Friday, August 22, 2014

In Hugo Blick's The Honourable Woman, Which Woman Was The Most Honourable?

As The Honourable Woman draws to a close, many questions remain unanswered. That is to be expected of a drama which seeks to explore the complexities of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, but writer/creator Hugo Blick has done more than that. After the testosterone-driven Shadow Line, which was all about men behaving disgracefully, he has turned the genre of the spy thriller inside out. As much as it is about politics, the Honourable Woman is about women - powerful women, principled women, career women, compromised women - all of them operating in a world where honour is scarce. 
“I was very intrigued by the characters that presented themselves to me,” Blick explained. “They were women, because by definition they had to be, but that was very exciting - to place that psychology under exploration.”
At the centre of his story is Nessa Stein, (icily played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), an Israeli philanthropist exploring the possibility of reconciliation in a clearly intractable political problem. In the first episode, she was elevated to the House of Lords. In the seventh, she was blown up - apparently killed - by a Palestinian bomb, but not before compromising her integrity. Blick has hinted that the title of the series might be a bit of misdirection - the correct form of address for a Baroness is “The Right Honourable” or “The Lady” - which leaves open the possibility that Nessa is not, after all the most important female in the story. So, as the drama concludes, it seems fair to ask: just who is the honourable woman? 

Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal) 
Clearly, the story centres around Nessa, a woman with a vacuum at the core of her personality. She dresses like an angel and lives like a ghost. She has suffered terribly, on account of her name. Her father, an Israeli arms dealer, was murdered. She was kidnapped by a Hamas-like group, raped, and surrendered the resulting child to her (also kidnapped) Palestinian pal. Then, years later, the boy is kidnapped too, leaving poor old Nessa running around Hyde Park looking absolutely alone. That’s quite a lot of bad luck to be going on with, which explains Nessa’s glacial persona. She exists on the bruised side of numbness, rarely displaying anger, whatever the provocation - and the provocation she endures is extreme. Certainly, she embodies the drama’s theme of reconciliation, heading up the family foundation, which is behind the symbolic establishment of a communications cable running between the disputed territories. She shows her principled (gullible?) side early on, by deciding not to offer the contract to her surrogate uncle, Shlomo Zahary, on the basis of bogus intelligence. Later, she finds herself blackmailed into a grim and fateful deal with Palestinian businessman Jalal El-Amin, which shows that her sense of honour has its limits. Though,  to be fair, she didn’t have much choice.  Also has trouble with relationships, possibly due to the horrors she has endured. Indulges in anonymous, masochistic sex with strangers, which goes wrong when she is recognised and raped again. But also has a very close relationship with Atiki Halibi. Is she in love with her? 

Atika Halibi (Lubna Azabal) 
Atika is the most vividly-drawn character. She was incarcerated along with Nessa, and agreed to act as mother to the son Nessa had after being raped by her kidnapper. Also works as nanny to the children of Nessa’s brother, Ephra, who proves unable to resist her charms. So she lures him to a rendezvous at his holiday house, and has back-bending sex, knowing that a plastic-faced Palestinian hitman is about to appear and assassinate him at the precise moment Nessa is being blown up by a bomb. Not, on the surface of it, the most honourable CV. But Atika is a woman of strong principle, and while her methods are extreme, they are not unfathomable in the context of the middle east. On the plus side, she spared the life of Ephra’s wife, Rachel, and helped her give birth to the next scion of the Stein family in rather trying circumstances. (Two dead men next door. Armed men bursting into the room). Is Atika a lesbian? Possibly not.  She proves quite adept at heterosexual activities - both the theory and the practice. But there is a real intimacy with Nessa.

Rachel Stein (Katherine Parkinson) 
Ephra’s wife has one of the more traditional female roles, being an attractive, supportive spouse whose pregnancy is always threatening to explode into the plot. However, on discovering just how friendly Ephra has been getting with Atika, her fury builds. It explodes when she is told that Kasim, the missing child who should be at the centre of the plot but somehow isn’t, belongs to Nessa, not Atika. She flips her wig. By the time she’s tracked Ephra down to their second home and caught him in an advanced yoga position with Atika, she is transformed into a suburban Tank Girl. And who could blame her? Nothing dishonourable about her at all, even if she does kill a man. 

Monica Chatwin (Eve Best) 
If this was a cowboy film, Monica would be riding the black horse. She is, or appears to be, the most clearly-defined villain of the piece, happily betraying her colleagues in order to advance her own career. She is also a double agent, employed by the British, but working for the Americans, while always working for herself. She was happy to see Nessa die in order to promote the prospects of Palestine being fully recognised as a state. So you could argue that her deceptions were carried out in the service of higher principle. Not honourable in the conventional sense, and not a code of ethics that would get her a degree in moral philosophy, but representative of the cynicism of state secret services. 

Dame Julia Walsh (Janet McTeer). 
Dame Julia is head of MI5, a job filled by Dame Judi Dench in the James Bond films, so they’re clearly quite used to having a lady around the place. In early episodes, Dame Julia acts as the punchline to the joke in which Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle is alleged to have slept his way to the top, before finding herself earmarked for retirement to satisfy the ambitions of the ruthless Monica. But as the plot develops, Dame Julia comes into her own, playing Sir Hugh and Monica off against each other, and proving herself to be more than equal to her foreign counterparts. Her importance to the architecture of Blick’s feminist design is proved by a one-liner she is given in tonight’s concluding episode, which is delivered with so much comedic zip that it invites a drumroll and a clash of cymbals. Still, that shouldn’t detract from Dame Julia's competence and grace, even if she seems to be contractually unable to stand up unless everyone else is sitting down. (McTeer is 6’ 1”). 

Frances Pirsig (Genevieve O’Reilly)
An honourable mention to Nessa’s unflappable private secretary, media advisor and confidante, who keeps the show on the road while her boss is floating around in an ethereal fog. Poor old Frances has to witness the moment where Nessa sells out her principles, and - as a good professional must - buttons her lip and moves on. 

Anjelica, Lady Haden-Hoyle (Lindsay Duncan). 
It’s a sign of the strength of the cast that Blick could afford to keep Lindsay Duncan is what is little more than a supporting role as the estranged wife of Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle, who spies on her through binoculars in the hope of being forgiven for his time on the casting couch with Dame Julia. In truth, Anjelica doesn’t do much except repel Hugh with ever-diminishing force. 

Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Stephen Rea). 
It may not be Blick’s intention, but the fact remains that in a drama in which the traditional roles of the sexes are reversed, Rea’s shambolic nightwatchman of a spy employs feminine wiles. He is accused of using his sexuality to advance his career, and finds himself discarded once the novelty has worn off. In this carefully-constructed inversion of dramatic norms, he sticks doggedly to his task in the hope of redeeming himself. He also does the traditional spy stuff, which mostly amounts to mumbling to his foreign counterparts on park benches and gazing wistfully at the Thames. He is honourable from the tips of his flip-on sunglasses to the soles of his Ampleforth socks, and in a world where all the men are women, he is a chap perennially in search of his testicles. Who do you trust? Sir Hugh, if you’re wise. He is The Honourable Woman’s best girl. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Matthew McConaughey's Long, Cool Ride: From Surfer Dude to Suffer, Dude

You might, with some effort, be able to find a flicker of sympathy for Pi
With Willie Nelson in Surfer, Dude
ers Morgan. Not long before his CNN talk show was canned, the celebrity celebrity interviewer interviewed Matthew McConaughey. It should have been a simple assignment. McConaughey was there to bask in his own success; a career turnaround which has seen him transformed from romcom hunk to Oscar front-runner in Dallas Buyers Club.

Dutifully, Morgan gushed, calling McConaughey the best actor on the planet. “Thank you,” the actor replied. Tumbleweed blew. Empires fell. Unabashed, Morgan tried again. “Can you quite believe where you’ve got to?”
“Yeah,” McConaughey replied flatly. “I believe it. One hundred per cent I believe it. I in no way feel this is a surreal moment. I’m very engaged in what’s happening. Extremely appreciative. Understand what the reasons are…”
This is not the way these things generally go. But then, the re-routing of McConaughay’s career is an extraordinary thing, and on the evidence of Dallas Buyers Club, it was a deliberate act of reinvention. He lost 47lbs to play Aids-sufferer Ron Woodruf. The transformation was extreme; an actor so often cast for his beauty became ratty and lean. But something else happened too. Deprived of his natural beauty, McConaughey’s talent became evident. Or as he told Graham Norton, another talkshow host in pursuit of a punchline: “It quickly became something more than the Matthew McConaughey got skinny film.”
It’s not just Dallas Buyers Club. The thin McConaughey also lights up True Detective (currently screening on Sky) alongside his frequent sidekick Woody Harrelson. He plays a nihilistic undercover cop, and there is talk of an Emmy nomination for that. Then there’s his turn as Leonardo DiCaprio’s amoral boss in Scorsese’s cartoonish Wolf Of Wall Street. Filmed when he was only halfway to featherweight, McConaughey squats beneath one of Christopher Walken’s old haircuts, identifying the keys to success as masturbation and drugs. “Tootski?” he suggests over lunch, before recommending a professional diet of “cocaine and hookers”.
This is not how we used to think of Matthew McConaughey. His career began when he was enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin, and was cast in Richard Linklater’s 1993 slacker movie Dazed and Confused – a part he got after meeting the casting director in a margarita bar. He played a lawyer in Joel Schumacher’s 1996 Grisham adaptation A Time To Kill, and found himself on the cover of Vanity Fair – an early sign that his cheekbones would dictate his career.  The film grossed $108m and for a time he was the toast of Hollywood. He was talked of as the heir to Paul Newman, though he told an interviewer that his other hero was the incredible Lou Ferrigno: “He turned into the Hulk twice a show, and he’d always throw those big air tanks.”
The first phase of his career ended with the failure of Linklater’s 1998 bankrobbing drama The Newton Boys, and Ron Howard’s 1999 comedy EdTV. Unabashed, he fine-tuned his ambitions, and became the go-to guy for romantic comedies (notably The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.) These films made money, but it took a brave critic to notice that McConaughey brought a level of playfulness to his characterisations that went beyond the requirements of the genre. One such was David Edelstein of New York magazine, who noted “a kind of wildness, a way of laughing at himself, a touch of gonzo”.
McConaughey doesn’t disparage his romcom period, talking instead of the difficulty of making something fresh from a predictable formula. But he clearly had broader ambitions. He launched his own fashion line j k livin, which supports a non-profit organisation offering after school fitness programmes in deprived areas. He also put money towards a pet project, Surfer, Dude, which can be viewed as the bridge between his pretty boy period and his current acclaim. True, it’s no masterpiece, being a stoner surf movie with faint philosophical ambitions, but you don’t have to be a Malibu shrink to view it as a McConaughey’s comic commentary on the business of celebrity. More importantly, it’s a lot of fun. McConaughey remains shirtless throughout, has a bleached mullet, and is managed by the even more sartorially extreme Woody Harrelson. In the end (spoiler alert) he finds peace tending goats with weed-dealin’ Willie Nelson, who exhales some Zen advice: “What goes down, gotta come up.”
And so it proved, after taking a break from acting to recalibrate his ambitions, McConaughey decided to concentrate on films he might like to watch himself. His performance in Exorcist director William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (2012) changed his reputation, if not his bank balance. He was acclaimed for his roles in Bernie and The Paperboy, and brought a note of dangerous intensity to the coming of age drama, Mud, playing a hunted man who lives in a boat in a tree (“I shot a man, ah kill’t a man.”) And there was (unfounded) talk of an Oscar nomination for his role as a former stripper in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike. There was an element of physical transformation here, too. "Celebrity trainer" Gunnar Petersen put him through what called a "2 week to 6-pack abs: Insane training" programme, to turn his already toned physique into prime beefcake. It involved a great many planks, squat presses and shouts of "Whoo-hoooh!"
Then comes Ron Woodruf, and once again, McConaughey finds himself cresting a wave, and being warned this week by Forbes magazine that he has the most to lose if his status as the Best Actor favourite isn’t converted into a gold-plated statuette.
Would he care? Possibly. For a laid-back dude with his own line in flip-flops, McConaughey does seem to take his work very seriously. But his future projects look intriguing, among them Gus Van Sant’s Sea of Trees, and Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic Interstellar. And, while he can no longer claim to be an underrated actor, as a man, he still seems determined to write his own script.  McConaughey’s foundation, and his clothing line, are named after the line he coined at the climax of his first film: “The older you get, the more rules they’re gonna try to get you to follow. You just gotta keep livin’ man, l-i-v-i-n’” Dazed? Maybe sometimes. Confused? Not so much.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Take It To The Bridge: Saga Noren and Martin Rohde Turn TV Detective Fiction Inside Out

