There is a phenomenon that perhaps everyone feels when they attempt to become literate in theatrical affairs of missing something. There are many writers, directors, and actors that are spoken of in hushed tones and labelled as “a genius”. Often this is done by actors who should be ignored as habitual exaggerators, but when you see on a DVD cover “XXX’s…”–as you can see is the case for Stephen Poliakoff‘s Gideon’s Daughter (2005)–this individual is more widely appreciated and if I find it to be weak in some way that this is a reflection upon my tastes and skills of observation. Poliakoff comes from a theatrical background and produces television of a theatrical nature. That is, it lies somewhere between low-budget film and literature in its scope and style. After seeing Gideon’s Daughter and thinking that it was basically fine, I then watched interviews that spoke of Poliakoff like he was a visionary and thought, “Gosh, did I miss something?”
Gideon Warner (Bill Nighy) is a PR man of considerable renown among those in the media and politics. He is sought after for advice or representation as a sort of guru. A writer of some description, William Sneath (Robert Lindsay), is in his pajamas dictating Warner’s story to a young typist (Samantha Whittaker). It is 1997 and Labour has just won an election and the PR man has become an institutional necessity. Warner’s young daughter, Natasha (Emily Blunt) is finishing school and is quite distant from him. When Warner is approached by a government minister (Tom Goodman-Hill), he comes into contact with Stella (Miranda Richardson), a woman who hounds this minister (with her husband (David Westhead)) after losing her son in a car accident. Warner and Stella strike up a relationship either causing or correlated with his disillusionment with his profession and PR partner Andrew (Tom Hardy). And as he becomes more disillusioned and aloof with his job, to the point of self-destructive, the greater grows his power and prestige.
Seeing Gideon’s Daughter and the response people seem to have in these interviews makes me apprehensive to judge the movie. He is spoken of in the same way as Tom Stoppard or Harold Pinter. These interviews are not uniformly loving of the man himself, or else I would have discarded them completely, but Robert Lindsay clearly did not get along with the man and yet called him a genius. Of course, to expect every work of a genius to be a work of genius may be to ask too much, but it is so easy to miss something that is good without being clever. And playwrights being what they are, there is just too much production that one might call upon to say, “Well what about Hitting Town or Playing with Trains, are you saying those are bad? What? You haven’t read them? Then upon what basis could you possibly formulate your opinion of Poliakoff?” I saw the movie and if that’s not enough then we might as well have all gone out and done something interesting.
This movie is the fraternal twin of Friends & Crocodiles (2005), which relates the story of Sneath who then narrates Gideon’s Daughter. In an interview with Poliakoff, he said “I wanted to say ‘Here, look at the world, be with this powerful, stylish guy and the audience becomes him.'” If this was his true objective and not simply a post hoc interview-style rationalization to fill time, bearing only momentary similarity to views before editing the movie (along with his aspirations), then I submit that he failed to accomplish that goal. If we are to become Gideon, then the movie should be from Gideon’s perspective completely. Instead, Poliakoff basically plays the same game as Luhrmann did in The Great Gatsby (2013) by presenting the main character mostly through the voice of another while that main character (Gatsby/Gideon) is attempting to do the same through his own.
As a literary exercise, this has value as a comparison of narrators, but very few films are able to accomplish this. One movie strikes me immediately in this regard and that’s He Said, She Said (1991). A classic allusion would be Citizen Kane (1941), but I don’t really consider it a wholly successful venture for slightly different reasons. In He Said, She Said, we are given the same story twice from two perspectives written an portrayed from the point of view of the two individuals in the relationship re-told. Without the alternative story to clearly show points of departure, unreliable narrators are hard to spot without resorting to broad cues because the whole premise of a movie is the suspend disbelief to some degree. Otherwise, you would have to watch everything twice so that you knew which perspective the film required. Playing with that system sounds very interesting and possibly can be, but such a play would require very specific construction that is absent in Gideon’s Daughter.
I hear you thinking, “Maybe that’s not what’s going on.” That’s probably true, but what purpose did it serve other than to interrupt the story and distract us toward someone else’s perspective of events. Perhaps watching Gideon’s Daughter with Friends & Crocodiles would make this a sensible side-story. But then this idea of taking on Gideon’s perspective has to be addressed. No, it’s just a distraction originating from Poliakoff wanting to use this device without perfecting it. There’s a line very near the end whereby a phone call is referenced between Gideon and Sneath (the last anyone heard from Gideon) for the sole purpose of giving a foundation for Sneath knowing anything about those final events. That smacks of contrivance since Gideon and Sneath’s relationship never seems greater than that of a constant acquaintance. Poliakoff strains to tie Sneath to Gideon and Stella thematically while being quite restrained in tying Gideon and Stella’s themes together. It’s just not sound.
Speaking of Gideon and Stella, I have to take issue with the title of the movie. Much like Sneath’s poor fit in the movie, the story is frayed between Stella and Natasha–which relationship is the subject of the movie? It’s both when it needed to be one or the other. It happens all the time. You try to take on two stories (and Poliakoff takes on four or five here) and tell half of each and don’t even end up with a whole piece. Perhaps because Emily Blunt is so terrific and pretty, I wanted this story to be about her. Or maybe because the movie is called “Gideon’s DAUGHTER”! Poliakoff just wants to do justice to each character–which is absolutely laudable–and can’t find a way to make them full but brief.
There’s tension, as well, in Gideon’s two story halves. Gideon is trying to find some peace in his career with the peasant woman and then he’s got a relationship with his daughter that we’re trying to figure out. I felt a lot of darkness underlying his relationship with Natasha. Her first real scene is basically a senior recital where graduating students do a bit for the parents. Natasha sings a beautiful song–why Blunt isn’t more often called upon to sing is astounding–about obsessive love of a daughter for her father with the refrain “I always was your daughter, I never did complain.” Blunt is pretty and I know her as an object of attraction and Nighy is the kind of person that is attractive to certain kind of younger women, so I thought something inappropriate existed between them. Later on, Gideon pressures her (a bit) to go to Edinburgh for school instead of Colombia. Weeks go by without hearing from her and on television the news says there’s a serial killer killing women in Edinburgh. The first piece was me reading the song incorrectly–give it a listen and tell me if I was crazy–but the latter seemed cheap. I expect British television to be darker, especially when they drop heavy clues, but here it was only to say “people worry about their children’s safety”. Instead, we are treated to something approaching the kind of Lifetime movie that affirms family (rather than the ones where women get out of abusive relationships). It just makes it feel so much like a TV movie, which it is.
I read a bit of a review on IMDb that mentioned Poliakoff’s “striking use of images and music.” Some of the interviews also made reference to images. If this movie were from the 80’s, I’d say he was a visionary and master of the scene. This is 2005 and I expect more. It doesn’t look (Barry Ackroyd) very polished. If it was expressive, then I didn’t catch the expression. It looked like a functional job. As for the striking music, that’s just silly. Other than the terrific song mentioned earlier, the music (Adrian Johnston) is the stale, plug and play stuff you’d get in any TV movie.
The movie’s greatest assets are in the excellent performances. Emily Blunt and Bill Nighy both won Golden Globes for this movie and earned them. The structural issues don’t really touch the dialogue or their abilities in individual scenes. If Poliakoff is a master of dialogue and this is the nature of his fame, I would agree only insofar as the words are seamlessly drawn for their characters. Or the cast is incredible. Bill Nighy, Emily Blunt, Tom Hardy, Miranda Richardson, and Robert Lindsay are all very talented. Maybe it’s both.