Not just a pretty face: Revenge is pure, unadulterated telly gold

There is nothing better than a show about a beautiful woman on a single-minded killing spree to warm up a cold Monday night.

Most Mondays at about 8:57pm, I rest a cup of dark Yorkshire tea on top of whatever book is sitting on the rickety wooden stand by the sole armchair in my flat. I get my phone and I tweet the following: “When I was a child, my father was framed for a crime he didn't commit...” *knocks back thimble of Chambord Black Raspberry Liqueur* #Revenge”. The quote is not a dark and terrible window into my troubled past or vengeance-tinged future (this tale belongs to Emily Thorne aka Amanda Clarke). It is fictional. The beverage I mention in the "action asterisks" is not a random choice either, it is a sponsor – incidentally, I’d never heard of the brand even a year ago, but it’s apparently been around since the 17th century, so well done on getting into the general public’s line of vision. It is now irrevocably linked with a campy, soapy drama that I simply cannot afford to miss. Bravo, Chambord dudes!

All this to say: I really love Revenge.

Do you know what I’m talking about here? Revenge is the story of a beautiful young Emily Thorne, who comes back to the community she was forced out of after her father was framed for a terrible crime. Her targets are the wealthy inhabitants of a Hamptons town, all gathered around the nucleus of evil that is the Graysons, which is more or less run by evil-matriarch-in-a-bangade-dress Victoria. Emily returns with a waterfall of honey blonde hair, a fabulous fortune (natch), and the steely gaze (more on this later) of a woman with a plan. Her plan, meticulously plotted over the years is to take each player out one by one, crossing them off her list in the style of The Bride in Kill Bill. So far, so unoriginal. Yes, it’s basically a "re-imagining" (ah, Hollywoodese!) of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. Throw in some adultery and secret cameras, shadowy allies and false identities, tailored clothing as worn by absurdly photogenic people in pretty locations, and you have televisual gold. It is camp, it looks gorgeous and as well as providing work for Amber Valletta and Madeleine Stowe, it has thrown up the striking image of James Purefoy without a shirt on. In other words, this is perfect viewing for cold Monday nights.

We are exhorted by (one of) The Good Books to basically “allow it, yeah?” when it comes to retribution. I mean, I paraphrase slightly; Romans 12:19 has it as “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord”, which is reassuringly straightforward in its simplicity. Even so, there is something everlastingly interesting and attractive to human beings about vengeance. Why leave it to the lord? He has a full plate. “This is not a story about forgiveness,” Emily’s voiceover intones darkly, directly ignoring her father’s wish that she build a good, revenge-free life away from the Hamptons (we have a handy stash of his diaries from which Emily gives us insights from time to time). It’s a struggle we all face from the time we are children: “do I push that little boy over for spilling my juice? Or shall I just walk away?” From the number of one-on-one parent-teacher conferences held in schools each year, it is safe to assume a good chunk of us go for the satisfaction of swift and terrible retribution. We love a bit of revenge. And while evidence suggests that only precious few other species exact revenge, we know for sure that no one looks as fabulous in a sheath dress while doing so. Not even chimps.

When I was a child, the way to signify that someone had something coming was to snap your fingers in their direction. If at all possible, this was to be followed by the long hiss of kissing teeth or a short, sharp nod. And here we come back to the steely gazes I mentioned up top. The biggest joy of Revenge is in the long, promise-laden looks the characters give another at every opportunity. Again, this is not new – every fan of the classic Dallas and Dynasty via The Bold and the Beautiful is aware of this trope. Revenge employs a number of the soap classics, from something that only ever happens onscreen, the "frenemy hug" i.e. the one where you start the embrace smiling, before slowly turning it into a narrow-eyed look of malice once out of view of your fellow hugger, to the hard, unblinking stare of dark scheming. It’s something E4 picked up on and used in a genuinely fun trail mid-season two: “Okay, you win. With the steely eyes,” drawls Nolan as Emily pins him with a look.

Revenge is far from perfect, and it has enough recycled ideas to fell a rhino – see its overpopulated (and spoiler-laden) page on TV Tropes for elucidation. In some ways, it is terribly traditional, both in terms of what it expects of its audience, and the way in which its main characters act: in these times of outsourcing, there is simply no need for Emily to get her hands this dirty. But it also has broad strokes of modernity: Emily is not just a pretty face. She shows up for every fight and kicks and punches her way out, all the while emitting guttural grunts of exertion. She’s a tough, savvy woman with moxie, old-fashioned gumption, even. And while there are shadowy men in the background of her power, she seems to be pulling as many strings of her own as she can, all the while yanking the chains of the Graysons.

I am in love with this show. It taxes precisely zero of my brain cells and gives me a more than proportional return of pleasure. Not many things can claim this dubious honour. Long live Revenge.

 

VanCamp's revenge-fuelled portrayal of Emily Thorne is fantastic.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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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