National Treasure

[contains spoilers]

 There is nothing to find. Just a desperate woman being desperate.

In an interview with Leigh Sales in mid-December, the actress Yael Stone detailed uncomfortable sexualised encounters she has had in the past with the actor Geoffrey Rush. In revisiting allegations of behaviour that pushed the boundaries of acceptable workplace conduct, Ms Stone was also brutally honest about her responses to it, which included behaviour that could easily have been interpreted as encouragement. As Mr Rush’s suggestive behaviour escalated and she became more uncomfortable, she reflects that she did not have the language to challenge Mr Rush’s alleged behaviour, and believed that her work would suffer if she made a complaint. Towards the conclusion of the interview, Ms Stone strongly asserted that consent is “almost impossible in a dynamic where the power is so drastically imbalanced. And I would say in any working environment, where there is that imbalance of power, the subordinate doesn’t have a great opportunity for expressing themselves freely.”

Ms Stone’s compelling interview was a timely reminder that consent is a lot more complex than “yes” or “no,” and strongly recalled to me the 2016 British miniseries National Treasure. This series cut through the self-serving explanations about consent that are often bandied about by powerful men when they are challenged about their sexual behaviour. The plot revolves around a television comedian in the twilight of his career, Paul Finchley (Robbie Coltrane), who is accused of sexually assaulting teenage girls many years previously. Finchley staunchly maintains his innocence, and the series explores the tensions between the presumption of innocence and the need to protect children and bring perpetrators of abuse to account. It also portrays, with devastating acuity, the monopoly on “truth” that is wielded by those with unchecked power.

The series was inspired by Operation Yewtree, the investigation by British police into sexual abuse by high profile entertainers, including Jimmy Savile. This context is a backdrop for Paul’s spin on the charges levelled against him. From the moment he is advised of these allegations, Paul casts himself as a scapegoat: “they think I’m Jimmy fucking Savile.” Ambiguity surrounding his guilt or innocence is maintained well into the final episode. On the one hand, it is not hard for the viewer to imagine his guilt in light of the revelations of Operation Yewtree. On the other, apart from a certain understated repulsiveness that he occasionally exudes, he doesn’t come across as a monster. He converses respectably with his long-suffering wife, looks after his grandchildren, and taxi drivers accost him to re-enact scenes from his heyday. His long-time comedy partner sticks by him. He is also eager (too eager, according to his legal team) to face the media and profess his belief in punishment for paedophiles.

The ambiguous atmosphere surrounding Finchley’s guilt or innocence heightens the impact of the series’ main themes: the reliability of memory and abuse of power. Tension between truth and deception, reality and performance is established from the opening scene. He is filmed smoking in a floodlit basement, the walls a turquoise shade once found in hospitals and the floor blood red. It resembles a prison, but Finchley is actually waiting backstage in a theatre to present a lifetime achievement award to his comedy partner. This immediately establishes a link between the possibility of guilt, and his fame, which allows men like him to abuse. While a seasoned entertainer, he appears to suffer stage fright, invoking doubt in the viewer about the authenticity of his public persona.

Finchley’s trial brings to the fore the shortcomings of the adversarial legal system when it comes to sexual abuse and rape. Paul’s barrister, charging £400 per hour, and the ex-cop investigator assisting them in garnering evidence, are intent on winning. They blithely accept Paul’s history of infidelity and apparent compulsion to view pornography; their only qualm is that he did not forewarn them about it before they discovered it in the police’s brief of evidence. Every twist or turn can be manipulated, used to their advantage or turned against a complainant. This includes the serious injury of Paul’s daughter in a car crash, which his legal team believes is a publicity coup for him. It seems Paul and his family inhabit a murky world where everyone has an agenda, not just those with something to hide. This is strongly reinforced in the scenes shot inside the Finchley’s monstrosity of a house. The interior is constantly bathed in shade, with the odd bit of sunlight coming through a window only serving to illuminate dust motes. The walls are a shade of green reminiscent of a stagnant pond, and Marie wears an overcoat of a similar shade; her being is literally enveloped by the murkiness.

