistice. Murky, messy, or what…
We need Diana’s fierce kindness, her innocent clarity, to cut through all of this. We can’t aspire to her physical perfection, her power and strength. But we can be inspired by her moral strength. That kind of integrity is easy to dismiss as naive or po-faced – Captain America is its embodiment in the Avengers, and of course he is mocked by Iron Man, who himself embodies a more complex and troubled morality (Rick Blaine to Cap’s Victor Laszlo?).
But the simple fact that it is a woman who represents all of this – physical power, moral integrity, compassion – takes us to different places. That those men looking both for direction and guidance and for the power to follow through look to a woman still rocks our world a little bit. We’ve come a long way, baby, but not far enough, not so far that we can see the Amazons fighting on Themyscira, and Diana taking on the patriarchy and the God of War without a thrill, a shiver down the spine, a lump in the throat.
And whilst we cannot aspire to Amazonian strength, we can still draw strength from the Amazons. From Diana, Buffy, Katniss, Ripley, and all of the women who stand up when it’s right to stand up.
From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer will be a slayer. Every girl who could have the power will have the power … can stand up, will stand up. … Are you ready to be strong?
A while ago I was chatting to a friend about theatre and I said ‘Well, I’m not really into musicals’. As soon as those words had left my mouth, I was reminded of how not true that is.
I don’t like ALL musicals, any more than I like all opera, all detective novels, all Motown songs, all superhero movies. But to not like musicals one would have to have a problem with that central feature, the moment where everyone suddenly bursts out singing. And those moments make me laugh with delight, well up a bit, want to dance and applaud.
Obviously there are variations on the genre. To oversimplify things horrifically, in opera, all of the story is conveyed in music and song. In some musicals that is the case, but more often, there is spoken dialogue interspersed with songs. In some, the songs are diegetic (my son did A level Film Studies), i.e. the characters in the film are required by the plot to perform the songs at that moment, and all of the music is provided by the people we see on screen (no invisible orchestra). In others there’s no particular reason why this person or this street full of people should suddenly be singing and dancing, but hey, we’re in a musical so they do.
So, in complete and humble retraction of my idiotic statement, I hereby offer some of my favourite musicals and moments in musicals.
Busby Berkeley’s musicals blew me away when I first encountered them, in my early teens, I think. The visuals are stunning (though one has to acknowledge that in terms of objectification of women’s bodies, they are a tad problematic). But the dancing, the tunes – and unexpectedly in Golddiggers of 1933, social commentary, about the Depression, the men who returned from service in the First World War to find only unemployment and poverty.
From the same era, Fred and Ginger. The plots are daft. Who can even remember the plot of Top Hat, or Swing Time? But if you’ve ever seen them dancing cheek to cheek, that you won’t forget. The songs are sublime – well, of course they are, given that they were written by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin and their ilk – and the dancing is if possible sublimer. He was elegance and subtelty personified, she did everything he did in heels and backwards.
There’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’ (heaven, I’m in heaven), and there’s also this, Never Gonna Dance, from Swing Time. Beautiful.
There’s a bit of a gap in my musical repertoire, till South Pacific. 1949 for the original stage show, 1958 for the film.
You’ve got to be taughtTo hate and fear,You’ve got to be taughtFrom year to year,It’s got to be drummedIn your dear little earYou’ve got to be carefully taught.You’ve got to be taught to be afraidOf people whose eyes are oddly made,And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,You’ve got to be carefully taught.You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,Before you are six or seven or eight,To hate all the people your relatives hate,You’ve got to be carefully taught!
The theme of interracial relationships isn’t handled as it would be now, of course. But it’s handled. And back then, Rodgers and Hammerstein took an enormous risk in including a track which seemed to present a challenge to ‘the American way of life’. There was huge pressure to take the song out when the musical was staged, especially in the southern states. James Michener, upon whose stories South Pacific was based, recalled, “The authors replied stubbornly that this number represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in.” And that song, those words, are powerful still.
And then there’s West Side Story .
Not going to mess with you, this is the best musical ever. Everything is right – Bernstein’s music, Sondheim’s lyrics, Robert Wise’s direction. The tunes, the moves, the words.
