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Gideon’s Daughter (Review)

The wonderful folks at the BBC have given me access to their BBC Global iPlayer for a month to give the service a go and trawl through the archives. I’ll have some thoughts on the service at the end of the month, but I thought I’d also take the opportunity to enjoy some of the fantastic content.

Stephen Poliakoff’s companion piece to Friends and Crocodiles, airing just a month after that original drama film, Gideon’s Daughter feels like it owes a lot to a bunch of fascinating central performances. While Robert Lindsay provides the only on-screen evidence of a link between the two projects, reprising his role as an embittered old writer here, Poliakoff’s two stories are thematically linked, as the author focuses a lot of his frustrations on meaningless celebrity culture. This time, however, he sets the stories in the late nineties, allowing him to explore what he undoubtedly sees as the vulgarity of the millennium celebrations and to subtly examine the national outpouring of grief offer the loss of Princess Diana, while telling a rather simple story of a father and his daughter.

All tied up...

Indeed, Lindsay’s connecting character feels like the script’s weakest element, serving as the narrator of the story. He relates the tale of poor Gideon Warner to a typist, drafting a book about a close personal friend, and then to his own son, who was abandoned on his father’s doorstep. “I haven’t forgotten,” our narrator promises his young son. Lindsay’s novelist provides rather clumsy exposition, as if privy to the deepest personal thoughts of our central characters, and his narration often distracts from the story unfolding on-screen.

We’re told that he is the closest of friends with Gideon, even though they seem to interact very irregularly. Towards the end, as he recounts the outcome of the story, he is quick to insist that he was the last person to hear from Gideon, that the PR guru rang him up and related everything. However, we see nothing over the course of the film to explain why Gideon would contact the novelist. Especially if this novelist is just going to spin the story to publish a book and turn a profit off a character we’re led to believe is a close friend. Of course, this could just be Poliakoff’s somewhat ham-fisted criticism of the shallow celebrity culture, which attracts some serious scorn.

The supporting roles are so thin they're Hardy there...

Gideon Warner, as played by Bill Nighy, has discovered the key to interacting with important people. You just let them talk. While his clients babble on and on, the executive zones them out and stares out his window on to the street, as if absorbing a taste of real Britain. After all, if they have something important to say, they’ll repeat it at the end of their little monologue. After one long spiel outlining her problems, a starlet seeks input from Gideon. His vacuous, disinterested response? “I say do it.” When she seeks clarification, he adds, “Yes, everything.” Her name is “Diane.” Of course it is.

Gideon is, of course, a completely unhappy man beneath the trappings of success, a person somehow much deeper and more complex than the empty world of spin he has crafted for himself. Asked to organise the millennium celebrations for Great Britain, Poliakoff mockingly suggests that only a deeply unhappy and unsatisfied individual with no interest in his job could have helped steer the vulgar and awkward events that welcomed Britain into the twenty-first century.

The "other" Princess Di...

At the same time, Gideon finds his young successor Andrew talking about how one of Gideon’s early PR stunts “conditioned” the public’s response to the death of Princess Diana. As if the earlier film could have left any doubt in the viewer’s mind, it’s clear that Poliakoff has no time for that sort of vapid celebrity image-obsessed culture. Indeed, he doesn’t make the most subtle of points, setting the two films so self-consciously covering similar thematic ground in the eighties (the decade that taste forgot) and against the rise of Tony Blair. I can’t help be feel that this sort of ground has been covered before, and better, by a lot of other writers.

At the same time, Gideon worries about his daughter Natasha. She wants to go to Columbia to save the Jaguar. He wants her to go to Edinburgh. He’s still struggling to make up for one massive failure of a father, but can’t seem to connect with her, or to let her go. Instead, the two are stuck in this sort of limbo – neither truly able to escape one another, but neither able to make any sort true connection.

Gideon's crossing...

Here, Poliakoff seems to add some strange undertones to the father-daughter relationship, with some rather uncomfortable subtext, as Natasha sings a sultry French love song entitled Papa at her graduation, and it’s clear that the young girl has no male influence in her life, save the father she seems to both love and hate. Her friends at school are all girls, as is her roommate at college. The topic of a boyfriend is never broached, while our narrator goes on and on about her “radiance” and “beauty” and how Gideon must feel them, no matter where he might be. It is a little creepy, to be honest.

Poliakoff’s direction feels a little bit awkward, and there are times when the television movie feels just a little bit empty. Occasionally, Poliakoff with cut quickly to something, and then back to the present. Sometimes these are powerful emotional images, but sometimes they just feel like an attempt to be quirky for the sake of being quirky. Much like Gideon himself, the movie never feels too concerned with anybody apart from Gideon and his daughter, and nobody gets any real sense of closure out of any of this.

An Andy man to have around...

We never find out whether Andrew has it in him to succeed without Gideon. When Gideon falls in love with a bereaved divorcee, his existing lover fades away rather quietly and politely. Towards the end, there’s no impression that any of these characters were ever there at all, let alone that any of them mattered. Perhaps that’s entirely the point (what with everybody being so shallow and hallow), but it isn’t especially satisfying.

Still, the best thing about Poliakoff’s tele-film is the casting. Emily Blunt might not make the most convincing secondary school graduate (she was well into her twenties at the time), she is a great actress. As is Miranda Richardson, who is one fo those wonderful actors with a deft skill at comedy and drama. Richardson beautifully brings a grieving mother to life, and she excels in her scenes with Bill Nighy’s worn-out PR guru. Even Tom Hardy makes the most of a one-dimensional up-and-comer, already recovering from the damage of Star Trek: Nemesis.

Making a splash...

However, it’s Bill Nighy who owns the tele-film in the lead role. Nighy has always had this wonderful ability to seem brilliantly hilarious and brutally tragic within the same frame, evoking a tired old soul who laughs only because it stops him crying. I might have some problems with Poliakoff’s writing, but I think that he gives Nighy material perfectly suited to the actor. I don’t think he’s ever been better suited to a role, and it’s Nighy’s central performance that really elevates the film above the somewhat straightforward themes and ideas that Poliakoff brings to the table.

Gideon’s Daughter is an interesting little film, even if it seems to lack a bit of substance. Perhaps that’s wholly fitting.

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