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Laurence Inman's Blog

CHARACTER ASSASSINATION

14-08-2009

Meryl Streep in Doubt

Some of the best characters in drama would be the least loveable human beings. Laurence Inman ponders the lessons of an age old dichotomy.

I saw a very interesting film at the weekend: Doubt, directed by John Patrick Shanley and starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, surely two of the best screen actors working at the moment.

Streep plays the principal of a catholic school in mid-sixties America and Hoffman the progressive and popular parish priest. On quite flimsy bits of evidence she convinces herself and others that he is forming unsuitable relationships with some of the boys in his care.

That’s the basic story. The audience are exposed to exactly the same ‘evidence’ as the characters in the action.

In other words, we are not told what to think. There is no clear conclusion as to the guilt or innocence of anyone. Both opposing parties have to own up to shortcomings.

It’s a great film and should have received more prizes than it did.

More than that, it’s great art. And great art doesn’t preach. It doesn’t present us with stereotypes of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ which would tax the patience of a six-year-old if he came across them in a kid’s story-book.

Look at Macbeth. He kills a defenceless old man in his sleep because his wife tells him to. He gets some other people to kill his mate and his mate’s young son, who manages to escape. He orders the murder of another bloke’s wife and children.

In the end he’s a raving madman, thrashing about in a lake of blood.

And yet, we still don’t hate him!

In fact, it’s still possible to feel sympathy for his predicament.

All this is only possible because Shakespeare knew that people are never wholly good or bad, and he trusted his audience to have worked that out as well.

The people who commission, write and direct TV drama these days are not so confident.

They feel they have to guide the audience carefully through the soppy platitudes they’ve concocted, like the build-up to Susan Boyle’s turn on that talent programme: Simon Cowell takes the piss – cut to teenagers tittering in the audience – Boyle starts her number – Cowell looks up – teenagers are open-mouthed – Amanda Thing starts crying.

Drama is going the same way. The hideous Desperate Romantics is a perfect example. And Jimmy McGovern, whose series The Street is drawing towards its welcome conclusion, is the same, although he manages to make his stuff look like the hard-hitting plays we had decades ago.

No one in charge of the telly knows, because they’ve never read anything and don’t think hard enough about the world about them.

Last Monday’s offering trotted out the old, and very dangerous, clichés about ‘alcoholism’ and its consequences. I really can’t be bothered to talk about it any more.

The truly appalling thing is that this kind of cosy-ending, black-and-white ‘thinking’ has been allowed to infect ‘factual’ programmes and the news.

The killing in Afghanistan is described in WW2 comic terms: the fallen, made the supreme sacrifice in the cause of freedom, we should be proud, small Wiltshire town etc etc......

The woman in Burma: figurehead of a nation’s democratic aspirations, slim, nice eyes, don’t know what any of her policies are, but they’re bound to be good, worth laying down your life etc etc.......

The people who tortured their child to death: black as sin, blacker, God told me himself, they will rot in hell forever, worthy successors to dear old Myra and her photograph, costs us all a fortune in protective measures.......

WHO ARE THE MOST CONVINCING CHARACTERS IN DRAMA AND FICTION? DISCUSS THIS ON THE STIRRER FORUM

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