The Fall – Television Crime Drama, Serial Killers, Feminism and Acting.

p01jy1dbWhile I like crime fiction in general, a while back I started avoiding narratives centred around serial killers whether in the medium of novels or film or TV. While working within genre conventions can be highly creative, this seems to me to have become a particularly limited sub-genre in which, in most cases novelty is simply a matter of upping the ante in terms of imagining ever more vicious and grotesque ways in which the killer (mostly male) might torture the victims (often female) to death.

I have been forced to make exceptions to this rule, partly because this style of narrative has become so ubiquitous that if you engage with crime fiction at all it is hard to avoid. I happily watched the Danish version of The Killing (Forbrydelsen) in 2007 partly because it was not until very near the end that it became evident that this was a serial killer narrative. More importantly this was only one element of a complex, ever shifting number of plot lines delivered in a shooting style that rejected the tendency to fussy camera work and frenetic editing seen across much British television at the time. Instead, The Killing slowed down the pace of both the narrative and the visual style, focussed on creating atmosphere with light, sound and a sparing use of music all of which served as a framework for some of the most subtle and engaging characterisation and acting I have seen on television. While all credit is due to Sophie Gabol as Sarah Lund, the emotional range and depth conveyed by other actors such Bjarne Henriksen and Ann Eleoner Jorgensen as the victim’s parents was extraordinary.

Clearly like a number of other British crime dramas The Fall has taken up some of the lessons offered by The Killing, in particular the allowing of space and time for the acting. This was the only reason I stayed the course when it became clear (almost immediately) that despite attempts at some interesting sub-plots in series 1, at core it is a fairly standard serial killer drama.

There was an attempt to give it a ‘new twist’ partly through casting former male model Jamie Dornan as the killer Paul Spector and making this character a devoted father and an (apparently) satisfactory husband who works as a bereavement councillor, all of which would seem to require a degree of empathy and ability to make emotional connections usually represented as incommensurate with such figures. Much has been made of Spectre/Dornan’s physical attractiveness in reviews and if the plot insists on his ability to charm and beguile the female characters it appears that it had the same affect on some commentators.

In fact, just like Spector’s name, with its suggestion of the ‘super-natural’ reflected by his physical strength and uncommon predatory stealth, his intelligence and arrogance (indicated by a tendency to quote Nietzsche common to many such figures), the character’s supposed ‘sexiness’ is something of a genre cliché. Indeed, the idea of the (male) serial killer as an abnormally powerful and dangerously seductive (for women) goes back in contemporary crime fiction at least as far as Hannibal Lector and is part of a much older notion of ‘evil’ as perversely attractive.

The utter disempowerment of the victims and the potential confusion of sex and extreme violence against women, indeed the suggestion that their own desires may lay them open to attack is one of the things I hate about this sub-genre. It is also very much a theme in The Fall, where Spector chooses his victims from ads they post on online dating sites indicating an interest in exploring BDSM and where even though, or perhaps because, she is aware of his crimes, teenager Katie Benedetto (Aisling Franciosi) becomes romantically obsessed with him.

There is also an ambiguity in the relationship between Spector and the main character Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson played by Gillian Anderson. One of the common tropes of crime fiction is the construction of a parallel between the personalities of the detective and the criminal. In serial killer narratives when the detective is male, these parallels with the murder usually depend on an ability to ‘think alike’ and consequently this connection forces the detective to face his own ‘dark side’. In this instance, while their matching intelligence is a factor, the key way in which Spector and Gibson are established as an equal and maybe not so opposite pair, is through their physical attractiveness and their ability to seduce.

Initially in series 1, in the portrayal of Gibson this is very carefully framed in overtly feminist terms, so that she is introduced as a confident, independent woman taking pleasure in her feminine appearance, in control of her own sexuality and in making a positive choice to engage in brief sexual liaisons.  As played by Anderson, Gibson also appears supremely cool and competent under pressure and an especial pleasure of the drama is the manner in which she calmly exposes, forensically dissects and throws out of court any hint of sexism or misogyny from her male peers and superiors.

All of this is highly unusual for the representation of a senior female detective in television crime fiction and a long way from the picture painted by the messy and often painful attempts to have a private life and to hold her own as a woman in the hyper-masculine world of the police made by Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison, who as Charlotte Brundsen has pointed out in the UK is always to some extent a point of comparison for such figures.

However, the representation of Gibson becomes more ambivalent in Series 2, where again in a genre cliché concerning female officers, Spector starts to focus attention on Gibson herself and at one point invades her hotel bedroom and reads her (very personal) diary as a sort of symbolic rape, which is counterpointed by a clumsy attempt to pressure her into sex by an ex-lover/superior officier.

Nevertheless, her relationship with Spector starts to devolve into one of mutual attempts to seduce and manipulate, sometimes directly, sometimes by proxy. When Gibson conducts her first face- to -face interview with him, she wears a bright red, figuring hugging, cleavage showing top, an extremely unlikely outfit for a policewoman in this context. Since throughout the drama a point is made of the fact that Gibson thinks carefully about her wardrobe choices, this is a deliberate move on the part of the production. This functions as part of a growing sense that she may be prepared to exploit her own sexuality and that of her junior officers for reasons of power as well as desire. in a fashion that is not entirely professional and ethical.

Equally, there are increasing hints that her independence might actually be symptomatic of some past trauma and/or emotional lack in her psyche. All of this indicates similarities to Spector and while she is given a scene in bed with junior officer DS Andersen (Colin Morgan) in which she strongly denies that she is using him as a surrogate for Spector, the inclusion of this denial in itself underlines this possibility. It is significant therefore that in the last scenes when Spector is shot, Gibson cradles him in her arms while calling desperately for help, ignoring the fact that Andersen has also been wounded.

Of course ‘flawed detectives’ are another important trope in crime fiction and there is a heavy dose of ambiguity in this ending as there is throughout this drama in which character’s backstories and motivations are hinted at, or mentioned in passing rather than fully elucidated, all of which assumes a satisfying degree of intelligence on the part of the audience and creates an air of enigma and of ‘unfinished business’ Even so, despite the upfront feminism expressed not just through Gibson but through a range of other strong and intriguing female characters, ultimately I’m left uneasy about the attitude to and ideas about women’s desire in The Fall.

All else aside, in terms of the fictional world and psychological realism of character I find the idea of Spector being attractive unconvincing. Dornan may be good looking but the script and his portrayal of the character rely far too heavily on his appearance and even at his best this character appears to be utterly humourless, rather morose, dull and  banally, rather than attractively evil. While teenage Benedotto might be reasonably assumed to project her fantasy onto this persona reading him as ‘moody and mysterious’, and an ability to efface his own personality may be a useful trait for a counsellor, I cannot imagine why his wife or the other women he appears to charm would be interested him. Indeed, we are never shown him interacting with his wife, or with anyone else in a way that might indicate any vestige of warmth, charm or in fact especial intelligence.

Nevertheless, there is something that render Dornan’s performance occasionally fascinating.

One of the ways in which The Fall (like the Killing) creates narrative interest is through the use of relatively lengthy close–ups. Paradoxically, depending on the overall aesthetic, the context and the acting style this technique can function either to ‘reveal’ the characters thoughts and emotions to the viewer or alternatively can play on surfaces in a way that is more enigmatic.

Overall this latter strategy seems to be the preferred one in The Fall with a few notable histrionic exceptions mostly occurring in series 2 and necessary to the plot such as Brian Milligan as James Tyler or Valene Kane as Rose Stagg.

Looking specifically at Dornan’s performance, he perfected an unreadability in his many, lengthy close-up’s that in terms of the fiction could suggest an iron control but actually often came across as a certain blankness. However, what makes these shots compelling was the fact that ‘he’ (Dornan or Spector?) appears to have a slightly ‘lazy’ left eye, so that after a while his pupil drifts just off centre and after blinking, this eye lid takes a fraction longer to open than the other one. This small (inadvertent or deliberate?) physical tic ruffles the otherwise impenetrable and blandly symmetrical surface of his face and does ,momentarily suggest a sense of something hidden deep below the surface.

Having become gripped by this tic, in series 2 I became convinced that Gillian Anderson seemed to have caught it from him, at least in terms of the slow eye lid effect. On reflection I think this has been a feature in Anderson’s previous performances and somehow goes along with her dry and measured manner of speaking that at times verges a drawl.

It is largely this cool vocal quality that renders her feminist dissections of male attitudes and behaviour in The Fall so effective. As the more experienced performer, inevitably (to my mind at least), she is also much better at conveying the complex and subtle play of emotion and more importantly of thought behind a mask of restraint than Dornan. Indeed, she is less convincing in scenes where she openly expresses emotion. Like Dornan’s tic her acting is a matter of tiny movements, slight shifts in the way she presents the planes of her face to the camera, how she focuses her eyes. Through such means in her past roles and again in The Fall, she has managed to embody the idea- not that a woman can be beautiful and sexy and intelligent- but that it is the working of her intelligence that renders her beautiful and sexy.

If in the end there was something disappointing about The Fall’s narrative then this was compensated by Anderson’s performance and I would add by that of Franciosi, of Archie Panjabi, Niamh McGrady and Stuart Grady, all offering classes in how to work the camera.


4 thoughts on “The Fall – Television Crime Drama, Serial Killers, Feminism and Acting.

  1. This is a fascinating dissection of The Fall. I was drawn primarily by Anderson’s characterisation. There is a great precision in her performance, especially, as you point out, in her close ups. But I also think some of long shots of her were fascinating. I think there’s one in the penultimate or last episode, where she’s just interviewed Spector and he is led away. Once he’s gone, the camera lingers on her back as she pauses in front of a door. I can’t put my finger on why this was fascinating, but it was nevertheless. I have many of the reservations you have, but I think Anderson’s characters is one of the most complex female characters in a procedural we’ve seen on British TV for quite some time. I’d be fascinated to know what you made of Sally Wainwright’s “Happy Valley”.

    • Hi Steve
      Im afraid I missed happy valley – but I do think the female led crime drama has really developed in exciting ways in recent years. And yes – there are a fair few exciting long shots too!

    • Hi fagtv – this blog is written . We do not have the rights to this series ( or others which we discuss) which was broadcast on British Tv. You might find it on line if you wish to see it.

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