Hazel McHaffie

The King’s Speech

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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Body image

OK, I know, I know! That second helping of roast potatoes, those too-tempting chocolates, that one party too far … they’ve all left their legacy. The break from gym/exercise class/running regime, late nights, extra caffeine, missed beauty routines … they’ve played havoc with your muscle tone, your skin, your hair, your energy levels, too. The mirror is definitely not on your friend.  But rest assured, you’re not alone; plenty of folk have issues with their body image at this time of year – witness much bemoaning and bewailing on social media!

It’s cold outside, you’re on holiday, it’s the perfect time to snuggle down for some wall to wall viewing. Toes toasty warm in Great Aunt Marjorie’s hand-knitted socks, refreshment at the ready, lights dimmed … and we’re off. You get the picture.

Body image issues + DVD watching = cue for today’s blog post. A good moment to talk about a film I bought ages ago, all about real body image and identity crises: The Danish Girl.

Based on the true story of Danish painter Einar Wegener, at the beginning of the 20th century, who became transgender pioneer, Lili Elbe, it’s a beautiful portrayal of unconditional love and one person’s fight to become the woman she believed herself to be.

A stellar cast were involved in the creation of this masterpiece.

Tom Hooper – director of The King’s Speech and Les Miserables – saw the potential and had the vision and understanding in the first place.
Gerda Wegener is played by Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander with great sympathy, integrity and poignancy, and we understand much of the complexity of the subject through her eyes.
And small wonder that Hooper immediately thought of Eddie Redmayne for Einar’s role; he wonderfully captures the inner conflict and outward battles faced by a transgender person, at a time long before society recognised the whole concept of ambivalent identities. Redmayne is utterly convincing as both Lili and Einar, but then we’re rather used to him inhabiting the characters he takes on to an incredible degree (think Stephen Hawkins in The Theory of Everything).
Both principal actors are completely believable in their roles bringing a quite breathtaking authenticity and emotional intelligence to their performances.
Couple that with Copenhagen as the perfect location, capturing the rather austere ultra-conservative, repressed society of the time and place, and you have a winning combination.

But what of the real story behind the film? The original and real Einar Wegener was a landscape artist married to another painter, Gerda Gottlieb, who specialised in portraits. They lived a bohemian lifestyle in Denmark at the turn of the twentieth century. When Gerda asked her husband to stand in as a model dressed in women’s attire, Einar’s love of all things feminine became apparent. Gerda’s portraits of this striking new model were noticed and professional success followed, but their marriage came under increasing strain. Lili began going out in public as a woman, sometimes with Gerda, sometimes alone. She meticulously studied the nuances of female behaviour until she was gesture perfect, and socially totally convincing. But her dream was to be perfect anatomically as well, so she eventually underwent a series of pioneering gender-reassignment surgeries, culminating in the transplant of a uterus into her body in 1931. But this last one proved to be a step too far, and she died from a lethal postoperative infection, commonplace in that era.

Knowing what we know today, it grates to hear doctors in the film talking of ‘insanity’ and ‘aberrant behaviour’, and it’s rather terrifying to watch the draconian efforts made to correct this ‘madness’ – zapping both brain and genitalia. But the brutal beating Lili gets when she minces along in a questionable outfit is alas not unknown even today. Gentler terms such as ‘confused’ or ‘different’ perhaps sit more easily with us nowadays in this context, but this film underlines the reality: Lili herself is not confused; she knows only too well that ‘This is not my body.’ And her whispered plea: ‘I don’t know what to do‘, is heart-breakingly poignant. It’s a salutary reminder that for those who find themselves in the wrong body the struggles are both huge and complicated.

