So! Here is an exciting new thing I have done. I’m a guest on this week’s Galactic Yo-Yo podcast, where Doctor Who fans discuss their unpopular opinions about the show. Mine (as you’ve likely worked out by now) is that the next Doctor Who showrunner shouldn’t be a Doctor Who fan – and you can listen me explain why below…
Big thanks of course to Molly, intrepid host of Galactic Yo-Yo – not only for her very kind words about my work and for inviting me on in the first place, but also because I have never done a podcast before (what do you mean you could tell??) and I was more than a little nervous ahead of this. But! Molly was a very assured and reassuring host (and gracious enough to laugh at my jokes, even the rubbish ones), so I was very quickly put at ease. Couldn’t have hoped for a better podcast to be my first podcast.
Interested to hear what you all think about whether or not the next Doctor Who showrunner should be a fan or not – please do leave a comment below, or get in touch on twitter!
You were the most fascinating person here tonight, and I think the most beautiful.
It’s helpful not to think of Ammonite as a love story. It resembles one, certainly, and that’s intentional – but Ammonite quite pointedly subverts rather than embraces that resemblance, never quite resolving into the narrative it seems to offer at the outset. The romance between Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) is positioned at some remove throughout, almost as though observed rather than felt; it’s an object of fascination, yes, but moreso for why it ultimately doesn’t work than why it almost does.
Instead, Ammonite is perhaps somewhat better understood as a character study, as a careful, delicate excavation of Kate Winslet’s Mary Anning. (At least in the sense that that is closer to what it is, as opposed to what it isn’t, i.e. “not a love story”.) Mary is cold and guarded, austere and brusque; it’s a very controlled, restrained performance from Winslet, with a deceptive precision to her bluntness. Actors are often said to anchor a film with their performance, but that’s especially true of Winslet here – much of Ammonite’s impact comes from the tactile weight of its filmmaking, which is accentuated by Winslet’s similarly grounded performance. It takes some skill to portray such a deliberately distant character, particularly in a film that fashions itself as a romance; Winslet’s Mary isn’t a straightforwardly charismatic romantic lead, to say the least. Nonetheless, she’s an engaging screen presence: guarded, yes, but uncompromising too, insistent on her own quiet corner of a world that largely ignores her.
At times that sense of coldness comes to define the film, evoked not just by Winslet’s performance but Francis Lee’s direction. Lee imbues Ammonite with a remarkable sense of place – the film is very grounded in a sense of physical experience, from the loud crash of waves and the crunch of pebbles underfoot, to the rustle of fabric and the scratch of a pencil. It has a heft to it, a weight; there’s a lot of trust placed in the texture of Stéphane Fontaine’s bleak, windswept cinematography and Johnnie Burn’s attentive sound design as Ammonite emphasises atmosphere ahead of dialogue for much of its runtime. For the most part, Ammonite is a very quiet movie, but it’s impactful because of that pared back quality, not despite it; there’s something very rich in its stillness, its willingness to dwell in long silences.
The film isn’t always as subtle as it could be – at one point Mary describes herself as “a fancy bird in a gilded cage”, as presumably every woman in a period drama is obliged to do – but when it is, it renders those long silences fraught with meaning. Implicit in the script, and Saoirse Ronan’s performance, is that her character Charlotte has recently suffered a bereavement; her otherwise upbeat husband is withdrawn when insisting “now is not the time for another child”, and Charlotte is clearly drawn to the painted statues that represent Molly Anning’s own lost children. It’s this that sees her so frail and melancholy at the start of the film, only coming alive again through her growing bond with Mary.
Saoirse Ronan’s part here is more of a departure than the familiar period drama costuming suggests; her more recent roles, Little Women’s Jo March and Lady Bird’s Lady Bird in particular, are each much more verbose, more articulate characters than Charlotte Murchison. In a sense, she’s playing against type in Ammonite – less animated than usual, her big scenes in Ammonite smaller moments of fleeting vibrancy rather than the expressive, impassioned speeches that defined previous characters. Ronan impresses, as she always does, though it’s never her film in the way it is Winslet’s; Charlotte is very much a supporting role, a foil for Mary and another lens through which to approach and understand her.
