Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Male Gaze: The Fall

Gillian Anderson as SDI Gibson in The Fall

When Gillian Anderson was on The X-Files in 1990s, she was often overshadowed in the media, if not on the show itselfby her co-star, David Duchovny. It was Duchovny who was constantly being singled out in the press for being unusually intelligentyou know, for an actorand who stepped away from the series to pursue a movie career. (It was also Duchovny who seemed to go out of his way to select movie roles that seemed to call attention to his lack of range and who, in recent years, has raised the question of just how intelligent someone who can stay interested in his Showtime series Californication can possibly be.) After starring in Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth in 2000, Anderson seemed to step away from the spotlight; she worked on the stage in Britain, took sizable roles in a few small films and small roles in a few higher-profile films (The Last King of Scotland, Tristram Shandy), and played Lady Dedlock in the superb 2005 BBC production of Bleak House. She’s been more active, or at least easier for Americans to catch sight of, in the last year or so than at any time since The X-Files went off the air in 2002. Last year, she gave brief but strong, compellingly weird performances in TV versions of Great Expectations (as a spectral, wounded-bird Miss Haversham) and Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (as a madam with aspirations to haughtiness), and in the last few months she’s had a recurring role on NBC’s Hannibal and played the leada police detective investigating a serial murder casein the five-hour Irish TV series The Fall.

Anderson didn’t exactly become Greta Garbo after The X-Files ended, but by laying low and biding her time, whether it was part of a deliberate plan or just how her life worked out, she’s put some distance between herself and her best-known role, so that it’s easy to see her as something other than Dana Scully. The baby fat that was still in her cheeks when she first played Scully is long gone, and so are the traces of caution and shyness that she sometimes let show, especially when Scully was trying to act more sure of herself than she really felt. She’s a strikingly beautiful woman with the sculptural appearance of a classic work of art and a presence that can clear a path through a crowded room. At one point in The Fall, her boss (John Lynch), who once had an affair with her, says in painful exasperation, “Do you have any idea the effect you have on men!? I’d have left my wife, my kids, anything for you.” That could make for an embarrassing moment if it were said to someone about whom it might not seem plausible. Anderson just looks at him and says drily, “That would have been a mistake.” The subtext is that she knows perfectly well the effect she has on men, but what is she supposed to do about itapologize? Wear a gorilla suit? Her character, SDI Gibson, is a little icy, in an intelligent, mesmerizing way. It makes her a good fit for the show.

Jamie Dornan as Paul Spector in The Fall
Created and written by Allan Cubitt and directed by Jakob Verbruggen, The Fall is far superior to the recent Jane Campion miniseries Top of the Lake, which had some of the same concerns. (At least, I think it did. Campion is such an incoherent, muddled storyteller that it’s never easy to be sure just what it is she’s trying to get at.) It’s not a murder mystery. In the first episode, we meet Gibson, who has been called in to review the stymied investigation into a couple of murders of young women in Belfast, and who winds up in charge of the investigation after the murderer claims another victim. We also meet the murderer: Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), a married grief counselor with a small daughter and a fixation on powerful-seeming professional women; he wants to bring them under his control. Gibson herself has control issues that she works out by arranging one-night stands with hunky co-workers, copulating with them with a maximum of efficiency and a minimum of small talk and emotional connection. In the climax of the first episode, the show cuts back and forth between Gibson and her casual date having sex in her hotel room and Spector trussing his latest victim to her bed. For one horrible minute, it might look as if the show is suggesting the cop and the killer have something in common, but the show turns out to be about the ways in which they’re different. Gibson, and other attractive women, do have an effect on men, and it’s a man’s job to deal with it. Her boss realizes that, loses his grip for moment, and after his tantrum, apologizes. Spector isn’t even trying to deal with it.

In its clinical approach and broad canvass, The Fall has some similarities to A Cry in the Dark, Fred Schepisi’s 1988 movie about the role of the media in railroading Lindy Chamberlain, the Australian woman who was tried and convicted of murdering her baby, basically because she came across as unsympathetic on television. Here, though, the sympathies are with the police: the killer, Gibson laments, “can move around, on his own, under cover of darkness, and we operate under the glare of media lights.” When Gibson holds her first press conference after taking charge of the investigation, there’s a moment when, taking questions in front of a roomful of reporters and TV cameras, she suddenly realizes that her shirt isn’t fully buttoned. Nothing comes of thisthere’s no shot of papers with the headlines “POLICE DETECTIVE VOWS TO CHASE DOWN KILLER WITH HER BREASTS HANGING OUT”but it heightens your awareness of all the extra bullshit that a woman in a powerful position has to juggle while trying to attend to the parts of her job that really matter.

Gibson doesn’t concern herself with being likable, and there are moments when it might occur to you that it’s a good thing she’s not in charge of the NSA. But she has a disconcerting habit of sometimes pointing out the ways in which some of the things that don’t seem to matter actually do. When she’s working with her boss and the department’s press officer to draft an official release, she objects to the description of the murder victims as “innocent” women. Her boss points out that they are indeed innocent. But what, she says, if the killer targets someone less “innocent,” like a prostitute, next? Does her profession make her somehow responsible for what’s happened? “The media,” she says, “loves to divide women into virgins and vamoose, angels and whores. Let’s not encourage them.”

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club

1 comment:

  1. G won the Emmys. So she never was overshadowed while in Xfiles.