Mystify

Intended as an affectionate tribute, Lowenstein’s documentary about the late frontman of INXS is obfuscated by reverence.

In 2018, sisters Rose and Kate Lilley, daughters of the late writers Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley, both released books that dealt with the sexual abuse they experienced in the 1970s, which was perpetrated by men, mostly artists, who frequented their parents’ house. The revelation was not only that the abuse occurred, but that it was in part facilitated by their mother in the name of a bohemian lifestyle. Public responses varied. Many were shocked, some even calling for the renaming of the Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript which is awarded by UWA Press (the prize kept its name) and some criticised the sisters for bringing their mother’s name into disrepute. In an illuminating article in Meanjin, Jane Jervis-Reid argued that the insights offered by Rose and Kate ‘further a reader’s understanding’ and that they did the literary community a favour by ‘ask[ing] the public to see Hewett in her full complexity.’

Complexity is a loaded word in the wake of the #metoo movement. As the tally of male artists accused of misconduct towards women (and, in some cases, towards children) continues to grow, audiences and fans have had to find a way to accommodate their horror and distaste towards their beloved artist’s behaviour alongside the adulation of their art. This process of reckoning also encompasses broader questions relating to character, creativity and moral boundaries. If the #metoo movement has highlighted anything- other than the prevalence of the abuse of women – it is that unadulterated adoration should not be confused with artistic appreciation. Placing an artist on a pedestal precludes a full exploration of their personality, influences and output, and closes off the possibility of reckoning with the darker side of their character.

And yet, adulation is exactly what Richard Lowenstein asks of viewers in his recently released documentary Mystify. Lowenstein was friends with Hutchence, having directed him in both music clips and in the film Dogs In Space. In an interview with Junkee, Lowenstein revealed that when Hutchence died:

“I knew one day I’d have to do something that gave him the respect and credit that he was craving along the way.”

Thus, it seems that from the outset, Lowenstein’s mission was to cement Hutchence’s reputation as a performer and artist, and to rehabilitate his image as an intelligent, sensitive and loyal figure who deserves admiration rather than ridicule. Eschewing the reminiscences of Hutchence’s fellow INXS musicians, Lowenstein instead hones in on those who knew him intimately, including the band’s former manager, siblings and former girlfriends. Nary a cross word is uttered and no recriminations are broached. Helena Christensen, Hutchence’s partner from 1991-95, assures us that though Hutchence loved women, he was also a committed partner. Kylie Minogue tearfully recounts their doomed relationship, but does not appear to harbour any bitterness.

The film points out that Hutchence wanted to be admired for being an artist, and claims that, at times, he resented the public perception that sex appeal was his defining trait. We are reminded that he wrote melody for INXS songs in addition to lyrics, and his first serious girlfriend, Michele Bennett, discusses his penchant for referencing Sarte and Camus in conversation. But Hutchence’s evolution from a shy child who got beaten up at school to a major international rock star remains hazy. His fellow members of INXS don’t provide commentary, appearing only in footage of performances or as references in a third person’s commentary. This is an odd directorial choice given that the film seeks to recast Hutchence’s legacy as his talent- surely fellow band members would be those most able to shed light on his creative processes.

While talent is hard to quantify, the lack of focus on Hutchence’s output renders the music a side question, and his essence is instead put down to charisma. The film is a constant montage of footage from interviews, performances and video clips interspersed with private footage taken by friends and family that has not previously been released. There are many scenes showing Hutchence smiling down the lens, but the expression of his mouth often sends a different message to that of his eye contact; his lips curl in a bashful half smile, as though he is resisting his audience but still wants them to believe he is being intimate with them.

Then, in one scene, the illusion falters. In an interview, Hutchence reveals he has not seen an audience for fifteen years. By refusing to wear his contact lenses during performances, he protected himself from stage fright. This reminded me of the late Lauren Bacall, whose famous “look”, interpreted by audiences as a sultry stare, was later revealed by her as a stance that allowed her to control her nerves. Charisma lends itself easily to mystification and mythology, and it is the role of the biographer to avoid being trapped in its fog. Lowenstein, conversely, makes no serious attempt to reckon with Hutchence’s darker life experiences. There is no investigation into his drug use, or even a clear stance on whether he used drugs, though NSW police have publicly claimed that they found drugs in the hotel room in which he died. The glimpses into his bouts of melancholy are frustratingly general, with the audience left to infer that he bore the scars of his parents’ dysfunctional marriage and his eighteen-month separation from his younger brother when his mother took him to America as a teenager. And surely there is a contradiction crying out to be acknowledged in a man who wanted to be regarded as an intellectual but who nevertheless called his only child Heavenly Hiraani Tigerlily, a decision that, at the very least, could be characterised as a lapse in judgement. When done properly, exploring the grey areas of an individual’s motivations and life choices can make for gripping viewing, but Lowenstein’s failure to cut through makes it unclear whether Hutchence tried to mythologise and obscure himself, or whether he genuinely possessed a complex personality that remains hard to pin down.

The film briefly edges towards a more complex exploration of the singer as it turns to the brain injury that Hutchence suffered as a result of being assaulted by a taxi driver in France in 1992. This incident caused him to lose his sense of smell, and those around him witnessed the emergence of a more volatile personality which at times veered towards the pathological. Dr Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist who specialises in the psychology of smell, provides commentary on the deep sense of grief that an individual can experience as result of losing their sense of smell. But as there is no suggestion Dr Herz ever treated Hutchence, her words are speculative rather than illuminating. Commentary from Kylie Minogue about his love of the book Perfume, by Patrick Suskind, is clearly meant as an attempt to illuminate the value Hutchence placed on his sense of smell, and Minogue alludes to Hutchence’s pursuit of a sensual lifestyle more broadly, but like his reported penchant for Sarte and Camus, this remains a superficial point.