Mary and Charlotte are, gradually, drawn to one another, and Ammonite makes much of their physical intimacy – but their connection never quite cements itself, their happy ending ultimately subverted and taken away. It recontextualises the rest of the film up to that point, prompting the question of why it didn’t work, why had the pair – clearly – not understood one another as they’d thought. Ammonite’s love story that refuses to cohere is as much a part of Francis Lee’s interrogation of class as his depiction of the rich men dominating palaeontology. Charlotte, however inadvertently, treats Mary as a thing to own, something fascinating and beautiful, yes, but like a display piece rather than a person – like an ammonite.
The film will likely prove divisive; it’s never the crowd-pleasing romance it seems to promise, and it’ll likely be misunderstood as a result. What Ammonite is, though, is compelling and engaging all the same, and ultimately something far more nuanced and complex than the alternative: it’s not a love story, but a story about the impression it can still leave behind.
You must accept yourself as fallible in order to love others and life.
Druk (or Another Round, to give it its English title) is a very stylish movie. There’s a sleek, glossy feel to it all, and at its best, the film is absolutely buzzing with energy: it’s going to be remembered, more than anything else, for a handful of scenes as it opened and closed, its characters dancing and laughing and celebrating together. In those moments, there’s a real sense of vitality, even urgency, to it – Thomas Vinterberg’s direction isn’t just lively but frenetic, constantly moving, dynamic, bursting with passion.
That’s not to say that Druk is always quite so heightened, though: in fact, those scenes are only as striking as they are because they stand in such contrast to the rest of the film. Vinterberg’s script (written with collaborator Tobias Lindholm) is full of carefully handled tonal shifts, moments when such excessive drinking becomes fraught with danger, not with possibility. Druk captures exhaustion as well as it does ecstasy – it’s as much about the dull monotony of a passive life as it is those moments of zeal and enthusiasm that puncture it. By the same token, when the glitz and glamour of newfound confidence gives way to something altogether more squalid, Druk handles that well too, the film taking on a certain melancholy air whenever it pauses to catch a breath.
The film is anchored by a strong performance by Mads Mikkelsen – here clearly the lead, Druk much more interested in his character rather than any particular effort to build an ensemble. As ever, Mikkelsen shines, flawlessly inhabiting that creaking, tired ennui moving to careless abandon that defines his character, all underscored by an increasingly ragged desperation for a better way to live. It’s his final scene, though, that proves most memorable – an extended dance sequence, Mikkelsen lithe and nimble, one last note of joy for the film to end on. With Vinterberg’s direction at its most kinetic, and set to the film’s song What a Life, it’s not just the most memorable part of Mikkelsen’s performance, but of Druk as a whole too – the single most stylish scene in an already very stylish movie.
Nonetheless, while Druk is undeniably sleek, there’s a sense that perhaps it’s a case of style over substance – underneath the gloss and the sheen, it’s a much less compelling and thoughtful film than it appears to be.
It likely doesn’t qualify as a spoiler to reveal that four teachers choosing to drink to excess does not, ultimately, go very well for them. Druk is a story of a rise and a fall; their ostensibly academic study into psychologist Finn Skarderud’s theory that people should drink continually to maintain a certain level of blood alcohol content quickly turns into outright alcoholism. Renewed vigour in their personal and professional lives is soon replaced by maudlin lethargy and a sudden reversal of fortunes; it plays oddly, though, like a remarkably niche morality tale. (Surely no one else has actually tried this? Even Skarderud later denounced the theory, claiming to have been misunderstood.) It’s not clear exactly what Druk is getting at, or what the point of it all is – whether it’s a critique of Danish drinking culture or a fairly roundabout, heavily caveated celebration.
