Gloria and Philomena: Travels with mums

Ryan Gilbey praises two new films, by Sebastián Lelio and Stephen Frears, in which two women are coping with the wreckage of their lives from the far side of middle age.

Gloria (15). Philomena (12A)
dir: Sebastián Lelio. dir: Stephen Frears

It’s not so much rare as unprecedented for audiences to be presented with two films about the emotional lives of middle-aged or elderly women in the same week. Gloria is an optimistic character study of a 58-year-old divorcee on the Santiago singles circuit, while Philomena is the story of a woman in her seventies trying to trace the child she gave birth to 50 years earlier. The differences in the approach and sensibility of each film are obvious enough to allow them to work as a mutually nourishing double bill. They also happen to share the same approximate message, pertinent to modern-day cinemagoers as to human beings in general: don’t put up with a bad lot. Don’t settle.

With her amused, sceptical eyes framed by whopping Deirdre Barlow glasses, Gloria (Paulina García) greets the world around her as a faintly baffling joke. She has an office job, two adult children and an apartment through which a pink, hairless cat, ignored by its lovesick owner upstairs, is given to padding uninvited. The camera picks out Gloria at the bar in a packed disco. On the dance floor, she makes eyes at the crumpled Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a former navy man who runs his own paintballing park. Soon she’s in bed with him, in a scene that breaks one of the persistent taboos of sex in cinema: thou shalt not show bodies that have succumbed to gravity, unless for comic effect.

The precedents for such stories are often simplistically celebratory (Shirley Valentine) or grimly cautionary (Looking for Mr Goodbar). Gloria takes another tack. The tone is one of scrutiny: it’s a highly interested piece of work that explores how Gloria’s decisions, philosophy and future are shaped by those around her – from her daughter, Ana (Fabiola Zamora), a footloose young woman on the verge of responsibility; to Rodolfo, who brings with him an entire airport carousel’s worth of baggage; to the fluid setting of Chile itself. It would have been easy to sneer at the singles bars, mid-range hotels, yoga classes and cluttered flats, but Lelio’s compositions are buzzing with vitality: there isn’t a judgemental frame in the entire film.

Gloria’s journey is free from artificial flashpoints or climaxes. (Her one extravagantly triumphant act is as ridiculous as it is inspirational.) Instead, it assumes mythic dimensions. Totems and portents pop up along the way as if in a dream or quest: a skeleton puppet with clacking bones influences one decision she makes, and the appearance of a luminous peacock prefigures another. Then there’s that ugly cat, which perches in a memorable shot beside the naked Gloria, as though standing sentry over Sleeping Beauty.

The audience never feels cornered into its emotional responses to Lelio’s film, whereas Philomena is all about pressing our buttons. That is no slight. There are button-pushers and then there is Stephen Frears, who knows how to calibrate precisely the revelations that litter this fact-based story, without making us too ashamed of any gasps or goosebumps.

Steve Coogan brings the nicely clipped style of the screenplay he has co-written with Jeff Pope to his portrayal of Martin Sixsmith, the journalist and former Labour communications director. He grudgingly takes on a human-interest story concerning Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who was installed in a convent after falling pregnant in 1950s Ireland; nuns took her son from her arms to be adopted by persons unknown. On the occasion of her child’s 50th birthday she resolves to find him.

What follows is a road movie hampered by the episodic nature of that form. Even a director as experienced as Frears can’t make endless establishing shots and footage of driving feel fresh, any more than he can pretend that scenes of Dench chirpily spouting the word “clitoris” isn’t shamelessly playing to the gallery.

Yet the emotional core of the movie is honourable. The rapport between Dench and Coogan resists mawkishness; although there is a pay-off scene in which authority is challenged, there is much in the story and the central relationship that is unresolved. Dench is as poignantly controlled here as she was in Notes on a Scandal. Her pursed lips twitch weakly, giving no hint to the outside world of the traumatic flashbacks to which we have access. Like Frears and Coogan, she is a grand keeper-inner.

The floodgates could have been taken off their hinges by the sentimental weight of the material but the actors and director keep everything in check. Just.

Gravity's angel: Paulina García trawls the singles bars of Santiago in Sebastian Lelio's "Gloria".

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 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump