Guy Henry as Randolph (centre) with the cast of New Worlds. Photo: Channel 4
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New Worlds on Channel 4: Meet the poodle-haired rock gods of the Restoration

New Worlds, like The Devil’s Whore before it, fancies itself as a political drama. Why must it be silted up with all this Jean Plaidy-ish stuff?

New Worlds
Channel 4

Look back at the cast of The Devil’s Whore, Channel 4’s 2008 civil war epic, and the jaw drops: Dominic West, Michael Fassbender, Andrea Riseborough. I’m almost tempted to buy the box set and watch it all over again. The sequel – called New Worlds (Tuesdays, 9pm), which makes it sound more like a think-tank report than a sexy drama you’d stay in to watch – has a far less starry cast. On the plus side, it’s the Restoration now, so the wigs are amazing and every woman comes with creamy, overflowing breasts pretty much as standard. It’s like a Joan Collins convention gone wrong.

Let me try to set the scene. It’s the 1680s and Charles II (Jeremy Northam, enjoying himself mightily) has been on the throne for 20 years. Angelica Fanshawe, widow of the Leveller Edward Sexby, is now played by Eve Best (previously this was Andrea Riseborough’s role) and she has remarried: her husband is a Catholic but he is a good man, so this is OK.

In the kingdom, there is much turmoil. Judge Jeffreys (Pip Carter) is eagerly tracking down traitors, the better to keep his creaking rack busy. The people fear that Charles will be succeeded by his Catholic brother, James, under whose heel they would rather not live, so plotting abounds. Some are throwing their weight behind Charles’s bastard son, the duke of Monmouth, but others still long for a republic. Angelica Fanshawe, for instance, has been secretly sending money to New England, where Puritans are hiding the last of the regicides, William Goffe. Jeffreys regards her house in Oxfordshire as a nest of vipers, “sedition spread over its fields like dung”, and has dispatched a spy to investigate.

Is that everything? No. I’ve left out the peasants, who are hungry. Their land enclosed, they must work in the clay pits that produce the bricks for Charles’s extraordinary palaces. “Hear that?” says Abe (Jamie Dornan), an inhabitant of the forest that abuts the Fanshawe estate. “That’s the sound of chaos.” Abe misses Edward Sexby and has the hots for his daughter, Beth (Freya Mavor), whose political eyes he has opened, having taken her to gawp at the poor on their way to work.

It’s all rather exciting and the dialogue can at times be very good (it’s co-written by Peter Flannery of Our Friends in the North). But the whole thing has been ruined for me by the intrusion of various 21st-century love plots. New Worlds, like The Devil’s Whore before it, fancies itself as a political drama. It presents the viewer with a verbal dreamscape of equality whenever it can; when it comes to our early revolution, we sense pride and even longing on the part of its creators. So why must it be silted up with all this spoony Jean Plaidy-ish stuff? (For the benefit of younger readers: before there was Philippa Gregory, there was Jean Plaidy.)

Was it the money men who insisted there be stolen love letters and illicit across-the-class-divide snogs? Was it they who decreed that everyone must be beautiful, fragrant and white of teeth? (Beth, in particular, looks as though she has strolled out of an ad for Alice Temperley’s range for John Lewis.) One moment, we’re in some fetid cell with Jeffreys, his luxuriant wig wobbling with delight as a man’s eyes begin to bleed; the next, we’re peering through the gloom at Abe and Beth getting it on. Beth seems unbothered that Abe the poacher is more Harry Styles than Robin Hood; when he whispers to her that her heart will “tell her how to live”, she laps it up. Angelica should give her a good slap for historical inaccuracy and never mind about her risky new political views.

It probably goes without saying that the king, Monmouth and all the other poodle-haired rock gods of the Restoration are portrayed as stupid, vicious and somewhat camp. This is entertaining but I do think Flannery might have made them just a bit more nuanced. Or funny. Or properly, cleverly dirty, in the manner of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester. This goodies-and-baddies stuff is for kids, isn’t it?

No wonder I nearly fell off my seat when the action shifted to Massachusetts, where Goffe and his supporters were busy contending with some pretty angry Native Americans. Cromwell’s old faithful made a mighty earnest speech about their stolen land, it’s true, but when the Algonquin finally poured through the settlement gates they looked, to a man, terrifyingly like Keith Flint from the Prodigy.

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 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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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