There is a courtroom scene strongly reminiscent of Ms Stone’s comments about being torn between admiration for Mr Rush and discomfort at his behaviour. Under cross-examination, it is revealed one of Paul’s accusers, Rebecca Thornton, sent Finchley a fan letter after the date of the alleged rape. The defence contends this proves she fabricated her claim; at most they had consensual sex, and her subsequent regret clouded the facts in her mind. Distressed, Ms Thornton says she can’t explain it, other than that it was a very confusing period in her life. Earlier, she confronts Marie in the court toilets, and is absolutely certain about the veracity of her memory. She says to Marie: “He did this to me. And to you. I feel like I’m doing this for you.” As the series progresses, flashbacks to the  alleged rapes become more frequent and revealing, and finally it is clear that Finchley did commit the crimes alleged against him. But time, memory, and the law take their toll. He is acquitted.

The position of the women in Finchley’s life is also a point of drama. His wife Marie is staunchly Catholic and, though she does not like her husband’s infidelity or predilection for pornography, she stands by him. In preparation for the trial, in which she will be called as a witness, the barrister probes Marie about her relationship with Paul, asking him whether her constant forgiveness and acceptance of her errant husband’s extramarital “needs” is a “Catholic thing.” No, Marie replies, “it’s a love thing.”

The public love and affection of a good woman is the ultimate saviour for men like Paul. The faithfulness of a wife allows the traditional double standard to be maintained- that women and daughters are sacred property, and other women are up for grabs. Distinguishing between these “types” of women is also the basis of public respectability. During the trial, the prosecution challenges Finchley about his use of prostitutes, including a propensity for BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism):

So sex with women who aren’t prostitutes never gets violent. But sex with prostitutes sometimes can.

They consent to everything that happens.

You pay them to consent. But with other women, no violence.

No.

You have a code. If I’m paying for it I will do whatever I like. But with other women I will not do whatever I like.

Yes.

That must involve restraint on your part. Clearly you like violence as part of sex otherwise why would you pay for it.

I don’t engage in BDSM with women who aren’t prostitutes.

You hate women, don’t you….

Marie and Paul’s troubled adult daughter, Dee, has her own problems with memory. She claims she cannot remember large swathes of her life. It is unclear whether this is due to her drug use or trauma. Her memory loss mirrors the way the defence paints Rebecca Thornton as an unreliable witness. And, like Rebecca, the possibility she was abused by Paul is hinted at, but in her case never settled. Dee is, however, strikingly intelligent, and challenges her father on his professed feelings of shame for his infidelity and penchant for violent sex. As a drug addict, she knows about shame, and doesn’t believe it is what her father is purporting to demonstrate. What Dee is alluding to is Paul’s ability to compartmentalise his behaviour, and his audacity to think he can redeem himself through a superficial display of regret.

Marie has also cottoned on to this by the end of the trial. Just before Paul is due to give evidence, she challenges him on the truth of his recollections, and his grip on the narrative, both public and personal, that he has spun around the allegations. She doesn’t think he is lying, she says. Instead, she thinks he has a broad definition of truth, and can make himself belief in contradictory facts at the same time:

There are layers of you aren’t there. You don’t lie, I don’t think you lie. I think you believe everything… You exist on one layer quite purely. Good husband layer, the good man layer. And then there’s another layer. And on that you’re less good. But you treat them both separately. And then there’s the third layer. And on that, you’re capable of anything…Be brave Paul. Try and remember the man you are, try not to lie. Look through the layers.

For a moment, his guard is down. A look of outrage flicks across his face in the form of a twitch that makes his lip momentarily curl before he delivers his verdict on her: “You never loved me the way you thought you did.” In his view, her failure of belief in him is tantamount to failure as a wife.

