Monday, 26 June 2017

Three more films: an opening onto fact, fiction and the grey zone between

I forget who it was who said it – it might have been Denis Diderot – but I’ve always liked the sentence “I have read many histories that are poor novels, and many novels that are fine histories”.

It’s true that a work of fiction can sometimes be a more effective tool for conveying timeless truths that a dull history, especially if the latter is also unreliable.

Entertaining. But a truthful historical account?
Not so much
My son was so angry about the film of Hidden Figures, for its many distortions of the truth, that I made a point of reading the book before I watched the screen version. And he’s right: the film certainly takes extraordinary liberties with the historical record. “Based on true events”, the film claims, but there’s an implicit “loosely” in there somewhere. Or maybe “very loosely”.

Still, it’s an entertaining fiction making an important point: Virginia in the fifties was shamefully segregated where (the book reveals) the State closed public schools for five years rather than integrate them, creating a “lost generation” of under-educated black students. At a time when it was hard for women of any race to win professional recognition, the film tells the uplifting story of black women at the NASA operation in Virginia who, by dint of their brilliance, eventually carved careers for themselves through their vital if not always visible contributions to the US space programme.

This was the first time I’d seen Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, who were great as the three leading black, woman protagonists; and I enjoyed seeing Mahershala Ali, from House of Cards, as the man who put the “Johnson” in Katherine Johnson’s name.

Sticking with the Virginia location and the theme of racism, Loving is another film worth seeing. It’s a chilling thought that until 1967, sixteen US states still had anti-miscegenation laws: sex between races – strictly, between whites and non-whites – was illegal as, inevitably, was marriage. You may be interested though probably not surprised to know they were all in the South. A far more amusing thought is that it took a case brought by a loving (interracial) couple called Loving to put an end to that lamentable state of affairs.

Discrimination iseven more shocking than in
Hidden Figures
Ruth Negga is an outstanding actor of joint Ethiopian and Irish descent, giving her looks just the kind of ethnic ambiguity the role needed: Mildred Loving was described as Indian or Black at different times of her life, though what really mattered was that she was non-white. Negga has impressed me ever since I first saw her in Breakfast on Pluto a dozen years ago. She plays Mildred with her usual skill and entirely convincingly, opposite Joel Edgerton as her white husband Richard. He fully communicates the character, a man of few words and little education, hard working though poor (the couple could only take the case thanks to funding by the American Civil Liberties Union). He was devoted to his wife and bemused by Virginia’s refusal to let them live their lives as they wished. It’s a good story, summed up for me in the words of Richard Loving to the lawyers as they were about to appear before the Supreme Court: “Mr. Cohen, tell the Court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can't live with her in Virginia”. 

The film quotes the four key words. I’ll leave you to guess which they are.

Stranger than Fiction differs from the other two by not being at all concerned with the portrayal of fact. On the contrary, it is the chilling story of a man coming to the realisation that a writer has built him into her latest novel and is trying to find a compelling way of bumping him off. The character, understandably, resents this fictional ending, especially as it will spell his own death in reality (except that this is a film and therefore a fiction itself: see they layering?)

Too amusing to be as chilling as the plot might suggest
The film shows us his resistance to the writer’s plans, which he’s aware of because he can hear her voice recounting – perhaps I should say narrating – what’s happening in his life. A great cast, with one of the finest actors of our day, Emma Thompson, playing the writer, Will Ferrell as her hapless protagonist and victim, and Dustin Hoffmann as the professor of Literature to whom he turns to try to find out whether there’s a way out of the narrative in whose coils he is caught. The problem there, of course, is that not everyone feels the superb quality of the novel is worth sacrificing to save his one, individual life.

The film finds a neat way out of the conundrum in an ending which lives up the originality of the plot.

It’s not a new film (2006) unlike the other two, but we watched them all recently. Between them they provided a pleasant and entertaining stay in the grey area where the end of fact overlaps with the beginning of fiction. I hope you can enjoy that intriguing place as much as we did.

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