Hazel McHaffie

Meryl Streep

Inhabiting characters

Fragile: approach with care!

I remember going to an event years ago, where the audience walked past several actors in various poses. We were advised not to speak to them as they were already ‘in character’. And we were subsequently treated to a masterclass in how they achieved this level of identification and immersion in order to project the final images which had us mesmerised. Fascinating insights.

And I’m sure we can all appreciate how thoroughly good actors can inhabit their characters when we see the same person in completely different roles. Just think Meryl Streep – literally Oscar winning!: Mrs Thatcher in The Iron Lady,  Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette, Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. She is these women for us! How does she do it? ‘Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there,’ she says. But the end result is utterly convincing on our end of the process.

Even in films where a well-known person of our time is being represented – King George VI, the Queen, Winston Churchill, Ghandi – a good actor can make us suspend disbelief by somehow capturing the essence of the character; a style of speech or dress, a gait, a look, an idiosyncratic habit. And to do that, they delve into archives, study mannerisms, learn speech patterns and dialects, anything that will increase empathy and understanding of who exactly such persons were/are. Just watch something like The Crown, The King’s Speech, The Queen, and you can see the little foibles and eccentricities that help the identification process in a huge cast of well known faces.

To an extent an author too, needs to get inside the skin of their characters, in order to make them believable and relatable. Unless we care, we don’t want to read on. In my case, I want to make them real enough for the reader also to feel their pain, empathise with their situation, identify with their challenges and choices. To ask themselves: What would I have done? With my current book, this has meant immersing myself in the psychological depths of a new mother struggling to cope; an ambitious businessman torn by divided loyalties; health care professionals grapplling with the threat of making a wrong call; a clever manipulative mind … no wonder it’s exhausting and depressing and stressful at times! Even now, when I’m reading and re-reading and reading again to make sure every dot and nuance is as good as I can make it before Killing me Gently is published. Perhaps authors too should have mentors and support networks built in to their job descriptions. And a label: Fragile: approach with care.

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Films, fact and fiction

Do you enjoy a good film? Do you get a kick out of a good-going debate on life’s big questions? If so, the neuroethics film festival would be right up your street.Each year four prestigious organisations combine forces at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse to put on a festival of films dealing with an important issue – this autumn it’s neuroethics. Not sure what this means? Join the queue. There are those who sniff at the term as a 21st century neologism drawing from more established disciplines; others claim neuroethical issues will present real problems for society by the 2020s. But look, I’m way out of my comfort zone on this one, so here’s what the Filmhouse says:

Do we have free will, or is our behaviour ultimately controlled by our biological brains? Does morality actually exist?

Recent advances in our understanding of neurobiology have raised a number of ethical questions for human beings. Does the responsibility of an individual actually exist? If it doesn’t what are then the consequences for our legal systems and the manner in which human beings see themselves? Could they just be considered as biological robots or zombies? ’

Now that sounds like a challenge wrapped up in an entertaining way, don’t you think?

I’ve attended this ethics film festival several years and I’m always impressed by how learned everyone sounds.  After each film a panel of experts debate the issues with the audience, adding an extra dimension to the event which I’ve really enjoyed. But this year might just be the exception: I’ve been invited to join the panel for Sunday afternoon’s session. Hello? Me? Suddenly my academic credentials seem very old hat amongst the bevy of professors and leading clinicians currently billed to occupy the hot seats for the three days! But it seems I’ve been included because I write fiction in these areas. So hopefully I can stick to what I know and not come across as a complete wally.

The films promise much: Limitless (a writer discovers a top-secret drug which bestows super-human abilities on him); The Matrix (a computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and role in the war against its controllers); The Manchurian Candidate (in the midst of the Gulf War soldiers are kidnapped and brainwashed for sinister purposes); A Clockwork Orange, (in a futuristic Britain a charismatic delinquent is jailed and volunteers for an experimental aversion therapy). And they include big stars like Robert de Niro, Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington. I haven’t seen any of the films, so whatever else, I’m expecting to have fun when I’m not actually squirming on the front seats – well, maybe fun’s not the right word … sounds – and looks – like scary stuff actually.All my life I’ve been plagued by an overactive imagination, and I’m quite sure my mother would have categorically banned me from this kind of viewing. But one has to grow up and take responsibility for one’s own choices at some point … or would neuroethics refute this notion?