Sofia Helin is Saga Noren, the detective at the centre of The Bridge, the brilliant Scandi-noir series which just concluded on BBC4. Except that she isn’t, obviously. Saga doesn’t have an emotional radar. She is blunt to the point of rudeness, obsessive about her work, and disarmingly pragmatic about sex (if she wants it, she has it, with no care for social niceties). Sofia is different. She doesn’t wear leather trousers. She has clean hair. She is, by all accounts, a warm and emotional woman.
So it’s a little disconcerting when she declares, a propos of nothing much, that she has a question. A Swedish question.
“Normal families,” she says, fixing me with her cool green eyes. “Do they walk naked around the house?”
Perhaps not, I suggest. This is England. “So tell me,” she continues forensically, “if you are having a shower, you bring the clothes into the shower room? Or you have your towel around? Because when I was a child, I remember I was in the puberty years. And my mother and her friends were in the sauna and they were sitting naked and they said ‘get undressed girls’ and we were so embarrassed because it was a nude body and I didn’t want to do that.”
Helin is in London for Nordicana 2014, a festival of Nordic drama, which also includes Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudsen, and various noirish luminaries. Kim Bodnia, who plays Saga’s Danish sidekick Martin, is here too, in the restaurant of a West End hotel, offering emotional context, just as he does in the series. “You know what?” he says. “We have so many beaches in Denmark where you are not allowed to have clothes on. Nothing.”
“Really?” says Helin, still sounding like Saga and sucking  Diet Coke through a straw. “You are not allowed? Well, Denmark is much more liberated than Sweden. It’s so crazy, Denmark. When I was doing my first sex scene in the first season, I didn’t dare to say no to certain things because I was thinking, she’s Danish, the director, and in Denmark they are so free, so maybe I should just do it.”
And do it she did. The scene was extraordinary. Explicit without being exploitative, functional rather than erotic, and novel because the woman was in charge, behaving like a man.
“What you did in that scene is so amazing,” says Bodnia. “I was totally surprised when I saw you acting like that – it was so fantastic. But no actor in Denmark had ever done it like you. It was only because you thought we were thinking like that. All Danish actresses are afraid of getting naked, so what you did was amazing, because you just did it, and you went the whole way.”
Of course, The Bridge isn’t really about sex. It offers a new spin on the TV detective series, by inverting the roles of the sexes, while not making a fuss about it. And it creates a brilliant (actually murky) fictional landscape in the edgelands of Sweden and Denmark.
Initially, the show was created by Hans Rosenfeldt as a vehicle for Bodnia, an actor well-known for hardman roles, notably Nicolas Winding Refn’s 1996 drama Pusher. “All men between 30 and 50, Kim is their idol,” Helin says. “Everywhere we go they’re falling on their knees saying ‘Oh My God, I’ve seen Pusher, you’re so cool.’”
So, Bodnia was played against type, to distinguish him from the generic TV detective, who is an opera-loving emotionally bereft alcoholic male in his fifties. (See: Wallander, K.)
“Kim’s a middle-aged white male so we wanted to make him a little more emotional, a family man, and somebody who wants to smalltalk and chit-chat,” says Rosenfeldt. “He’s a softer detective. So we did that and then thought, what are we going to put him against? We knew we wanted a female detective on the Swedish side, and then we came up with the idea, what about a female detective with absolutely no social skills? She’s brilliant in what she’s doing, and everything that she can learn by reading, she will be excellent in, but everything else, when it comes to interaction between other people, she just can’t get it.”
When she was offered the part, Helin refused.  “I told Hans, no one will like her. Then I started to try to think the other way round and it opened up a universe of other ways of seeing things.” She experimented by playing the character in her everyday life. “I went and did normal things – throwing out the garbage, shopping, I went to the swimming hall. What happened was, I felt a big loneliness. If you don’t respond to people, the other person’s eyes, they die. You just feel they’re not interested anymore.”
And loneliness, Helin suggests, is the key to Saga’s character. “Big loneliness. That’s the amazing thing, when Martin shows up.  I think he loves her, and she feels that, although she doesn’t know it. So, through him, she dares to do new things.”
