I often get asked what I do. It’s normal when you work in the arts.
However, for me, the conversation often goes a bit like this –
“So, what do you do?”
“I work in script development.”
“Oh, so what kind of scripts do you write?”
“No, I’m not a writer. I don’t write scripts, I develop them.”
Blank stare ensues
People know what writers do, but not script developers. Most people have no idea who we are or what we do. This is, in a way, understandable. Writers are the creators; the scripts are theirs and they have to put in the effort and creativity. However, although we are not as important as writers, script developers and people in development do play a useful part in the journey of a script, from laptop screen to silver screen.
Simply put, development is the area that deals with everything that happens to a script before it is put on a stage or has a camera or microphone pointed at it. We make sure that the script is fit for purpose. Development works with writers to help their ideas grow, to literally help develop them. This can be from the initial stages of an idea or with a later draft of an existing project.
For example, I know two writers who found an interesting historical figure from the early 20thCentury. They pitched this person’s life to a production company and they are now writing the first drafts after initial chats with the development team. Drafts will then be sent back to the team, notes will be given, advice taken, rewrites started and then the cycle will start again.
With a later draft – we once received draft 10.5 from someone – it is then about asking the writer what they need help with and then looking at the script to provide helpful feedback at that stage of the writing process.
It is still about helping grow, helping develop, that script into the best version that the writer can create. We give advice, we encourage, we enable. That is the role of someone in development: helping the story become its best self.
The journey continues onto the set or soundstage. Someone from the development team (normally a script editor or a senior member of the development team, sometimes the head of the team) will be on set during a shoot. They will know the script pretty much as well as the writer, as they will have been there for the whole writing process. Their job during production is to act as the script’s guardian through filming and to act as the link between the writer and the production team on re-writes and production decisions.
A colleague of mine was working as a script editor on a project which had an emotional break-up scene set on a cliff. In the original scene a storm raged in the background providing a tumultuous natural backdrop to the emotional chaos between the two characters. However, production couldn’t shoot this scene this way - mainly because it was too expensive. They approached the script editor and asked if they could set the scene in a kitchen instead. They already had the set for the kitchen. It would be better if the scene could be set in the kitchen. So, the scene had to be moved to the kitchen. The script editor had to confirm that that would be ok and then work with the re-writes to make it the best version of that scene, but now set around a kitchen island, not on the cliffs of Cornwall.
Alongside not knowing about how development teams aid writers in their writing process, there are a lot of myths that exist around the script-writing process itself. I’d like to look at a few of them to help clarify a few things.
People think that scripts just happen – they don’t.
It is a common phenomenon, as a creative person, to look at an excellent piece of art, a performance, a piece of writing and think that the artist has had no help; that their work has emerged fully formed and perfect into the world. This is not true. The only person I know of who created work perfectly in one go is Mozart. Everyone else has painted a terrible painting, put on a terrible performance, written a terrible script. All artists do these things, keep doing them and get better as they do so. And they will have had advice and help on how to get better.
We have this romantic view of a writer being a solitary genius in a garret room or at a table in a downtown coffee shop valiantly striving by themselves. This is does not have to be the case. Often it is not the case. You don’t have to do it by yourself. You can’t. You will need help from others.
Everyone from Phoebe Waller-Bridge to Quentin Tarantino will have had help and advice on how to make their work better. And they’re really good. But they still they didn’t do it alone.
And neither do you. Don’t feel bad getting advice from outside.
Another common phenomenon is that we encounter people who say that their script is not ready to be seen or who are nervous about people reading it. This is understandable. It has just been you and your script for a long time, it is the physical manifestation of your imagination and several hours/days/months of work. However, it will need to be seen by someone at some point. There will also never be a point where you are completely satisfied with your writing. You will never feel like it's at a perfect stage to show everyone. So don’t worry about someone else having a look at it. You will at some point have to let it go.
The point of development is also to help grow a project. We have seen writing from all stages. Script development is there to help you on your journey.
Now, some people will take that advice, run with it, and show their script to anyone and everyone, which is also not always helpful. Showing your work to family members or friends who don’t work in the scripted side of the industry can be just as unhelpful as keeping your script to yourself.
Someone who is close to you may not be the best person to give you feedback on your work. They will get all your jokes, all your references, that others who don’t know you may not, and they won’t want to give you any real feedback for fear of hurting your feelings. They will just say that it’s great. Or, conversely, if they do spot things that may need tweaking, they will just point out things that they don’t like but not give you any way of re-directing or altering those things. Neither of these is very helpful.
It is always good to give your script to someone who is dispassionate about it. Not that people in development don’t care – we do – it’s just that we can see the whole woodland rather than just the individual trees, as we’re not caught up in the dense undergrowth of all the story-growing. We can stand outside the whole thing and judge it as a whole.
Script-writing doesn’t have to be a lonely process; people are there to offer advice. However, don’t seek advice or feedback from just anyone, as what you get back will probably not be the most useful.
Script developers are there to be the middle ground – people who are there to help but won’t start trampling all over your creativity. The point of development is to hold the writer’s hand and say this is alright, it will work. We all love stories, and we want to make the best ones possible.
So, what do I do? I help build stories.
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.
*** Spoiler Warning - Contains details 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.
To make the story progress, the duo leave the train at various intervals and loudly and deliberately announce the plot points to evade the tyrannical grip of Story Lord, a villain who wants the characters to behave in ways consistent with their development in the series so far. Rick gleefully gives a middle finger to this by defying almost every expectation anyone, including the viewer, might have. Ironically, by doing so he adheres strictly what we’ve come to expect - that he is unpredictable and nihilistic, and Morty is timid and spineless.
Although it still feels supercilious, there are some enjoyable jokes about the crass methods writers employ when trying to make sure they adhere to the Bechdel Test, where to pass, two named female characters need to have a conversation that’s not about men - considered the minimum standard for how to write credibly about women. The moment where Rick falls to his knees and seemingly finds God is hilarious (not least for briefly introducing Biblesaurus and Mr Celery to cheer him along) and makes fun of how often writers cynically use religion to make cheap points.