Whatever. As you know, I’ve recently been asked to send one of my own novels to a film company, who’re considering making a feature film out of it. So I have a vested interest in the dramatisation of novels at the moment. I’d say that’s a good enough reason to overcome my qualms and be prepared to be scared out of my wits.

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The Iron Lady

Commiserations to all of you who’ve pre-ordered Saving Sebastian from Amazon but still not received it. I’ve done my best to find out what the delay is but action hasn’t followed promises, I’m afraid. It’s available from The Book Depository and Luath Press but somehow has only this morning been processed at Amazon. Believe me, I’ve been grinding my teeth on your behalf.

Frustrating to say the least, so I’ve been immersing myself in other things – writing, reviewing, interviewing, reading, partying, preparing workshops …

And in between vaguely debating within myself : Shall/should I go to see the film about Margaret Thatcher or shall/should I not?

Pros: My long-standing interest in and involvement with dementia. I spend time most weeks with people whose lives are affected by it. My own mother developed it. I’ve written a book about it, Remember Remember. I’ve read piles of other books about it – fiction and factual. I care very much about the way people with dementia are treated.

Cons: an instinctive concern about the ethics of the film being made while Baroness Thatcher is still alive. Is it morally right? Would she agree if she were able to give properly informed consent? Plenty of people have been quick to criticise.

But this week I overcame my reservations and went to see it. My thinking and rationale: I should make up my own mind about the wisdom and rightness of it all, based on the reality, not judge it without a hearing.

I came away surprised by my own conclusion.

Meryl Streep is superb as The Iron Lady herself. Brilliant acting, brilliant makeup, brilliant screenwriting. How someone can inhabit a character to that extent, and be as much Mrs T in her eighties as in her forties, is a mystery to me. She richly deserves all the plaudits and honours coming her way.

Some of the supporting cast are less credibly the big political and family names of the time, but that was a minor distraction. One can readjust without losing too much most of the time.

The depiction of dementia is gentle and sensitive. The reality can be a hundred times worse. The ageing MT/The Boss Lady/Mrs T may be muddled about what’s real, and talk to Dennis (whom she can still see), and struggle to keep up with conversations, but she remains dignified and decently clothed and largely independent. It’s probably sanitised; I don’t know how badly affected the real Lady Thatcher is, but it is altogether appropriate and respectful. And yet a believable portrayal of dementia. The repetition, the confusion, the delusion, the focus on the past, the haunting fear.

Curious and unexpected, though, was the effect on my feelings about the woman herself. Yes, as the Prime Minister she was shown at her most strident and dictatorial, convinced of her rightness both at home and on the world stage. But because we were seeing her power years through the soft focus lens of her dementia, they were somehow muted. Perceiving her as vulnerable, doubting, fearful, unsure of her role in the past as well as the present – well, I felt a huge warmth and concern for her.  How good to extend that sympathy now while she is still alive.

I wanted to reassure her when she quaveringly wonders if Dennis had been happy, when she faces the fact that her adored son is not coming to see her, when she packs the last pair of her husband’s shoes in a black bag and says yet another last farewell. You did what you thought was right at the time. You had the courage to stand up for your principles. You made your mark when the opportunity presented. Now let it rest, concentrate on today. Savour each lucid moment, every happy thought. While you still can.

Another realisation came to me as I watched. Somehow the hallucinations and fluctuating memories make a perfect vehicle for conveying an extraordinary life in 105 minutes. I couldn’t have borne an hour and a half of political posturing and unflinching dogmatism. I had no difficulty staying with the meanderings of an old lady clinging to the past; the riots, the war scenes, the speeches, the lectures, brief glimpses through the fog of a clouded mind.

Would I feel the same if I were Carol Thatcher? I don’t know. But that’s more to do with what the film says about family relationships within the Thatcher household than about portraying her mother’s dementia.

So, contrary to all expectations, I personally think the film has the potential to do positive things for those affected by this illness, as well as for the lady herself. Not my favourite film of all time but I’m glad I went to see it.

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