In the closing scenes of the final episode, Marie vanishes from their home, where a party celebrating Paul’s acquittal is in full swing. The series ends with Paul yelling Marie’s name into the void. He has lost her, her absolution, and with it, the ability to maintain both a respectable public image and to compartmentalise his crimes according to the women they were committed against. He can no longer pretend his behaviour does not harm his family. In fact, as his victim Rebecca Thornton pointed out to Marie, his crimes are also a violence against his family, and it is his willingness to make them suffer that is most revealing about who he truly is: that he believes a woman’s lot is to put up and shut up, and that, when pushed, women are not capable of making the truth stick.

 

Christ On A Bike

[spoiler alert]

 I have discovered the ITV series Grantchester on dvd. A little late, yes, but in my defence I thought it would be boring like the books.

Reader, it is not. In fact, God has never been so sexy.

James Norton stars as the Reverend Sidney Chambers, a vicar with a past and an attractive set of cheekbones. He is not a natural fit with the life of a clergyman; he has a definite problem with the bottle, a penchant for jazz, and a familiarity with women in the biblical sense.

Despite his unconventional attributes, the show trots out the familiar tropes of the detective genre. Rev. Chambers has a buddy in the form of Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green) of the Grantchester Constabulary, and their partnership evolves into a genuinely affecting bromance. Like their archetypal forebears, their sense of right and wrong frequently renders them outcasts at odds with their superiors, both in the force and the Church, and the greatest mystery plaguing them is their existence. Both Keating and Chambers have military pasts that haunt them, meaning solving crimes is a way of ordering psychological chaos and righting past wrongs.

The religious backdrop renders the moral heart of crime-solving more conflict-provoking for our heroes and more dramatic for us, the viewers. As a man of the cloth, Chambers has unique insight because he has to minister to both the perpetrator and the victim, and also try to heal his community when it is divided in the aftermath of a criminal act. While a persuasive heart to heart with a parishioner can convince them to come forward with crucial information or persuade a killer to turn themselves in, Chambers also bears witness to the cruelties and shortcomings of the justice system. Each episode finishes with a sermon, but not of a trite, preachy kind, as Chambers’ awareness of the double-edged nature of both crime and punishment frequently leads him away from absolution. This is heightened in season two when it becomes apparent that Chambers entered the Church to atone for his responsibility for a fellow soldier’s death during the war. As a result, Chambers sometimes sees himself reflected in the face of a murderer, further narrowing the distance between criminal and crime solver.

Another key aspect of the series is the success with which the period setting is carried off. Its not all vintage dresses, picnics and thoughtful walks in open fields (although there is a fair bit of that). The time is the early 1950s. A dalliance with your typist can saddle you with an illegitimate child and a secret that you take to your grave. There is no such thing as no-fault divorce, meaning you need to be named and shamed to legally separate. You cannot marry up or down, or even sideways if your beloved is of a different racial background. Furthermore, homosexuality is out, and the death penalty is in. These circumstances aid the moral dimension of the series, because it means that so much is at stake. You must really want to kill someone if you are prepared to risk the death penalty, and Chambers sees firsthand what it means to take an eye for an eye.

Like all good historical fiction, Grantchester alludes to contemporary problems through the lens of the past. In series two, clerical child sexual abuse is in point. This series revolves around the death of a pregnant teenager. In trying to help her abort her baby, her friend accidentally kills her and is sentenced to hang. But the person responsible for her pregnancy is a vicar, whom Chambers knows well. Chambers is outraged when the Church moves to cover up his colleague’s actions and move him to another parish (Spotlight, anyone?). But unlike the vast majority of incidences of clerical abuse throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, ultimately the bishop is held responsible- a comfort that fiction allows. It is also the epitome of why we are drawn to detective fiction: the need to be reassured of order and justice when the meting out of punishment is beyond us.

 

grantchester pic

 

Photo of the Grantchester Orchard Tea Garden supplied by the Armchair Critics’ Mother.

