I wasn’t quite sure what was meant by the term “event television” at first. Apparently we don’t have much of it over here. Whereas they have loads of it over there. Here of course is, well here, and there is America, the US, the United States, the land of the free. I suppose now they can call themselves the conquerors of terror. Nevertheless, whatever our inferiorities on the hunting down madmen front, I thought it was a harsh and unfair assessment of our television schedules.
Course no one reads schedules anymore though, no one sits down to watch anything at the allotted hour. We’re all addicted to endless self gratification. We get up to have an iPoo, flush it down the iBog and wash our hands with interactive iSoap, ambling into the kitchen through the iDoors that open with that Star Trek noise, to sit down to our perfectly timed iToast. Then we float to work on our iMagicCarpets, reading an article about the latest iPod on our iPads. When we’ve got a spare moment we’ll catch up with our favourite shows, saved straight to our favourites automatically on iPlayer. Or we check out some new comedy, whenever we want, on 4Od. Thankfully ITV is pretty much forgotten online. Someone told me there was an itvplayer, but I didn’t believe them. What would be the point?
Anyway back to my point. Even if we did read schedules we’d just shout “SHIT!” and toss them down somewhere. But it’s ridiculous to say British TV lacks events. The Royal Wedding was an event that the whole world, especially the Yanks, wanted to see. And they couldn’t replicate it even with their superior budgets and 22 feature length episode series. Quite often BBC Sport will show some horses jumping about the place and that’s actually called Event-ing! How can things get more eventful? Even ITV has the odd football match. Football matches are events, I’ve been to some. And just because baseball has more interesting bats than cricket, and the Super Bowl is so good people watch it for the adverts, does not mean British sport is any less diverse and eventful than American ones.
I eventually discovered that “event television” refers to the scale and quality of drama, as opposed to sport or documentaries. American imports like The Wire, The Sopranos and Lost have become cultural staples in recent years on this side of the pond. Meanwhile good British drama is of the costumed variety. Only wrapped in frilly frocks will British drama make it from here to the bigger apples on the other bank. Other countries don’t care about our storytelling unless it’s Downton Abbey (there’s a persistent rumour that ITV made that!). Everyone wants the classy execution and paranoia driven plots of American drama though.
Being the dinosaur that I am, I haven’t watched any of the American series I mentioned above. I couldn’t possible tolerate the colonies beating us in terms of quality. I’m quite content to chuckle along dreamily to a familiar episode of Friends but that’s because such a programme has no far flung aspirations. It’s simply crude and silly humour.
In all seriousness though, I may not be familiar with The Wire and other renowned US drama but I have seen the higher production standards of American creations and the flaws of British drama are plain. Part of the reason Doctor Who is being so lovingly welcomed back is that it’s one of just a handful of shows capable of “event television”. Off the top of my head I can only think of Spooks as another show, not dependent on a typically BBC period setting, capable of generating awe inspiring thrills and twists for the duration of a series.
The controller of BBC One recently refused to authorise a second series of Zen, about an Italian detective played by Rufus Sewell, on the grounds that the channel had too many detectives. I believe this decision to be a mistake. Zen was not “event television”, its pace was too pedestrian, but for British audiences in particular it filled in some of the weaknesses of TV drama. It was filmed on location in Italy and set in the present day. It had sophistication, a strong cast and good scripts. It might well be true that crime as a genre in this country lacks impact because there are too many identikit competitors, but Zen genuinely stood out. It was certainly superior to Luther, which will continue.
The latest addition to Britain’s list of crime based programmes is The Shadow Line, which for what it’s worth, is on every Thursday at 9pm on BBC Two. It arrives with the bold claim that it’s bringing that elusive “event television” quality, to these shores. And this is no import. It’s written, directed and produced by the man behind Rob Brydon’s Marion and Geoff, Hugo Blick. It’s unquestionably his brainchild and therefore primarily his problem if the bold claims disintegrate into disappointment. It’s frequently compared to The Wire in all the hype, which was of course fairly meaningless to me.
At first glance The Shadow Line is at least interesting for taking an alternative angle and a refreshing approach. It’s about a murder investigation from both sides of the law. It requires you to stick with it for its seven episode run for secrets to be revealed. Its opening scene, however, has the potential to alienate the undecided viewer. Far from going out of its way to hook you, it drops you into a rather sparse and moody scene. Two policemen discover a body in a car, with the more experienced man quickly assessing the grim situation. He has a cold and detached manner that’s slightly unsettling and mutters under his breath as he recognises the victim with multiple gunshot wounds. The rookie with him is clearly naive. The old timer declares that they’ll be leaving this one for someone else to deal with.