Part of this is that, for all Vinterberg’s willingness to commit wholeheartedly to individual scenes of drunken excess, the script itself is surprisingly cautious. It’d be unreasonable, yes, to expect the film to make a sweeping, definitive statement about alcohol use (and abuse) – and any such statement would likely be a very trite one. But while the direction is perfectly pitched, the balance of the script is off – too bogged down in the specifics of the drinking, losing sight of the character study, attempts at nuance instead coming across as equivocating. (One teacher encourages a student to drink before an exam, surely a signifier that they’d gone too far, but… it does actually seem to help the student?) Meanwhile, the opening act feels sparse and pared back, almost in a hurry to start drinking, and the eventual downfall comes too quickly: whatever Druk is getting at, whether at particular point or even a general theme, is sketched too lightly to make much impact.
Perhaps Druk would benefit from a repeat viewing – or another round, if you will – to more fully appreciate exactly what it’s going for. Certainly, there’s enough going on that revisiting the film would be rewarding: Druk is full of strong scenes and individually very impressive moments, each of which make strong impressions on their own terms. The film as a whole doesn’t quite manage to cohere, though, leaving Druk feeling rather less than the sum of its parts.
You could move mountains without even lifting a finger.
It almost never matters if these things are true – those oft-repeated tales of icons meeting, shared and shared again until the stories become akin to myths in their own right. That, of course, makes it all the more remarkable that this one really is true.
One Night in Miami finds four such icons together in one place – for much of the night, in one room – each on the cusp of something greater. They’re not quite the figures they’ll become: boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) is yet to take the name Muhammad Ali; Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is weeks away from leaving the Nation of Islam; athlete Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) is about to retire from the NFL; musician Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) has only recently started his own record label. There’s a sense that One Night in Miami isn’t just taking place in a hotel, but on a precipice – the weight of history is concentrated here, albeit kept largely out of frame for much of the film’s runtime. That’s perhaps One Night in Miami’s most impressive achievement: not all the ways in which it evokes these icons, but all the ways in which it quite pointedly doesn’t. This isn’t a film about four great men of history, it’s a film about four friends, celebrating, arguing, and laughing together.
Indeed, there’s rarely a sense that One Night in Miami is intimidated to tell this story – it very likely wouldn’t work if it was. Instead, there’s a certain grace and poise to how it approaches these men, and an admirable frankness in its depictions of their doubts and insecurities. Undeniably it’s a very affectionate portrayal, marked by an obvious respect – but it’s a respect that doesn’t shy away from finding and appreciating vulnerabilities that icons aren’t typically afforded. Part of this is Kemp Powers’ script; there’s a delicacy and a precision to it, but a certain ruthless efficiency too, not a line wasted in its effort to understand these men.
More crucial, though, are the performances. Kingsley Ben-Adir is perhaps the obvious standout, his mannered affect giving way to warmth and whimsy, fears and anxieties that the cultural memory of Malcolm X often doesn’t allow. (Arguably his is the most difficult role – having to accommodate the greatest weight of audience expectations – but then that’s true of each role in its own way.) That having been said, none of the four leads are shortchanged here – Powers’ screenplay is impressively balanced in its structure, a genuine ensemble piece that gives each actor the opportunity to shine.
One Night in Miami is also, of course, Regina King’s feature film directorial debut. You wouldn’t guess it; it’s not just a confident debut, but one that makes it look genuinely easy. King’s direction is capable and assured, and she injects a real sense of momentum to the film – One Night in Miami feels very theatrical, its stageplay roots easily noticed, but King translates it to screen well. Again, much like Kemp Powers’ script, what’s most impressive is how comfortable King is in depicting these men – it’s not a stilted, weighty biopic, but instead something quite watchable. In the end, it’s light but not lightweight, earnest but not prosaic, bracing without losing any of its levity; there’s something very charming about this film, and the careful line it so seemingly effortlessly walks.
It’s not hard to see why King might’ve been drawn to this script. At the heart of One Night in Miami is a question about the relationship between art and activism: how each perceives the other, interacts with the other, and ultimately isn’t so different from the other. Some of the film’s best scenes grapple with this idea, what it means to be an entertainer in an unjust world, and how best to use the power granted to an entertainer; Leslie Odom Jr shines during a heated confrontation between Sam Cooke and Malcolm X, a confrontation that is in a sense the real point of the film.