It is possible that some of the issues with the documentary stem from negotiations and compromises Lowenstein had to enter into in order for the film to be made at all. Lowenstein had to strike deals with friends and family in exchange for their personal footage of Hutchence, and some individuals retained the right to veto the use of the footage. Hutchence’s daughter, for instance, requested changes to some a scene that she argued showed Hutchence in a negative light. Lowenstein clearly judged that the project was worth these compromises, however it all adds to the sense that his overall project was to rehabilitate Hutchence’s image, rather than to genuinely reckon with the full complexity of his approach to art and life. In the absence of nuanced reflections on his creativity and influences, what we are left with is happy snaps and lovers’ recordings. For those with a critical eye, the mystification remains.

Gloria Bell

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As a general rule, I hate wishy-washy reviews, but this might be one of them. Bear with me though. It is possible that ambivalence may be the point.

It started off promisingly enough. Palace Cinema was offering tickets to advanced screenings of Gloria Bell, a film written and directed by Sebastian Lelio, starring Julianne Moore as a fifty-something divorcee looking for love on the dance floors of Los Angeles. One night she bumps into Arnold (John Turturro) and things move very quickly. The main aspect of the plot- if there is one- is Arnold’s character: a poetry-reading ex-marine who claims to be divorced but constantly fields calls from his irate (ex?) wife and daughters and disappears suddenly for long stretches.

Most of the scenes, including the ones of Gloria and Arnold on dates, are of a mundane nature. They feature Gloria attending dinners with her children, doing her laundry, repeatedly shooing an errant cat out of her house, putting up with the yelling of the suicidal maniac in the flat above her, and generally being nice to everybody, including her clients. (She works for an insurance company and deals with car crashes all day… clearly a metaphor for what her life is about to become).

All around Gloria people are dying. Figuratively, not literally. Over lunch, her ageing mother foreshadows that she may not leave behind much of an inheritance, while reminding her that life goes like that (cue finger snap). A colleague has a meltdown over her meagre lack of retirement savings (“I’m going to have to work until I’m eighty”) and is subsequently retrenched. Her daughter, showing a video of her new Swedish dreamboat boyfriend surfing ridiculously huge waves, reminds Gloria that we could all die at any moment. Not long after they meet, Gloria and Arnold are sitting in bed talking, and Gloria mentions an article in the newspaper about cell rejuvenation, which claimed that the skin cells covering their arms and legs might only be ten years old.

Nevertheless Gloria is not immune. Visiting the optometrist, she is told she has to take eye drops from now on to prevent blindness. Drop by drop, the rest of her days are measured out for her. The film wants you to know that the clock is ticking, and as it meanders along you are definitely conscious of time. But when I started to feel the drag, I paid more attention. I could feel the repetitiveness and emptinesss of Gloria’s days, and wondered whether the reaction in my own body was a stirring of empathy; a recognition of the empty spaces within my own life. As Gloria’s life unspools and the passage of time becomes disorientating in its repetitiveness, the sameness resembled the time warp that happens when you are grief-stricken. Grief features in the form of her adult children, neither of whom “need” her. Her son has a small child and her daughter leaves California to join her boyfriend in Sweden where they await the birth of their hastily conceived baby. You start to wonder where the meaning -of both Gloria’s life and the film- is located.

But the banality ticks by and Gloria keeps being nice to everybody: her clients, her ex-husband and his new wife, her children, her colleagues. And Arnold. After disappearing without explanation, he reappears equally without one, and takes Gloria on an impromptu mini-break to Caesar’s Palace. Gloria professes to find the complex- essentially a theme park for adults- beautiful, and spends a lot of time looking around in wonderment. The night almost descends into a maelstrom that is almost hyperreal, with Gloria’s drunkenness backlit by neon lights. Arnold is nowhere to be seen.

Caesar’s Palace is the clue to the meaning of the film. It is the apotheosis of the American dream; everything is bright and sparkly and over-the-top, but empty at heart. Mirage-like, it reflects the lack of substance embodied by Arnold (close by, there is actually a resort named The Mirage), which is in turn encapsulated by his profession: Arnold owns his own amusement park. Early in their courtship, he takes Gloria there to shoot paint balls at targets and gawp at grown men re-enacting military combat. This scene is disorientating in its invocation of simulacra, but at Caesar’s Palace the simulation is complete. The complex aims to give visitors a taste of the Roman Empire, but the Roman Empire as imagined by Hollywood in the first half of the twentieth century. In other words, a simulacra of a simulacra. (But it gets even more meta: this film is a remake of Lelio’s 2013 Spanish language film of the same name. As an article in the new Yorker suggested, he could “sue himself for plagiarism”).

Caesar’s Palace also clinches the superficiality of other aspects of Gloria’s life. Gloria is overjoyed when another woman at her favourite nightclub asks her if she has had plastic surgery on her face (she hasn’t). She cuts a stylish figure and her body, which has borne two children, is remarkably toned. For someone who is an insurance clerk she rents a very nice- looking apartment, also tastefully decorated. Her car has leather seats. Everyone around her is white. But what kind of life is this, in an anonymous, car dependent concrete jungle where being mistaken for someone who has had plastic surgery is the climax of your existence? Unfortunately for Gloria, most of the time she doesn’t realise she is looking at mirages.

The cat- presumably a neighbour’s, is a kind of omen. Gloria herself remarks that it reminds her of the cats in Ancient Egypt that were said to accompany mummies into the afterlife. For a while it seems she may be crossing the Styx (ok, that’s Greek mythology but you get the point) when her mother bails her out of Caesar’s Palace after Arnold does another runner. She returns home partially shod, incapacitated to the point where her mother has to help her get dressed, and with what is presumably the hangover to end all hangovers. The cat awaits her, and she is later seen feeding it, resigning herself to the possibility that the animal presents what she cannot obtain from the people around her: a reliable relationship.