The Crown Series 1

“We are half people, ripped from the pages of some bizarre mythology. The two sides within us human and crown engaged in a fearful civil war which never ends and which blights our every human transaction as brother, husband, sister, wife, mother.”

Peter Morgan’s film The Queen, starring Helen Mirren in the eponymous role, poignantly skewered the flurry of corporate image control deployed by the Royal Family and its apparatus of advisers in the wake of Princess Diana’s death. The Crown continues in this noble tradition, contrasting the god-like status of the monarch with the reality of the incumbent’s powerless in the face of custom, protocol, cabinet and constitution, not to mention the perpetual stage management to stave off overthrow through a popular rebellion. Paradoxically, this strive for survival comes at the cost of the family itself; despite the imperative for the clan to stick together and preserve the institution of royalty, relationships crack under the strain of expectation and the cloistered stuffiness of privilege (not to mention the spectre of in-breeding).

The visuals of the Crown– the depiction of birthright, glory, pomp and circumstance, the finery of period costume and the allure of celebrity- entails a lavish viewing experience. While I am a sucker for the aesthetics of period evocation, in the Crown this also came with the irony of hindsight. I was seduced by the immaculate and sumptuous stylings which surrounded the mysterious façade of the Crown, then unsettled by the portrayal of the vulnerability and inherent hypocrisy of those associated with it. With a $100 million budget, the cinematography and staging was also convincingly regal (unlike the cardboard reconstruction of Westminster Abbey used in The King’s Speech).

There are many parallels to draw between the Crown and Jackie, which I have also reviewed on this blog. Both have a preoccupation with myth-making, and deconstruct and re-make the legacy of Queen Elizabeth and JFK respectively. Both texts are self-consciously questioning of institutional  authority and the mystique and obfuscation that tradition works to produce. As the character David Windsor, the former King Edward VIII who abdicated because of his love for the divorced Wallis Simpson, states while watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth: “Why have transparency when you can have mystery?” David is played superbly by Alex Jennings, who becomes a scene stealer with his memorable lines including, “This family, when you’re in you’re never really sure, but when you’re out there’s no doubt. You’re out.”

Having said that, the series boasts a top-notch cast. Claire Foy is magnificent as the Queen, as is Matt Smith as Prince Philip. Eileen Atkins plays the Queen’s grandmother, the former Princess Alice, Vanessa Kirby plays Princess Margaret, and Jared Harris plays King George. Perhaps most impressive, however, is John Lithgow as Winston Churchill. By some trickery of the camera, his height is reduced and his girth is magnified, while his lips are pursed and voice gruff in the manner of the bulldog. It was also a pleasure to see Jeremy Northam back on screen, playing the foreign Minister and latterly Prime Minister, Anthony Eden. I only hope that The Queen stars Helen Mirren and James Cromwell reprise their roles in the latter series.

There are many fascinating intersecting strands to the Crown’s portrayal and critique of monarchy, including the religious symbolism with which it is imbued; the pull of tradition against modernisation and, indeed, common sense; public image versus private feeling, which is explored in the context of implosive family dynamics; the emasculation of Prince Philip through his role as consort; and the maintenance of the separate constitutional roles of monarch and parliament.

Central to the series is the basic question, what is the crown? Is it an institution, a person, a family, a god, or a certain kind of power? The answer that is most obviously correct is that it is an institution, but it is also all of these things, all of which conflict with one another. From the outset, as Elizabeth takes over after the premature death of her father and with the rancour stemming from her uncle’s abdication still poisoning relations, it is apparent that the series is not a homage to a timeless god(dess) currently manifested in the earthly form of Queen Elizabeth II, but as a damning portrayal of a contradictory and self-destructive clan. The crown is both precious and thorned.

