Reviewed: Life of Crime

Force of nature.

Life of Crime
ITV

I love Hayley Atwell’s performance as a south London cop in Life of Crime (10 May, 9pm) in every respect save for one: her accent. Do you know any coppers this posh? And no, before you ask, she is not supposed to be a Cambridge graduate on the fast track to the top of the Metropolitan Police (see Rupert Penry-Jones in Whitechapel). Her dad was also a policeman and her mum is London Irish, with the brogue to match. When we first meet her, she’s still living at home in a shabby terrace with a velour three-piece suite and a set of wine glasses that look like they came free with petrol. So quite where her immaculate RP came from, I don’t know. Even if she had unaccountably picked it up down her local comprehensive, you’d think she’d occasionally throw in the odd George Osborne-style glottal stop, given the company a copper keeps.

It bothered me a lot, this voice, but I kept watching because I really like the set-up of the series – it begins in 1985, when Denise Woods is a humble WPC in Brixton nick, and then follows her down the years (part two is set in 1997, by which time she is a DI; in part three it’s 2013 and she is a senior officer) – and also because Atwell is a captivatingly good actor when it comes to unspoken emotion. I believe in her character’s commitment to her work – her drive, determination and absolute refusal to allow the men to push her aside – in a way that I very much didn’t in the case of Emily Watson as an MP in The Politician’s Wife. It’s going to be fascinating to see how Atwell ages Denise; from what I read, she has done this with no help at all from wigs and stick-on wrinkles.

Anyway, 1985 . . . A girl has been murdered, but no one – by which I mean Denise’s male superiors – wants to know. Or at least, they would like to take the path of least resistance and hang it on the victim’s father, who has a temper. Denise, on the other hand, wants to know very much indeed. So determined is she to get her man, she might just be about to overstep the mark (I won’t say more, in case you’re saving it up). It’s true that Life of Crime is slightly underwritten (it’s by Declan Croghan, who also brought us episodes of Ripper Street and Waking the Dead); the dialogue is underpowered and lacks the fruity richness of, say, Life on Mars. It can be predictable. It was only a matter of minutes before a colleague had said to Woods: “Are you lesbian, or something?” But the plot is clever, dishing up an act of madness on her part that will have consequences even decades later, and I liked Con O’Neill’s performance as her boss, DI Ferguson, a man whose frayed exterior left you wondering whether he was a decent man masquerading as a ratbag, or a ratbag masquerading as a decent man.     

In truth, though, episode one was worth watching for atmosphere alone. My God, the Eighties. For all that I was there, I still can’t get over them. How weird to remember that women constables were then expected to walk the streets in bulky skirts, sheer-ish tights and cross-body leather handbags (for all their make-up, presumably). Atwell and her co-star Richard Coyle, a detective who drives a brown Ford Capri, did some fantastic Eighties dancing at a nightclub called – I’m guessing at the spelling –Subotica, where the DJ looked exactly like Paul “It-took-me- 90-minutes-to-trim-these-sideburns” King. He played some Go West, which made me smile (most series would have had him spinning the Human League or Spandau Ballet), and when Woods asked him whether he knew the girl who had died, he replied that he had merely “got off with her” one night. Do people still say “got off with”? I’d love to know.

This isn’t Broadchurch, I see that, but it’s great to see yet another tough woman copper hijack prime time. Not so long ago, we had to make do with Jane Tennison. Now, though, they’re everywhere – and some of them even manage to have private lives, too.

Life of Crime concludes on Friday 24 May

Hayley Atwell in Life of Crime. Photo: ITV.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

Hulu
Show Hide image

Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

0800 7318496