Last week, I sat down with Kerean Watts to record the twenty-first instalment of his interview series Why is This a Podcast? – we spoke about my writing career, how that started, how the pandemic has shaped my approach to it and some of the practicalities involved, so on and so forth. We also spoke about film and television more broadly: I shared a few recommendations, and spoke a bit about what I’ve been watching over the past year or so during each lockdown.
Big thanks of course to Kerean for inviting me onto his show, and for all the very kind things he said about my work. Had lots of fun with this! Hope you enjoy it too, if you give it a watch.
This is a relatively rare on-camera appearance for me! Wearing the same shirt I always do for these things. Different glasses, though (I can’t find my other pair). As ever, anyway, I quite enjoyed the opportunity to ramble on a bit, so if you happen to be the host of a podcast and you need someone to be a guest, I would be very happy to do that!
Another piece for the Radio Times! This has been in the works for a while now, actually – I think this piece might’ve had one of the longest durations between arranging the interview, conducting the interview, and publishing the interview? Worth the wait, anyway, I’m quite pleased with how this turned out.
Omari’s great in It’s A Sin, too – he really deftly handles what is, narratively, quite a deceptively complex role? Looking forward to seeing what everyone makes of the show; it’s quite unlike anything Russell T Davies has done before, I think. (In some ways, anyway, there’s a lot of it that’s absolutely of a piece with his other shows.)
I will shortly be suing Chris Chibnall for plagiarism.
That’s a joke, obviously, but let me explain. About a decade ago, I wrote an episode of Doctor Who. (Yes, I am and have always been exactly as cool as you thought.) It was called Legacy of the Daleks, and it was about a politician using Daleks as state police – not real Daleks, but fake, robot ones, cobbled together out of hollowed out and abandoned Dalek shells. The idea was that the imagery and iconography of the Dalek alone – the concept of a Dalek – was enough to create this culture of fear and suppression. It doesn’t last, anyway, because the Doctor shows up, and shortly after that so do the real Daleks, here to clean up the mess.
I was so pleased with this that I printed it all out and posted it to BBC Wales. (Like I said: I am, and always have been, exactly as cool as you thought.) Some months later I got a letter back in the post, with a signed picture of Matt Smith – signed by Steven Moffat, I think, though I was never clear – and an explanation that, for legal reasons, they couldn’t read any old rubbish someone sent them in the post, in case an episode they put out later had any resemblance to it whatsoever. Which struck me as basically reasonable, anyway, and I went about my life otherwise, only ever thinking about Doctor Who an appropriate and healthy amount from that moment on. (Um.)
What I didn’t realise then, of course, was that they were playing a long game, waiting a decade before brushing the cobwebs off the script and recycling it for Revolution of the Daleks. So, like I said: lawsuit pending, I want my 10%. (Again, I’m joking – they did say I wasn’t allowed to sue them, after all – but genuinely, this is the best idea I’ve ever had, and they beat me to it! I’ve been going silently feral since the first promotional pictures of Daleks with the police dropped. Sigh.)
In fairness, I will grudgingly concede that after Chibnall found my work down the back of a sofa, he did bring a few good ideas of his own to it. Legacy was set on a colony world in the far future; Revolution moving it to present-day London, with thinly veiled analogues for Theresa May and Donald Trump, is plainly a marked improvement. With the layers of metaphor pared back, the imagery of Daleks alongside police, using tear gas and water cannons to quell protestors, is all the more potent and striking than it might’ve been otherwise.
Granted, I’m not convinced Revolution of the Daleks actually did a great deal with that imagery. It’s a genuinely great concept, the best idea anyone’s had for the Daleks in about a decade – well, I would say that – but it’s just imagery. The sheer frisson of Daleks as border guards and police officers goes a long way, but I want it to go further: what does this episode have to say about fascism or about policing, what does it have to say about authoritarianism and security, what does it have to say about government use of force? Ultimately, I think Chibnall just isn’t actually especially interested in my his idea here; it’s a clever trick to contrive some Dalek infighting, as opposed to anything deeper. (Even setting aside the politics, he struggles with what it would mean for his characters: is Yaz still a police officer?) So, what fills that space instead? If this isn’t an episode Daleks, fascism, the surveillance state, and the contested aesthetics of each – sounds good though, right? – what is Revolution of the Daleks about?
Well, this and that. Like all the best Chibnall episodes, there’s a lot going on here; Revolution is reliant on, if not momentum exactly, certainly the fact that a lot of plates are spinning all at once. Where one aspect falters, there’s always the chance to cut to something else – the special is always moving, at least, a bit of structural sleight-of-hand that goes some way towards papering over the more obvious cracks. Not much insight with the Daleks? Cut to Chris Noth chewing scenery (brilliantly, in fairness). Bored of that? Here’s John Barrowman doing all his old jokes again. Heard it all before? Well, let’s see what Jodie Whittaker’s up to at the moment – more than last time, hopefully?
On one level, this is nominally a story about the Doctor finding herself after The Timeless Children. Revolution was always going to find itself in a difficult spot there, caught awkwardly between a need to function as a special for a general audience, and a need to follow-up on the series’ most insular, inward-looking plotline since 2005. As is so often the case with Chibnall’s scripts, there’s the shape of something that might almost work: the Doctor, lost and insecure, redefining her identity against the Daleks. He revisits something I really liked about Resolution, too, this sense that being around the Daleks drives the Doctor to be wildly more reckless than she would be otherwise – last time almost throwing Aaron into a supernova, this time ringing up the Daleks and calling for more (in my version, they turned up on their own; there was a joke about copyright infringement).
But we return to the same problem we often do – dialogue that doesn’t play to Jodie Whittaker’s strengths, continuing to hold the Doctor at a strange remove from the narrative, character writing that’s inconsistent at best. For all that the script gestures at the idea of the Doctor having an identity crisis, she doesn’t really… do that. So maybe there’s more going on with our companions?
Again, Revolution is caught trying to meet two demands, not quite managing either: it has to serve Ryan and Graham’s final episode, while also re-centring Yaz, leaving her character ready for more dramatic weight going forward.
There’s a sense, watching these scenes, that Chris Chibnall has little recollection of his own era. So much of Revolution of the Daleks is reliant on groundwork he hasn’t laid, character development that’s simply never happened. The moment Yaz pushes the Doctor, for example, is genuinely quite exciting – but it shouldn’t be? Mandip Gill is doing some of her best work here, to be clear, and I’m excited to see where that goes; between this and Can You Hear Me?, there’s a thread starting to develop that posits being a Doctor Who companion essentially as an unhealthy coping mechanism. The thing is, though, this is Gill’s twenty-third episode as Yaz – far past the point where something like that push be notable, let alone remarkable. I’m not sure Chibnall quite realises that though, clearly hoping – or worse, believing – Revolution can stand on the strength of its character writing.
Similarly, look at that heart-to-heart conversation between Ryan and the Doctor. We’ve noted before how rarely the two of them share scenes together, leaving what arguably should’ve been the core dynamic of the show feeling thinly sketched at best; Revolution relies on a relationship that simply doesn’t exist. Tosin Cole (reliably the most interesting actor of the main cast, and the one I’ll miss most) plays the scene as though he’s trapped talking to an acquaintance he doesn’t particularly like, and it’s hard to blame him. His and Graham’s exit worked well enough, at least; I appreciated that Chibnall didn’t kill either of them off, as it looked like he might at times. I can’t say I cared particularly for the “maybe we’ll fight aliens” part, which feels less interesting than the climate activist/community organising thread hinted at last year. (Really, this episode needed Tibo to pop up again – as written, there’s not enough sense of Ryan newly established in a life he doesn’t want to leave anymore.)
And that’s that! We’ve turned the page on a particular chapter of the Chibnall era, Revolution of the Daleks in many ways the equivalent to Doomsday and The Angels Take Manhattan before it. Whatever returns, whenever it returns, is going to be manifestly different from what came before. I enjoyed this episode well enough (even the bits I didn’t write!), and I’ll miss Cole and Walsh going forward, but it’s hard not to welcome a change – any change – at this point.
I’m starting to wonder, right, if I might be allergic to New Year’s Day. This year and the last I’ve spent throwing up, without any particularly obvious cause the day before to point to as a prompt. So, clearly an allergy then, I suppose.
Anyway, 2020. Easy to strike the wrong note with this one – too glib, too superficial, whatever. I’m conscious also that my experience of the year was a fairly insulated one, on the whole; I never caught the virus, the people I know that did catch it didn’t catch it especially seriously, so on, so forth. On the whole: not the best year of my life, certainly not the worst. (That’d be a toss-up between 2018 and 2019, I guess.) Basically, it was a middling one, which is something I am quite lucky to be able to say. Still, let’s set that aside for the moment – I have no particular insights to offer on those aspects of 2020, and anyway, it’s not like those aspects of 2020 are limited to that calendar year. So, you know, maybe next year I’ll have some thoughts on the pandemic. Maybe even with the benefit of hindsight!
Instead! The usual year in review. Looking back on what I wrote this time last year, about 2019, it’s striking to see how much I was on the cusp of winding everything down. Not unsurprising, exactly; like I said, 2019 was a mess, and if at any given point I don’t want to give this all up and retire then it’s likely been a pretty good fortnight. Still, it’s interesting to see it written out like that, because it’s usually a much more ephemeral, indeterminate thing.
The question at the end of that piece: how can I make this all work, what does it mean for this to work? By any reasonable metric, I think 2020 worked. Several of my highest profile interviews ever; I covered two film festivals (for this website, too, rather than another outlet, which confers a degree of legitimacy onto the whole thing); I wrote more, in terms of pure volume, and I was much happier with most of it as a general rule; I started doing some work with a new website, the Radio Times; I was a guest on my first podcast; this wordpress hosted version of my blog is finally starting to take off in terms of traffic. (Also think I had about a thousand more twitter followers by the end of the year compared to the start, which, you know.)
Obviously, there’s caveats and concerns and plenty of individual frustrations on a day-to-day basis – it still doesn’t pay as much as it used to, let alone as much as it should, for one thing – but, on the whole… 2020 worked, for me, in this one particular way that I’d hoped it would. Which is good!
Going into 2021, I think what I want to work out now is how to do this job – writer, critic, grudgingly maybe at a push “journalist” I suppose – in a way that feels consistent with and reflective of my own kind of personal-moral-ethical-political-whatever framework-and-or-outlook, as it were. I don’t mean, like, “Riverdale’s subtle polemic against the prison industrial complex, my latest for Tribune” – though, you know, if they’re interested – but more… More in terms of everything else, I guess: not just the content I’m writing, but the editorial lines it’d sit alongside, the chain of ownership it’s situated in, the voices it jostles up against. (You’ll be able to guess I suspect that I have quite specific ideas in mind, but I don’t quite want to commit them to writing yet.) I also want to try and be more helpful, I think; I’ve been doing this all for ages now, and I figure I know enough that I might be of some use to people who haven’t been doing it for ages. So, I’ll work that out too, somehow.
Anyway, preamble aside, here’s the bit I’m sure you’re all really interested in: a selection of my best/favourite/other pieces of work from across the past year, arranged broadly chronologically rather than due to any particular preference.
January was quite a big month, with a run of several interviews. It’s interesting to look back on the interview with Michael B Jordan and Jamie Foxx – figuratively, I mean, I’ve never been able to bring myself to actually watch it – because I don’t think that’s the sort of thing I’ll get the opportunity to do again for a long time now. (Who’s going to want their celebrity to sit in an unventilated room for hours while a queue of people traipse in and out?) Glad I got the chance to do it while I could, anyway.
Through the first few months of the year, I was reviewing Doctor Who Series 12; I think my piece on The Timeless Children was very good, being a bit more structurally creative than I usually am with these things. That’s something I’d like to do a bit more of, I think.
Honoured to guest on the wonderful Galactic Yo-Yo podcast in October; lots of fun for lots of reasons, not least the chance to talk to another person for an hour or so after not really doing much of that for most of the year.
My film festival reviews, which you can find here and here – the actual writing is all over the place, I suspect, but I was glad to have covered a film festival anyway. Two of them, in fact!
Finally! This interview with Mandip Gill, which was special a) because it was my first piece with the Radio Times, and b) because she was lovely. The nicest person I’ve ever interviewed, I think.
And, hey, let’s also include a couple I would’ve done differently, because that’s always pretty interesting too.
Segun Akinola was a very nice guy – I’ve nothing but good things to say about him, both on an individual level as someone to talk to, and on a critical level as the composer for a television show. My interview with him, though, was perhaps not my best. I’d planned lots of specific questions about the more granular details of his creative process, but across our conversation it became clear that he approaches his work more instinctively – I don’t think I did a great job of responding to that in the moment, to come up with new questions more well-tailored to what was saying. Still a reasonably solid interview, I think, but I wouldn’t say I was really able to draw out any particular insights from him.
The Spitting Image piece is an odd one. Any 2020 roundup I might do would be incomplete without it – that article is the most viewed piece on my website, after all. I’m a little hmm on it though still; in part because I didn’t ever think it was brilliant (I nearly didn’t publish it at all), but also because I was a bit overzealous in sharing it. Hard to resist – I can spend a couple of hours sharing links on different forums across the internet to a couple of hundred views max, but link that piece in the replies to a Spitting Image tweet and suddenly I’ve hit nearly a thousand clicks in an hour – but I suspect a bit undignified at times. (As some people felt the need to say!)
Something to learn from it, mind, in that I think a big part of the reason it did so well was that it was the first substantive left-wing critique of the show to publish. Worth thinking about while I try and work out how to do all this going forward, I suspect.
Anyway! That’s that for this year. No idea what 2021 holds, exactly; more interviews, more reviews, ideally more publications. I’m still trying to be as productive as I used to be, hitting multiple articles a week, which might just be too ambitious these days (in my old age!) – worth a try, though. Be good to try and rack up a few more bylines, maybe do some more podcasts. Hmm.
Tell you what I did work out, though. December 2020 was five years since my first piece was published at Yahoo (and January 2021 is four years since my first piece was published at Metro). In that time, I’ve written – give or take – four hundred professional articles (so, anything not on this website), which is roughly equivalent to an article and a half for a week. That’s pretty neat, I reckon. Pleased with that.
(Oh! There was another question at the end of the 2019 piece, I realise. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to figure out how to make it fun again.” I did, I think. Not consistently so, not quite yet, but there’s been an improvement. Pleased with that, too.)
Last year, I ended up being a bit over-ambitious with my Top 10 list. Rather than a single blog post, the plan was to write an article a day about ten different television shows, and ten different individual episodes of television too. Twenty pieces of writing proved more than a few too many – I managed five; the election threw me off rhythm and that was the end of that – and I never actually shared the full Best of 2019 list.
Until now! I’d thought about preserving the mystery, but better to just share it here, I think.
5) The Good Fight 3×5, “The One Where a Nazi Gets Punched”
4) Superstore 4×22, “Employee Appreciation Day”
3) Succession 2×4, “Safe Room”
2) Years and Years 1×4, “Episode 4”
1) Fleabag 2×01, “Episode 1”
In hindsight, several of those choices are more than a little questionable – outright bad! – but then I suppose the point of these lists is as much a historical record of my bad opinions as it is anything else. Speaking of which, you can also find my similarly questionable 2018 and 2017 list here. (I do seem to only complete these lists every other year.)
This year, the plan was to do the same again, but I ended up scaling that back pretty quickly – first from twenty blog posts to ten, ditching the individual best episodes list, and then again from ten daily posts to a single article. (This one.) Why was that? I spent ages writing Christmas cards, basically. Just got completely and totally carried away, doing little illustrations and everything. Kept me entertained, at least. Maybe next year I’ll be able to do the full run of twenty daily articles (more likely I will just write more Christmas cards; if you want one next year, now is the time to start trying to befriend me).
A word quickly on two notable omissions, before we begin. I skipped Normal People, because I loved the book so much I didn’t want to invite in another interpretation; I’ve never particularly been a “the book is always better” person, so that was something of an unusual choice. I also opted not to watch I May Destroy You, because of a personal discomfort with the subject matter (for the same reason, I didn’t watch Save Me Too, even though the first series of Save Me made 2018 list).
Anyway! Onto the list proper.
10). This Country
I keep double-checking the Wikipedia page for This Country, because I’m half-convinced I’m making a mistake here. Surely, right, if This Country Series 3 – the final season! – had aired in 2020, I would’ve seen it on more year-end Best Of lists, right? So, it must’ve been a 2019 series that I was a little late to, or maybe I didn’t even watch it this year at all and I’ve just completely lost all sense of linear time?
But, no, the Wikipedia page insists it aired in 2020, and frankly who am I to argue with Wikipedia?
When I was still debating whether or not to compile a list of Best Television Episodes of 2020, one of the few things I was certain had to be on that list was an episode of This Country. Specifically, it was the fifth episode of Series 3, The Station – a pared-back, even-simpler-than-usual episode about Kerry and Kurtan waiting for a train. There’s a lot to love about this series and the world it inhabits, but the reason This Country was one of my favourite television shows of 2020 is that central dynamic: Kerry and Kurtan bickering away about nothing in particular, all those little idiosyncrasies on full display, the dialogue sparkling even as it’s entirely mundane.
Us made the list almost entirely on the strength of Tom Hollander’s performance as Douglas Peterson, here somehow sympathetic even as it’s always obvious exactly why his life is falling apart around him. Hollander walks a careful line throughout – it would’ve been easy to make Douglas too much of any one thing, when the drama demands he be much more complex – and does so deftly. The series wasn’t perfect – the ending is too neat, telegraphed too early on; that close focus on Hollander’s character is sometimes borders on myopia, crowding out the rest of the cast – but I really do think Hollander was.
Without realising, I spent a lot of time on David Nicholls’ writing this year – watching both Us and his film Starter For 10, and reading One Day, finally. (He also wrote the Patrick Melrose adaptation a few while back, which was my favourite show of 2018.) He’s not perfect, I don’t think, and there’s some obvious recurring flaws in each – but he’s very good at nailing a particular style of emotion I ended up appreciating a lot this year.
8). The Crown
Look, I know, I know, but let me explain. I couldn’t stand the first series of The Crown; it always struck me as a very short-sighted programme, never quite confident enough to actually commit to criticising the monarchy. For all that it insisted it was about the difficulty of life as a member of the royal family, it always seemed to contort to find some redeeming feature or another, making the few critiques it did let stand feel trivial at best and hollow at worst. It’s not that I needed it to take a republican stance, exactly (I was altogether more lukewarm on the royal family in 2016 than I am now), just that
I watched a few episodes of the second series, but quickly fell off, and didn’t bother with the third at all; I caught up ahead of this year’s series and enjoyed each one more than the last. The fourth series, though, felt like a revelation (well, comparatively speaking), a show that had finally become what it always wanted to be, the introduction of Emma Corrin’s Diana bringing a certain clarity and momentum it had previously lacked. Something about The Crown finally clicked into place – Peter Morgan’s writing no longer clangingly unsubtle, but instead somehow admirably blunt – and the show was all the better for it.
7). The Good Fight
I cannot think what The Good Fight will look like when it returns. In part that’s because it’s always been so defined by the Trump era, which is now – in the most straightforward sense of the term, anyway – coming to an end. I worry it might lapse into a certain complacency under a Biden presidency, lacking the sense of direction that animated its wit and made it so sharp (which admittedly is not the worst trade-off in the world, all things considered).
