Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

06 December 2014

Women and Madness/Sadness

I don't really know what has happened, but lately I have been reading a lot about women and "mental illness". First it was three plays by Sarah Daniels (Beside Herself, Head-Rot Holiday, and The Madness of Esme and Shaz) and one by Howard Brenton (Sore Throats); then yesterday I read Caryl Churchill and David Lan's play A Mouthful of Birds, which is an extremely loose adaptation of Euripides' Bacchae. Oddly enough, I'd never before thought of the Bacchae as related to the Medea in that they are both about women killing their children. This is really strange because I've read the Bacchae dozens and dozens of times and my mind has changed about it many times, as well. But it has never really occurred to me that the play was about women who have gone mad and a woman who kills her own child. But, of course, this is the precise content of the text when examined from a certain point of view.

I have found these Sarah Daniels plays particularly illuminating about the way systems like mental institutions and state biopower silence, eliminate, and often murder women who have been sexually abused and raped by calling them "unbalanced" or "ill". Resorting to "madness" or "illness" as explanations of these women's violent, antisocial, or inexplicable actions is yet one more way that we refuse to deal with the violence committed against women's bodies (often by fathers, doctors, or the police).

This is a rather long intro to talking about the film I saw last night directed by Tommy Lee Jones. The Homesman is a cold, difficult western centered on characters about which ambivalence is the feeling you are most likely to have. These are hard, hard people, and the characters at the film's center – played by Jones himself and by Hilary Swank – are single-minded, driven characters. But The Homesman's characters are also very rich. Jones does not let us know these characters very well – what matters to the film itself is what they do – but the performers give us wells of feeling and years and years of history in their work. We instinctively know a great deal about who these two people (and indeed a whole host of gorgeously portrayed supporting characters) are and the difficult lives they have had to lead.

The excellent script (also by Jones) does not rely at all on long monologues, either, choosing to allow the empty beautiful-but-terrifying landscape itself do most of this expository work. We are in the Nebraska territories long before settlements of any size have been established. The land and sky are almost always gorgeous, but a sense of the foreboding hangs on everything at all times. Anything could happen out here, and no one would be able to say anything about it or do anything about it. There is no law. There is only what people do.

What is madness when there is no civilization? What does it mean to be crazy in a world like this? Precious little, really. Or, rather, how would anyone know?

The Homesman is ostensibly about a woman who agrees to take three women who have gone mad back over the Missouri River into Iowa (a much more settle place than the Nebraska Territory at this time). The plot, then, is about the journey, about the people we meet on the way to the Missouri, a kind of picaresque portrait of the "west" at this time. Like the Bacchae, though, The Homesman turns out to be about women and madness much more fundamentally. And it approaches this topic with delicacy, humanity, and poetry. This is a slow but beautiful little film that I found very moving. It won't be everyone's cup of tea (as usual, the septuagenarians in Hanover who watched it with me disliked it and were totally baffled by it), but it is excellent.

For the record, the other actors in the film (all doing great work) are Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, Meryl Streep, Hailee Steinfeld, Sonja Richter, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, William Fichtner, Evan Jones, Barry Corbin, John Lithgow, Jesse Plemons, and especially David Dencik. As for Oscar chances, I am not sure how hard its distributors are pushing, but Oscar nominations for Hilary Swank and for Marco Beltrami's score would be easy to get with a little work, it seems to me.