One Night in Miami does not – and, of course, could not – resolve that question. There isn’t an easy answer: not for Ali, Cooke and Brown then, nor for King and her cast today. What’s striking, though, is the film does more than just gesture at these ideas, but genuinely engages with them where it can; it’s a very nuanced and considered piece, more successful than the biopics it’ll be compared to because it’s concerned with ideas and themes beyond strict biographical detail. That does make it, admittedly, all the more noticeable when the script stops short – discussion of “economic freedom” entirely elides Malcolm X’s communism, an omission that quietly speaks volumes about art, activism, and commerce today.
Nonetheless, though, it’s still an impressive film, and one that’s well worth watching – One Night in Miami is dynamic and lively, and sure to prove memorable for a long time to come. There’s a sense, almost, that King and the four leads are all on a precipice of their own – that this film is the precursor to something bigger for them too, another step on the way to even greater heights. On the strength of One Night in Miami, it’s clear that whatever’s next for them each will be a sight to see.
I want to be remembered for who I was, not who I’m about to become.
In Supernova, Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci), partners for twenty years, travel across England, reuniting with friends and family on their journey. Two years prior, Tusker was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, and in recent months his condition has deteriorated further. Each is trying to prepare the other for the future, albeit with two very different visions of that future in mind: Sam is trying to reassure Tusker that the pair will face things together, but Tusker is trying to prepare Sam for life as a widower. It’s not so much a film about what you’ll do for someone you love as it is what you won’t let them do to themselves: not the problem they’re facing together but the ones they’re so desperately trying to face alone, to keep private, to shield the other from as long as they’re able.
Neither is strictly honest with the other, and a lot of the film is about the things left unsaid – things they can’t quite bring themselves to admit, fears they’ll discuss with someone else but not each other, goodbyes they don’t want to make. So much of their communication has become strained and second-hand; delivered as a speech rather than in conversation, a secret recording found before its time and played in a private moment. It’s not unlike a fading star – words reaching someone too late the same way the light from a star takes years to arrive – and in a sense, that’s almost the real tragedy of it all: after years as best friends and lovers, walls are starting to spring up, imposing a distance between them. It’s not just a case of mourning someone before they’re gone, but losing them – or rather, losing what you were together – before they’ve left. There’s a certain truth to that, how you can be least open with the people closest to you, and it makes the moments where they do talk to each other properly – not just frustrated but shouting, not just sad but weeping, the careful facades finally falling to pieces – all the more heartbreaking.
Supernova goes to great lengths to foreground Firth and Tucci; they inhabit their roles with the weight of years behind them, gesturing at a lifetime of familiar habits and now-comfortable bickering. They’ve excellent chemistry together, and the film is well-balanced between them; they’re the sort of performances that’d reward repeat viewings, focusing more closely on a different lead each time. (In a sense, Firth and Tucci play two quite similar characters, offering performances underscored by the same notes – both a portrait of a life unravelling – but that serves only to emphasise the different subtleties and nuances each bring.) Neither are playing against type, particularly – arguably that’s part of what makes their characters feel so familiar and lived-in, because in a way they are – but Supernova is still comfortably among their best work.
Harry Macqueen’s direction is simple and understated, all the better to realise his admirably restrained script. There’s a willingness throughout to let those implied decades stand on their own terms – Sam insists he should help Tusker because “it’s his turn”, a simple, even throwaway line that carries so much without the need for more detailed exposition. Supernova offers a glimpse into a life, a close focus on a relationship as it comes to an end, but quite gracefully conveys an understanding of what that relationship was beyond what we see here. That grace is characteristic of how Macqueen approaches Supernova more broadly, too – there’s a careful delicacy to it all, a well-attuned sense of how best to tell this story. It’s never mawkish or overly sentimental; instead, Supernova is quiet in its emotional moments, and all the more affecting for it.
In the end, the film isn’t about raging against the dying of the light – again, like a supernova, what little light is left arrives long after a terminal diagnosis – but about turning resignation into acceptance. There’s something quite striking about the Supernova’s closing moments, and the note of relative ambiguity it ends on; it’s not quite clear what the pair said to each other in their (presumed) last conversation, or whether its final scene is perhaps metaphorical rather than strictly literal. Either way, the pair are ultimately afforded a certain privacy together – it’s not a happy ending, exactly, but it’s a reunion of sorts, and in a way that’s the next best thing.