It may be a slow burning and confusing set up but it was enough to draw me in. The realism to the dialogue and the detail of the camerawork is some of the best in the episode. Sadly The Shadow Line doesn’t always walk the line of successful “event television”, straying into the shadows of OTT stylisation a number of times. Not all of the acting is good and the script sags at points and tarnishes its excellent features with the occasional god-awful line of dialogue. The most memorable example is when a “tough female detective” decides to dress down an ordinary cop following procedure a little too closely with a speech about the first syllable of “country” and “constable”.
These lapses let down what is otherwise a promising episode. The characters range from the rounded to the farfetched. Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph is a front man for heroin dealers, running a flower and fruit company built from scratch with his own cash. He has a wife with early onset Alzheimer’s and is more sympathetic than any other character. He’s trying to unpick things from the criminal side, and is clearly more powerful than he’s letting on. On the side of the (clearly corrupt) law, is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is a detective with a bullet lodged in his brain. He can’t remember anything about the assignment that got it there, or the suitcase of money in his wardrobe, which is a well handled climax to the episode. Both of these leads do a good job and get some good lines, with Eccleston coming out of it particularly well.
The Shadow Line has so many influences and so many paranoia driven secrets that it could be too much. Its emphasis is also so firmly on looking and sounding classy that at times it simply looks ridiculous, and will come across as arrogant and up itself. But I’ll keep watching because it’s a bold idea with good looks, that now and then, does feel like top notch telly. And “event” telly at that.
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The world lacks a female super spy. Angelina Jolie has perhaps come closer than most to filling the void with her all action portrayal of sexy video game Tomb Raider Lara Croft, but this was ultimately more Indiana Jones than James Bond. Last year Phillip Noyce’s Cold War conspiracy thriller Salt, originally earmarked for Tom Cruise, morphed into a very different project altogether with the casting of Jolie as CIA agent Evelyn.
I may be veering into sexism here, but because of Jolie’s casting my expectations were drastically lowered. However I’ll defend myself with two qualifications; firstly I think of Jolie as more than merely an internationally coveted sexual icon, but as a fine and capable actress, particularly after her powerhouse performance in Clint Eastwood’s excellent Changeling. Secondly I believe I expected disappointment because of the film industry’s own sexist view of women playing action leads, rather than my own narrow and intolerant perspective on the “fairer sex”.
What I mean by this is that women rarely seem to be cast in serious mainstream action films. They’re a common feature in action comedies, such as the dire Knight and Day and Jolie’s own light-hearted romp with her equally famous and sexy spouse in Mr and Mrs Smith. But there’s no realistic and gripping female equivalent to the Bourne series, for example. Filmmakers are reluctant to showcase women, even today, as ruthless and professional killers without elements of fantasy. Watch a film about what is essentially a paid, female murderer (a “hitwoman”) and expect lots of ninja style, silly high kicking and unbelievable martial arts, alongside tight costumes, to offset such a horrific notion.
Sadly this is a formula that Salt eventually and perhaps inevitably, conforms to. The opening of the film is promising. Once we get some god awful dialogue out the way, probably ripped straight from the “how to script a film in the espionage genre” handbook, along with some forced flashbacks, we get Salt interrogating an apparent Russian defector. He drops the bombshell that there’s a sleeper agent in the CIA, and that agent is called Evelyn Salt.
Salt is dismissive at first, but all the high tech brain scans and probably some ingenious pad questioning his balls from his seat, says that he’s telling the truth. After a bit of dithering Salt decides to run, apparently out of concern for her husband, but it still seems rather daft if she really is innocent. Once she does run however, it looks as if Salt is going to be a decent film.
With the shadowy, backstabbing premise of the plot and some tense evasion of security cameras by a grey suited Jolie, Salt seems very Bourne-esque at first. And a female Bourne film would not have been such a bad thing. Boxed into an interrogation room, Salt constructs a makeshift weapon from chemicals and chairs and table legs to allow her to escape. She then flees for home to look for her husband and just avoids capture by climbing around the outside of her building. Finally she escapes the city after a standoff by jumping from truck to truck on the freeway.