If one thing is made clear, it is that the crown is a burden. While it is a cliché that with great power comes great responsibility, the members of the royal family suffer most acutely in their private lives while outwardly appearing to enjoy the trappings of the happy accident that is their birthright. Brother turns against brother; a mother becomes a stranger to one of her sons and blames him for the premature death of her other son who became king; Elizabeth is cut down the middle, torn between love and duty; Princess Margaret cannot marry the man she loves because of the precedency of canon law and tradition over personal feeling and public sentiment; Prince Philip’s pride is irreparably wounded, having to give up his name, naval career, and having to kneel in front of Elizabeth at her coronation. When the Queen ships him off to Australia ostensibly to give him a job (open the Melbourne Commonwealth Games), there is a clear sub-text: come back a changed man and accept your subordinate position. Prince Philip counters with one of the most biting lines in the series: “Don’t dress betrayal up as a favour.”

In the episode focusing on the coronation, we also see the beginnings of the corporate takeover of the Royal Family’s image. Though unelected, there is a preoccupation with public sentiment. The dramatization of the coronation cleverly unpicks the mythic proportions that the ceremony has taken on, and reveals that at best it is all smoke and mirrors, and at worst, a way for an unelected institution to periodically remake its relevancy.

The central thread of the series is Princess Margaret’s doomed relationship with Group Captain Peter Townsend. This narrative also encapsulates the dualities and contradictions entailed in carrying out the duties of the crown. While as a sister Elizabeth wants the marriage to go ahead, as head of the Church of England she cannot allow it. Cabinet proves intractable, even as public sentiment supports the match. Rather than bring the Church of England’s values up to date or keep her promise to her father not to let the crown get in the way of their sisterly bond, the Queen gives Margaret an impossible ultimatum: stay in the family, or marry Peter and renounce everything.

Writing in The Guardian, Lauren Carroll Harris argued that the Crown is “trash” which tries to “humanise” the monarchy. The drama and pathos evoked by certain characters elicits a variety of emotional responses from the viewer, including disbelief, ridicule and sympathy, but it is a stretch to say the show is a puff piece. Peter Morgan is on record making various ascerbic statements about the Royal Family, including that the Queen has limited intelligence and that she would rather have spent her life breeding horses and dogs. These sentiments come out on screen. The Family comes out as a cold, outdated institution that is effectively powerless, that holds on to the idea of class as a birthright, that lives off the largesse of the tax payer, and who seem blind to the ravages colonialism- and who on earth would want to marry into it?

It has been reported that events portrayed in the Crown are frenziedly googled by viewers to check the extent of their truthfulness, and the Royal Historian Hugo Vickers has written a 15 000 word pamphlet on all the factual inaccuracies of the series so far. To me, this misses the point.

Firstly, it is a dramatisation and I don’t think it purports to be anything other than that. We cannot know word for word every private conversation that every member of the royal family has ever had, so obviously it has to be made up. Peter Morgan makes clear that he is concerned with what occurs behind closed doors- his play The Audience explores the weekly meetings between the Queen and the Prime Minister throughout history. He is concerned with lifting the veil, and, in portrayals of events such as the coronation, draws attention to the way the real-life event was an exercise in creating a mythology which is then received by the public as “truth.”

Secondly, truth in fiction does not always amount to telling the facts. It is about the truth of representation, which is something quite different. Fiction allows us to reimagine the past and the future in new ways- an intellectual exercise that is not about lying, but about questioning previously held assumptions. The portrayal of vulnerability and powerlessness of the Royal Family in The Crown is a compelling counterpoint to the image of celebrity that has come to dominate today’s royals, and is perhaps partly what makes the series such compelling viewing.

There is also a certain irony about viewers being disappointed to discover that some conversations and plot points are the product of artistic licence.  When it comes to the Royal Family, how do we actually know what is real anyway? The performances they put on in public are heavily scripted, their images controlled to a tee. Hell, the way they portray themselves is basically fiction. Not to mention the apparatus of obfuscation that surrounds them. Julia Baird points out in her biography of Queen Victoria that people close to that monarch, including royal historians, coloured her historical legacy by destroying or editing her correspondence, amongst other things. When Baird set out to investigate the truth, the Royal Family continually rebuffed her requests to access the Royal Archives, ultimately allowing her only partial access.  That doesn’t exactly smack of transparency. As a journalist points out in the second season, doesn’t the public have a right to question those who hold such power, especially when they are not democratically elected?

All that is left is to wonder what Queenie herself makes of it all. Now that would be an episode of Gogglebox worth watching…

Don’t wanna live in the city…. SeaChange and Nineties Nostalgia

I think you’d be hard pressed to name a show that captured the zeitgeist of late nineties Australia more than SeaChange.

The show was ostensibly a drama, revolving around city lawyer Laura Gibson (Sigrid Thornton) who moves from Melbourne with her two children to the small coastal town of Pearl Bay to be the local magistrate after her marriage breaks up. It was a drama of the best kind, with complex characters, lashings of humour, and some keen insights into the prevailing pretensions and preoccupations of an increasingly economic-rationalist society.

I was ten when SeaChange finished up on our screens, but that makes me all the more nostalgic for it. Interestingly, I have found this to be a common predicament when trawling the web for past reviews of the show. For us misguided millennials who’d rather be watching re-runs of a show from last century than staring at our iphones, the people of Pearl Bay felt like friends and family. I practically regarded Laura Gibson as my mother- they were eerily similar in their roles as modern superwomen trying to juggle children with a career. In fact, I deconstructed an episode in my year nine English class for a discussion on the representation of women in cultural texts.

Now when I watch it I am literally reliving my childhood. Our family had the box set and my siblings and I would watch the whole three series every Summer holidays. I also grew up on the coast in Perth, so for me it brings back the feeling of languid summer days and the smell of the beach. I am nostalgic for the way my family was united for fifty minutes of viewing pleasure every Sunday night, and for the serious question of where your loyalties lay when it came to preferring Diver Dan or Max Connors (as my grandmother would say, Max Connors can park his slippers under my bed any day).  It’s also good to hark back to a time when Sigrid Thornton could actually move her facial muscles.

But back to that nineties zeitgeist. If I recall correctly, I also claimed in my year nine English class that Pearl Bay was a microcosm of Australian society. Yet the show’s creators, Andrew Knight and Deb Cox, who have gone on to produce Rake and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries respectively, captured this snippet of middle Australia without writing any of the characters as overt caricatures, or turning the humour into farce.  Bob Jelly, the local mayor and real estate agent (played by John Howard), comes closest to caricature, but he is also central to the underlying social critique- he is always chasing dodgy real estate deals and is in perpetual danger of selling the town off to its rival shire up the river.

The parochialism of the townsfolk and their antipathy towards Port Deakin Council could easily be a metaphor for the internationalisation of Australian society that was occurring at this time. Pearl Bay represents a local community with a strong identity and tangible social capital- the complete opposite of the living conditions brought about by the whole-hearted embrace of economic rationalism and the global market that the nation had been living through for close to two decades. Having said this, the show was not moralistic, but had a literary quality underpinned by well-developed characters, smart dialogue, and showed us we could represent ourselves on screen without being cringe worthy. It poked fun at us without bashing us over the head.

Re-watching it now, I am pleasantly surprised at how current the show remains. Don’t get me wrong, the opening theme and the CGI fish are dated, and some of the outfits look like they were designed by Ken Done. The idea of a sea change is cliched now, and those baby boomers who headed to the coast in what Bernard Salt dubbed the “Sigrid effect” have gotten bored and moved back to the city. But the show still cuts through, probably because of the humanity at its heart; social commentary aside, fundamentally the show is about human relationships and the big questions which plague us all- where am I going, and what does it all mean?  I have been genuinely moved to tears in some scenes, and am getting caught up once more in questions like: will Laura ditch Warwick for Max? Will Angus and Karen ever get married? And when will that bridge be fixed?