Inside of Me coverI’ve had to face a fair few of my own demons this year, what with undignified hospital procedures, mutilating operations, uncertain prognoses. And of course, I’ve read about and listened to many, many people for whom this whole area is fraught with angst whilst researching the subject of body image and identity crises for my book, Inside of Me, a couple of years ago. And I’d say, The Danish Girl captures the reality as well as any novel, any story, I’ve encountered to date. Hats off to David Ebershoff (writer), Hooper, Redmayne and Vikander – all brilliant. Their descriptions of how and why they made this film were as impressive as the end product, and they’ve more than achieved their aim: to bring this difficult subject and courageous story to the attention of the public, sensitively and respectfully.

I loved it.



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Feeling the pain

I must confess I’m not much of a cinema goer (best not to ask – it’s a long story) but I have just been to see The King’s Speech. And it really is as good as it’s cracked up to be. It conveys powerfully the struggles of the shy Duke of York, ‘Bertie’, who’s already sagging under the sheer weight of emotional baggage created by a bullying father and a crippling speech impediment. And then his brother ‘selfishly’ abdicates … and Bertie is precipitated into the role of King George VI … and required to rally a stunned nation … to make speeches … to the world …?

Of course, the scriptwriter has draped the bones of historical fact with clothes of his own tailoring. Plenty of artistic license, I don’t doubt. Nevertheless the whole package has a credible and authentic feel to it. And the acting is superb. As you’ll have seen, the cast have been nominated for a whole raft of Oscars – deservedly so.

Now, maybe you’re more film-hardy than me, but watching good actors doing what they do so well, I’m in awe of their skill. They speak of ‘inhabiting a part’, of ‘being in character’, and accolades are given for doing just that. It’s the art and craft of their profession. For a time we onlookers suspend disbelief; they convince us their words, their actions, their thoughts, their feelings, are the genuine article.

What we hear less often mentioned is the impact on the actors themselves of this ‘inhabiting’.

Did you know, for example, that Javier Bardem, Spain’s first Oscar-winning actor, became so immersed in his role as a single father struggling to come to terms with his fatal cancer in Biutiful, that he found it took over his life? He started trying to set his real affairs in order in a rather manic way, contacting old friends, healing rifts. People who know him apparently started to get concerned.

Nicole Kidman, playing the part of a bereaved mother whose young son was killed in Rabbit Hole, began waking in the night sobbing and overwrought. I can believe that – must be harrowing to really feel the devastation of such a loss sufficiently to convey it so movingly.

And Colin Firth, engrossed in perfecting King George’s stammer in The King’s Speech, struggled at times to articulate words outside of the role. Not too clever a state to be reduced to if you act for a living, I guess!

They really do get inside the skin of their characters. And something of the same kind of experience is shared by authors. Well, by me anyway, and I doubt very much I’m alone in this. Our characters become more real to us than flesh and blood friends.

Right to DieI felt utterly drained after spending months experiencing Adam’s emotions as he died slowly from Motor Neurone Disease in Right to Die.

Double TroubleIt took me weeks to recover from the brutal death of Donella in Double Trouble. She was one of my favourites. I so much wanted the story to have a different ending, but what happened happened without my say-so.

paternity1Bethany’s struggle for life reduced me to tears every time I read that chapter in Paternity.

It gives me a real thrill when readers tell me they too have been so intimately engaged with, so profoundly moved by, something I’ve written, that the edges between reality and fiction have been blurred.
‘I found myself looking round for my wheelchair.’
‘I had to go and check on my own children.’
‘I felt confused and disorientated myself – I actually did a little test to make sure dementia wasn’t setting in.’

Of course, there’s a downside too. Some people dare not expose themselves to raw emotion at this level. They won’t even open the covers. I have to accept that reality.

It’s impossible to please all the people all the time, after all; no point in trying. But I do have to try to be true to myself. And that means sticking with this genre. Because this is my raison d’être – why I moved into fiction writing in the first place. I want to give a voice to those people whose lives are dominated by the dilemmas and challenges of twenty-first century medicine, who so often struggle unseen and unsupported. I want people to listen to them; to feel their anger, their anguish; to care.

Starting with me.

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