Until the junket to Caesar’s Palace, it was hard to tell whether the film was a self-indulgent ride through the emptiness of modern existence, or whether it was taking the mickey. Likely it is both. In true existential fashion, Gloria’s only option is to give in to the meaningless. One hopes she learns to recognise a mirage, but the conclusion is ambiguous. At the wedding of her close friend’s daughter, Gloria dances on her own to “Gloria” (If everybody wants you, why isn’t anybody callin’?/ You don’t have to answer/ Leave them hangin’ on the line), her own tune, except that it’s not. Is she giving in to self-love, reinforcing the cult of individuality that underpins her empty society, or is she at peace with her fate?

Gloria Bell was often very awkward- so much so that at the end I felt apologetic for dragging my friend to it. However, we both came out feeling oddly hypnotised, and the following morning I woke up disorientated, still mesmerised by the bright lights of LA, and I felt a surge of gratitude for my extremely reliable partner. Clearly, the film did its job after all.

The Riot Club

[contains spoilers]

The Riot Club, directed by Lone Scherfig, is a brutal examination of class and power adapted by Laura Wade from her play Posh. The plot centres around the young male members of an exclusive dining club at Oxford University, believed by many to be based on the Bullingdon Club, which boasts illustrious alumni such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson, among others.

The film, released in 2014, didn’t run in Australian cinemas. A pity, as it would have been timely – coinciding with a period when Australian academic institutions were embroiled in numerous sex scandals (the Australian Defence Force Academy, the University of Western Australia, Sydney University’s St John’s College), culminating in the 2017 release of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report on sexual assault at universities.

The Riot Club is named after a Lord Ryot from the 1800s whose debauchery was “legendary.” It is a society for whom membership depends on an aristocratic lineage via exclusive schools such as Eton and Westminster. Club members constantly refer to themselves as the “best and brightest” and there is an unquestioned expectation that one day they will all be sitting behind some very important desks. But the bonds holding the boys together are thin. They are constantly humiliating each other- you have to withstand a level of degradation to be admitted- and it doesn’t take much for them to turn on each other.

The plot revolves around the recruitment of two new members to the Club (Miles, played by Max Irons, and Alistair, played by Sam Claflin), and their annual dinner, the aim of which is to become as drunk and destructive as possible. The evening culminates in the brutal assault of the owner of the pub where their dinner takes place, leaving the boys scrambling for cover in the wake of the police investigation. The question then becomes which boy will take it for the team; they start to debate who to scapegoat. There is a surprising (albeit superficial) spirit of utilitarianism about this, with the downfall of one and the saviour of nine seen as worth pursuing.

Club members are intent on making their presence felt and constantly mark their territory by leaving traces of themselves wherever they go. A lot of the time this is in the form of bodily fluids, but other times it is through cash- they are constantly able to pay their way out of punishment. They destroy other diners’ evenings through their rowdiness, leaving the pub owner, Michael, worried about his business. While he worries about paying off his daughter’s tuition fees, in his private dining room Riot Club members offer one of the boys’ girlfriends the equivalent of three years’ tuition fees in return for sexual favours. Michael wants to foster a sense of community and maintain goodwill with his customers; the boys are every man for themselves, and resent people such as Michael trying to make a name from themselves when they come from “nothing.”

Ironically, the boys’ habit of leaving their mark becomes their downfall. A few days following the incident, Alistair is arrested after his DNA is found on Michael’s body. But initially they are all arrested, making for one of the most emotive scenes of the film. The devastation in the boys’ faces is palpable as they are swabbed for forensic evidence, but I suspect it is the dawning realisation that they might not be able to pay their way out of the mess that is behind their distress, and the thought of a future life of entitlement and power slipping through their fingers. Ultimately even this possibility is not discounted; Alistair’s uncle, an MP and former Club member, arranges a high-powered lawyer (himself an ex-Member) for Alastair. When the Club members are out on bail, the worst possible consequence they can foresee is that they will be sent down. Never mind that a man nearly died simply for standing his ground against their grotesque behaviour and inflated sense of selves.

I felt very unwell after watching this film. I put my response down to its devastating portrayal of the human cost of unfettered privilege, and the maintenance of power through humiliation. Michael looks after his staff. He supports one of the chefs to spend time with his infant daughter, and tells them to help themselves to a pint after their shift. His life changes the night the Riot Club walks through the door. The pub is called The Bull’s Head; at the end of the night his china bulls and plates are smashed and other diners have left in disgust, leaving him with literally nothing to his name, clinging to life in a hospital bed.

The female characters are strong. Lauren (Holliday Grainger), Max’s girlfriend, doesn’t come from privilege and doesn’t hesitate to push back against the Club’s misogyny. Rachel, the waitress (Jessica Brown Findlay), who is Michael’s daughter, wants to take a more hard-line approach to the boys than her father. And Charlie, (Natalie Dormer) a sex worker who is hired by one of the boys for the whole ten of them refuses to engage and stands up against their insults.

Obviously having strong female characters is positive. However, in this case, I feel slightly conflicted, because the representation of sexism as wholly perpetuated by this bastion of privileged young white men undercuts the complexity of contemporary misogyny. Sure, they have a lot to answer for, but as I have written previously on this blog, the rise of raunch culture means women today are complicit in their own degradation. This side of university life is pervasive, and its absence in the film feels unrealistic to me, as someone who had to negotiate raunch culture as a student in the late 2000s. But then again I did not go to Oxford, and it is the boys’ extreme privilege that precludes a more nuanced exploration of gendered power relations.

Raunch culture aside, I can see the dramatic rationale for leaving female characters out of the picture. The boys’ attitudes towards women are blatantly disgusting, viewing all females as little more than chattel. The reduction of their sexual experiences to just another commodity they can purchase aligns with their broader mentality of buying influence. Ultimately, however, the film doesn’t fall on its sword due to this plot device, because the examination of class conflict is so confrontational and thought-provoking.

One of the stand-out aspects of the film’s aesthetics is its blue hue. Oxford’s stone buildings seem more grey than their famous yellow. The sun rarely shines. It is as though the grubby underside of university life has rather taken the sheen off the town’s renowned architecture and the promise of a hallowed, almost spiritual, experience that admittance to that university is commonly thought to entail.

Perhaps those who view the film will always see Oxford in a different light afterwards.

 

 

On Chesil Beach

They were young, educated, and both virgins, on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible…

So begins both McEwan’s novella and the film adaptation, On Chesil Beach. The premise is that a couple, Edward and Florence, have arrived at a hotel in Dorset to spend their wedding night, and that they are both anxious about the prospect of physical intimacy. What ensues is a complex character and social study which unpicks the silences and repression of early 1960s British society and observes the ramifications of social conventions and decisions that play out in individuals’ lives. Florence is a cellist with dreams of performing at Wigmore Hall with her own quartet; Edward, an aspiring historian, has a first from University College London. They are both waiting for their lives to start, and marriage is the conventional path to make it happen.

The book is beautifully written, moving between the present and flashbacks of the characters’ lives. Every description carries the weight of expectation and the palpable anxiety of Edward and Florence, from the ‘four-poster bed, rather narrow, whose bedcover was stretched startlingly smooth, as by no human hand’ to the waiters, whose ‘comings and goings through what was generally known as the honeymoon suite made the waxed oak boards squeak comically against the silence.’

The film follows the same pattern, alternating between the wedding night and flashbacks of Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward’s (Billy Howle) past experiences which form clues as to how they have arrived at their present impasse. The possibility that Florence has been abused at the hands of her father is more obvious in the film, but remains a subtle implication. It mostly is conveyed through her revulsion, which leaves her as tightly coiled as the rope she winds in the scenes on her father’s boat.

The screenplay embodies everything that I love about quality British cinema: a masterful evocation of a historical period, characters that you care about, witty dialogue that makes biting social comment, and a denouement that packs a heavy emotional punch. The cinematography has a quaintness about it that belies the social critique. The landscapes are of an archetypal English beauty: it includes scenes of Oxford, men playing cricket, country lanes and the eponymous Chesil Beach. Such understatement brings out the restraint that is at the heart of the stultifying social conventions which have damning effects on the lives of Edward and Florence.

Central to the atmosphere and impact of On Chesil Beach is the sense of crossing a threshold. This is evident from early in both the book and the film. In the former, the comings and goings of the waiters are exacerbated by the way they have to carry their trolley over a step between the honeymoon suite and the corridor, ‘a consequence of poor planning when the Elizabethan farmhouse was “georgianised” in the mid-eighteenth century.’ The surrounding environs also seem to have taken on the characteristics of the momentous occasion: outside, there were ‘weeds, giant rhubarb and cabbages they looked like, with swollen stalks more than six feet tall, bending under the weight of dark, thick-veined leaves.’ Waiting to be picked, one imagines.

One of the great pleasures of watching the film is seeing how these familiar descriptions translate visually. While Edward and Florence eat their dinner at the table in their suite, the bed is visible in the background, a poignant site of expectation. Chesil Beach remains visible out the window, and Florence glances out to it longingly, preferring to go out for a walk in the open space than remain suffocated by anxiety in the hotel. There are close ups of nervous feet jiggling under the table, and Florence’s hands clasping her dress or the bedsheet, fighting against both the anticipation of physical pain and the recall of trauma.

Then there is, of course, the ‘infinite shingle’ of Chesil Beach itself. It stretches out, like Edward and Florence’s lives and their ‘giddy plans, heaped up before them in the misty future.’ It is like a peninsula, where Florence and Edward remain suspended in the moment, poised between adolescence and adulthood, the repression of the post-war era and the coming social revolution of the 1960s. In the film Edward tells Florence that the pebbles are graded in size, having been worn away by the tide over many years. They increase in size as you walk in one direction, meaning that when local fisherman jump out of their boats in the dark they know exactly where they are. The irony is that, when the evening goes awry and Florence flees to the beach, they are lost, unable to find their way back to the hotel and, therefore, to each other. Impasse gives way to defeat; the marriage is annulled, and they are doomed to live out their lives separately.

The unfolding of history and its effect on individual lives is a key preoccupation of Chesil Beach. The wireless is a recurring feature in the film. In both book and film, Florence and Edward can hear the news from their suite as they eat dinner, reminding them that they are possibly living on the brink of nuclear war. It was the bomb, after all, that caused them to meet in the first place, at an Oxford CND meeting. Edward marvels about the way their courtship was ‘so dependent on a hundred minor events and choices.’

Edward himself is a historian and gives credence to the “great man” theory, which supposes that individual figures can change the course of history. It is certainly true in a personal sense for him. One gets the sense that his hot-headedness is his downfall. He enjoys the odd brawl outside pubs, and his inability to work through the impasse with Florence, instead flying off the handle and blaming her for leading him on, results in a lonely future. But at the time, he takes the moral high ground: “In his misfortune, he felt almost noble.”

If one were to attempt a Freudian reading, perhaps his propensity to be a bully is why Florence chose him; by resisting him sexually, perhaps at a psychic level she is putting things right with her father. It could also explain why she is able to later marry and have children with Charles, the cellist in her quartet, who acknowledges both her autonomy and her capacity for leadership.