Saga and Martin are a double act, but there’s no doubt that Saga dominates. Partly this is due to Helin’s extraordinary performance, and the way she blunts her beauty, but it’s also down to the design of the character.
“When we started, they had an inspiration book,” Helin says. “They had a lot of time to work out how they wanted it to look and be. They already had the car for me, then the car and the clothes wanted to fit together. I know Charlotte Sieling [the show’s first director] wanted Saga to be a hjort, a deer. And then I was thinking about Clint Eastwood, about Dirty Harry.”
Saga’s wardrobe is not unimportant. She invariably wears brown leather trousers and a flapping green coat, all the better to camouflage her under those dark tobacco skies.  “I need the clothes to be her now,” says Helin. “Both the coat and the trousers. It was hard this season, since she got shot, I had to wear something else underneath. I was never really content with what we found, actually.”
“But the trousers are there!” Bodnia ejaculates. “They are so Saga! They are so fucking sexy! It’s not only because you’re a woman. Leather follows the body very nicely, and because it’s an animal, it’s very emotional, very nice.”
The subtle feminism of the show extends to having several bosses in the story who are female, though their sex is never mentioned. They just happen to be women.
 “That’s something that I and Charlotte spoke about when we were going to do the first season. I said ‘Have you noticed how there are so many men [in the script]?’ She said yes, and she changed it. Some people say it’s hard to write a woman boss – I don’t know why. But you can just change the name – its’ no problem. It’s even more interesting. I think that’s why people find me interesting when I’m doing Saga because I’m doing something that’s s far from who I am. So giving a part that’s written for a man to a woman; that’s the complexity of it.”
“If  you look at Martin,” says Rosenfeldt, “he has more female characteristics. We really turned the genders around a little. And when we did that, we played with the clichés of Danes and Swedes. In Sweden, everybody thinks that the Danes are laid back, they are like huggingly nice people. And In Denmark, everybody thinks that in Sweden we follow every rule, and are really cold and stiff and hard. We tried to get away from the gender clichés, and we walked into the country clichés instead, and I think that’s better!”
 Over the show’s two seasons, events have conspired to make Saga and Martin’s emotional worlds overlap. In Season 2, Martin was emotionally frozen, after the murder of his son, while Saga was experimenting (unsuccessfully) with a cohabiting relationship. The clear suggestion was that if you put both characters together, you’d have a whole person.  “Yeah,” says Helin. “It’s like Yin and Yang.”
But wait, did Helin just say that Martin loves Saga? No spoilers, but does she think anything could ever happen between them?
“I don’t know,” Helin deadpans. “You’d have to ask Martin.”
“What are you talking about?” says Bodnia.
“Sexually, you mean?” says Helin.
“I never thought about Saga as a woman,” says Bodnia, slipping into his character. “I thought about Saga as a child. From the beginning she was like my daughter, so I never think like that. It would be very strange. But when I travel around, especially In Norway, they are waiting for Martin to get on Saga.”
“Or maybe Saga to get on Martin,” says Helin.
“Something is wrong with Norway,” says Bodnia. “Something is wrong with these guys that they want that to happen. It cannot happen. It’s a love story between two people who are trying to be together and work together, because Martin is the same way that Saga is. Totally into the work. Totally into trying to save the world through not having killers around. But I fuck my life up, and I cannot be as concentrated as Saga, because she is so focused. That’s why I admire her, because she doesn’t have the same way of fucking up her job. I do it all the time. I admire her because her life isn’t fucked up, but then it turns out that she is.”
And that, really, is the key to The Bridge. It’s not really about crime. It’s about emotions.
“I really have to force myself to get interested in the plot,” Helin confesses. “We have to explain it to each other sometimes because we’re so dumb with those things.”
“It’s like we are a couple,” says Bodnia. “In the bus we have our space; we only talk about senses and feelings, and we come on set and it’s a crime. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, I know that, but…’”
Helin completes the sentence, for once sounding nothing like her make-believe self.  “What am I doing with this fucking gun?”