It’s often taken for granted that older men will have relationships with much younger women - in TV and film as well as in life, so much so that it’s barely questioned. From Casablanca, to Mississippi Burning, to Lost in Translation, we’re led to believe that this is the natural way of things; the implication is clearly that men have lothario instincts that they cannot control and older women are not desirable. Yet it was refreshing to see this trend reversed in the excellent Now TV drama ‘Mare of Easttown,’ where Kate Winslet plays grizzled, disillusioned police officer Mare Sheehan, a woman whose joys are few and misfortunes many.
There’s no shortage of other cliches; it is, after all, a crime drama. Easttown is a Pennsylvania backwater largely populated by second and third-generation Irish-Americans for whom the American Dream was never a reality. No-one seems able to leave, despite how often the town snuffs out their dreams, and everyone knows everyone else’s business.
Mare has to live constantly with the memory of her drug-addicted son who killed himself, her estranged husband who lives in a house that backs onto her garden, and the disapproval and anger of town residents railing against a police force who keep failing to solve the disappearance and murder of a number of young girls. A frustrated Mare ultimately decides to take things into her own hands - with mixed consequences.
It could perhaps only feel less hackneyed if it was a plot to Charlie Brooker’s satirical police show ‘A Touch of Cloth.’
Yet what makes ‘Mare of Easttown’ feel original is what goes unremarked in the script. Mare is cantankerous, surly, and stubbornly uninterested in appeasing the expectations of others. On one or two occasions we see her take notice of her physical appearance, but this goes uncommented on by the other characters - except maybe her caustic mother Helen, whose barbed exchanges with Mare make up some of the more hilarious moments in the dialogue.
What’s more, despite Mare’s refusal to be compliant and coquettish, she regularly attracts the attention of the men around her - including the measured and thoughtful (and sultry) creative writing professor Richard Ryan (Guy Pearce), who is new to the town, and a far younger member of her police team, handsome detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters). Colin and Mare get as far as going on a date, and despite the age gap (she is likely old enough to be his mother), no-one comments on it.
In a previous decade her dalliance with Richard might have led to a revelation that he was the murderer (he isn’t), feeding the malicious idea that women who dare to seek love and sexual gratification must be punished. Instead, their romance pauses for more believable and mundane reasons - he ends up moving away for work, just as Mare is starting to get her own demons under control. Despite the relationship not working out (at least, for now), instead of regret Mare is seen to have been changed by the kindness and attention of another human being, and by having her own needs valued for once.
Another small but important detail is that Mare’s ex-husband does not abandon her for a much younger woman - his wife-to-be is the same generation and had children at a similar age.
The only other story I’ve seen recently that dares to have older women form liaisons with men their own age or younger is last year’s musical comedy The Prom, where Meryl Streep and Keegan-Michael Peele have wonderful chemistry as the small-town Indiana high school principal who tries to coax a floundering Broadway star into becoming more selfless.
Easttown might be a backwards place in many ways, yet this means characters who dare to be themselves shine more brightly and more believably. Women like Mare are desirable for their frankness and dedication to duty in a place where everyone nurses compromised loyalties, dark secrets and repressed fears.
Kate Winslet is still remembered by most millennials as Rose, the straight-jacketed heroine from Titanic. Yet finally, in middle age, in this most restrictive of genres, it seems her straitjacket is off.
So often when we look at writing we want to concentrate on the big things. On the great narrative sweeps, the themes that we’re wrestling with, the epic journeys that our protagonists are going on.
This can make it difficult to concentrate on other characters. Sometimes, when focusing on others, the protagonist’s story can suddenly fall off a cliff and we have to drag it back up again and put it back on its feet, losing all emotional momentum.
What can help are small details. They can help keep our ‘main’ story going but still let other characters’ narratives have space to be told.
This idea crossed my mind when I was watchingthe BBC prison drama ‘Time’. For those who haven’t seen it, please do. It is an excellently crafted and researched piece of writing, which is brilliantly acted to boot. I have worked at a charity that helps communicate with people in prison and the founder said it was the most accurate depiction of prison life she’d ever seen on screen.
There is one moment in ‘Time’ that I think captures the power of simple moments. It happens about half an hour into episode two. Sean Bean’s Mark Cobden is being bullied by the small-time thug Johnno, part of which includes having his food stolen. He is starving. He is, however, too proud to mention it to anyone.
At the same time, Daniel, his new cellmate, is to have a talk with his victim’s parents as an attempt to gain some closure on his crime. He asks Mark to come with him, for emotional support. This is a moment that we have been building up to for Daniel. It is a crucial point in his story and it’s importantnot to overshadow it. However, the writer of ‘Time’, Jimmy McGovern, wants to make sure that the suffering of Mark doesn’t get forgotten by the audience – tension for his character needs to be maintained; the longer we’re aware of him starving, the longer it feels he’s been starving for.
This is achieved in a brilliantly simple way. As Daniel and Mark sit at the table, the other side of which are the grieving parents, Mark looks down. On the table is a plate. A plate full of biscuits. He stares at it for a second longer than normal, and then looks away, clearly sitting on the urge not to grab several. This moment is tiny, but it is an excellent piece of character continuity that doesn’t break the flow of the scene
The impact of the moment is heightened by the performance of Bean, but it is clearly a deliberately made one. The shot of the biscuits is a cut away. We have been deliberately shown them and then Mark’s reaction, before we move on.
What I take away from this moment is that when writing for your main character one doesn’t need massive moments to keep their journey going. There doesn’t need to be great speeches or deeds, especially if there is an important secondary character we want to focus on. We can keep the protagonist’s story bubbling along on the back hob through serving tiny portions of it. Nothing big, nothing flashy, nothing that takes away from the chosen moment. But it is still there, they’re still living their story, and that keeps it alive and real for the audience watching it. And, in the end, that is the most important thing.
*** Spoiler Warning - Contains deatails for Season 4 of Rick and Morty and WandaVision ***
I’ve been annoyed by the smugness and B-Movie gore of ‘Rick and Morty’ every time I’ve tried to watch it, even though I can see why many people enjoy its anarchic charms. That said, one of the few episodes that clicked with me was ‘Never Ricking Morty’ in Season 4, where jaded scientific genius Rick and his grandson Morty end up trapped on a train that embodies the literal and figurative story arc of the episode.