Yet going ‘meta’ like this is a risky strategy. The subtext (or lack of it) in ‘Never Ricking Morty’ is obvious: writing is a nonsensical and cliched process, people are stupid for being so invested in an imaginary world, and writers are boring and self-absorbed for either making their characters conform to their own egotistical wishes, or on the flip side, to self-indulgently try to be experimental, as with this episode. The writers seem to be trying to comment on the sheer absurdity of the world they inhabit by poking fun at their own attempts to undermine it - which somehow rings hollow given that the writers of ‘Rick and Morty’ almost certainly take their craft extremely seriously.
It’s also not unreasonable for audiences to want coherence and structure in their stories, even if at their worst, those conventions can descend into cliches and tropes. It can feel alienating, and does the very thing I’ve often found tedious about ‘Rick and ‘Morty,’ that it sneers at the audience. Although it’s important that writers break free of such restrictions when it serves the story (and those restrictions can include the demands of their fans), it’s disingenuous to pretend that any kind of creative writing doesn’t flourish from reaching a wider audience.
In short, telling people that they’re idiots is not likely to win you more fans (admittedly, not something the creators of ‘Rick and Morty’ have to worry about much, given how immense and devoted their audience is).
The Marvel series ‘Wandavision’ does something similar, in a less pugnacious way. As a way of coping with the trauma of losing her lover, Vision, during the antics of ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ Wanda (otherwise known in the Marvel Universe as Scarlet Witch) forces people around her to act in parodies of the TV shows from her childhood that her father would smuggle from America through the Iron Curtain - to the point where she effectively brings Vision back from the dead and imagines an alternate life where they live happily with their two young sons.
As well as highlighting the coping mechanisms people use to endure grief, the series reminds us of what the act of watching people on screen amounts to - forcing people into roles that control and limit them for our own gratification.
One of the stumbling blocks with this approach is that firstly, the American TV shows ‘Wandavision’ imitated were often lost on non-American viewers. Although I could spot the ‘Modern Family’ parody in the later episodes, I had never seen ‘The Dick van Dyke Show’ or ‘Full House.’ Much of the early episodes of ‘Wandavision’ left those outside the USA scratching their heads - which is a bit of an oversight given how huge and global Marvel’s audience is. This only served to undermine the show-within-a-show trope that was a central plank of the series.
With these ‘meta’ elements, there’s also a slight degree of ‘so what?’ After all, if the show is supposed to be making some wider point about how we all manipulate and control those around us, then the scenario is too fantastical to make that point convincingly. It’s perhaps rather telling that the recent ‘Loki’ series has had the highest viewing figures of all the Marvel TV series so far, including ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,’ despite the God of Mischief being lumbered with a mid-week slot rather than a coveted Friday one.
If you go ‘meta,’ do it with care, or else steer clear.
Jesus Mary and Joseph and the wee donkey, I think one can say that the ending of Line of Duty was controversial. Years of tension, deaths, twists, lost hands, lost lovers all culminating in, wait for it: Ian Buckells, that rather dull bloke with curly hair.
One can’t really throw too much shade at Jed Mercurio. He has successfully kept the nation entertained for nearly ten years. Dropping the baton at the end isn’t great but to get so far still holding it, and wielding it so well, is amazing. That doesn’t mean the clang as it hit the ground can be ignored, though. He still dropped it.
A reason that things slipped from Jed’s grasp was that he didn’t realise that the show he was finishing was no longer the same show as the one he had started with.
Series one of Line of Duty is a thriller. It’s about tension and suspense, the fear of being found out. The stakes are high, but they’re driven by real, human mistakes. Tony Gates is a good cop. He does his job, he gets promoted. He’s a bit proud but seems to be a fairly decent guy; people like him. However, he has a flaw. Like so many middle-aged men he’s having an affair. The man still loves his kids though so can’t break his family apart by revealing it. Here we have a level of struggle that people can identify with. It’s a real-life-sized struggle and drives him into misstep after misstep trying to cover it up. He’s not bent but his fight to cover up his mistakes makes him seem so. He is brought down by his guilt and the messiness of human life clashing with the cold hard rules of AC-12. It is the cruel banality of life not being fair.
Jump to series six. We have car chases and gun fights and standoffs in carparks. We do still have human struggles and fear of being found out – Steve’s back, Hasting’s guilt over Corbett – but these don’t drive the plot. Steve’s impending interview about his back just provides rather annoying emails that he ignores, and Hastings’ ‘secret’ provides only minor level tension at best. What drives the plot, what increases the tension, is a series of dramatic set pieces – the gunfight over the Lakewell convoy, the stand-off at gunpoint between Kate and Pilkington. This is not every day human level drama. These are straight out of an action movie. Line of Duty is no longer bobbies on the beat, it’s Bond.
It’s understandable how we got here. Every successive season the stakes had to rise to keep the audience interested. Also, as the show becomes more successful, there’s more money pumped in so there’s more opportunity to do stuff. So, first season we have fingers being chopped off; final season we have Steve lying by a crashed van after a lengthy shoot out having assassinated a sniper.
Where this switch from thriller to action can be traced to is the escape of Dot ‘The Caddy’ Cottan at the end of season three. This starts with the standard, tense, thriller-esque interview in the glass box. It’s psychological. It’s character-led tension. It’s the great stuff we’ve had so far. We then have an “Urgent Exit” requested and it snaps into an over-the-top action movie. A policeman with a machine gun suddenly unloads on a colleague, then on a glass window, shattering it. Kate turns into Sarah Connor, tooling up with flak jacket and machine gun, riding on a massive truck as if this is what she does every day. She even shoots a henchman and doesn’t blink. From then on, we have action movie blood injected into the veins of our thriller.
Now, the rules of action movies are different. They demand bigger things, bigger bangs, cool guys walking away from explosions. They’re more ridiculous. Bond is fun because it’s not real. Even when they tried to make it ‘real’ with Daniel Craig, we knew it’s still not really ‘real’ as most of us don’t go to fancy casinos or drive fast cars or try and rescue our drowning treacherous girlfriends from collapsing Venetian houses.
After season three, Line of Duty becomes more and more ridiculous. Roz Huntley has a rotting arm which gets amputated, poor Joanne Davidson has the twisted family history of a penny dreadful. These are huge, dramatic, and awful things but they’re not the banal cruelty of normal life that destroys most people. They’re cartoon level horrors that plague movie-level plots. They’re not real.
This doesn’t mean that it’s ‘bad’. The escape of Dot is a fantastic piece of television. Kate Fleming is the action heroine this nation needs. Bond movies are fun, but they’re not the television that Mercurio started writing.
This is the problem with the end of season six. If you give your audience a Bond movie, they’re going to want Blofeld to turn up. We want that swivel chair, the fluffy cat, the “Ah, Superintendent Hastings, I was expecting you”. We didn’t get that. We got Ian Buckells.
What Mercurio did with Buckells as the ‘big bad’ was to try and return to the first season, to where he began, where the world is ordinary and boring and real. There is no mastermind, there’s a just a little bloke who’s greedy and has low morals.
Now, imagine if Bond blasted his way through the tropical island base, fought off the henchman with the idiosyncratic disfigurement, crawled into the centre of the villain’s lair only to find the head office being run by a clerk who administers the paperwork for the shell company set up to contain the holdings of another shell company that comes from several illicit hedge funds. Even if someone tried to explain that that is actually how crime works, how actual shadowy figures run the world, you’d still want your money back.
I suppose the moral of this story is remember where you started. Remember what your piece of writing is about. By that I don’t just mean ‘it’s about a bunch of policemen in AC-12’ but what themes you are looking at, what genre you’re writing in, and try and keep to that through line. However, if you do end up changing things, make sure that you make everything match that shift.
Mercurio started with a thriller on how our own humanity can bring us down; how evil is banal, and cruel in its banality; that life is unfair and that it rumbles on without us. He tried to end it that way. However, on the way, he got lost in Cottan’s big budget escape, fights with surgical saws, and gun fights. And because of that his ending fell flat. He started with The Wire and ended with Bond. And once you go Bond you have to give us a Blofeld. Buckells just won’t do.
One of my favourite ways to de-stress during the various lockdowns has been to sort and re-sort my bookshelf. I suspect I’m not the only one who has found this therapeutic, not least because an upside is that it diverts my attention towards any forgotten or neglected gems.
Two books I recently went back to are my copies of the script for Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’ and the combined scripts for the TV series ‘Fleabag.’ As with most of the books on my shelf, they rub shoulders mostly because they were gifts at one point; yet after a re-read, I started musing on a bigger connection between the two - silence.
I’ll confess that I saw ‘Betrayal,’ a play about the agonising love triangle between a husband, Robert, his wife, Emma, and Robert’s best friend Jerry, eight times on stage during its 2019 run - seven times in London and once in New York - so it’s one of the scripts I know the most intimately.
This wasn’t just out of a passion for Pinter. Anyone who has glanced at my Twitter feed will know my love for Tom Hiddleston (who plays Robert) runs deep. My affection for Charlie Cox (who plays Jerry) runs almost as deep, especially as finding out that Cox was due to tread the boards in ‘Betrayal’ was some kind of compensation after the cancellation of ‘Daredevil.’
I wasn’t as familiar with the back catalogue of Zawe Ashton, the actor who played Emma, but I found her restrained, simmering performance throughout the run to be masterful - at times aloof, at other times incredibly tender, essential qualities in a play about extra-marital affairs and ruined relationships, where a lot is implied, but little is overtly said.
The restraint in Pinter’s writing is what makes ‘Betrayal’ so compelling. Just as with works by George Orwell or Graham Greene, Pinter makes economy of dialogue seem effortless, even when we know deep down that it’s the product of immense skill, honed over a long time.
Pinter’s pauses and silences are also deliberate, and loud. A good example is in the opening scene, when Jerry and Emma are looking back on their now-defunct affair, which unspools in reverse throughout the rest of the play. Mostly they make small talk, but in a rare moment of exposed vulnerability, Jerry and Emma look at each other for a long time in silence, before Jerry calls Emma, with longing, “Darling.”
To the audience the silence is drawn out like a blade, making Jerry’s woeful utterance of that one word tell us all we need to know about how he views the past, as well as his current emotional state.
As Cox put it in a full-cast interview with Radio 4 in 2019, “with a pause, it’s either because you were going to say something and decide not to, or you thought the other person was going to say something and they didn’t - the idea being that you take a break in the continued through-line of that moment, so you pause. With a silence, during or after a silence one or both of the characters are changed, and then you have to pick up a new moment at the end of it. There’s something very dead and alive to a silence that a pause doesn’t quite have.”
As Hiddleston put it, “the silences allow the subtext to live.....your mind re-writes history with that new piece of information that you have, and you realise you’re a fool.”
We learn something in the silences. They’re not coincidental - they’re an essential part of the script.
‘Fleabag,’ a dark comedy about the tortured antics of a woman in her thirties, does something very similar, in that more about the characters is given away in the spaces between words, rather than the words themselves. The character of Fleabag herself, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, even highlights this by how often she states that traumatic incidents in her family are dealt with by her kith and kin in a specific way - “we don’t talk about it.”
There’s even an entire episode towards the end of the first season where Fleabag and her sister Claire spend time in a silent retreat house, a trip that initially prompts scepticism in both of them, but eventually lets them both learn by listening and watching rather than talking.
Fleabag even manages to reconcile with the man who rejected her application for a business loan (Hugh Dennis) when she watches him take part in a course designed to help him overcome his warped view of women in the wake of a sexual harassment complaint. Her silence means he can open up, and she can see that his behaviour during their initial encounter - he asks her to leave his office after she accidentally exposes herself - has a root to it. She can see that he has as many insecurities and regrets as her. As he puts it, “I’m just a very....disappointing man.” Their rapport vastly improves after this encounter.
