Villainous villains or complex heros?
How do you like your films nowadays*?
As the short days of winter continue we often choose to stream a film to help pass the long dark evenings. And so I read film revues, in order not to be disappointed. That has led us to seeing some great films over the years. It is interesting to look back. B.'s memory proves to be far better than mine when it comes to remembering plots, whereas I often remember the overall feeling or mood that a film bears. Thanks to the BFI we have seen some great classics, and it is the Italian ones from the fifties and sixties that stand out in my memory. That said, I often want to see something contemporary nowadays , that reflects the times in which we live and some of the dilemmas that people experience. Which brings me to my opening question. Do you like your villains to be truly villainous? And should every film have likeable characters with whom to sympathise? Where films reflect more complex characters and issues, they often sink like a stone. Films seem to have taken the place of good old fashioned morality tales, in which good and evil are clearly defined. Let us boo the villains, they say, and cheer the heroines , and all have a jolly good time. But is life really like that, and should our films pretend that it is ?
'Tár' is the name of a recently released film in which Cate Blanchett stars as a talented female orchestral conductor. It has received rave revues from the critics. It features the kind of music I like, and what's more a female role that breaks the traditional mould of male maestros. I shall be rushing to stream it as soon as it becomes available . What's 'not to like?' ...
... Unfortunately , according to the viewing public, there's a lot that's 'not to like' about this film. So far audiences have resolutely stayed away from the cinemas, and the company is struggling to recoup the film's 35million dollar budget. People's main objection is that Cate Blanchett's character is thoroughly dislikeable. She is scheming and manipulative . What's more Marin Alsop, one time conductor of The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, has criticised the film, saying how it misused the opportunity to show a female orchestral conductor in a good light.
'Hidden' is another film that was a predicted success, but failed at the box office. It starred Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain. Yet again people stayed away from the cinema chiefly because the characters were 'horrible. The film critic Catherine Shoard praises this film however. She is critical of people's need to like the main protagonists, and billed this film as one not to miss , and full of fun. We decided to watch, to see who was right
We agreed with each other that we hadn't particularly enjoyed this film. The characters were indeed unpleasant and racist, and the story depressing. It concerns a jaded surgeon (Fiennes) and his wife who kill a young Moroccan boy while driving to a lavish party in the Moroccan desert. Fiennes agrees to attend the boy's traditional funeral at the request of the boy's Berber father , leaving his wife and over privileged friends to party on without him.
In fact we felt no differently from the wider audience . The unpleasant theme and the cringeworthy characters had put us off the film.
And yet I have frequently revisited this film in my thoughts , and have discussed elements of it with B. Indeed, the characters had been loathesome , and brought little cheer. But when I began to reflect more I realised that Fiennes had changed subtly over the course of the drama. If you look very closely, his character was redeemed. Like all good films the change was subtle , as was the nature of the flamboyant party host, who showed little hints of wisdom and complexity if you dug a little deeper. If the benchmark of a good film is that it reflects life's truths and complexities, then this was indeed a 'good' film, and well worth watching.
And so, what have I learned?
I think that it is well worth reading what critics have to say, and following their guidance. But there will be times when I disagree with their taste.
I have also learned that characters should not always be irredeemably bad. The character Joan in my coming novel 'Because You Were There' is certainly a 'nasty piece of works.' She is catty and racist. However towards the end of the novel she is rehabilitated somewhat. My editor queried whether this was likely. It was only after reading the comments of Catherine Shoard about the redemptive arc of the surgeon in 'Hidden' that I decided to stick by my guns and grant Joan 'redemption.' But people are complex, and no doubt after the story ends, she may well err again.
As for 'Tár', I look forward to watching it, but I certainly don't expect to like the heroine.