But Edward did not foresee how his decision at that precise moment on the beach would play out. Florence and Edward’s relationship does not become forgotten, it becomes history. At the end of the film, Edward carves a rather pathetic figure, cooking a microwave dinner at his old family home, which by now he has inherited. He hears a feature on the radio about Florence’s Quartet, and it transpires that Florence married the cellist, and now has three children and five grandchildren. He goes along to see the Quartet’s final performance, sitting in the exact seat in the exact row that he promised he would sit in years before, during their courtship. In the book, conversely, he ‘preferred to preserve her as she was in his memories.’

There have been a few reviews which criticise McEwan’s choice of ending in both the book and the film, which condenses years into a couple of pages, and decades into a few scenes. Some have interpreted it as a hasty afterthought, a last-minute concession to the curious reader, and viewer, who wants to know how it all pans out in the end when the embarrassment of annulment has quelled.

I don’t find this narrative device frustrating (although I was mildly concerned about the success of the aged Edward’s facial prosthesis in the film). Rather, I found it poignant and moving. In an instant we become aware of the momentousness of being on Chesil Beach; poised at a crossroad, unsure of the future, but sure things cannot continue as they are.

McEwan is in good company in making this creative decision. Virginia Woolf, for instance, did amazing things with time. In To The Lighthouse, the first and third chapters span a single day, while the middle chapter of only a few pages spans ten years. Time is portrayed as it is experienced subjectively by her characters.

In that concert at Wigmore Hall, we realise that for Edward, it is not just his marriage that is left unconsummated, but his life’s ambitions. History falls by the wayside, but Florence stuck to her path and plays Mozart at Wigmore Hall, as she said she would.

‘Love and patience- if only he had had them both at once- would surely have seen them both through.’

 

Book published 2007. Film released 2017 starring Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howell, screenplay by Ian McEwan, directed by Dominic Cooke.

 

 

Breathe

While Breathe is an aesthetically pleasing film with powerful performances, ultimately the portrayal of life for a paralysed person, especially one living in the mid to late twentieth century, is problematic.

Breathe tells the story of how English disability advocate Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) and his wife (Claire Foy) influenced attitudes towards disability in the second half of the twentieth century. After being paralysed from polio in 1959, Robin and Diana are determined that Robin should live outside hospital, and take it upon themselves to make this happen in the face of medical and bureaucratic intransigence. With the help of an inventor friend who develops a wheelchair with a respirator, Robin becomes the first person paralysed from the neck down to live outside an institution.

In many ways, it is a lovely film. You care about the characters, you laugh, you cry, the scenery is pretty and the period music and stylings are pleasing. It is both a compelling love story and an uplifting example of overcoming adversity, both of which are all the more powerful because they are based on true events.

Unfortunately, and perhaps ironically, the film hits a snag in its representation of disability. The team behind Breathe set out to demonstrate that physical impediments and social prejudice can be overcome. The way this was portrayed, however, downplayed the enormity of the economic, social and bureaucratic challenges that people with disabilities face (and continue to face), resulting in the plot taking on the overtones of a jolly family having round-the-world adventures despite the fact that one of them is dependent on a wheelchair and a respirator.

This is not to say that the film does not tackle some hard issues. Prior to seeing it, I wondered how it would tackle the tough realities of life as a paralysed person- including how one toilets oneself, a consideration that has profound ramifications for human dignity. This aspect was portrayed briefly; while Robin Cavendish was in hospital a nurse is shown attending to this, and Diana assists him with a bottle at home (though I am still confused about how Robin could tell he needed the bottle when he was paralysed from the neck down). I felt it was good that this aspect was at least shown, although it was a sanitised version of what would have been in reality a messy and constantly difficult business. There are also confronting moments, such as when Robin initially wants to die, and towards the end when he experiences bleeding from his tracheotomy and is in danger of drowning in his own blood.

I had many other questions about key aspects of daily life that were left out. How did the Cavendishes make money when his wife cared for him full time (especially, how did they afford to maintain a fairly grand looking house in the country)? How did his wife cope with providing round the clock care for 36 years? How did they manage the end of their sex life at the beginning of their marriage? Did he get bed sores? How did they manage the risk of infection? How was he transferred from the wheelchair to the bed and vice versa?

The focus on the family’s holidays, advocacy and vibrant social life instead of domestic hardship is because the co-producer is the Cavendish’s son, Jonathan, who is also present as a character in the film. He intended the film to be a love letter to his parents and a testament to their pioneering advocacy. It was thus a deeply personal project, and he obviously wanted to portray his parents in a certain light. All of which is fair enough, but deciding to portray a true story on screen, and a personal one at that, is inevitably going to give rise to questions about authenticity. These questions are further complicated when the issue at hand has a strong political dimension, which disability advocacy and the representation of disability in art most certainly do.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Jonathan Cavendish tackled questions about his parents’ experiences and their representation in the film: “Some very cynical American critics have a problem with the fact that a disabled person can have an amazing life, which really pisses me off…And some people don’t believe it. I’m going, ‘Hang on, mate, I was f***ing there.’ My mother, who is the most scrupulously honest person on the planet, was also there, and she agrees: this happened and it happened in this spirit.”

The film is a representation of one family’s experiences of a particular disability at a particular time. If those who lived through it agree with the representation of their experiences, is that enough?

Admittedly, I was still bothered.