You could run fast away from me. But you don’t. Why don’t you?
Shirley is a film of small details, keenly observed; there’s a careful precision to its craft, an exactness to its story of creative struggle and personal turmoil. Such attentive filmmaking is what makes Shirley quite so deeply atmospheric, as befits a film inspired by the life and works of Shirley Jackson. Josephine Decker’s assured direction ties together some beautiful design and a haunting score – the film looks fantastic and sounds even better – and in turn Shirley offers a real sense of mounting dread.
At the centre of it all is a remarkable performance from Elisabeth Moss as Shirley, veering between unrestrained passion and eerie lucidity with characteristic skill. The camera is drawn to Moss much like houseguest Rose (Odessa Young) is to Shirley, and vice versa; Decker lingers in the close-up, a steady, unyielding gaze. There’s an intimacy to the scenes where the two are together, a striking contrast to how Shirley is shot when they’re apart – filmed from askew angles and around corners, never quite at the centre of the frame, imposing a certain distance on Shirley, positioning the writer at a remove.
This is how Decker picks through the layers of metaphor and artifice in this story of the partnership between artist and muse: as Shirley tries to understand the missing Paula, we try to understand Shirley. Critics have noted that this is not a strictly factually accurate account of Jackson’s life (most obviously in its omission of her real-life children), but Shirley is quite pointedly not a typical biopic – or even a biopic at all. It’s helpful not to think of Moss’ character as Jackson, but instead as Shirley: a similar character, yes, inspired by the real author, but a distinct creation in much the same way that the character Natalie Whaite of Jackson’s novel Hangsaman is distinct from the missing Paula Jean Welden. Much like Jackson’s own writing, Shirley is attempting to divine something deeper, beyond the constraints of purely biographical detail – it’s an effort to understand the relationships that underpin a creative life. Moss’ Shirley isn’t Jackson, necessarily, but the idea of her, of her reputation and body of work; what each of those things mean, and what they could mean, too.
It’s perhaps no surprise that the film finds itself preoccupied by death; it’s a recurring theme in Jackson’s gothic fiction, and Shirley grounds itself in that work, the film bookended by reference to The Lottery as it opens and allusions to Hangsaman at its close.
Here specifically, death is key to Shirley’s understanding of creativity. A crucial turning point in Shirley and Rose’s relationship comes as Shirley’s flirts with death, pretending to eat poisonous mushrooms. Moss is quietly haunting, her character now rendered much more lucid, as though grounded by the idea of suicide: “Don’t you find it exhilarating?” Shirley asks. “Oh, most young women are fascinated by their mortality,” she continues. When Rose rejects this – “They shouldn’t be. The truth is, nobody really cares if you live or if you die” – Shirley is, suddenly, fascinated by her. It’s this that sees Rose become the writer’s muse, rather than an obstacle or imposition, redefining the relationship at the heart of the film; death is fascinating to Shirley in the same way she is also enraptured by her muse – not just a single muse by two intertwined, a real dead girl and one who comes to represent her, each played by Odessa Young.
In that captivation the film comes alive – they’re transfixed, drawn to one another, unable to look away, just like the unyielding gaze of the camera. There’s a note of danger to it: it’s not just exhilarating, but intoxicating. Here is where Shirley is Odessa Young’s film as much as it is Elisabeth Moss’, if not in fact moreso. Moss anchors the film, but Young is a crucial counterweight, and in a lot of ways it’s her character’s transformation that offers the film its throughline. How her transformation is facilitated is striking – that ambiguous suicide, borrowed from Hangsaman, if not Rose’s literal death then certainly a version of it for a version of her. Rose’s relationship with her husband changes; Shirley is grounded, lucid, finally able to finish her novel. Artist and muse find new lives through one another: danger and liberation are found hand in hand.
