Stirred but not shaken

Terrence Rattigan's vision of 1940s Lincolnshire is transported to London.

Terrence Rattigan went to considerable lengths to ensure the survival of Flare Path: when his WW2 bomber aircraft was hit, its load had to be lightened as a matter of some urgency: all personal effects, girlfriends' portraits, the lot, had to be jettisoned. But he had the presence of mind to rip the hard covers off his manuscript and stuff the pith in his pocket.

Such high drama around the play's genesis is bound to somewhat outweigh any contained within. Trevor Nunn's production at the Theatre Royal Haymarket transports us back to stuffy 1940s Lincolnshire. Forces' sweethearts croon and crackle in the background as the curtain lifts on an unremittingly brown hotel lobby, supposedly hard by an air force base, where pilots gather to spend precious time with their wives between daring bombing raids. A period piece this may be, but with Lincolnshire bombers again in action over Libya, it is now unexpectedly germane.

It's rich in the argot of its time, when people got in a funk, the sorties are "do's" and to die is to have "bought it". This sidelong idiom, which rarely squares up to reality, is a cornerstone to Rattigan's premise of restrained but heroic British resilience in the face of trauma. Its very best exponent is the magnetic north of the whole production, ex-barmaid Doris, played with extraordinary clarity by Sheridan Smith. Her amiable chat, and her squawks of "dears" and "ducks," scarcely paper over the well of feeling for her Polish airman husband.

Smith, whose art is to appear artless, delivers a performance of touching generosity. When Doris's husband is missing, and feared dead, great fat tears slide down her cheeks as her smiles and stoicism are bent to breaking point; her soft remark that "Germans don't treat Poles like prisoners of war" is quietly devastating.

The brown hotel is populated by chirpy caricatures of the lower classes -- a bosomy, pinnied hostess and her callow factotum Percy. (The actors don't, unfortunately, share Smith's ease with the Lincolnshire brogue.) In Rattigan-land, the working classes are pretty hilarious, but not as hilarious as them foreigners! The foreigner in question -- who is actually called Johnny -- is Doris's husband, the Count Skriczevinsky, and his scant acquaintance with the English language ("that was good how I am saying him?") provokes the most hilarity amongst the characters, and audience, alike.

The crux of the play is a love triangle, between fading matinée idol Peter Kyle (a bounderish James Purefoy), glam actress Patricia Graham (Sienna Miller) and her jolly good-egg pilot husband Teddy, played with all the bounce of a friendly Tigger by Harry Hadden-Paton. Patriotic and wifely duties combine to mean that Patricia must renounce her fascinating paramour and cleave to the good egg hubby, but here's where the structural tension sags, since it's impossible to buy into the Purefoy-Miller axis. With no heat, no passion in the affair, its renunciation doesn't seem like such a big deal. Frankly, I'd go for Tigger any day.

This lack of intensity is partly down to Miller's rather ordinary, temperate performance. In her movements onstage one can still see traces of the blocking: she appears to travel along pre-ordained lines. Her lachrymose moments -- and there are a few -- look like a mild kerfuffle; her rangy form seemingly expressing some vague vexation instead of heartbreak. But it's not all Miller's fault. The deep structure of the play itself lists clearly to one side: the character of Peter is pretty unlikeable, and on the night I saw the show, Purefoy drew audible tutting from the crowd at one of his caddish moments. Small wonder we're not drawn into relations between the cad and the cadaverous.

Hard, also, to perform stiff upper lip without being merely stiff; and frankly the most credible love story on the understated Rattigan scene is not amongst the obvious couples at all, but between the pilots and their squadron leader. Their insider jokes, private language and affectionate nicknames ("Prune" and "Gloria") clearly hint at the closeted gay playwright's views on the strength and endurance of feeling between men.

The designers allow themselves one big FX moment when the bombers take off, but for me this son et lumière sits uneasily with the scrupulous naturalism of the beige lobby. Nunn keeps his Flare Path straight and steady rather than incendiary. What emerges is an uncontroversial homily on British sang-froid, comfortably confirming all we think we're good at. We leave stirred, but not shaken.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

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 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era