Less obvious but more significant, though, is the loss of Delroy Lindo and Cush Jumbo, both of whom have always been such huge parts of the show. I could imagine The Good Fight reinventing itself successfully with them; it’s much harder to picture the series making that just adjustment without them. Still, though: this is the fourth year running that I’ve included The Good Fight on my Best Of list. This year it was still just as smart and as thrilling as it always has been – perhaps it’s about to falter somewhat, perhaps not, but either way that’s a really strong run.
6). Two Weeks to Live
The obvious point of comparison is The End of the F***ing World, but Two Weeks to Live leans much more heavily on its comedy than TEOTFW; it’s not funnier than its predecessor, exactly, but it’s less idiosyncratic, broader, more open and inviting in its laughs. It opts to be earnest more often than not, largely shying away from the tongue-in-cheek, detached sensibility found in so many ‘genre’ comedies. Two Weeks to Live is self-aware, yes, and often undercuts its own clichés – but it does so with a straight face rather than a roll of the eyes.
A big part of that is Maisie Williams, in one of the more straightforwardly comic roles of her career. It quickly becomes clear that she’s got great comic timing (“We need to call the World Health Organisation.” “The who?” “Exactly”) as much Kimmy Schmidt here as she is Arya Stark. Her performance is deceptively precise – sincere without losing any levity, heightened without becoming exaggerated, and witty without becoming quippy. Williams has great chemistry with the rest of the cast (Mawaan Rizwan and Taheen Modak in particular, both of whom are fantastic) and taken together there’s a lot to like about Two Weeks to Live.
5). Star Trek: Lower Decks
If you’d asked me in January which of the 2020’s three Star Trek shows would make the Best of 2020 list, I’d likely have said Picard. I might well have said Discovery, which I suspect in hindsight probably deserved a place on the 2019 list. There’s not a chance I would’ve said Lower Decks – I didn’t even think I’d watch it, beyond a cursory glance at the first episode. I can’t stand Rick and Morty, and this looked like the same with a Star Trek gloss.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I absolutely loved it. It’s very much Star Trek’s answer to The Curse of Fatal Death: affectionate but not reverent, fannish but not insular, mocking but not meanspirited. It was a consistent highlight of my week – bright and colourful and above all else just a ridiculous amount of fun. In its own way, Lower Decks feels like it justifies the ongoing franchising of Star Trek more than Picard, Strange New Worlds or Section 31 do, and I can’t wait for the second series.
4). The Umbrella Academy
It took me a while to get into The Umbrella Academy (outside of that long opening sequence where Elliot Page plays the violin, there wasn’t much of the first few episodes I enjoyed without caveat) but I’m glad I stuck with it. Not because the series was particularly innovative or anything like that – it’s exactly the fairly straightforward riff on the X-Men it looks from the outside, and its actually very charming second season retreads well-worn ground by returning to the Kennedy assassination. The Umbrella Academy is in a lot of ways a fairly middle-of-the-road genre piece, the Netflix algorithm responding to the end of their Marvel partnership and not a lot more than that. (Actually, I often found myself thinking this is what Doctor Who-by-Netflix would look like.)
The reason The Umbrella Academy made the list, though, is because I ended up watching it with some friends (and also Bethany), so there was a nice communal aspect to it. Felt like we’ve kinda lost that over the past few years, now television schedules are a bit less linear and everything drops at once and so on. It’s all a little more atomised and discrete, I suppose? So it was nice to have that and share that and so on. Especially this year!
3). I Hate Suzie
I Hate Suzie features Billie Piper’s best performance, in a show not just written for her, but written very much to her strengths – a subtle distinction, and one that makes this such a striking star vehicle for Piper. There’s a sense perhaps that this sort of broadly autobiographical role might be a relatively easy one to play, but I doubt it: the frantic neuroses and layers of artifice on display here are fantastically realised, a really remarkable achievement on Piper’s part.
It’s a little bit of a shame, really, that I Hate Suzie had such a muted American debut – picked up by HBO Max but not available when the platform launched, then overshadowed somewhat by the arrival of movies straight from the cinema. In an ideal world, I Hate Suzie might prove to be something of a slow-burn hit, a series people stumble upon and then quickly fall in love with.
2). The Queen’s Gambit
On a moment to moment level, The Queen’s Gambit was likely the show I enjoyed most all year – the most slick, the most confident, the most glamorous and the most entertaining.
1). Small Axe
Is it film? (Yes.) Is it television? (Also, yes.) Does it really matter? (Well, not exactly, but it’s interesting to get into all the same.)
For the moment, though, let’s call it television. Small Axe is the best – let’s say “project” – project of the year, no question, and I included the individual episodes on my list of the best films of the year. That doesn’t feel like it entirely captures why and how they’re so good, though, because no one instalment is acting discretely – to take one in isolation from another is almost missing the point. Each part of Small Axe is in communication with another: Alex Wheatle’s depiction of childhood speaks to similar themes in Education; the music in Mangrove and in Alex Wheatle again lends Lovers Rock even more depth; the four biographical instalments inform and accentuate one another; so on and so forth.
On their own, any given episode of Small Axe would be a career best pieces of work – together, they’re something so much denser and so much richer. That, to me, is television (apart from when it’s film, anyway) – so Small Axe is the Best Television Show of 2020.
As ever, there’s a handful of shows that – while they didn’t make the full list – still warrant a mention.
I spent most of May working my way through New Girl, which I’d seen stretches of before but never watched in full. Even though it ended in 2017, I debated putting it on this list anyway; it’s such a deeply charming programme, and a big part of the year for me.
After missing it last year, I finally caught up on Watchmen. I’m not convinced it quite stuck the landing with “more Black female superheroes”, but the first eight episodes were sublime – even as it faltered slightly at the end, it was one of the best pieces of superhero-adjacent drama we’ve had over the past decade. (Speaking of Watchmen, I really enjoyed this piece on it.)
I enjoyed Hugh Laurie’s Roadkill quite a lot, though it faltered in its final episode – I’d have really enjoyed a second series focusing on the leadership race, but the series skipped ahead a few months in its last minutes. Still not sure why.
Superstore was one I deliberated over; ultimately, I don’t think that fifth season was brilliant (perhaps because of the change in creative team, or maybe because anything would’ve felt a let-down after that finale), and too little of season six has aired for it to have made an impact in 2020. Perhaps next year, though, with its (far too soon) final season.
Finally, Quiz. The other 2020 show of the five special mentions, it would’ve been eligible for the above list – I still wonder if maybe I should’ve shuffled things around to include it. I really loved it, and I think the piece I wrote about it was one of my best bits of writing all year. (Also, James Graham is now a close personal friend twitter mutual, so it seems only polite, especially given how much I’ve slated some of his other stuff in the past.)
I’m not sure there’s anything else to make note of particularly; there were plenty of things I meant to watch but didn’t get round to (Lovecraft Country, Life, The Good Lord Bird, Westworld series 3, The Plot Against America, The Mandalorian, Raised by Wolves, so on, so forth) but that’s always the way. Is there anything I’m forgetting that you think I should’ve watched? Let me know, I’ll make a note, get round to it over the next few months.
What am I looking forward to next year? This and that. Russell T Davies’ It’s a Sin is the first big show of 2021 on my list – I’ve got something in the works for that at the moment, which I’ll be able to share more about in a few weeks’ time. I’m also cautiously optimistic about the new Marvel shows; Wandavision moreso than the other two, though I imagine I’ll watch all three of them anyway. (Loki I’m quite curious about too, Falcon and The Winter Soldier feels like it could really go either way.) There’s also, of course, my beloved Riverdale, returning after far too long away.
I’ll also be watching The Serpent, mostly for Jenna Coleman; I’m always very wary of that sort of true crime series, but I’m also always very fond of her, so. In theory, Doctor Who Series 13 is due in 2021, though I’m not entirely convinced that’ll actually be ready to air in September as planned – which is going to be the case for a lot of things I imagine. Is Moffat’s Inside Man still due for 2021? I assume not, because I don’t think they were able to start production this year. Hmm.
A broader 2021 target, I suppose, would be to try and watch less rubbish, and be faster to give stuff up when it’s not very good – like, the amount of time I knowingly spent this year on rubbish like Spitting Image and Space Force, or even something good-but-not-great like Catastrophe, long past the point I was getting anything out of it… not the best use of my time, I suspect.
Equally, on the flip side, I do also want to just try and watch everything next year, which surely means there’s gonna be some rubbish. We shall see!
I watched just shy of 75 films this year! Fewer than I’d have liked, as always, with more than one high-profile omission I’ll try and get to as 2021 begins, but I think it’s probably also the most films I’ve seen in a single year anyway.
Generally speaking, it was a fairly good year for films, for me anyway: I covered the London Film Festival, and Raindance Film Festival; I wrote a lot of reviews, and did some pretty high-profile interviews; and, of course, I saw a lot of films I actually quite enjoyed.
Collected below are my Letterboxd reviews, slightly revised and expanded in a few places throughout; I’ve also linked anything else I wrote about each film below. This isn’t a particularly strict ranking – there’s too many films for that to work, and the star ratings I gave each film were often fairly arbitrary – but I have included a ranked list of my favourite 2020 releases at the end.
It’s aggressively annoying from the start, but by the end it’s a work of towering vanity and alarming narcissism – without even a hint of self-awareness. I am genuinely astonished at the depth of arrogance it must take to write a film this cloying about your own adolescence.
Beanie Feldstein, please, fire your agent before you find yourself in a sequel about flinging shit at Owen Jones on twitter.
1 out of 5
Artemis Fowl (2020)
I’d been awake for something like twenty-four hours when I decided to watch this, and I really should’ve just gone to sleep instead. Shame it was such a let-down, I used to love these books. Ah well.
2 out of 5
The Midnight Sky (2020)
Feels like two films that are sitting together quite awkwardly; there’s something oddly disjointed about how the two strands of the plot interact, neither really complimenting the other. The ending was a little trite, too.
The Prom (2020)
Watched this with my mum, who fast-forwarded through all the songs.
I’ve never been especially fond of Charlie Brooker’s Yearly Wipe shows, to be honest – they’re fine at best – but 2020 feels particularly ill-suited to his brand of snarky centrist liberal satire. The main takeaway though (aside from the fact that Brooker clearly doesn’t own the rights to Philomena Cunk outright) was that it confirmed, or at least added some weight to, a suspicion I’ve had for a while: we’re not going to get any good pandemic art from people who experienced 2020 from a position of relative comfort.
Borat: Cultural Leanings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)
Funniest bit was the bear’s head in the fridge, I think.
Chemical Hearts (2020)
Lili Reinhart is good in this, I think, bringing a maturity the film would otherwise lack – but she’s not really the focus of the film, which is in every other respect an essentially very generic and throwaway bit of YA fare. It’ll find some dedicated fans I’m sure, but I’d be surprised if it made much of an impact.
It doesn’t help that the cast is markedly weaker than that of the Peter Morgan films (no one here holds a candle to Michael Sheen or David Morrissey) but more than anything Coalition demonstrates the risk in writing these films so close to the events that inspired them. It ends seemingly convinced that Nick Clegg might genuinely become Prime Minister in his own right – in turn looking deeply, deeply naïve.
Remarkably lightweight. There’s probably an interesting film to be made about Gary Hart, but this isn’t that: it seems to mourn the failure of his campaign, with no investment in his actual policies – the closest was an offhand reference to “creating jobs in Mexico so that Mexicans don’t come here and steal American jobs” – and no sense of what it’s actually arguing for. These things should be in the public sphere! It is indicative of how a politician will go on to wield and abuse their power (see Clinton and Lewinsky), and all this “oh bluh bluh bluh, ideas have been lost out on” waffle is meaningless when the film doesn’t convey what those ideas are. Just empty posturing, in the end, nowhere near as weighty as they clearly thought it was.
Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
There’s a real sort of, like, “that’ll do” quality to a lot of this? Just a very offhanded quality, like all involved have finally realised it doesn’t matter, nothing matters, it’ll make a billion either way. (Was the production of this sped up so it could be released earlier? I feel like I read that at some point.) Anyway: too much CGI, not enough Zendaya, and Jake Gyllenhaal was definitely sleepwalking through it.
But! Tom Holland lives sorta near me, and was, I’m told, very polite to my friend Osbert when they ran into each other. So that’s nice.
2½ out of 5
Rose: A Love Story (2020)
It’s… okay. When it works, it’s because of Sophie Rundle’s performance, and there’s a neat little undercurrent of a relationship close to buckling under strain, but as a whole… I didn’t love it. I think mainly the problem is that it’s a little too long – it could’ve stood to lose about twenty minutes or so. Also wasn’t so sure about the closing scene – the film already had a great ending, they didn’t need to end it again. Would’ve lost that, I think.
I’d like to rewatch Another Round, I think; in the weeks and months since I saw it, I’ve become increasingly aware of how out of step I was with general consensus. Not just in terms of the quality of the film – I was surprised to see so many people describe it as a comedy! So this is likely one that’d be worth returning to, I suspect.
I have a lot of time for Sacha Dhawan – he’s a great actor, and a nice guy too – but I wasn’t so sure about this entirely. The girlfriend role was a little underwritten, mainly, but also… I’m not sure how involved the real Sathnam Sanghara was in this (he’s credited as a writer but that might just be because it’s based on his memoir), but the film did sometimes have the sense that he was too involved, that it didn’t have enough of a personal remove. Sometimes felt like it lacked perspective – becoming self-flagellating almost to avoid self-criticism, I suppose?
Dhawan really is great, though. More leading roles for Sacha Dhawan imo.
Mostly this reminded me of when Osbert used to insist (circa 2011) that he wrote “Yellow Submarine” and The Beatles stole it from him (when they released the song, circa 1969).
(And he was right, they did!)
3 out of 5
JoJo Rabbit (2019)
one time my sister asked me if actors needed stunt doubles to do the Nazi salute for them. thought about that a lot watching this
Entertaining enough, I thought. Mostly though I just truly do not understand how Bohemian Rhapsody managed to go the distance? Like, I reckon Rocketman probably benefitted from comparison to Bo Rhap, but even if they’d been released the other way around this is clearly better.
Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)
Funnier than the first, in places, but seemed a little less coherent? The best bits are the guerrilla filmmaking stuff where it feels like it could be genuinely sort of dangerous for him, and I don’t know if they pushed that enough (certainly the more scripted, plot-heavy segments felt markedly weaker). It was also about twenty minutes too long, I think.
Maria Bakalova is pretty great though. I’d like to see her nominated for the Oscar.
This Is Where I Leave You (2014)
This was nice, I thought. A little cheap occasionally, but it had a great cast and got a lot out of them. Enjoyable enough.
The Post (2017)
I think Meryl’s plotline sits awkwardly throughout – the film might’ve benefitted from giving her character more focus, or removing her entirely, rather than this sort of awkward half-measure. (Was that about her availability? Spielberg et al made this quite quickly, I seem to recall?) There’s a potentially quite nice parallel between Katharine Graham being unwilling to publish the story for fear of ‘losing’ the paper, and various Presidents unwilling to leave Vietnam for fear of ‘losing’ the war, but The Post doesn’t really push that enough for it to have any impact.
Lola Versus (2012)
Fun little glimpse at what Greta Gerwig would’ve done for twenty minutes a week if How I Met Your Father had gone to series, I guess. It’s basically fairly light and throwaway, but, well, why must a movie be good? Isn’t it enough to sit in a dark room and watch Greta Gerwig dance on a big screen?
Wild Rose (2018)
Appreciably better than, say, Yesterday or Bohemian Rhapsody – mainly on the strength of Jessie Buckley’s performance, which really is as good as everyone says – though not quite as good as A Star is Born, which it’s probably most similar to of the recent musicals.
It falters a little as it ends – the last half hour or so not quite as sharp as what came before it. I’d have preferred it to be a bit more cynical, I think (although I think I’d like to see more cynical takes on this sort of premise anyway). Still, pretty solid overall.
Game Change (2012)
Great performance from Julianne Moore, but mostly struck by how 2012 this felt – both in how kind it was to McCain (uncritically recreating the “he’s an Arab” “no, he’s a nice guy” exchange was deeply telling about the film’s blindspots) and in how worried it still seemed about Palin specifically at the end. In 2020, it feels more than a little small.
The Deal (2003)
Impressive performances, but I think it needed a stronger sense of the actual political and ideological differences between Blair and Brown; as it is the film only really gestures at them, which leaves it feeling a little slight and insubstantial.
I don’t know, it was fine. Lots of individually quite charming moments, for sure – mostly down to the cast, who are pretty uniformly great. (Billie Lourd really is that good, I figured it might’ve been a bit overstated, but no, she’s brilliant.)
Otherwise, I’m a little surprised it was as loved as it was. It’s a strong directorial debut, yes, but definitely a debut, with some choppy editing and tonally odd music choices throughout. I also would’ve thought that its very, uh, Warren Democrat, privileged white liberal vibe might’ve come under more criticism than it did? It wasn’t exactly a dealbreaker for me – though it did grate at times – but I’m surprised that the film was as popular as it was, given that, if that makes sense at all.
No Fathers in Kashmir (2020)
One of the first films I watched in 2020. I quite enjoyed it, which is another reminder that across 2021 I should really try and watch a lot more international, non-English language movies.
Read More: I interviewed director Ashvin Kumar about the film, though I never managed to find a home for the piece; at some point I’ll try and arrange to have it published here, I think.
What We Do In The Shadows (2014)
Entertaining enough, and it (mostly) has a good sense of when to introduce a new idea and move onto the next joke, but I did get the sense watching it that it’d probably be better suited to a television series.
3½ out of 5
Happiest Season (2020)
I thought this was nice and basically charming, though I’m not surprised it caused as much of a stir as it did; definitely felt like the script was at odds with the direction a little, the former going for something much more heightened while the latter opted for something a bit more grounded. The mishmash strains occasionally, but for the most part I enjoyed it. Good cast! Always helps.
Official Secrets (2019)
I was just thinking the other day I’d not seen Keira Knightley in anything for a while, so I figured I should get around to this. Enjoyed it a lot actually. Good cast, pretty well made, entertaining couple of hours. Would recommend!
Lovers Rock (2020)
Lovers Rock is probably the most well-crafted of the films I saw this year, a really impressive achievement on the part of all involved; I think it’s always destined to be a film I respect more than one I straightforwardly enjoy, though, if only because I tend not to be particularly invested in films in this style, with so much more emphasis on mood and tone rather than character or plot.
The Flood (2019)
Could’ve done with emphasising Ivanno Jeremiah’s character slightly more than Lena Headey’s (or, I guess, giving her a slightly more well-defined arc – the balance felt a little bit off either way), but on the whole I thought it was quite a well-made, very slick film.
Five Dates (2020)
Surprisingly really engaging; I was watching this ahead of my interview with Mandip Gill, but I ended up getting invested in the plotline with Georgia Small instead, playing that through to the end. I’d recommend it!
Quite fond of this. Strong performances, great score; found it quite moving, even despite the… I suppose predictability of it all. It is basically exactly the film you’d expect it to be, but it is very good at being that film.
Stylishly made and consistently charming, Toby Jones gives a great performance, and the way Marvellous threads appearances from the real Neil Baldwin throughout makes for a nice departure from the more standard biopic fare.
