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.