Gilbey on Film: Nora Ephron, 1941-2012

A genius for intimacy.

Until a few years ago, I had foolishly put the late writer-director Nora Ephron  in the same pile as various purveyors of apparently soft-hearted, soft-headed and - okay I’ll come clean - female-oriented romantic comedy such as Nancy Meyers, Penny Marshall and the screenwriter Ron Bass. Why? After all, I had loved Ephron’s screenplay for When Harry Met Sally and I have to come to see over the years that the buoyancy and the canny modifications of You’ve Got Mail, which she also directed, exempt that film from being tarred with the bad-remake brush (it’s based on Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner). But there is so much information out there that we are all guilty of such filing oversights. You put the bailiffs’ letters with the school reports and then where are you? As for the cupboard under the sink, let’s not go there. (Really, let’s not.) Personally, I have a blind spot for Tobys. With all respect to the excellent Toby Litt, I’ll sometimes see his name in the NS and wince slightly, when in fact the cause of my discomfort is (you’re ahead of me here, aren’t you?) Toby Young.

Fortunately, a friend put me right on Nora Ephron. There I was blabbing about her fantastically precise parody of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (I’ve linked to “The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut” before on here, but it bears any amount of re-reading) and opining loudly and without the necessary evidence that her other work hadn’t shown such vim, when his face became fixed in a sorrowful expression which screamed “How little you know.” A copy of Heartburn was soon pressed into my hands, which forced me to let go of my preconceptions. This is a roman-à-clef based on Ephron dealing with her distressing divorce from her unfaithful second husband, the journalist Carl Bernstein. It’s acidic without losing its sweetness, light but necessarily angry, the words perfectly weighted - like all her best screenwriting and journalism. There was also a film of Heartburn, directed in 1986 by Mike Nichols, scripted by Ephron (who had written Silkwood for Nichols), starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson and with songs by Carly Simon. My advice is stick with the book.

Her other films include Mixed Nuts (a listless remake of the popular French comedy Le père Noël est une ordure), Sleepless in Seattle, a big-screen version of Bewitched starring Nicole Kidman and the recent Julie and Julia, which plaited together the stories of the cookery guru Julia Childs (Streep again) and a fictional Manhattanite (Amy Adams) taking on Childs’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. For me, her best work remains When Harry Met Sally and the essay collection I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Reflections on Being a Woman. Here she is speaking to DGA magazine in 2009 about the challenges of the rom-com:

Romantic comedies are very hard. They look as if they should be easy, but they’re hard because there’s nothing you can depend on. I mean, you don’t have car chases or anything like that and, really, you don’t have plot in the way we understand that term—we all know pretty much from the start what the end of the movie is going to be. Romantic comedies are hard to do, but so are all movies. Movies are so hard, and they’re harder than ever because it’s so hard to get them made now, and so hard to do anything remotely unconventional, because that scares people to death.

Her preference, she said, “would be to do a movie with a small number of people sitting in rooms and talking. This is my dream.” I think she captured precisely that intimacy, strongly felt even among a packed and giggling cinema audience.

Making it look easy: Nora Ephron. Photograph: Getty Images

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.

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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