DIESEL: (As Judge) Right!
Officer Krupke, you’re really a square;
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!
We’re disturbed, we’re disturbed,
We’re the most disturbed,
Like we’re psychologic’ly disturbed.
DIESEL: (Spoken, as Judge) In the opinion of this court, this child is depraved on account he ain’t had a normal home.
ACTION: (Spoken) Hey, I’m depraved on account I’m deprived.
If I try to pick my favourite moments from WSS, I end up with so many, it’s practically the whole damn film.
An oddity in the annals of the musical is a single episode from season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. An episode where a demon compels the inhabitants of Sunnydale to burst into song, and in so doing to express thoughts and feelings which they might have been trying to hide. It moves the series arc along in important ways, but it’s a glorious watch on its own, referencing more musical tropes than even the nerdiest nerd could spot. Rather than the trained singers who supplied the vocals for almost all of Natalie Wood’s songs, all of Richard Beymer’s and at least some even of Rita Moreno’s, the singing is by the regular Buffy cast members. This has been the more recent trend (see the film of Les Miz, and La La Land), and there is a vulnerability in the voices which, arguably, adds to the charm and immediacy of the music.
And so to La La Land.
The influence of Jacques Demy (especially Les Demoiselles de Rochefort) has been noted, particularly in the colour palette for the film. But the movie is, again, dense with intertextual references to films (Mia points out a window that was used in Casablanca, they visit the Griffith Observatory that was used as a location in Rebel Without a Cause, the film they try to see at the – long-closed – Rialto cinema, and which Seb quotes to Mia, and those are only the most overt references). The director has said that he wants to “to make a movie that would embrace the magic of musicals but root it in the rhythms and texture of real life”
The opening number invites us into the movie musical world:
A world where everyone dances and sings, and where a traffic jam is transformed, briefly, into a technicolour marvel until the car horns stop being part of the orchestration and become again just car horns.
Stone and Gosling dance and sing like actors who dance and sing, rather than like pros, and that works. Their story is simple and poignant and human, even when they float towards the stars.
Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make
(Audition – The Fools Who Dream)
What is it that is so joyous, so life-affirming about these shows? I think there is something magical about singing and dancing, something that every society has discovered and built in to its rituals and rites of passage. Even when we can’t join in, we feel that sense of exhilaration and exaltation as the protagonists whirl and tap and their voices soar and harmonise and weave into one anothers’. The flash mobs which we’ve all seen on social media, where in a shopping precinct or a town square or a railway station one person starts to sing or play and then more, and more – if you look at the faces of the audience what you see is delight.
The unreality, the fragility of what we are seeing and hearing in the movie musical is part of its power. We know the plots are paper-thin, we know we can’t really tap dance and sing our way out of the cinema and into the taxi, we know real life ain’t like this, we know it’s darker and meaner than this. Which is why we need it.
A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment. There is always sonority in Ariadne’s thread. Or the song of Orpheus. … One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune.
(Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari – A Thousand Plateaus)
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939
The musicals I have selected above aren’t quite singing about the dark times. But some of them are singing as shadows gather – 1933, 1936 – shadows of which the mainly Jewish songwriters and composers must have been very conscious. There’s darkness in South Pacific despite the sunshine, there’s darkness in West Side Story as the swagger of adolescent tribalism turns to violence and rape.
We should not ask these lovely confections to carry a weight of political meaning and portent that they were never constructed to bear. That isn’t what they are for, even if they can turn aside for a moment and remind us of the forgotten man, the indoctrinated child, the humiliated woman. What they are for is to lift our hearts and our spirits, to inspire our imaginations. If we can imagine this technicolour world, where everyone sings, we can imagine other worlds too. That’s what we do, as humans, we sing and dance, and whilst we have that much in common with the non-human inhabitants of this planet, unlike them we can choose our own songs and our own steps, and we can choose to sing and dance together.
It’s not enough, but it’s vital. Whatever we face in the next few years, we won’t be any weaker or less able to face it for finding that sheer delight in a fragile love story told in song and dance, and sharing that delight with each other.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;And I was filled with such delightAs prisoned birds must find in freedom,Winging wildly across the whiteOrchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;And beauty came like the setting sun:My heart was shaken with tears; and horrorDrifted away … O, but EveryoneWas a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.(‘Everyone Sang’,by Siegfried Sassoon)
It’s been a funny old year. But focusing for a moment on the year in film, it’s been pretty damn fine. In fact, there’s so much to say that whereas normally I bundle my films of the year review in with telly and music and theatre and general musings on the previous twelve months, I’m doing a stand alone film blog, to match my books of the year extravaganza.
I’m including some things I saw on DVD which may predate 2016 (some which do so by a whole bunch of decades in fact) but I think I’ve broken my personal record in terms of films seen at the actual cinema. Most at Sheffield’s wonderful Showroom, but several at Cineworld’s IMAX for the full 3-D ginormous screen experience.
Whittling this list down to a top ten, even if I don’t attempt to put them in any kind of ranking, is pretty much impossible. However, a top 3 emerges quite clearly, of which more later…
Two of the IMAX films I enjoyed this year were from the Marvelverse. The awesome Captain America: Civil War, which augurs well for the next batch of films from the franchise – action, spectacle, politics and moral quandaries, what more could you ask? Doctor Strange was visually stunning and Cumberbatch was terrific (definitely channelling Sherlock in the early parts of the film), and I look forward to his integration in the Avengers ensemble, riffing off Thor and Cap and co. The third was Fantastic Beasts, from the Rowlingverse, which was fantastic and lovely even if the plot was stretched a little thin to allow us to gasp in wonder at the beasts (reminiscent of the first HP film and the first Star Trek movie, so perhaps this is a feature of being first in a new franchise).
At the Showroom we saw possibly the most French French film imaginable, Things to Come, with Isabelle Huppert. I imagined (but have not attempted) a lethal drinking game, involving taking a swig every time a philosopher is namechecked… It’s a thoughtful film, that eschews comfy answers and pat resolutions, in which in a sense very little happens and there’s lots of talk, but also lots of pensive silences.
Marguerite was, oddly, one of two films based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins. I haven’t seen the Streep/Grant biopic but this was a lovely and touching fictionalised version, starring Catherine Frot.
I had high hopes of Dheepan, given the director’s track record – he made one of my favourite French films ever, The Beat my Heart Skipped, and A Prophet was also excellent. As was Dheepan, for the first couple of acts. After that it seemed to swerve into, first, a revenge thriller in which previous plot strands were left dangling, and finally into a kind of suburban idyll which surely must have been a fantasy (but why would a Tamil refugee previously living in the banlieue have such a detailed vision of the English suburbs?). Worth re-watching to see if I get a different sense of it, but I ended up baffled.
Anthropoid was a brutal depiction of the assassination of Heydrich and its bloody aftermath. Knowing the outcome increased the tension rather than dissipating it, and aside from a couple of minor Hollywood moments along the way it was gritty and clear sighted in refusing to show the protagonists as unswervingly brave and resolute heroes, but allowing us to see the panic and the doubt.
Childhood of a Leader was another film which seemed to lose its way slightly in the final act. It hadn’t quite earned the coda which was (without giving anything away) several imaginative leaps away from the previous scene – not impossible but a fair old stretch, and I think the whole would have been more persuasive had the finale been played with more subtlety and ambiguity. Having said that, along the way it was excellent, with the building sense of wrongness abetted powerfully by one of the best scores I’ve heard all year, from Scott Walker, no less.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Captain Fantastic were, in their different ways, delightful films about family. The former focuses on a ‘looked after child’ who is not only hunted (by the authorities – ‘no child left behind’ is not a slogan you will ever feel the same about after this film) but also hunting, for family, stability, love. It’s very funny, and very touching. Everyone leaving the cinema was smiling. Captain Fantastic was not a superhero movie at all, but the story of a family living off-grid, of a father trying to bring his children up with different values to those of their grandparents and the wider society, but then coming into conflict with those values. It was genuinely thought-provoking, as well as, like the Wilderpeople, funny and moving.
On DVD I saw two cracking Shakespeares. The first was new – Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender as the Macbeths. For the life of me I cannot comprehend why the early scene showing them at the burial of a child was controversial – the text is very clear that Lady M has given birth, and equally clear that there’s no offspring around now, so I’d always assumed they had a child that died, even if other productions don’t signpost this. This was possibly the best Macbeth I’ve seen – the two leads were totally compelling and chilling, and there was another terrific score, from Jed Kurzel. Then there was a wolfish Ian McKellen in Richard III, the 1995 film, also featuring Annette Bening, Robert Downey Jr and Dominic West amongst other members of a terrific cast. This is the War of the Roses transposed to the 1930s, with fascism looming and the final battle taking place at a ruined Battersea Power Station rather than Bosworth Field. It takes some liberties with the text, combining a number of characters, for example, but it’s a tremendous production of a play I know well as a text but I think I have only seen on stage once. (That was at Nottingham Playhouse in 1971, with Leonard Rossiter in the lead, and the fact that I can remember the production and especially the final battle scene so vividly after 45 years is a tribute to the performance and the staging.)
The Martian was splendid, I loved Damon’s performance and the scripting of his monologues (the phrase ‘to science the shit out of’ something is one I yearn to use), but also Sean Bean (I had a moment of anxiety that he was going to adopt a transatlantic drawl, but no, he were proper Yorkshire) and Danny Glover. Still out there in the big wide cosmos, Star Trek Beyond was fairly daft but thoroughly enjoyable, and I wish, oh I wish, that I believed we could defeat fascism by playing the Beastie Boys on max volume…
Slow West built slowly and subtly to its bloody conclusion, subverting many of the classic western tropes along the way.
Sing Street was a funny and touching evocation of the early 80s through the classic boy meets girl, wants to impress girl, so forms a band storyline. Quite possibly the storyline behind the majority of bands ever formed. The music is pastiche, but openly and appropriately so, as the motley band of musicians change their style and appearance according to whatever they’ve just heard, or whatever they’ve just been told is cool. Lovely stuff.
I was far from convinced about the worth of a live-action Jungle Book but it was very well done and technically stunning, and the peril seemed more perilous than in the cartoon version. Zootopia was contemporary Disney at its most engaging with a female lead who’s definitely not a princess. She’s a rabbit, but she’s not a princess rabbit, OK? And Finding Dory was as touching and funny as I expected, with the motif of short-term memory loss being particularly poignant as we observe it in a close family member these days. We also liked the otters.
All of which brings me to my top three. I cannot bring myself to rank them, so here they are, in alphabetical order.
Arrival was science fiction at its most philosophical and thoughtful. The theme of language is one that has always fascinated me, and I thought during this of my favourite ever Star Trek Next Gen episode, Darmok, where the crew encounter a people who communicate only through allegory, so their translations are useless because they do not know the stories that are being referred to. ‘Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel’. Amy Adams is magnificent, and the narrative has an emotional heft that I cannot explain without spoilers, only to say that I was still weeping after the credits rolled.*
I, Daniel Blake I have written about elsewhere at length so will not reprise those comments here. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a tremendously powerful one, and aside from its political importance, the central performances are excellent.
Room is intense. It has to be, claustrophobically intense. In the novel we see everything through the eyes of the child, and of course the film can’t do that. We identify with Ma, who is so beautifully played by Brie Larson, a performance totally without vanity or showing off, where one of the most devastating moments is wordless and it’s hard even to describe how she says as much as she says. Jacob Tremblay is also outstanding and the rapport and intimacy between the two of them carries the film.
My three top films have women centre stage. Amy Adams, Brie Larson and Hayley Squires all deliver performances of great subtlety and depth. Squires is second billed but she gets almost as much screen time as Dave Johns and her side of the narrative is vital in showing the full impact of the benefit system. Each of the three is tightly focused on two key characters – Arrival on Adams’ character and Jeremy Renner’s physicist, IDB on Daniel and Katie, and Room on Ma and Jack – and so they only scrape through Bechdel. But Bechdel is not the only way of looking at women on screen and these three win as far as I am concerned by asking complicated, nuanced female characters to carry the story.
*OK, I almost always cry at the movies. Most of those mentioned above triggered a bit of a sob at some stage, but I only mention it when I have been especially overwhelmed.