In the show’s second season, the infamous ‘hot priest’ (Andrew Scott) is one of the few people who notices how much Fleabag hates answering questions, as well as how often she speaks to the camera - a camera that we know is there, but the other characters don’t. The presence of the audience is implied through her quiet nods to the camera, and we, as viewers, are invited to lean into the silences in a way that makes those around her feel excluded. We immediately feel an intimacy with her that makes us more invested in her world, sometimes without even realising it.
That’s not to suggest that silence isn’t a risky tactic in a script. Many writers fall into the trap of relying too much on actions to fill in the gaps between characters’ conversations, even though it’s a danger to make actions too flowery or descriptive, or leading - after all, theatres have a limited amount of money to spend on sets, especially after the pandemic. The dialogue has to do the heavy-lifting, so silence has to be used within the characters’ interactions, not outside of them.
The 2019 version of ‘Betrayal,’ which was directed by Jamie Lloyd, was a great case-study in what you can achieve with a stripped-back set, containing only a few chairs, a table and three actors. Phoebe Waller-Bridge achieved something similar with the stage version of ‘Fleabag,’ which spawned the TV series. It was one woman on a chair, interacting with the audience.
The message I took home from going back over both sets of scripts, and remembering the productions they spawned, was clear - less is more, and silence can be golden, but it’s still important to let the dialogue do the work. Therefore let your silences speak.
It may sound a stupid thing to say – cinema and television are visual mediums. They have viewers, spectators, watchers. Theatre is a listening medium. It has an audience and auditoriums - places for hearing. Simply put - show us things on screens and tell us stuff in the theatre.
This is, of course, a massive simplification. Some of the best bits in screen history are spoken – few people remember the car that Brando sits in when he says he could have been a contender, but we remember him saying it – and some of the great moments in the theatre are purely visual – anyone who saw the stairs scene in One Man Two Guvnors I’m sure would agree.
However, it is worth bearing in mind that on the screen we can say less than we need to on stage, and some of the best moments can be done with no words at all or at least very few of them.
Two examples of this can be found in dramas of the last year – The Salisbury Poisonings and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
The Salisbury Poisonings is a great piece of television to watch for any writer wanting to create sensitive, historical based fiction or even just well written drama. All moments are simply drawn and sensitively handled.
The scene that I want to look at is from episode three when Claire Sturgess is sitting beside her sister Dawn Sturgess, who is lying in a hospital bed. Claire clasps her hand and says:
“Dawnie? Dawnie? You are a good person. You are a good person. You always were.”
She strokes her hair and breaks down. That is the whole scene. In its entirety it takes a minute. What makes this scene good, besides the excellent performance from Melanie Gutteridge, is its simplicity. Up to this point we have seen that Dawn has not been the best of daughters or mothers, struggling to reclaim her life and a position of responsibility for it. The relationship with her family is a complex one. We could easily have had a very moving, but very long, bedside speech from her sister on that relationship, the ups and downs, the emotional depths. But we don’t need it. All we need is a woman’s kind words to her dying sister. It is all in those fifteen words. The history, the pain, the struggle of Dawn to be good amongst all her difficulties, the love her sister has for her.
And it is the simplicity of what is spoken that makes it moving. There is no flowery language, which can get in the way on screen, just a simple statement repeated. You don’t need to give your character that massive monologue. You can just give her a few words. They can be all you need.
Sometimes, you don’t even need words. The opening minute of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has no speech at all. It begins with the quiet woods of southern America at night, then two black men in old fashioned clothes are running, hard. Suddenly, the sounds of dogs barking come over the panting breath of the running men.
We’re about 40-50 seconds in and we think we know where we are – two slaves are escaping and the slavers are after them with the plantation dogs. Suddenly, the sound of music kicks in as the two men approach some torches. One turns to smile at the other as they reach a queue of people waiting to enter a tent. They weren’t running away but rather towards a blues performance.
In this one moment we have some of the major ideas of the film given to us – the history of black suffering in America and the escape from it that the blues provides. But we are also shown that the blues and the suffering are intertwined; the idea of both – the fleeing and the need to get to the concert – are present in the same moment. Nothing is said but through what we are shown we are given a sudden and clear illustration of the ideas of the film. Every event after this scene is affected by the audience’s having seeing two ‘slaves’ running for their lives. Every event for the characters is, of course, affected by that history too. Every struggle, every confrontation in the film has the history and mistreatment of black people in America hanging over it and we have it captured in the opening gesture of the film. Again, this is a scene about a minute long.
If we contrast this with some of the speeches later in the film. These are fantastically delivered by Chadwick Boseman as Levee but they are clearly from a play (Ma Rainey being and adaptation of August Wilson’s play). No one talks that much in film. It is hard to make things visually interesting when one person is talking, no matter how good the performance is, and speeches can often hold up the action. In the theatre they generally are the action, as we can only ‘see’ what the characters tell us. In film we can see anything. In the cinema we are there to be spectators not an audience; we are there primarily to watch, not to listen.
Moments of great emotion are conveyed in the theatre through an outpouring of words. Often on film they are conveyed through a few or even none.
Sometimes you can say it best when you say nothing at all.
The premise of 'Santa Clarita Diet' begs some questions. Why do we need another show about a middle class family in California living in a huge house? Indeed, why do we need another TV show or film about zombies?
The series ended two years ago after being adopted (and then brutally orphaned) by Netflix, but I only came across it this past Christmas while on a Timothy Olyphant binge.
The description certainly raised eyebrows: the couple at the centre, real estate agents Joel and Sheila Hammond, see their humdrum existence thrown off-balance when Sheila (Drew Barrymore) becomes one of the undead and has to eat human flesh to survive.
There are many ways this could have gone wrong.
Yet somehow, this series beats the odds and is hilariously original without reinventing the wheel, demonstrating how much you can achieve by re-configuring worn-out tropes.
In particular, the script is a great example of how to have a screwball comedy without needing to dumb things down. The writing is sharp and often very droll: references to rotting Nazi meat and the logistics of keeping a mutant zombie organ as a pet coincide with whether or not bird feeders are a good barometer of someone’s character and how to retract a bad restaurant review on Yelp. Although there is still the occasional gross-out moment (flatulent corpses anyone?), it has far more in common with 'Arrested Development' than with 'The Big Bang Theory.'
What also sets it apart is that unlike other shows that make fun of suburban America, such as 'Modern Family,' 'Santa Clarita Diet' has positive messages at its core without being mawkish. The big heart never quite undercuts the gore-spattered irreverence.
On example is that instead of using marital discord as a cheap plot device, Joel (played by Olyphant) and Sheila are shown to adore and respect each other. They are equals in every sense and in many ways, the challenges they face from Sheila’s new condition make their relationship flourish.
Despite having been a jock for most of his life, what Joel loves about Sheila isn’t threatened when she radically changes from someone uptight and reserved to one who is outgoing and impulsive. He loves her for who she is, allowing her to change and develop rather than clinging to his own limited, unchanging vision of her rooted in their time in high school.
The show also gleefully undermines our expectations of the other characters. At various points we are introduced to a gangster who is fussy about his couch and owns a rescue snake (christened 'Baby'), a middle-aged mother who oozes self-confidence and has a rampant libido, a devout Christian police officer whose lesbianism never clashes with her evangelical fervour, and a tattooed motorcycle mechanic who likes listening to schmaltzy children’s songs.
In fact, the zombie virus helps most of the characters affected by it move closer to their true selves, or the version of themselves they always wanted to be, unburdened by other people’s expectations.
This is summed up in one of the show’s recurring catchphrases - “people can be more than one thing.” The suggestion is that turning into a zombie can make you a better person - or if not, turn you into someone more interesting. After all, as Joel regularly points out, “we kill people.”
Another crucial factor is that the feminism on display is coy, played in a way that rarely gets didactic or makes the audience feels lectured to. Eric, the boy next door who tries to help the family find a cure for the zombie virus, is a nerd who is shy and self-effacing with women without being a bitter misogynist. His mother Lisa juggles her work as a pharmaceutical rep with being a borderline nymphomaniac, all while raising a son whom she teaches to have healthy and respectful sexual relations with women.
Importantly, Lisa’s sexual confidence comes from herself rather than from others - she regularly comments on how attractive she is, rather than absorbing those comments from anyone else.
Furthermore, Joel and Sheila’s daughter Abby is independent and sassy without playing up to the vapid ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope, and is never portrayed as manipulative. Although Eric assists the Hammonds whenever he can, Abby endlessly wrangles over how she should manage her friendship with him, keen not to lead him on and to protect him from the excesses of her new zombie-afflicted life while greatly valuing his friendship and support.
She even says to Eric, who becomes her ever-loyal sidekick, that his job is not to keep her happy - his (mostly doomed) romantic interest in her is not something she has any interest in exploiting.
It shouldn’t be surprising that 'Santa Clarita Diet' was written by a man - yet I still often read scripts where the much-maligned ‘male gaze’ is active. Hackneyed tropes when it comes to writing women still creep into the work of a lot of aspiring screenwriters. 'Santa Clarita Diet' shows how high the bar has become, which makes it all the more tragic that it was cancelled after its third season, for a murky and (as ever) unexplained reason by Netflix.
Until another company picks up season 4, use your lockdown time wisely. Enjoy this masterclass in thoughtful and life-affirming comedy writing
There’s been a quiet but welcome trend in television in recent years, which is that the bar has got higher for writing about religion. I feel like I’m seeing fewer and fewer religious individuals or institutions being depicted as little more than evil or sanctimonious caricatures, with even the Catholic Church, which it would be safe to say has undergone some high-profile PR disasters in the last few decades, getting more well-rounded treatment.
Some great examples include Season 2 of ‘Fleabag’ (think Andrew Scott’s ‘hot priest’) and 2017’s excellent mini-series ‘Broken,’ which stars Sean Bean as a troubled but honourable cleric in a deprived parish in the north of England.
Then there’s ‘Daredevil,’ which boldly made Catholicism a major theme throughout the whole show, in a way that somehow managed not to put off non-believing members of its sizeable fan base.
Yet despite Marvel having waded into the river Jordan, religion in the Star Wars universe has received less attention - possibly because in the original trilogy, the spirituality in the films adhered to something like a nebulous eastern mysticism, the origins of which are hard to pin down. If there are any real-world comparisons, then Jedi Knights seem a cross between Buddhist monks and the Samurai, while the Force could be anything from chakras, to the i-ching, to the Dao.
The religious and spiritual themes conveyed in the Disney Plus series ‘The Mandalorian’ are easier to discern than in the films, but still subtle, which is a large part of why they work. Remember that the first-among-equals rule in any kind of creative writing is ‘show, don’t tell.’
On the surface, ‘The Mandalorian’ is a space western, thoroughly rooted in the Star Wars universe in the years after the events of Return of the Jedi, but having more in common with shows like Joss Whedon’s cult early 2000s series ‘Firefly.’
The titular Mandalorian, real name Din Djarin, is a bounty hunter with a badge, a mercenary who is a member of a fanatical warrior caste originating from the planet Mandalore. The Mandalorians are a creed rather than a race, exiled from their home, and, in some cases, are literally wondering the desert. The Old Testament allusions are obvious.
More overt, however, are New Testament themes of rebirth, redemption and personal sacrifice, although they are still done with a light touch. Mando’s discovery of the Child in the first episode (whom we later discover to be called Grogu) causes him to literally and emotionally reach out, his silhouette a clear echo of Michelangelo’s iconic depictions of God and Adam touching fingers on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
This is a key moment on multiple levels. After rescuing the Child from the yet-to-be-specified evils that the Empire has planned for him, Mando changes. His life becomes one defined by fatherhood and self-surrender, with his every action led by the needs of the Child, rather than by pure economic gain.
In turn, the Child inspires religious levels of devotion in almost everyone he encounters, both on and off screen (try typing ‘Baby Yoda’ into Twitter and seeing what happens. The fact that Yoda is long dead by this point continues to be stubbornly ignored by the show’s fans).
Even a vicious droid who is initially loathed by Mando for trying to kill the Child is re-wired into becoming Grogu’s nurse rather than his assassin, eventually walking through lava at the end of Season 1 to bring his precious cargo to safety. It demonstrates one of the most uplifting messages in the series - that any of us can change for the best if we prioritise the needs of others.
Yet Season 2 shows us the darker side of creeds, castes and cults, although again, the writers don’t over-do it. In an intriguing twist, it turns out that the Mandalorian’s rigid adherence to never uncovering his face, a much-debated tenet of parts of Islam, does not mean he will be shunned by all other Mandalorians, as is implied in Season 1.
Instead, we are shown that he lives by an especially austere brand of the creed, one which, in a clever reversal of real-world events, the female members he encounters do not follow. He is engaged with by his peers but branded a zealot, which forces the audience to question why the desire to keep his face covered is so dear to him - and how he would adapt if he no longer could. His new-found identity as an adoptive father to the Child therefore becomes an even more crucial aspect of his character arc.
The final episode of Season 2 is traumatic for a number of reasons, not least because the Child is finally taken away for Jedi training by Luke Skywalker (courtesy of a digitally re-generated, Return of the Jedi-era Mark Hamill), in a manner so clinical and detached it makes you re-think your childhood longing to wield a lightsaber.
The fact that Skywalker manages to keep a dry eye when everyone in his universe, and beyond, is bawling their eyes out over the Child and the Mandalorian being wrenched apart perhaps attests to how the monastic sense of distance from all worldly attachments is an essential, and for must of us, unobtainable, part of being a Jedi. Indeed, it seems a requirement for any kind of life devoted to other-worldly transcendence, whether through reaching Nirvana or mastering the Force.
It makes for a moving contrast that Mando finally chooses of his own volition to remove his mask as he says farewell to the Child - a sign, in a small way, that love has triumphed over lore.
For the first time since the age of ten, I was glad that no-one had taken me away to the Jedi temple before I reached my teenage years.
Ultimately, much like the hit Netflix series ‘The Good Place,’ the writers of ‘The Mandalorian’ perhaps succeed in this area because instead of anchoring the story in a specific tradition (such as the clear allegories in the worlds of C.S. Lewis or Tolkien), they focus on themes that all religions and philosophical traditions seem to wrestle with - the implications of edicts, traditions and schisms on the one hand, and the importance of courage, the meaning of family, and adherence to a higher purpose on the other.
Watch, and learn.
Hi all! For those who enjoyed Owen's fascinating take of Enola Holmes, here's a very interesting counter-argument from the London Review of Books: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n20/michael-wood/at-the-movies
It's behind a pay wall, but they normally allow you a few articles for free :)
Show me your message don’t tell me your message – or ‘Enola Holmes & The Mystery of the Mis-Written Movie Script’
*** SPOILER WARNING – Contains plot details for Enola Holmes and, oddly, Matilda ***
Show don’t tell. This is said so often that it seems obvious. However, it is essential to keep it in mind, especially when it comes to the screen, and with good reason. The audience are much more likely to believe something they see than what they are told.
This idea is obviously important when it comes to building your main characters – don’t spend the whole film telling me your main character is a genius, show me they’re a genius by having them do something clever. However, it is just as important in your world building and secondary characters. If these aren’t properly crafted it doesn’t matter how well you write your main character, what they do and what they represent will feel thin if they are unsupported by a world that doesn’t back that up. And to do that convincingly you have to show us in the action. If you spend the film telling your audience one thing but showing them something else, they may pay attention to the former but, emotionally, they will take on the latter. What you show us is what we will take home.
A good example of this disconnect is the recent Netflix film Enola Holmes. Based on the novels by Nancy Springer this film has lots of potential to properly entertain and also tackle some interesting themes. One of the main themes, if not the main one, is the struggle women face in a prejudicial and repressive society. However, despite how much the film tells us how hard women find it to exist in their world what we are shown is very different. This results in the film feeling unsatisfying In the end the message of the film feels undermined as the struggle we see our heroine goes through isn’t actually that hard despite how much we’re told she’s fighting against.
For this film it is particularly useful to look at the secondary characters and world building. Our two leads, Enola and her mother Eudoria, are defiant fighters against the norm. Their behaviour and attitudes are there to show us how the fight is carried out. The world around them shows us what they are fighting against.
So, let us begin with a major part of the world building - the issue of women’s clothes. We have two whole scenes during the first act of the film where women’s fashions of the 19th Century are mocked – the first scene with Miss Harrison and the clothes shop. These take up around 4 minutes of run time, about 4.5% of the film.
In these scenes women’s clothes are said to be restrictive. A symbol of “repression”, to wear them is to be “imprisoned”. We have it nicely set up: the difficulty of female clothing. This is a good idea. It is a clear way of showing the outside world impinging on the liberty of our heroine – she is forced into an outfit that literally restricts her movement and stops her being who she wants to be.
We then have her conduct an entire fight scene in the same outfit. She battles Linthorn for three minutes of screen time in this ‘restrictive’ and ‘imprisoning’ outfit. At no point does the outfit stop her from fighting. The main obstacle in this scene is Linthorn’s superior strength, as he is an adult man. At no point do we have, for example, the dress getting in the way, the corset stopping Enola from breathing properly, or her silly boot ribbons, that are highlighted earlier, tripping her up. In fact, the outfit is shown as an advantage as it protects her from getting stabbed.
We have this problem repeated at the end of the film. She fights Linthorn again, and bests him, wearing the clothes of the repressive finishing school. Now, in principle, there is no problem with seeing a girl in a dress take down a man. But there is if you have given nearly 5% of your film to how traditional girls’ clothes are imprisoning and a symbol of society’s repression of women.
An alternative would have been to have Enola limited by the dress in her first fight - the standards for women are stopping her being her true self. She then tears the bottom of the dress off, or loses the shoes, or something, and she manages to fight well enough to fight him off. In the rematch at the end of the film she wears the clothes she chooses; she has taken on another disguise or she has majorly altered the ridiculous school outfit to free her up (i.e. more than just taking the collar off). We then have our female protagonist choosing her outfit, her terms, to stand up in and she then shows how badass she is by taking down a supposedly physically superior foe.
Instead what we have is a long talk about the difficulty and then several presentations that make it look easy. This creates a massive disconnect and makes the ‘difficulty’ point redundant.
This inconsistency of what we’re told and what we’re shown is also seen in the presentation of the two other major women in the film – Edith, the tea lady and fight instructor, and Lady Trelawney, mother of Viscount Trelawney.
First, Edith. She has a very powerful speech about power and politics in her scene with Sherlock. She tells us very clearly how hard it is to be a woman and how easy it is to be uninterested in power if you are a man, and a man with wealth and status like Sherlock. In her own way, she herself is shown to be a powerful character. She runs her own business, she is a teacher, a fighter, and a revolutionary. This is excellent, in some respects. We are shown a strong, intelligent female character, which are often hard to be found in period films.
However, this completely undermines what we are being told about the world we are in. Nowhere in the way her situation is presented in the film are we shown that she is fighting against an oppressive system.
She is first introduced not as a charlady but as a teacher and a fighter – a person of authority and physical power. This could come as a surprise, a reveal of her true self underneath the disguise of the lady who runs the tea shop, but instead it is presented as a given that this is how things are.
Cinematically, she is also in control. In the conversation scene with Enola she is the main driver. She starts and ends it. She gives and withholds information – about Enola’s past, about Eudoria’s whereabouts – and she gives advice. In storytelling terms, the female character is dictating how the cinematic world works - when we start, when we finish, what we know.
This is, of course, a scene between two female characters – one of them has to be in control of it. Let’s look then at the scene she has with a male figure: her conversation with Sherlock.
In this scene she is in control again. She dominates it. She has the most lines, patronises Sherlock, insults his brother, and again dictates when the scene ends by leaving the room. She is in control of that space and the conversation. This is a world where the men are meant to be running things and yet the woman is running the world we are watching.
She is also talking back to a male character with impunity. There is no risk in her speech, no stakes in her telling truth to power. This is meant to be dangerous stuff she is talking about but here she puts a man is his place and then leaves. It is easy. According to the world we’re told we’re in, it shouldn’t be. We are shown that she operates as she wishes in all her scenes. That is her story. She tells us it’s hard but we never see her struggling against something hard.
Along with Edith herself, the context we find her in contradicts what we’re told. Her teashop is seemingly meant to be a clandestine space, a secret refuse for progressive women in society, stocking illicit and illegal books. Indeed, Sherlock threatens Edith with the power of the government to shut her shop down it is so against the norm.
However, nothing about the way the shop is shown makes it the place it is suggested it should be. The banned books are on clear display – Edith even invites Sherlock to take one – and the secretive fight club upstairs is so obvious that it shakes the ceiling. Now the ‘jujitsu not jam making’ education of Enola is set up as near immoral by the film world’s standards. However, women are so obviously engaged in this bad education they are causing a ruckus in a publicly accessible teashop, an activity jovially dismissed as just ‘noisy bloody women’. These are meant to be seditious fighters against the status quo not the two flatmates upstairs having a row.
Once we enter the school this openness is reenforced, most clearly in that Enola walks right into the room. There is no password, no secret door. The school is also next to a room where the secret organisation is keeping some of its dynamite. The dynamite for the extremely secret plan that has layers of word games to protect it. This should be an extremely secret and clandestine space and should therefore be doubly hard to get into. It isn’t.
Because we see all this activity not making an effort to keep itself secret it implies that there are no stakes in it being discovered. This then tells us there is no danger about fighting against the world and therefore the world is not frightening. This means any victory against it isn’t that great.
Next, let’s look at Lady Trelawney. Unlike Edith she has some power, being an aristocrat, but is still a woman. However, in her main scene at Basilwether, she is, like Edith, in control. She is the first to talk to Enola and she is also the character with the most lines in the scene. She controls the words that we hear and is on camera the second most after Enola. Two women are holding our attention for most of this scene.
Lestrade enters mid-way through and tries to impose male control over the conversation. However, Lady Trelawney blocks this and tells him and Enola to leave – “this circus is not appropriate for Basilwether...I don’t care if you’re from the houses of parliament you will leave this instant.” We yet again have a woman running the scene, literally instructing men where to go and making fun of them. As far as it seems for Lady Trelawney, it is not hard to be woman in these scenes.
Why should we believe Edith when she says that her gender has no power when we see these two women running the scenes that they’re in? When they are running the part of the world that we see, we extrapolate that this is the norm in the part that we don’t see, no matter how much we’re told it’s not true.
All this isn’t to say that there is no representation of repression presented in the film. There are forces to fight against. The figures of Mycroft and Miss Harrison and her finishing school loom large throughout the plot of the film.
Mycroft is the chief antagonist in the film and we do see him wielding his societal power. He tells Enola what to do, he makes her cry in the scene in the carriage, and gets her to the school eventually through his use of his wealth and influence – seen in the reward for her return and the barbershop scene with Lestrade, the chief of police, and the financial reward mentioned. He is powerful, wealthy and unpleasant.
But how much of an actual threat is he? Mycroft is presented as a cartoon monster. He’s not a real person. He shouts, he scoffs, he preens about. In his second scene in the film he picks up J.S. Mill and sneers – ‘feminism’. In case we missed this, he mutters later about reform and uneducated voters. We have our very obvious bad guy here. All he does is complain and this renders him weak as he doesn’t do anything to fix his complaints. On top of this he is avoided for most of the film and when we do have a demonstration of his power, in the sending of Enola off to school, it is making a small girl cry by shouting at her. The act of a bully. At no point do we have him ordering other people about and being deferred to as a respected member of society (other than by faceless servants). In his secret meeting with Lestrade in the barber’s he is caught out that Enola is his sister and loses his temper. Not a man in control.
Mycroft is really presented not as the norm but the extremist buffoon. We can see this if we compare his attitudes to the way other men and society treat women in the film. When Enola comes in disguise to Basilwether she is turned away not because she is a woman but because she could be a journalist. It is not her gender that is denying her access but the fear of gossip.
In this scene she also meets Lestrade for the first time. Immediately he treats Enola as an equal, vying against her for the title of chief Sherlock nerd. He speaks of her with respect and near awe in the barbershop as a lady with ‘extreme poise’. At the end of the film he does passively suggest Enola’s inferiority in teasing Sherlock with her victory but he has accepted the findings from Enola, not the titled lordling that she was with. She is given credit for the case by him.
In Sherlock’s own attitude to his sister he basically apologises to Enola at all times for her treatment, offers her advice ‘detective to detective’ and his pleased “ha” at the end, after being bested by her, shows he has come to respect her. His interactions with Edith, though not completely equal, are not awful. He does use the misplaced word “mischief” and he is patronising in tone. However, he listens to her, takes her insult – “try not to sound like your brother” – as an insult, suggesting that her opinion matters to him, and takes her chastising of him. He has a female character put him in his place and accepts it.
Also, the use of Mycroft as an insult to Sherlock shows that he’s someone Sherlock doesn’t want to be. Surely, he is someone he should want to be, if he’s the representative of respectful society.
Now this wouldn’t matter much if Sherlock was the bohemian outsider of the books or shown to be the outsider that people tell us he is – see Mycroft’s displeasure at his brother’s effect on the family name. However, he is tall, good looking, well dressed and a clear celebrity – look how the Tewkesburys react in wonder when Enola lies about being his secretary and the way that he is introduced at the beginning of the film. He walks easily into Scotland Yard and talks directly to the chief inspector. This is the respected man in the universe and he’s not a repressor of women. At worst he starts off disinterested but, in the end, comes to respect his sister. That is the man people look up to and thereby that is the societal standards we’re shown – one that easily comes to respect women. Not Mycroft. Mycroft is the deviation from the norm, rather than the norm that Sherlock and Enola are trying to break away from. The only clear misogynist and patriarch we have in the film is an outsider and a cartoon.
The other threat we have is Miss Harrison and her finishing school. She is unpleasant and physically abusive. She is set up as someone you do not want to spend time with. But this is mainly because she is set up as a fool. She is in love with Mycroft, on a ridiculous level. She fusses and flaps about appearance and diet. She has no force about her - even after the slap Enola has no problems talking back to her, rendering the threat of physical violence empty as it has no consequences. We never see Miss Harrison held up as a respected figure by anyone other than Mycroft – who we have already seen is not a character actually representing the mainstream.
Added to the thinly drawn Miss Harrison, her terrible school is actually not so terrible. It is set up as an awful place that Enola begs to avoid and has to be rescued from but at no point is she broken by it or close to being broken. Instead it’s silly. Yes, the activities that were expected of women in the 19th Century were ridiculous, but the film keeps them as solely ridiculous. They are just annoying tasks that Enola has to just deal with not ordeals to go through. At this point in the film we are at the end of Act Two – the moment when our protagonist is at their lowest ebb. Enola’s lowest is she is threatened with being locked in a room in one scene, is allowed a long conversation with her brother which boosts her spirits in the next, and then is rescued in the next one after that. That ebb seems pretty high.
The rescue is also very easy. Miss Harrison is bested by a simple basket trick that takes no time to execute. Tewkesbury barely talks to her and Enola slips out the window. This place has been the great threat of the film. Where is the excitement of getting out of this awful situation? Where do we get to see Enola’s genius? Nowhere. The enemy is defeated by having a ten second conversation and climbing out a window. The caricature left in the basket seems an apt way to sum up the whole event. Big head but no real substance supporting it.
The big problem with these two villains is that they are not frightening. There is no triumph in defeating them. They hold no respect in their worlds and nor do they ever, really provide much obstacle to the heroes. Mycroft is never truly scary other than when he’s a bully. Apart from the scene in the carriage, Enola isn’t frightened of him. Out of his presence she mocks him through caricature drawings and comical impressions in the dress shop. In his presence she begs him to not be sent to school and then, when he refuses, she ignores him and asks Sherlock. Miss Harrison is ridiculous and easily escaped from.
Put simply, there are no stakes whenever they are on screen or when Enola is facing off against them. It is always easy. If it is easy to defeat the forces of the patriarchy, then the threat of the patriarchy can’t be too serious. It can’t be too difficult to be female in this world if the forces holding you down are presented as this flimsy.
Take, as a contrast, another villain from a story about a clever girl – Miss Trunchbull from Matilda. She is a true monster. She is terrifying, for everyone. She is a repressive force throughout the book, controlling Miss Honey, emotionally and financially, and treats the children horrendously. She is a genuine menace. The final scene in the book with the chalkboard and reducing her to a terrified mess is a massive triumph against the odds. There are no obstacles anywhere near matching Miss Trunchbull in Enola Holmes. All the odds are shown to be in the heroes’ favour. All the obstacles are, generally, overcome fairly easily and the generators of those obstacles are so ridiculous that the stakes involved in battling them never get very high.
How you build your world around your central characters really affects how we emotionally react to their story. The potential for Enola Holmes to show us how difficult it is for women in its world are there. We’re told about them several times. But we never see them. Make the villains frightening; make the stakes higher for women to speak against them; show the strong-willed secondary female characters as being ‘put in their proper place’; show how the rules of the world, represented by the clothing they cocoon women in, actually restrict them; show the fight. Without this it doesn’t matter how much we are told how difficult it is the evidence of our eyes tells us this is not the case. This mismatch undermines the message of the film, undermines the triumphs of the protagonist and, in the end, makes it less enjoyable than it could be. Basically, show don’t tell.