Barely a minute passes before Spitting Image offers a covfefe joke. Donald Trump has tweeted thirteen-thousand, one hundred and seventy-five times since that infamous 2017 typo, closer to the start of his presidential term than to today (and presumably done little to inspire criticism or mockery in that time). It’s hardly the sort of joke you’d expect from a cutting-edge satire with its finger on the pulse – nor is the extended riff on Prince Harry dressing up as a Nazi, over fifteen years ago – but the Spitting Image revival is not a cutting-edge satire with its finger on the pulse.
Rather, it’s a dull, self-satisfied piece of television – and that opening covfefe joke is typical of the deep laziness that defines Spitting Image, constantly reliant on easy jokes while clearly expecting big laughs. It offers buzzwords rather than punchlines, reaching for the dim thrill of recognition in place of, well, anything else: you’re supposed to laugh because they said “cultural appropriation” or “mansplaining,” and that’s often about as much effort as Spitting Image puts in. (Both terms are also, inevitably, misused.) Very quickly, the show starts to feel like a relic – not of its 80s heyday, but of all the awful jokes you’ve already read weeks ago on twitter.
More damning for a political sketch comedy is how feeble and subdued its satire is. Consider this scene in particular, which casts Home Secretary Priti Patel as a dominatrix and sees Michael Gove (with a much stronger Scottish accent here than in real life) visit her for “unpopular Conservative opinions only you can get away with”. The joke, such as it is, is that Patel can more easily express reactionary views than Gove can – Patel can call to limit all immigration “because you’re Asian”, to restrict abortion access “because you’re a woman”, and so on and so forth. Per Gove’s puppet, “we think it, you say it”.
Spitting Image’s approach to Boris Johnson is similarly superficial. Here, Johnson is a basically harmless buffoon, baffled by simple puzzles, and reluctant to pursue the harsh economic policies of his predecessors; meanwhile, the extra-terrestrial Dominic Cummings insists on cruel and authoritarian legislation in the knowledge he’ll never be fired, even if he eats a baby. Again, it’s low-hanging fruit, the first and most obvious joke with no more thought put in than the bare minimum. Dominic Cummings is an oddball: it’s hard to argue with that. (Whether he’s quite that type of oddball is another matter.)
But in depicting Cummings as, literally, an alien influence, it’s obscuring the realities of Johnson’s own ideologies and his own politics: he is not, in fact, a basically harmless buffoon, and doesn’t need to be prompted by Cummings to advocate Conservative policies, as he did in his many years as an MP and as Mayor of London. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine the real Prime Minister being especially bothered by his Spitting Image analogue – the bumbling puppet feels like such a natural extension of Johnson’s own carefully curated persona he could’ve written it himself. Much like the aforementioned Priti Patel sketch, Johnson and Cummings are being treated as the exception rather than the rule – it’s not a sharp critique, but almost a deliberate softening.
Elsewhere, few of the other sketches are especially noteworthy, or even at times explicable (why Elton John in particular is trying to liven up Keir Starmer’s image is unclear). Occasionally, a joke or two might land, but the success rate is distressingly low for a twenty-two-minute comedy, and much of the show has the sense of a first draft about it (surely Matt Hancock’s instruction to “hunt grouse, stay healthy” needs another sentence to evoke the government’s three-part slogans?) The biggest crime Spitting Image charges its targets with is, seemingly, perceived hypocrisy – it’s often more critical of celebrities like Lewis Hamilton, the Rock, or Kevin Hart than it is any of the authority figures featured. (With the exception of Jacinda Ardern, who again is charged with a sort of hypocrisy; apparently, it’s actually very easy to manage the novel coronavirus in a country like New Zealand, and everyone is giving her far too much credit.) In turn the show takes on a strikingly cynical, moralising bent; there’s a very self-satisfied and superior tone to it all, far more than a show that mocks Greta Thunberg can really justify.
Ultimately, Spitting Image rings hollow. Not just because it isn’t very funny – though it isn’t – but because it doesn’t say anything. The show calls to mind, as much political satire now does, Chris Morris’ question: “are you doing some kind of exotic display for the court, to be patted on the head by the court, or are you trying to change something?” For twenty-two listless, empty minutes, Spitting Image seems not just content but proud to perform that empty court jester role – in the end, it’s all faintly embarrassing.