Politically much sharper than The Deal – hardly excoriating, but there’s definitely a sense that Peter Morgan soured on Blair in the years since the first film in the trilogy. Michael Sheen is more assured in the role too by this point, and together it makes for a much stronger film in general.
Self-indulgent, sure, but I didn’t particularly have a problem with that (think I might’ve preferred The Big Short though? Not sure). Do wish it had had a bit more focus on Bush/Cheney’s second term, though, and I do wonder if it being so singular in its focus on Cheney might’ve perhaps exculpated others involved, at least a little.
It’s quite biopic-y in places, but that’s not a problem particularly, and even then it’s a far more emotionally involved & poignant film than “quite biopic-y” makes it sound, just bursting with empathy. Great performances all round, but especially worth highlighting Rob Morgan, who is both a) astonishing and b) probably a little less likely to be discussed in all this, relative to his more famous co-stars. He’s really, really good – very memorable supporting performance.
(Plus, there’s something quite endearing about Michael B Jordan playing a soft-spoken, nerdy lawyer, despite still being very obviously ripped. That’s fun.)
Not seen this before, and found it basically quite charming and likeable. Miracle I didn’t watch it a decade ago, mind, that could’ve done some real damage.
The American President (1995)
Just a very long episode of The West Wing – and I liked it for that reason!
4 out of 5
Curious to see how opinion on this one shifts and changes over the next few years; I do get the sense it’s been poorly marketed, and it’s probably suffering from the weight of those expectations. Although, I say that, has it even received a wide release yet? I’m not sure.
Fun fact: This was the first film I saw at the first film festival I covered. Granted I’m not convinced it was a brilliantly written review, but it was a pretty brilliant film, and I suspect in the long run that’s probably what matters more.
I wouldn’t necessarily want to risk my life to see a Nolan film, but obviously I am much more willing to risk my life to see Alice, and she wanted to see this, so, you know.
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Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Very charming; I’m always fond of Aubrey Plaza and Jake Johnson. It’s the only Trevorrow film I’ve seen, though it made me wonder – between how much I enjoyed this, and the reception to his subsequent movies – if perhaps he was poorly served by moving to blockbusters too early.
The Iron Lady (2011)
It’s to be expected, I think, that a biopic will respect or admire its subject, but it feels altogether rarer to see the depth of affection, warmth, and kindness that is extended to Thatcher here. The Iron Lady’s occasional inclination towards ‘girlboss’ feminism is easily dismissed, but the genuine love it has for Thatcher is nothing short of revolting.
The Big Sick (2017)
Found this a lot more affecting than I expected to. Loved it.
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
I’m surprised, a little, that Interstellar is spoken of as though it’s this very cerebral piece of Hard Science Fiction, when in the end it’s so warm, so much about The Power of Love. I’ve never quite bought into criticism of Nolan as being a cold or unemotive filmmaker, exactly, but this felt like the most heartfelt of his films that I’ve seen. My favourite of his, I think.
Really beautifully made, with lots of nice, subtle details; I liked that it never shot JFK head on, always filming him from a slight angle, imposing that extra layer of remove. Quite neatly addresses an issue with all these relatively apolitical political films I’ve been watching recently, in that it’s not really political at all – it’s all imagery, all aesthetics, all iconography.
And Natalie Portman was stunning, of course.
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Structurally very deft – a really controlled effort from Ryan Coogler, with quite an acute sense of tone. Great performance from Michael B Jordan, too, understated in a way that fits Coogler’s script really well – you can see why they went on to be such close collaborators after this.
Some of the criticisms about its accuracy and foreshadowing, for lack of a better way of putting it, strike me as unconvincing – I think any stray detail of anyone’s last day would take on a certain weight by virtue of being their last day, if nothing else. More to the point, though, I don’t think Coogler did labour the point particular: it’s a portrait of a life in motion rather than one on the precipice, I think. Which I suppose is why Jordan’s performance had to be pitched so precisely, because there likely was a version of this that could’ve been oversignified – as it is it’s a remarkably careful and conscientious bit of filmmaking.
Bad Education (2020)
Surprisingly engaging, I thought. Enjoyed it a lot – Allison Janney drops out of the narrative in the second half a little, which is a shame, but otherwise I quite liked this.
So good, so immediately. Had lots of fun with it. (By somewhat interesting coincidence, I watched it on the film’s 25th anniversary!)
The Report (1995)
I liked it; I liked its cynicism, its willingness to criticise Obama (and, briefly, Feinstein herself), and how it positions itself against 24 and Zero Dark Thirty too. The ending I think was a little too triumphant though, a little too neat – the caption at the end not given enough emphasis, I suspect.
Little Women (2019)
It took me a little while to get used to the two timelines – and to get past the sheer, seething rage I feel whenever I see Timothée Chalamet; he knows why – but there’s clearly a lot of warmth, a lot of wit, and a lot of artistry to the film. Period dramas so often have a reputation for feeling staid and distant; Little Women is immediate and bursting with heart.
I really really liked this! Lots of fun, Andy Samberg and Cristin Millioti are very charming, good time all round.
Red, White, and Blue (2020)
Always thought John Boyega was one of the best actors in the new Star Wars trilogy; nice to see him get a chance to really show that. Interested to see what he does over the next decade or so after this.
4½ out of 5
Velvet Goldmine (1998)
Quite possibly an all-time favourite now. Justified that Britbox subscription all on its own, frankly.
My favourite Peter Morgan script, by some margin; probably my favourite Ron Howard film too, though I’ve seen less of his work than Morgan’s (and less recently, too).
Mistress America (2015)
Borderline insufferable, but also really fucking funny; I loved it.
I, Tonya (2017)
Hell of a performance from Margot Robbie here, just a really remarkable achievement on her part.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
If I’d watched this in 2019, I think it would’ve been my favourite film of the year; certainly it was one of my favourite first time watches of 2020, as strong (if not stronger) than most of my Top Ten list this year.
I’m surprised I don’t hear this discussed more often; it’s got a great cast, a clever (and well-executed) new angle on courtroom drama, and it’s based on a true story too. Really enjoyed it, I’d recommend it.
Starter for 10 (2006)
God, I hate students. (And University Challenge.) But I did, admittedly, really love this.
The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
Especially liked, thinking about it, that it didn’t end with everything entirely resolved – tidy but not too much so. It would’ve felt trite otherwise, and maybe a bit dishonest too.
Adult Life Skills (2016)
This was very good, in all the ways I needed it to be on that particular day. Jodie Whittaker is very much at her best here.
