Tuesday 12 December 2017

Television: Mayhem ends in Minnesota but handmaid's misery continues

Dark humour: Ewen McGregor as Ray Stussy in series three of Fargo
Dark humour: Ewen McGregor as Ray Stussy in series three of Fargo

John Boland

The third season of Fargo (Channel 4) came to an enigmatic end, an interrogation room stand-off leaving it uncertain whether good, in the form of dogged cop Gloria, or evil, as embodied by the loathsome Varga, would prevail.

Some viewers may have felt cheated of a proper resolution, but this, like its two predecessors, has been marvellous television, creator Noah Hawley spinning off from the Coen brothers' original movie and making something truly rich and strange.

As in that 1996 film, a woman cop has been at the soul of each season and Carrie Coon was splendid here as she sought to make sense of the bloody mayhem being enacted in the eerily beautiful Minnesota landscapes.

Yet though the violence was often startling, black humour was crucial, too, as bad people did stupid things and stupid people bad things. In fact, this TV Fargo has always had a tone of its own and terrific playing also, with David Thewlis a memorably awful villain in this series and Ewan McGregor excelling himself as the hapless brothers caught in a nightmare not entirely of their own making.

Roll on the next season.

Meanwhile, The Handmaid's Tale (Channel 4), grim from the outset, came to a chilly conclusion with Offred bundled into a security van, her fate unknown, just as it was in Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel.

So that's it then? You must be joking - there's money to be made from this franchise, and who cares if the second season that's now in production no longer has any connection to the Atwood original? (I look forward to a Pride and Prejudice follow-up in which Elizabeth divorces Darcy and runs off with his sister).

But at least in the meantime Elizabeth Moss gets the chance to look a little less woebegone in Jane Campion's new season of Top of the Lake (BBC2). Not a lot less, though. This performer has cornered the market in mournful misery, and she's far from a happy camper here as she tries to solve new murders.

Thank heavens then for Nicole Kidman, clearly having a ball as ditzy adoptive mother of Moss's daughter Mary, played by Alice Englert. In Excalibur: Behind the Movie (RTÉ1), famous actors kept telling us how thrilling it had been to get their big break on John Boorman's 1981 Arthurian fantasy.

"It began so many amazing careers," Helen Mirren marvelled, "it was just one of those very magical times for all of us", while Gabriel Byrne wonderingly recalled the inexperience of his younger self: "I had no idea how films were made". Cherie Lunghi also found it "pretty magical" and Liam Neeson agreed. "We were all terribly excited," he said.

A pity, then, that the magic didn't manifest itself in the finished movie. In Point Blank (1967) and Deliverance (1972), Boorman had already made a couple of masterpieces, but this Wicklow-shot swords-and-sorcery farrago was no masterpiece, as RTÉ1's rescreening of it on the same night served to remind us.

Still, Mark Wright's documentary could have come up with some intriguing anecdotes, but unfortunately the stellar interviewees were in full luvvie mode and so nothing of any real interest got said.

This was a chance missed because the idea of getting a movie's participants to offer insights into its making was a good one. The Classic Albums documentary series (BBC2 and Sky Arts) has always done just that for music, so why not a similarly absorbing take on films? Homosexuality was legalised in Britain 50 years ago and the BBC has been doing its bit in marking the anniversary. Indeed, sometimes in the past week it was hard to find programmes about anything else - from the nightly dramatic monologues in Queers (BBC4) to Is It Safe to be Gay in the UK? (BBC2).

An especially worthy contribution was Patrick Gale's drama Man in an Orange Shirt (BBC2), where the love that didn't dare speak its name was between World War II soldiers Thomas and Michael, the latter retreating into marriage during peacetime.

Their predicament was sensitively portrayed, as was the plight of Michael's wife when she discovered the truth. And next Monday night's conclusion to the drama depicts the contemporary fall-out from the men's unacknowledged love for each other a half-century earlier.

By contrast, Queer as Art (BBC2) was an exuberant account of the gay artistic scene in Britain from the 1960s onwards. This featured 23 painters, writers, actors and pop stars reminiscing about how their sexuality might have shaped their work and influenced a wider society, though lesbian painter Maggi Hambling was having none of that.

"I think the idea of grouping people together is really shit," she said at the outset. "I don't think people should be put into the 'women art' lot or the 'queer art' lot or the 'straight art' lot. Art is art, regardless."

But try telling that to fellow painter David Hockney, who fled repressive England for California in 1964. "I came for the space and the sex," he happily declared.

The film was crammed with telling ­soundbites - soap stalwart Julie Goodyear insisting that "only a gay man could have ­created something like Coronation Street", and Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood recalling that when he declared himself HIV positive, the music industry phone "didn't ring for many years". But he fondly looked back on his massively-popular first hit, 'Relax' (banned by the BBC), as "an orgasmic, ejaculatory moment".

The last word went to Hambling, who grumbled that "it's so bloody fashionable to be queer, frankly I'm thinking of going straight".

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