There were attempts to demonstrate the insidiousness of social prejudice and the hypocrisy of those charged with treating or advocating for disabled people, such as when the Cavendish family attends a conference on disability in Germany and the wheelchair can’t fit though the hotel door and there are no other disabled people attending. In another scene, Diana asks Robin if they are to be “pitiful or plucky” when seeing donations from an aristocrat for the manufacture of the wheelchair they developed with Professor Teddy Hall so that other polio survivors can use them. This scene highlighted one of the contradictions in social advocacy- while advocacy itself is intended to be an expression of agency and a way to reset power imbalances, advocates can also become beholden in compromising ways to those who wield power.

Most concerningly for a film in which the portrayal of advocacy plays an integral part, the script runs the risk of suggesting it is up to an individual to surmount the challenges facing them, or that attitude alone can change one’s situation in life. This discounts decades of advocacy which sought to highlight that society as a whole has to take responsibility to break down barriers. In the film this suggestion is reinforced by the invocation of the stereotypical stiff upper lip, which, although played for comedic effect (the way Robin is released from hospital is comedic but completely unrealistic), again downplays a lot of the obstacles that people with Robin’s level of disability faced and continue to face. The portrayal of polio patients being liberated by the wheelchair also sidesteps many of the sticky issues surrounding deinstutionalisation which continue to resonate today, namely around family and social support, economic independence, adequate housing, and employment opportunities.

One of the scenes that more successfully treads the balance between hardship and humour is when Diana and Robin meet with a bureaucrat to request funding for wheelchairs. The bureaucrat says that it is not worth the government’s money because polio patients don’t live long. At first, it looks as though it is just Diana and the bureaucrat present as Robin’s torso is obscured by a pile of papers on the bureaucrat’s desk- he is literally erased, like so many disabled people, by the insidious logic of bureaucratic policy development. Then the audience hears Robin’s voice and the camera angle changes to reveal his presence. The bureaucrat says, “I feel sympathy for your condition” to which Robin replies, “and I do for yours”- a triumph of the Cavendishes’ passion and persistence over a purveyor of prejudice.

Ultimately, portraying the lives of people with disabilities is very sensitive and difficult to get right.  While Breathe succeeds in some areas, I feel it downplays the daily humiliations that continue to be present for people living with a disability, and could have been improved with a more nuanced script that had a greater acknowledgement of the political dimension of advocacy, and reflection on how far we still have to go in breaking down prejudice.

Directed by Andy Serkis

Screenplay by William Nicholson

Produced by Jonathan Cavendish

Starring Claire Foy and Andrew Garfield

 

Jackie

Released (in Australia) 2017; Directed by Pablo Larrain; Starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup.

 Jackie is a dramatisation of the private and public battles of Jackie Kennedy between the assassination of her husband, The President John F. Kennedy, and his funeral. I was completely absorbed in this film, partly because it was a sumptuous period piece and also because it delved into two key interests of mine- the nation and the way its myths are made. I would go so far as to say that this is the central preoccupation of Jackie.

When I went looking for a reliable biography of Jackie, I was confronted by a canon of spurious gossip which further obscured the real woman, whoever that may be, with mythology, intrigue, and salacious rumour. Did she have an affair with Bobby? Did she really eat a jacket potato with beluga caviar every day? One reviewer of a particular biography quipped that her sex life was examined so thoroughly within its pages that he felt ‘gynecologically acquainted with her.’

I feel that a serious examination of the lives of the Kennedy women as individuals in their own right is a positive development in our ongoing appraisal of that family’s enduring legacy and mystique. Incidentally, I read a biography of JFK’s sister Kathleen, affectionately known as Kick, during 2016, and it shone a whole new light on the dynamics within the Kennedy family. The film Jackie did a good job of walking the line between portraying Jackie as an individual with her own agency, her own ambitions and her own career, and the way she was disempowered by being part of the Kennedy dynasty and through the institution of the American presidency.

Larrain also achieved a constuctive tension in the representation of Jackie as both knowable and elusive. Being an iconic figure, the general public has felt they have a licence to claim they knew her intimately. This is perhaps demonstrated in the commentary about the film, in which some have canned Natalie Portman’s breathy accent as too camp. I contend that, while verisimilitude is important in biopics, there are more important claims about history at stake here, and we would do well to reinterrogate how much we know about Jackie and the Kennedy era, as I believe the film prompts us to do. Her mystique is stripped away to reveal her many facets: a woman who fell in love with a man from a powerful and ambitious family; a mother who lost two babies; who was cheated on by her husband and who was at times lonely, yet put on a mask and appeared in public faithfully by the President’s side; and who wanted to raise the Presidency to the level of royalty so that Americans could feel proud of their political institutions.

But to the aesthetics. The film was visually sensuous and historically atmospheric. Her personal style and that of the 1960s is recreated brightly but not luridly, and with sophistication. She appears throughout the movie in her iconic pink Chanel suit, but is shown to be greater than the reductive reproduction of this image has suggested over the years. The portrayal of the disorientating atmosphere in the aftermath of the assassination is assisted by Mica Levi’s score. The connotations of the music are of disintegration and of a reality sliding out of reach. This is also complemented by the hand-held camera and extensive use of flashbacks, which meld fact, emotion and myth. Besides the assassination itself, which is analysed from multiple perspectives and in brutal, gory detail, many key events within JFK’s reign are recreated, including the famous concert featuring cellist Pablo Casal, Jackie’s restoration of the White House, and her participation in a 1961 CBS documentary showing the interiors of the White House to the American people. Holding the fragments together is a recreation of her interview with Theodore White of Time Magazine, who went on to write an article that made Camelot synonymous with the Kennedy era. References to Camelot are present throughout the film, which I believe draw attention to how the film is both an un-picking of the Kennedy mythology, but how, as a cultural artefact, it can also produce new mythologies.

