The Hour: series 2, episode 4

Plots are thickening all over the place.

WARNING: This blog is for people watching "The Hour" on Wednesday nights on BBC2. Don't read ahead if you haven't watched it yet - contains spoilers!

Catch up on last week's instalment here

The plot thickens. All over the place, alternatively heartbreaking and silly, plots were thickening up before your very eyes in this episode.

For instance, we finally got a bit of background on Commander Stern, apparent woman-beater and corrupt cop - during the war Hector caught him beating a prostitute, but let it go because "it was war-time". Now, we're watching Hector's friendship and loyalty for his old comrade-in-arms slowly degrade as he processes what the early hints of violence have developed into. Of course, being Hector, he's still being cowardly about it - allowing Bel and Freddie to do all the leg-work, falling for slimy government apparatchik McCain's tricks, potentially endangering important sources who have spoken out against Stern with his vacillation - but he's getting there. Slowly. Even his wife thinks so - for the first time in ages, she could actually bring herself to make eye contact with him.

McCain: so slimy. Photograph: BBC

We saw more of the sinister nightclub owner Mr Cilenti in this episode for the first time, and we're definitely supposed to lay all the evils in the world at his door. He coerces his girls into performing honey-traps on famous and important men so he can blackmail them, apparently orders murders at the drop of a hat, and - let's not forget - wantonly breaches the terms of his premises' entertainment license. Clearly a rotter, then.

However, I'm just not quite convinced. I can't help feeling this could turn out to be like in the first series when the shady Mr Kish was drifting around the BBC, definitely behaving like a communist spy, only for the plot to twist away, leaving him innocently dead at the bottom of a stairwell. Also, it seems that Cilenti stalks people around London, leaving small origami swans around the place in an attempt to intimidate them. That's less the action of a terrifying crime baron (I mean, aren't body parts or straightforward threats to cut you up more traditional?) and more the action of a misunderstood paper-folding enthusiast, I reckon.

Once again, Anna Chancellor and Peter Capaldi managed to steal the show with their long-lost child subplot. Capaldi's Randall has now tracked down their 19-year-old daughter. When he tells Lix that the information is on its way, she does her very best to hold it together, typing, smoking and talking all at the same time. It's only when he leaves her office that she falls back in her chair, leaning so far back that not even the camera can see her face, and allows herself to sob. Later, when they read the letter together explaining who and where their daughter is now, their gruff exchanges and desperate grasping for each other's hands was enough to rend your heart in two. As much as I love Freddie and Bel (more on that in a second), Chancellor and Capaldi have just managed to vault themselves into position as the best thing about The Hour. I can only hope that their subplot is given the time it obviously deserves in future episodes.

Freddie and Bel, then. You could be forgiven for experiencing serious déjà vu for series one in this episode, as their will-they-won't-they tension of old re-emerged. Freddie's wife Camille was permitted to wear trousers for the first time in ages as she yelled at him about how he loved Bel and his job more than her, before "going away for a few days". Meanwhile, Bel seems to be getting along well enough with her devastatingly handsome ITV chap, but he did drop a few hints about how she "can't be a journalist forever", leading us to think that he's already cast her in the role of his adoring second wife, who stays at home and cooks rather than running a major news programme. I like him a lot less already.

Freddie and Bel: will they actually get it together, ever? Photograph: BBC

Predictably, the moment at which Bel and Freddie almost talked about their relationship, the news burst through and interrupted. More next week, I'm sure, but not too much - relationships like this based on professional and personal tension are always better when you don't know everything about them.

Two honourable mentions for more minor characters thickening in their own little plots - cheery Hour dogsbody Isaac, who is suddenly getting his plays performed on the radio and turning up vital details in the police corruption investigation, and McCain, who seems to be descending into a panic over his personal life. Early on in the episode, he tells us that he's been taking his "distant cousin Vera" to the theatre (beard alert) but then later on we discover he's been touting government ministers to television programmes because he's being blackmailed about his liaisons with men by Cilenti. One to watch.

Of course, amid all this character development, The Hour's writers couldn't resist slipping in a tiny bit of knowing satire, having Randall say:

"This is the BBC, not the MoD. Contracts cannot just be ignored."

Quite.

I'll be blogging "The Hour" each week - check back next Thursday morning for the next installment, or bookmark this page

Anna Chancellor as Lix Storm. Photograph: BBC

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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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 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era