lizw: photo of Blake with text: "reality is a dangerous concept" (Default)
[personal profile] lizw
I watched two very different films this week that both happened to depend for their plots on the contrast between two women, and both to my mind ultimately fell down by an uncritical use of tropes or stereotypes.

The first was The Monkey's Mask, which I watched on LoveFilm as part of a free 30-day trial. Susie Porter stars as a young working-class lesbian detective who is hired to investigate the disappearance of a college student and finds herself falling in love with the girl's middle-aged English professor (Kelly McGillis), while struggling to come to terms with the latter's bisexuality and open relationship with her husband. The developing love story between the two women is quite nicely handled at first, and both of them are absolutely gorgeous in very different ways, so I was enjoying it just fine until it became apparent that the professor and her husband were going to turn out to be the villains of the piece. Sure, let's have the bad guys be the only bisexual and the only poly characters in the piece, why not? It's not like it feeds into any damaging stereotypes... Oh, wait. I also felt that the class aspect of the detective's discomfort around the professor and her social circle could have been explored a little more, although it is certainly signalled.

The second film was The Woman in Black, which I saw in the cinema with C and R last night. Mostly, I saw it because I'd previously liked Daniel Radcliffe in Equus and wanted to see what he made of this role; I almost changed my mind about going after seeing a review that accused him of being wooden, but I think that reviewer missed the point. He does seem oddly unresponsive to the other characters in the first third or so of the movie, but that's not bad acting, it's the character, who is traumatised by the loss of his wife before the film opens. (For anyone who has read Susan Hill's book, I should make it clear at this point that the plot of the film is substantially different.) As he starts to engage with his surroundings, Radcliffe's responses change too; the acting is fine, especially considering that for much of the film he is the only actor on screen. But the main thing to say about the film is that it was probably the scariest any of the three of us had ever seen, which made me think that we really need to reconsider our ratings system. This has a 12A in the UK (PG-13 in the US), but was really too scary for R at 13 and right on the edge of what C could handle at 15. I think the basic problem is that the ratings seem to be based on mechanically counting swear-words, exposed body parts and injuries, with no real assessment of the emotional power of a piece. And this is actually a really well put-together movie, so it has tons of emotional power. Those of you who have triggers related to harm coming to children? Do not see it. Just don't.

Anyway, with that out of the way, on to the two women who really drive the plot of this film, despite the fact that in most scenes, we only see Radcliffe. On the one hand, we have the Woman in Black of the title - an unmarried mother maddened and driven to suicide by the forced adoption and subsequent death of her young son, who now haunts the house Radcliffe's firm is trying to sell and lures the village children to their deaths in a bid for revenge. On the other, we have Radcliffe's deceased wife, haunting his thoughts more benignly in a white dress, about whom we learn nothing other than that she died in childbirth, and who is positioned from the start as an angelic figure via an early scene in which their son has drawn her standing on a cloud wearing wings and a halo. It's not subtle - it's an idealised image of the mother so selfless that the fact of her motherhood becomes the only thing worth knowing about her, pitted against a mirror image of demonic greed, not content to stick to the safety of socially-sanctioned sex, stealing the children of other, more virtuous women to feed her insatiable hunger for vengeance.

Both the ghostly figures are almost entirely silent throughout the film, and when they do speak, it is either to Radcliffe or to an empty house. None of the other women in the film ever talk to another woman, either, and one of them, herself driven insane by grief, literally has her voice replaced by the voice of her own dead son. No Bechdel pass here. The wife remains a passive, idealised figure throughout. The Woman in Black, on the other hand, achieves a limited measure of agency through the deaths she causes - though needing Radcliffe's help to reunite her with her son by recovering his body and burying it in her grave, help that gains a twisted reward when she in turn kills him and his son so that they can be reunited with the dead wife. Both Susan Hill and the scriptwriters were clearly drawing on some classic tropes of Victorian and Edwardian literature here - the virgin/whore dichotomy, the madwoman in the attic, the hang-ups of a whole society playing out in the ghastly fates of a few children - and that makes sense given the film's historical setting, but I felt more could have been done to subvert those stereotypes.

Date: 11 Feb 2012 17:21 (UTC)
rmc28: Photo of me shortly before starting my first half-marathon (Default)
From: [personal profile] rmc28
Thanks for the review and the warning - I definitely have harm-to-children triggers and was considering seeing the film.

Date: 12 Feb 2012 19:31 (UTC)
miss_s_b: (Default)
From: [personal profile] miss_s_b
I have those triggers too, but have seen the original TV version and coped ok with it, and was really looking forward to this, so I am conflicted now...

Date: 13 Feb 2012 15:46 (UTC)
miss_s_b: (Default)
From: [personal profile] miss_s_b
The TV version has the entire family on a boating lake and she kills all of them - Arthur, his wife, and two children.

Date: 14 Feb 2012 00:08 (UTC)
lovingboth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] lovingboth
Film classification is odd. There will have been some pressure by the distributors for a 12A based on the Radcliffe fanbase and - not having seen the film - I presume the lack of splatter and, as you say, rude words meant they got it.

Ah, six seconds were cut to get a 12A rather than a 15 and other bits optically darkened (to hide stuff, but in the process make it scarier for some!)

The extended classification info has more:

THE WOMAN IN BLACK is a film version of the well known ghost story by Susan Hill, which has also been adapted for the stage. It follows the story of a young lawyer who travels to a remote rural village where he discovers a vengeful ghost responsible for the deaths of local children. The film was classified '12A' for intense supernatural threat and horror.

There are a number of scenes of supernatural horror and threat in which the ghost of the 'woman in black', as well as the ghosts of her victims, appear to and threaten the central character and others. The BBFC's Guidelines at '12A'/'12' state 'Moderate physical and psychological threat may be permitted, providing disturbing sequences are not frequent or sustained'. Although there is a degree of intensity to the scenes involving the ghosts, these are broken up by other material, with a number of quieter periods in between the more frightening sequences. The period setting and the well-understood genre expectations offer a further degree of distancing from contemporary reality, with the film resembling a traditional ghost story in the tradition of M.R. James. Nonetheless, the general tone of the film is quite bleak and the premise of a ghost manipulating children into harming or killing themselves, make this a potentially disturbing feature for young children. Children under 12 may find the film too intense, but it is generally suitable for viewers of 12 and above, who are likely to find the scary moments thrilling rather than upsetting, particularly given that it is based on a well known book and stage play. The film also includes a scene in which the ghost of the 'woman in black' appears to hang herself from a noose. It also includes a scene in which a young girl smashes an oil lamp, causing herself to burst into flames. Both these scenes were reduced in order to achieve a '12A' classification. In another scene, a girl coughs up blood after ingesting caustic soda. The Guidelines at '12A'/'12' state 'There should be no emphasis on injuries or blood'. The coughing up of blood is relatively brief, albeit shocking, and the result of poisoning rather than violence.

The film also contains repeated verbal and visual references to a young boy drowning in a muddy swamp, to a mother dying in childbirth and some dated references to 'harlot'.

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