Jackie is shown to be concerned with the active construction of public memory about JFK’s presidency, rather than as a passive recipient of public affection and sympathy. Throughout the interview with the journalist Theodore White (Crudup), she asserts control over what he is allowed to reproduce in print. She was once a journalist, she reminds him, and she knows how these things work. She asks whether memory becomes fact merely because it is written down, and later states, astutely, “I’ve grown accustomed to a great divide between what people believe and what I know to be real.” Throughout the interview, which unfolds between flashbacks of the assassination and its aftermath, she retains this critical understanding of the way image and memory can be manipulated. After chain smoking through a series of questions, she informs White, “I don’t smoke,” and after recounting the brutal details of the gunshot wound and the moment she realises her husband was dead, she says, “don’t think for one second I’m going to let you publish that.” Furthermore, in relation to her renovation of the White House and reacquisition of antique furniture for the Lincoln room, which her husband disapproved of, she astutely observes, “objects and artefacts last for longer than people. And they represent important ideas in history, identity, beauty.”

I also felt compelled to question what it was that Jackie wanted both herself and her husband to be remembered for. She is immediately preoccupied with the memorialisation of his life and death, and, travelling in the hearse with the coffin and Bobby, she questions the drivers about whether they remember assassinated Presidents other than Abraham Lincoln. In her grief it is understandable that she wants to exert control over JFK’s legacy, given the way he was cruelly ripped from her. She says, “it had to be some silly little communist. If he’d been killed for some principle at least it would have meant something.” This is contrasted with Bobby (Sarsgaard) who expresses visceral frustration and regret at how little he perceived his brother achieved by not pulling out of Vietnam, and by manufacturing the missile crisis with Cuba which he was then forced to intervene in.

Jackie admits at the end that the funerary procession through the streets she planned in defiance of the new administration and the intelligence services was as much for herself as for her late husband. While this could be dismissed as self-absorbed, perhaps it is also understandable, as she has many things to mourn about the end of her role as First Lady, and had to struggle to be heard amidst the machinery of state and the pull of Kennedy family tradition. She is immediately redundant upon her husband’s death. Lyndon Johnson is sworn in on the plane as they are travelling back to Washington, heralding the dawn of a new era. This scene is filmed with a sense of claustrophobia, which conveys the sense that there is no longer room for her.  Later, Bobby argues with Johnson’s aid, who wants the oval office to be cleared out before JFK has been buried. Rose Kennedy wants Jack to be buried in Massachusetts, Jackie wants him to rest at Arlington.  On one level Jackie speaks matter-of-factly to Theodore White about the realities of life as a first lady- “a first lady must always be ready to pack her suitcases. Its inevitable”-the lived experience is harder to bear. She is shown at her most vulnerable and intensely alone washing her husband’s blood off her suit and body on the plane and in the shower, and packing up her possessions while self-medicating with pills and alcohol and listening to her husband’s favourite record, Camelot. She tries on her dresses as she packs boxes, which serves as a potent symbol of her loss of status and influence.

There is also a sense that Jackie is trying to hold on her to her dignity. With the loss of her husband, she is technically homeless and worries about how she will put her children through school. When disembarking the plane she refuses to hide away and insists on going out “the usual way.” In conversations with a priest (John Hurt), she acknowledges the unpleasant side of her husband’s character, including infidelity. He tells her to take comfort in the good memories; she says “I can’t. They’re mixed in with all the others.” In many ways, these words clinch the film’s message: that history is made up of both the good and the bad, and the glorification of an era or administration, like a nation, is a fiction. Jackie wants to elevate Jack to the status of royalty, but understands that tradition needs time. Throughout the interview, she shares that the stage show Camelot was her husband’s favourite. Reprinted in the article, this claim resulted in the Kennedy era being known as the Camelot era, an association which further works to obfuscate fact with tradition, and provoke nostalgia rather than critical appraisal of JFK’s legacy. As Jackie says, “Maybe that’s what they’ll all believe now. Camelot. We all like to believe in fairytales.”

The film itself is so intensely preoccupied with the examination of memory that every scene is pregnant with meaning. This, combined with the unrelentingly grim subject matter, can make one feel beaten over the head by the end of the film. However, it remains captivating and poignant, with a superb performance by Natalie Portman. At the end I felt my preconceptions about Jackie and JFK’s assassination had been dismantled, but the disorientating nature of the film resulted in me being unsure of what images or “facts” should replace what I had previously thought. In a way, Larrain takes us on a ride through a part of history where everything belongs to mythology. Perhaps, as the journalist Theodore White says at the outset, it is enough to settle for a story that is believable. Or maybe the film, like the Time article with Camelot, will give rise to a new mythology about these iconic figures.

Further reading:

Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism by James Piereson.

Kick by Paula Byrne.

The Bookshop

Book by Penelope Fitzgerald, published 1978 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize

Film directed by Isabel Coixet, starring Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson, Australian general release May 2018.

[this review contains spoilers]

Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel tells the story of a middle-aged widow, Florence Green, and her mission to open a bookshop in a derelict and damp house that she acquires in the fictional East Anglian town of Hardborough. Yet this is not a book about books. This is a book about injustice.

There is local opposition to Florence’s plans, especially from the rich woman on the hill, Mrs Gamart, who fancies herself as a self-appointed patroness. Mrs Gamart wields a tyrannical influence and is determined that the old house should become an arts centre. This sets up the central conflict. Florence, an uneducated “retailer” who at times displays a sense of herself as lowly, has an appreciation of art for its own sake that matches her upright and generous character. She contends in a letter to her solicitor that a book is a necessary commodity. Mrs Gamart, meanwhile, is a poisonous individual who uses art to bolster her own status and influence- she wants Hardborough to have an arts centre so that it may compete with nearby towns for tourists. While the local hermit Mr Brundish points out to Florence the laughability of the notion that art can have a centre, Mrs Gamart sees herself occupying this position, as the arbiter of taste and a champion of commerce. Her vision places her at the helm of an engineered battle for the town’s survival.

As the struggle for the bookshop’s viability heats up, Florence asks, “Surely you can succeed when you give everything you have?” The irony is that, while Florence does give everything, she walks away with nothing. Mrs Gamart, through her politician nephew, oversees the passage of legislation that results in the compulsory acquisition of the Old House without the payment of compensation to Florence.

While the town thrives on gossip and some of its disappointed inhabitants could well enjoy the prospect of seeing someone else’s happiness ruined, the class stratifications of Hardborough also underlie the complicity of the characters in the bookshop’s demise. John Gipping, the father of eleven year old Christine Gipping who works after school in the bookshop, is a plasterer who is frequently out of work. It is he who is given the job of assessing the shop for water damage in the acquisition process. Bureaucracy interferes to stop Christine from working in the shop, and her prospects in life are constrained by the failure of the education system to bring out her talents. The primacy of dashed hopes and the inescapability of a dismal fate are signalled even in the names Mrs Gipping chooses for her children; two of Christine’s siblings are called Margaret and Peter, after the real-life Princess and her fiancé, but as Christine points out that “all came to nothing.” Just as Princess Margaret’s love was thwarted by an ascendant institution, so too are the Hardborough residents constrained by their stations in life.

The challenge of adapting a film into a book is to capture its essence in an art form which relies on completely different conventions. While there is merit in the argument that a film should be judged on its own terms, inevitably an adaptation will be compared to its written counterpart. If the book is well-loved, a filmmaker runs the risk of alienating the audience by not being “faithful.” The portrayal of the characters may disrupt readers’ preconceived ideas, resulting in viewers’ antipathy towards the whole production. In the case of The Bookshop, the challenge is to portray dynamics which mostly occur below the surface. Like the character of Milo North, whose “fluid personality tested and stole into the weak places of others until it found it could settle down to its own advantage,” the forces in the novel operate through stealth, only becoming conspicuous through their tragic consequences.

Isabel Coixet’s film succeeds in translating these forces into film, capturing brilliantly the claustrophobic and small-minded nature of Hardborough, and the injustice that is perpetuated against Florence, who is played with both radiance and understatement by Emily Mortimer. The quirks of the characters and of the town are brought out from the start with the right measure of comedy. The constant rumours that Florence is subject to are amusing to start with, yet hint at her downfall. The atmosphere transforms into palpable injustice and tragedy towards the film’s conclusion. (When Milo North closes the bookshop for an afternoon in Florence’s absence after volunteering to help her out, a woman in my row murmured “the bastard”).

While much of the dialogue is reproduced verbatim, some minor aspects of the plot are emphasised for dramatic effect. In the novel it is mentioned that Florence met her husband in a bookshop, and that he died of pneumonia on a battlefield. In the film, Florence adds that her husband read to her aloud every night, and thus the bookshop is shown to be a way for Florence to fill the hole left by her husband’s death, and heightens the tragedy of its closure. Furthermore, in the novel, Florence meets Mr Brundish only once, but in the film they see each other more frequently and form an unfulfilled romantic attachment. Mr Brundish’s death is one of the most devastating moments of the film.  Earlier, Florence loses a bright headscarf at the beach. When Mr Brundish’s death is revealed, the camera pans slowly along his splayed out body starting from the head, moving towards his hip pocket from which spills the headscarf, its bright colours dashed against the cold grey of the ground.

In this battle between good and evil, the book reads like a fairytale- but of the original, dark variety where good does not triumph. The presence of supernatural forces suggest something rotten exerting a malign presence. Florence’s vulnerability to forces beyond her control are illustrated through the rapper- a poltergeist believed to inhabit the Old House. It disappears after the bookshop is forced to close, as though it is somehow aligned with the brutal complicity of the townsfolk and the systematic exploitation of Florence’s trusting and generous character. Dark secrets are also hinted at through allusions to incest. Wally, a boy scout who assists Florence by running messages, mentions a production of Hansel and Gretel to her, in particular the scene where the boy and the girl “lie down in the leaves and get fresh together.” Florence tells him that he has missed the point, that Hansel and Gretel are brother and sister. That doesn’t make it any different, Wally tells her solemnly.

Coixet also makes judicious use of stylistic elements which capture the fairytale element of the story. The use of narration at the beginning and end evinces a fabular quality. There are visual cues including streetscapes of grey-stone buildings, shots of rambling dead trees sprawled in front of Mr Brundish’s castle-like property, which is sequestered behind decorative wrought iron gates. Shots of the estuary’s smooth waters intersperse scenes containing dialogue and action, hinting continually that all is not what it seems. There is also something of the witch about Mrs Gamart, who lives in a stately home on a hill, and whose brightly coloured frocks, reminiscent of Disney costuming, are the epitome of a showy, pretentious character who has no taste.

The characters do not get their just desserts. Florence’s very humanity is called into question by those in power. When the bureaucrats who notify her of the Old House’s acquisition say it is not fit for human habitation, Florence protests that she lives in it and she is still human. Potential allegiances are nipped in the bud, while those who could wield influence choose not to act. Milo North, a man of letters who works for the BBC, could wield positive influence in the situation but assists Mrs Gamart merely because he is asked to, and acquiescing is easier than saying no.

The film is visually arresting and quirky, eliciting characters that the audience feels strongly about while executing a devastating portrayal of the book’s central premise, that people in life are “divided into exterminators and exterminated, with the former at any moment predominating.” Hopefully the film will spark a renewed interest in the work of Penelope Fitzgerald whose writing is beautiful, simultaneously comic and dark, spare and profound.

Further reading

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee