The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Hour You Can’t Afford to Miss: An Acting Masterclass

I recently discovered The Hour, the 1950's-set backstage drama focusing around a pioneering female producer creating and then developing a "60 minutes" stele news program. (Anyone who thinks the notion of the BBC giving a show to a woman in the late 50's is inherently unrealistic should bear in mind that a mere 7 years after the setting of Series 1, Verity Lambert was the creating producer of the new series Doctor Who).

The Hour is well-written, with an appealing group of flawed characters played by--and this is the real draw--stunningly good actors. I mean, seriously, the cast is standout. Romola Garai is excellent as Bel Rowley, the fledgling producer, ably supported by Ben Wishaw as irritant-brilliant-young-journalist/love interest Freddie Lyon. The love triangle (quadrilateral, really) is completed by Dominic West as presenter Hector Madden, originally promoted through family connections, but who struggles to prove himself, and Oona Chaplin as his wife Marnie. Rounding out the core cast is the incomparable Anna Chancellor as veteran newswoman Lix Storm, who makes the quadrilateral into a pentagon with a naturally louche air.

Series 1 is good (if a tad incestuous), but the show catches fire in season 2.

I want to talk about one plot thread--really, one scene--in series 2, because it is, to me, a masterclass in fine acting, but I can't do so without revealing key plot twists. So be aware….

The scene in question involves Anna Chancellor's Lix Storm and a new character added for series 2, Randall Brown, portrayed by the inimitable Peter Capaldi. Brown, a sober alcoholic with what appears to be OCD, has accepted the position of Head of News at the BBC. He's firm but fair, diagnoses Hector's problem drinking with the knowledge of experience, and challenges but ultimately supports the team. And he spars with Lix, with whom he clearly has deep history--she "steals" and returns his books to which he reacts by simply thanking her, mocks his "fiddling" to his face, but defends him to a shocked Bel.

We later find that Randall took the post to reestablish contact with Lix, and trace the daughter who resulted from their affair in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. This plot thread doesn't spring out at us all at once. It's foreshadowed in series 1 where Lix describes her own past:
Lix: Ah, Bel. Is Freddie in? He just asked me to do something for him.
Bel: What?
Lix: Oh, nothing; it can wait.

Bel: But what did he ask you to do for him?
Lix: Oh, he wanted some information on Peter Darrell. It’s nothing, darling. His heart is still with you.
Bel: We’re just friends.
Lix: Of course. I had a friend once. Treated him like a dog. Adorable man; absolutely useless at seduction. Then he married someone else and I realized it wasn’t him that was absolutely useless. It was me.
(Of course, Randall, we find out, is unmarried.)

Randall weaves himself into the show before the daughter motif is raised, and by the time it comes, we are invested in him. So when, after a false positive, Randall hands a folder to Lix revealing their daughter's death in a 1940 air raid, Chancellor and Capaldi show just how good they are:

Now break down the scene into its component parts, one with dialogue, and two without.

The dialogue (Identification of speakers, and characterization of tone by me):
Randall: Would you forgive me if I asked you to go?

Lix: [clearly gutted, voice roughened and a bit ragged] I-I can't move.

Randall: [pause, softly] Please.

Randall: [fiddling, with papers on desk, still softly, but clearly anxious; almost begging her] Please, I need you to.

Lix: [looks up, firmly] No.

Lix: [resuming her normal posture, more firmly--almost angrily] No, Randall, I won't go. [Pause]
I won't. [Almost dismissively] You just just do what you need to do.
Now, as I read this part of the sequence, Lix is both pulling herself together, but feeling that Randall is pushing her away, and trivializing their loss into just another crisis to be tidied away. She's feeling him try to reassemble his walls after he tore down hers, which she is trying hastily to reassemble.

The first portion without dialogue is even more impressive. It's a tableaux--Randall's breakdown as Lix watches. It's easy to focus only on Capaldi's bravura performance of a man living Yeats's line "the center cannot hold." The moment when he's no longer tidying, or adjusting, but flinging, destroying, happens so gradually that it's easy to miss. And then when he drops to the chair (so fast the camera loses him) with a single sob--Capaldi completely incarnates Randall's despair.

[The score, by the way, is very good here--unobtrusive, but subtly getting louder and a tad more dissonant as Randall spirals out of control.]

But you lose fully half the value of the scene if you only focus on Capaldi. Because Chancellor is every bit as good, and as pivotal, here. Lix watches, at first judgmentally, coolly appraising her onetime lover's weakness, which she doesn't understand. As Randall's control begins to shred, and the anger and despair take over, her face grows heavier, empathy dawns in her eyes. She sees this isn't mere anxiety-soothing eccentricity, but something far more. As Randall begins to create mess and then to throw things, her newly reassembled walls break down, and a tear for him trails down her face. She grows alarmed (for Randall--she's not afraid of him, but for him). The full measure of the tragedy for Randall as well as for herself is heavy in the room. When he collapses, she squeezes the tears from her eyes.

The third movement is much, much shorter, but still brilliantly performed. Lix hurries to Randall, and throws her arms around him--

--only for him to flail away, startled, frightened, terrified, by the intimacy. He has one layer of skin too few, and cannot bear to be touched. Lix pulls back, but doesn't completely break contact, hurt but now understanding. Gently, she pushes his head back down to the blotter, and puts her arms around him, much more tentatively, but, when he doesn't flail away from her, more firmly, resting her cheek against his head. This time, he accepts her embrace, and returns it, placing his hand over hers.

It's an extraordinary sequence, brilliantly performed. The characters' respective psyches are illuminated as by a bolt of lightning, and, heart-rending though it is, the last moment is somehow--hopeful.

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