All of this is firing on all cylinders, always; not just in the obvious ways, but smaller details in the sound design, the lighting, the pacing. It’s almost a shame that the marketing focused so much on Letitia Wright (brilliant though she is), because it feels like it overshadowed how well much Mangrove owes to Shaun Parkes’ performance – the strongest of the Small Axe films, I think.
5 out of 5
Eighth Grade (2018)
Probably my favourite of the nominally similar ‘coming of age’ films I’ve watched this year, even though they’re not exactly especially similar; this struck me as a lot more thoughtful, and a lot more perceptive too. Elsie Fisher is brilliant, working with much more complex material than I realised – I’d expected the film to be, not lighthearted I suppose, but certainly some of what it touched on was a surprise. Really deftly and sensitively handled, anyway.
2020 Releases Top Ten
One Night in Miami
I submitted my list for Flickering Myth’s end-of-year roundup before I’d seen Mangrove, which ended up knocking Lovers Rock (previously in the tenth place slot) off the list. I’ve also switched Shirley and One Night in Miami since the last time I did a ranking this year; I liked them each broadly the same amount, I suppose.
Otherwise, some particular favourites that weren’t first released in 2020 were Mistress America, Velvet Goldmine, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Eighth Grade, and The Squid and the Whale, I think.
Looking ahead to next year, my plan is to try and catch up on a few of the recent releases I skipped – the obvious Oscar contenders, like Mank, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Ma Rainey, I figured I’d watch closer to awards season since I knew I’d want to write about them anyway.
Also – though I know I say this every year and never do – I’d like to try and watch a more varied selection of films in 2021. More foreign language movies, more indie films, and in particular more older films. We’ll see how well that goes, I guess.
Here’s my interview with Mandip Gill – we spoke about her new film, an interactive rom-com called Five Dates (which is genuinely a huge amount of fun by the way, I’d really recommend searching it out), her upcoming television projects Suspicion and Count Abdulla, as well as her plans for life after Doctor Who. (Whenever that may be!) Mandip was, I think, probably the single nicest person I’ve ever interviewed – just a genuinely very nice, very warm person. Really, really liked speaking to her.
This is also, you’ll notice, my first piece published with the Radio Times, for their series of Big RT Interviews. Admittedly I’m not entirely sure what makes it big, but hey, it’s a big deal for me if nothing else. The Radio Times! Pretty cool, I reckon. I get to put a new button on the sidebar now.
Who are you as an artist? A space man or a mad man?
Stardust, somewhat unsurprisingly, has been met with a degree of trepidation at best, and outright opposition at worst. The film – announced in early 2019, following the success of biopics about David Bowie’s contemporaries Freddie Mercury and Elton John – inspired controversy when Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, revealed it was being made without his permission, or in turn the ability to use Bowie’s music.
That controversy was perhaps unfair. Absent the blessing and involvement of David Bowie’s estate, Stardust had a certain freedom its predecessors lacked – freedom to, potentially, be a little more daring and a little more challenging in how it depicted the late musician. After all, most of the criticisms levelled at Bohemian Rhapsody could on some level be traced back to the influence of the surviving members of Queen, and their insistence that the film tell a particular version of Freddie Mercury’s story in a particular way, with brand management prioritised ahead of any other concerns. (Arguably the same is true of the Elton John biopic Rocketman, if admittedly to a lesser extent.) Meanwhile, you only need to look to Velvet Goldmine to see an example of a genuinely great movie about Bowie made without his permission, or any of his music either; that Stardust faced similar limitations needn’t be a death knell for the film.
All of which is to say, anyway, that while Stardust is bad – obviously Stardust is bad; you knew this already – it’s bad for other reasons.
In fairness, Stardust is fairly inventive in its approach, cannily opting not to do a broad strokes biography but to focus on one particular part of Bowie’s life: a 1971 tour across America to advertise his new album where, because of a mistake in his visa, he couldn’t actually play any music. Not having access to Bowie’s discography isn’t, therefore, as much of an issue for Stardust as it could’ve been; there’s no Jackie Jormp-Jormp, Chunk of My Lung esque replacements, this isn’t about Zaddy Starlight and the Centipedes from Saturn. Instead, it plays as a travelogue, the young Bowie moving from interview to interview, justifying himself and building his public persona through conversation alone – something which, though worlds away from the crowd-pleasing excess of Bohemian Rhapsody, had the potential to be introspective and intimate.
Clever though this workaround is, Stardust doesn’t quite commit – despite the visa issues, Bowie still plays a handful of small shows, covering other people’s music to little impact. It never escapes the gravity of Bowie’s music, any song it plays drawing attention to the ones it can’t – particularly as the film builds to a conclusion akin to Live Aid in Bohemian Rhapsody, a final moment of catharsis and self-expression, where… Bowie covers someone else’s song.
There likely is a good film to be made about Bowie and how he constructed his image outside of his music, the performance that existed beyond the stage, but Stardust isn’t that film – in fact, there’s little sense that director Gabriel Range and writer Christopher Bell were equipped to interrogate the layers of artifice that went into Bowie’s performance. Efforts to contextualise Bowie’s work are so clunkily exposited they serve only to make him seem derivative; the occasional gesture towards more visually interesting cinematography feels listless; the script hews so closely to a recognisable formula that it feels drab and bland, damned by a series of flashbacks Range doesn’t seem to believe in and Bell’s habit of leaving most of Bowie’s growth and development to happen offscreen between scenes. There’s something deeply generic and anodyne about it all – it’s not just that Stardust couldn’t capture what made Bowie exciting and vital, but that Range and Bell seemingly didn’t even try.
As a result, Stardust feels superficial. The film positions itself as a character study of “David before Bowie”, of the insecurities and vulnerabilities beneath a carefully constructed persona – but each attempt to look at Bowie’s personal life beyond his music exposes something hollow at Stardust’s heart. It touches on Bowie’s history of mental health problems, and his brother’s schizophrenia – albeit only in the broadest terms, couched in cliché (“there is no authentic me, just fear and voices”) and more insensitive than insightful. The film is similarly limited in its depiction of Bowie’s personal relationships, too, with his wife Angela (Jena Malone) dropping in and out of the narrative at essentially random intervals – nowhere is it more obvious how lazily written Stardust is than in those scenes.
It’s a shame, because Johnny Flynn seems like he could’ve been a better Bowie in a better film, and Marc Maron is genuinely very funny throughout (“It was a room full of vacuum cleaner salesmen.” “Yeah, and it really sucked”). Otherwise, though, Stardust leaves little lasting impression. Had it been a film about a fictional musician, it likely would’ve been remembered as a fine if essentially unremarkable way to pass the time; as it is, with the weight of David Bowie’s own artistry looming behind it, Stardust just seems small.
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.