During all of this action it’s easy to get swept up and the character remains believable. You sympathise with her apparent innocence and will her to succeed. But once Salt heads to New York based on information that someone will attempt to kill the Russian President at the Vice President’s funeral, the plot completely loses its way. It utterly surprised me on several occasions but purely because it becomes so absolutely ludicrous. You can no longer relate to Salt as a character and the action degenerates into ninja Jolie implausibly kicking the asses of trained security personnel in seconds.
At first I thought it was refreshing that Salt was a spy thriller based on the old Cold War rivalries and tensions. Cinemagoers could do with a little more entertainment courtesy of grand, evil schemes, rather than grim and realistic takes on Al-Qaeda. There’s nothing wrong with fantastical plots based on extravagant conspiracies and the destruction of the world, providing they’re executed plausibly. But Salt is just too farfetched and has too many holes, mainly surrounding the believability of its characters. It also strays into the absurd and hilarious; supposedly a “master of disguise” Salt looks fairly obviously like Angelina Jolie dressed as an effeminate man infiltrating the White House.
As usual with Blu-Rays, there’s a whole host of meaty special features to devour about the making of Salt. There’s a baffling section on Salt’s supposed genius as a “master of disguise” and a separate “in screen” interview with the costume designer explaining the selection process behind Jolie’s grey suit earlier in the film. Apparently it was really beneficial to visit the CIA and presumably discover they wear boring and generic corporate power suits like everyone else. The most revealing sections are interviews with Noyce and Jolie about the fact Salt was originally written for a man, which might account for some of the script’s rough and unfinished feel.
There are some pleasing references to classics of the genre in the film, for example when “defector” Orlov escapes using a blade concealed in his shoe, like Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love. But in the end Salt resembles a mishmash parody of everything it has taken influence from. It lacks originality, quality and entertainment for most of its thankfully brief 100 minute runtime.
THE AMERICAN is the sort of serious and sombre story that sadly wouldn’t get made with a woman in the title role. It’s a slow-burning meditation on the nature of being an assassin and on loneliness itself. It’s an exercise in minimalist storytelling from writer Rowan Joffe, adapting Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, and particularly, director Anton Corbijn. With the lightest of brush strokes he paints what was, for me, an incredibly evocative and captivating picture.
I had meant to see The American on the big screen but sadly its lack of success at the box office resulted in a short stay at my local multiplex. For critics the problem with The American is that it never truly ignites following such a tantalisingly drawn out simmering of tension. Many find it boring to sit through. But for anyone that loves the genre, the intoxicating idea of the lone assassin, or anyone that likes understated and subtle films, The American is wonderfully watchable.
In many ways George Clooney shouldn’t work in the title role. He is such a recognisable face across the globe, a brand rather than a name, that he shouldn’t convince as an unknown and elusive assassin. But Corbijn needed someone who could act without words and Clooney delivers a master class. When there is dialogue Clooney enthuses it with charisma; it oozes enigmatic intrigue. When the camera is entirely reliant on Clooney’s movements a pained expression, a cold glance or a precise gesture speaks more than a page of script ever could. This has been hailed by some as the best performance of Clooney’s career for a reason. We’ve never seen him laid bare like this; robbed of the charm and the cheeky grin.
More than anything else The American is beautiful. Its soundtrack is haunting, atmospheric and touching. Every other shot would make an arty still in a gallery; in Corbijn’s second picture after the acclaimed biopic Control, his background as a photographer is constantly evident. Clooney’s character chooses photography as his cover and there’s something about the parallels of precise skill and solitude between pictures and killing that’s endlessly fascinating. Indeed the subtlety of the storytelling really lets you think about its themes whilst enjoying the gorgeous visuals and the sexy girls.
The loneliness of existence is there in every furrow of Clooney’s focused face; the life of the assassin is the perfect lens for examining anyone’s existential angst. His character makes meagre relationships that wouldn’t satisfy many human beings, and yet they prove too much and too risky for his secretive profession. Despite the reports of boredom and never-ending build-up, I thought that the restrained action punctuated the plot well and the climax of the simple story was suitably engrossing.
In many ways Salt and The American both take “old school” approaches to a familiar genre; Salt with its outlandish Cold War plot and The American with its focus on an age old character, complete with soul searching scenes with a priest. The undoubted difference between the films though is a sumptuous and sexy style and quality that makes The American infinitely more interesting than Jolie’s briefly entertaining foray into the world of espionage.
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