Blue Jasmine: It's not Cate Blanchett's fault that everything wilts in her shade

Ryan Gilbey welcomes the change of scene in Woody Allen's latest film, which hinges entirely on its leading lady's full-blooded performance.

Blue Jasmine (12A)
dir: Woody Allen
 
Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is not a great film, no matter how generous a definition of greatness one might have. But it’s easy to see how it could be mistaken for one when Cate Blanchett gives her finest, most fullblooded performance since The Talented Mr Ripley. It’s not her fault that everything else in the film wilts in her shade. No other character is as rich or rounded as hers.
 
As Jasmine, the regal former wife of the disgraced businessman Hal (Alec Baldwin), she is first seen among the clouds, appropriately enough, given her delusional mental state. She is flying (or fleeing) from New York, where she can no longer afford to live, to lodge with her scrawny sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in San Francisco.
 
When Jasmine starts talking, she doesn’t stop. She jabbers to strangers with the same oblivious, runaway-train momentum with which she addresses her intimates – or, in particularly frazzled instances, herself. And she doesn’t modify what she says according to the listener: while addressing her young nephews, she makes only the mildest of allowances in her monologue (“You must have heard of Prozac and lithium . . .”) before continuing without their assent.
 
It quickly becomes clear that we are watching Cate Blanchett DuBois and that the film is what A Streetcar Named Desire might have looked like if its claws had undergone a manicure – if, say, Stanley Kowalski had been a klutz rather than a brute, hollering not “Stella!” but “Pizza!”. A big difference is the structure of Allen’s film, which interleaves plotlines set in two time frames. Episodes from Jasmine’s luxurious life with Hal in Manhattan are scattered through the main body of the film, which finds her trying to hold on to privilege while all the available evidence tells her it has gone for good.
 
Allen is not above using this structure for cheap irony. He cuts to Jasmine strolling around her high-ceilinged apartment with Hal seconds after she arrives at Ginger’s cramped walk-up. He wastes no time contrasting Ginger’s fond welcome for Jasmine with the elder sister’s clenched mortification when Ginger and her ex-husband visit Manhattan. She flashes paralysed smiles as the tendons thrum in her neck. Her panic alone is sincere.
 
Not all of Allen’s creative choices are suspect. Rather than distinguishing between the two stages of Jasmine’s life, he has plumped for the more interesting option of visual seamlessness: the golden light never changes to alert us of chronological shifts, so that there are several pleasurably disorientating moments when it takes a second to register that Jasmine is back at the country club talking about Harvard. This is a film bathed, even saturated, in yellows and golds of every hue, from the soothing Hamptons sun in the past tense to the ripe bank of supermarket lemons and melons in the present. We’re stuck in Jasmine’s head, that cloud cuckoo land where everything is going to be just fine.
 
It is no shock that Blanchett can convey intensity or mania but she excels also at wringing physical comedy from Jasmine’s discomfort. Embraced by a man to whom she has taken a pre-emptive dislike, she squirms so violently that she almost pops from her chair like a cork from a bottle. Fighting off the sexual advances of her boss, she seems to shape-shift, turning her elongated frame into liquid to slip from his clutches. As a special punchline, she uses his face as leverage to extricate herself.
 
Blue Jasmine is only the second film Allen has made in the US since 2004 but the San Francisco locations bring a geographical frisson missing from his European stopovers. In a film by a director forever associated with the Queensboro Bridge – it would not be a misuse of that overworked word “iconic” to apply it to the poster shot from his 1979 film Manhattan – it is odd to see the Golden Gate Bridge bisecting the background. That earlier location is full of hope (“The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world,” says Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby). On the other hand, it is hard to forget, as Jasmine falls apart, that the Golden Gate Bridge has a full-length documentary (The Bridge) devoted to the countless souls who have leapt from its heights in despair.
Cate Blanchett in her former life on Park Avenue. Image: Sony Pictures Classics.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue