As his many quietly devoted fans are well aware, the films of the writer and director Dominic Savage are marked out both by their miraculous intimacy and by their determination to put the stories of women centre stage. Savage’s new triptych for Channel 4 began with I Am Nicola (23 July), in which Vicky McClure improvised the role of a young woman who is a victim of what we have recently learnt to call coercive control, and it was a beautiful piece of work: a slow-ticking film whose cumulative effect was one of airlessness and immense pity. How little it took to make Nicola grateful; how much it took to get her finally to leave. It’s hard, I think, to imagine a better drama about this particular form of abuse: a violence that, by being emotional rather than physical, often goes unremarked, even by those living in close proximity to it.
The other films in the series are every bit as fine and searching. In I Am Kirsty (30 July), Samantha Morton plays a hard-pressed mother of two who comes home one day to find that her feckless boyfriend has done a flit, leaving behind only his gambling debts. At first, she struggles on. She asks for extra shifts at the hotel where she is a cleaner; she feeds her two daughters bread and jam for their tea. Such efforts, however, are mere drops in the ocean of what she owes, and so it is that she comes to turn to Ryan (Paul Kaye), a single father who lives on her estate and who has offered to lend her money. What’s in it for him? She thinks he’s only kind, but we know better – and sure enough, he’s soon asking for interest. Kirsty’s response is desperate, and desperately brave. She takes up sex work until she is able, very publicly, to pay him off.
In the forthcoming I Am Hannah (6 August, 10pm) Gemma Chan plays a middle- class, thirty-something woman who isn’t sure that one man and a baby or two is the right narrative for her. On paper, this sounds indulgent – narcissistic, even – coming after Kirsty’s tale, but its veracity was in many ways just as painful. Even as she was resolute – her mother worried about loneliness, which would, she said, grow incrementally for as long as Hannah was determined to remain single – you felt her vulnerability: the casually cruel smugness of her married friends; the vile way her internet dates behaved. How is a woman to be herself in a world where the expectations that surround her like a thorny thicket simply cannot, even at the beginning of the 21st century, be hacked to the ground? “I like sex,” she says to a man she meets in a bar. Five minutes later, he is kissing her against her will, having heard what for her was merely a statement – she might as well have said “I like George Eliot” – as an urgent invitation.
The word “improvisation” usually has me reaching for the noise-cancelling headphones and folding myself into a foetal position. Not here. Savage is so good with actors. Without wanting to diminish their skill and talent, I think he draws from them resources they didn’t know they had. At points, you hardly feel these three are acting at all, so truthful and textured are their performances. But I admire even more his abiding interest in the interior lives of men and, particularly, of women: the way he excavates, taking such interest in the quotidian but nevertheless frequently overwhelming feelings that all of us, to some degree, cycle through again and again in our lives.
What do women want? What’s funny about this question is that it is women who most struggle to answer it. How else to explain the fact that almost every woman I know is busy reading Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, a book about desire that is this summer’s non-fiction bestseller? Yet here is Savage pluckily having a go. By his telling, we want only the freedom to be who we really are, whether this involves money, or sex, or a partner – and it’s his conviction, too, that such a state is possible, for all that it may involve struggle and heartache.
Each film ended with the sense that its heroine was moving towards the light. Her future, however hard-won, would be better than her past: braided with hope – and even, perhaps, with happiness.