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Victoria Wright gives a resounding thumbs up to TV's Coronation Street for casting disabled actor Liam Bairstow

It is an unwritten rule in soapland that you can have as many gangsters, thugs, serial killers and baby snatchers as you like but only one disabled character at a time, otherwise it might look a tad creepy and unrealistic. 

Actually, I say ‘unwritten’ but it wouldn't surprise me it this was written down on a big yellow post-it note in every soap producer’s office, along with the words ‘Diversity refresh due circa 2018!’ 

This might sound a bit cynical but I don’t think it’s all that far from the truth. Many years ago I was chatting to a senior television executive when I clumsily tried to explain why having more disabled people on television would be A Good Thing. He responded by saying ‘yes, but we're not social workers’. In other words, he viewed disabled people as only being about political correctness and dealing with ISHOOS. I was reminded of this encounter when I read Francesca Martinez’s moving and witty memoir ‘What the **** is Normal?’

She recounts once attending a diversity event at the BBC and being shocked when a producer of EastEnders remarked that whilst they were keen to include more disabled and diverse actors in the show, they didn't want too many or it could turn into a ‘freak show’. Not quite the sort thing you want to say to a room full of disabled people, me thinks… Since then, EastEnders has redeemed itself by casting the brilliant Lisa Hammond as market trader Donna Yates, bringing much needed character and sardonic humour into the show. On a side note, my only problem with Donna is that she hasn't yet had a one-night stand with the talking bulge that is Max Branning.

I thought it was obligatory that every new female character gets the pleasure of a quickie with Albert Square’s answer to Michael Fassbender. But no, not even a snog. This could be outrageous disablism or a lucky escape, depending on your view of Max Branning. She needs a bit more sex does our Donna. Then again, don't we all dear.

But I'm going to put my cynicism slightly aside (for now) and say a big bloody well done to Coronation Street, who have just cast an actor with Down's syndrome. Liam Bairstow, who trained for several years with Mind the Gap, a Bradford-based theatre company for performers with learning disabilities, plays Cathy’s nephew, Alex. 

Liam was cast after taking part in ITV’s Breaking Through workshop for disabled actors. Tellingly, Corrie producer Stuart Blackburn announced that the casting decision was “not some politically correct thing” to which I say ‘calm down Stuart love, and have a brew’. Hopefully one day producers won’t need to feel they have to pre-emptively defend themselves for casting a disabled actor.

Liam Bairstow’s first scene was on Sunday 13 September and what a cracking scene it was as Alex bonded with Roy Cropper over the board game Escalado. Softly spoken, twinkly eyed and full of cheek, he’s a breath of fresh air in a soap that’s become a bit stale lately. I predict great things for Liam Bairstow who has the makings of a great character actor. And as Corrie fans know, it’s the character actors that are the true stars of the show. 

I'd particularly love to see him in a scene with Izzy, played by disabled actress Cherylee Houston, if only to prove that having two disabled characters on screen at the same time won't make the TV explode. 

Oh, I do hope they keep him.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 21 September 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 22 September 2015

Sarah Ismail reviews 'The Theory of Everything': loosely based on Jane Hawking’s memoir 'Music to Move the Stars: A Life With Stephen'

James Marsh’s 'The Theory of Everything' is a story of two great minds who meet at Cambridge University, where they experience and enjoy a great love.

Stephen Hawking, at the start, is a student. Like any other young man, he avoids doing his homework to the point where he accidentally spills tea on the worksheet and has to write his work on the back of a train timetable!

Like any other young man, he attends a university party. There, like countless other young men have done over time, he meets and falls for a beautiful girl, Jane Wilde. But, just as their love, with all its dancing, laughter and striking 'normality', is getting started, along comes Motor Neurone Disease.

This story of one of the world’s greatest minds and his great romance then takes, almost, a cruel twist as he is told he has two years to live. 

The movie then becomes the story of how Stephen and Jane coped as he slowly lost all his physical functions. When he loses his voice to a breathing tube, they find an old fashioned alphabet board. 

At this point the script comes up with one of many moments of humour in the middle of great sadness. They meet a speech therapist who thinks that Stephen Hawking is the most brilliant man she has ever met and says to Jane: "You must worship the ground beneath his wheels."

But, in between coping with impairment and the great sadness that it brought to both of them, they remain, for as long as possible, a ‘normal’ family. They have three children, to the surprise of their friends who naturally wonder if the impairment affects ‘everything?’

Overall, the movie focuses on the many positive things Stephen Hawking has done with his life. As we now know, he is a miracle case of MND, still alive after over 50 years of its constant company.

Perhaps a disabled actor could have been found to play Stephen Hawking!? Usually I would not agree with 'cripping up' and in this case I still don’t, but I can't see where they would have found a disabled actor who shares his impairment?

Overall, Eddie Redmayne does a brilliant job and Felicity Jones comes a very close second as Jane. They have made no secret in the media of the amount of research they have both put into their roles, and it is easy to see that their hard work will pay off.

My one small gripe with the film is that a lot of the action takes place in sequences of music, meaning that you might miss something if you look away from the screen at some points.

The movie doesn’t cover everything, but rather brief moments in flashes. But then, how could anyone fit over 50 years of greatness into two brief hours?

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 16 January 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 19 January 2015

Sarah Ismail reviews Margarita, With A Straw: a film by Shonali Bose

Released last October Margarita, With A Straw is the title of a Hindi movie about disability, which follows the life and loves of Laila, a university student with cerebral palsy. Laila lives in Delhi with her loving family and attends Delhi University where she gets the chance to broaden her horizons.

She has a close male friend who, just like her, is a wheelchair user. He is in love with her, but she breaks his heart when she meets a non-disabled musician- who later breaks her heart.

And this is the point when the movie really starts tackling sensitive subjects. It has several sensitive themes, each tackled as well as the last.

Heartbroken and embarrassed after making a fool of herself with a boy who doesn’t love her, Laila leaves Delhi University and enrols on a Creative Writing course at NYU. Here she meets a blind student activist, Khanum, who is half Pakistani, half Bangladeshi- but, surprisingly for a movie mostly set in India, that’s not the problem.

Khanum teaches Laila several things about herself. Early on, she encourages her to try alcohol for the first time. Her choice? Margarita, with a straw.

Later, Khanum reveals that she is gay, and the young women begin a very serious, special same-sex relationship. However, Laila remains bisexual, and once cheats on Khanum with a boy. Never afraid to say the wrong thing, at this point Laila says just about the most hurtful thing possible- when asked for a reason, she says it happened because he could see her.

A movie with a visibly disabled main character can never completely ignore disability, and this one doesn’t ever try. So as well as facing all the same issues as any other young adult, Laila faces issues that I, as a person disabled since birth, recognised instantly.

Although she loves her mother deeply, Laila longs for her own independence, and for some privacy. The mother and daughter have their first real fight when Laila’s secret stash of porn websites is accidentally discovered!

Towards the end of the movie, Laila has to face yet another challenge, when her mother is diagnosed with cancer. As many adult children would do, at the end of her mother’s life Laila takes on the role of carer.

The script, throughout, has a great sensitivity to disability. It never shows disabled people as perfect, but only as real people. For this, writer and director Shonali Bose must be thanked.

The only negative thing that could be said about this movie is that the two lead actresses do not share their characters’ disabilities. However, they both play their roles to perfection. Perhaps disabled actors for disabled roles is the next step that Indian cinema needs to take, but this movie is proof that when it comes to tackling disability issues well, that is the only step that Indian cinema has left.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 17 December 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 18 December 2014

Alison Wilde on Disability in Coronation Street: Izzy Armstrong ITV1, July 2011

Now, I’m a big fan of Coronation Street  (the only soap I make time to watch) and I’m certainly not going to complain about its increasingly rainbow-coloured community – I love the idea of Audrey falling in love with Mark/Marcia and coveting his feminine clothes. I would like to think that many of us will be living such pleasurable lives at 70, rather than eking out our days on memories, waiting for an over-worked care attendant to get us out of bed.

And I’m not even going to complain about Cindy’s, sorry Stella’s accent. Although it initially seemed odd that Michelle Collins was cast as the landlady of the Rovers’ Return and that she has a Yorkshire rather than Lancashire accent, our reluctance to accept her is perhaps because she had made such a deep impression on us as Cindy Beale in Eastenders for ten years. But, if you watch soap opera you should be prepared for the impossible or improbable; it is after all a genre where one character can come back as a completely different person sometime later. Dead husbands walk out of the shower several years after their death as though nothing had happened. Affairs and dramatic accidents and illnesses are rife, and there is always at least one person involved in murderous schemes (I must say the recent storylines featuring John Stape’s ‘accidental’ killings tested my patience and love of Corrie).

I was delighted when Izzy Armstrong (played by Cherylee Houston) was introduced as a character to Coronation Street. First appearing in April 2010, her initial contract was for seven episodes but was subsequently extended to six months. Since then she has become known as Coronation Street’s first disabled ‘regular’. Although the programme has featured disabled characters many times before, most of these have been men and the only one to occupy a long term role was a much older woman, Maud Grimes (Elizabeth Bradley). Even better, Houston, who has been using a wheelchair since she was diagnosed with Ehlers–Danlos syndrome in her twenties, is the first disabled actor to become a regular character.

Izzy’s character has been skillfully developed over the two years she has been in the street. She has a strong and nuanced personality which puts her on a par with the other regular characters, a rarity in soap operas. She is equally capable of gentleness and fire, and has faults and virtues as well as friends and ‘enemies’, like most of the other characters.

She is neither a follower nor a leader but seems to be equally capable of both. Storylines so far have emphasised her desire for autonomy, with frequent hints about her father’s over-protective attitude towards her and her determination to be independent and in control of her own life. There have been some minor glitches, like how did she come wheeling herself into Anna Windass’ house so easily earlier in the week despite the step, but overall I have been impressed with her multi-dimensional personality, which is almost as well-rounded as the non-disabled characters.

It is difficult to see how the story will unfold but it is Izzy’s relationship with Gary Windass (played by Mikey North) which has been troubling me for a while. Whilst it is good to see a disabled woman having a relationship on  our TV screen, especially to view an all too rare portrayal of a disabled woman who takes the lead in care and emotional work (as many of us do, not that you’d know it), their romance has come across has distinctly non-sexual.

With almost boring predictability we see many characters in, often adulterous, passionate embraces and over-long, invariably stomach-churning kisses, scenes such as this are infrequently enjoyed by disabled or non-heterosexual characters. Yet Gary and Izzy make the big decision to move in together, skipping the exciting, or even flirty, parts of their relationship. Whilst infidelity is endemic on the street, it seems that passion and sex remains a taboo area for disabled people and other members of Coronation Street’s ‘rainbow community’. However, despite this lack of ardour, Izzy and Gary’s relationship has taken a strange, if not unexpected turn towards a more pathological form of passion.

Izzy’s relationship with Gary seems to be largely dependent on her motherly attitude to his difficulties. Always prone to fluctuations between aggression and tenderness, Gary’s time as a soldier in Afghanistan has (understandably) resulted in post-traumatic stress after his experiences of a roadside bomb, the death of his fellow soldiers, including his best friend, and a tram crash on the street some months later. Unfortunately this narrative arc seems to be playing itself out in ways which may weaken Izzy’s character. Over the past few weeks his bonds with her have become more obsessive as he has become increasingly frightened to let her out of his sight, creating a claustrophobic relationship and a potentially victim-like role for Izzy.

He became more and more agitated when Izzy lied about a secret trip out with her friends and he found out that she was not where she said she would be. When he learned that she has been ‘mugged’, he believed that someone wanted to kill her. In his subsequent efforts to ‘protect’ her he imprisoned her within their flat, attempting to block any visits from friends of family and he hid her wheelchair in his van, explaining that it needed to go away for repairs. 

After a short time (possibly one or two days) Izzy asked why her wheelchair had not been returned, commenting that the wheelchair services are usually very quick. When Gary leaves the house she rang the wheelchair service to find that it was not there. On confronting Gary about his lies and the loss of her wheelchair, he admitted his plan to keep her away from any danger to her life. At this point Izzy learned the full extent of her horrifying situation when, forcing her into a corner yet clinging to her in despair, he revealed his plans to keep her in the flat under his protection, with no means of getting around or out. After a few minutes her father rescued her and forced Gary to return to his mother’s home and to seek psychological help.

This storyline hasn’t reached its final resolution. Will Gary get the right support? Will Izzy forgive him? Will they get back together? Will Gary’s mum get together with Izzy’s dad? (yes, this last one is probable and will probably head to a number of typical soap opera-style dilemmas). The plot illuminates some of the difficulties in representing impairment and disability. There are issues of inaccuracy which are irritating, and misleading; who gets their wheelchair repaired in a few days (or even a few weeks?). Conversely, this is a rare example of a disabled actor getting a dramatic storyline whilst raising important mental health issues. Is it stigmatising that this particular storyline emphasises pathology and potential violence towards disabled people? Isn’t this a particularly bad time to do so, with the rise in hate crime? Or are we getting the representational equality we have demanded? I am a little ambivalent but think it is potentially a big step forward for soap opera content.

Nonetheless, I wish that Coronation Street would play to its strengths. The soap has always excelled in its depiction of ‘ordinary folk ’and in portraying the trials and tribulations of everyday life. This was exemplified in the character of Blanche Hunt, an older, miserable character whose lines spun everyday banalities and malevolent put-downs of the other characters into some of the best comedy on television. For me, these subversions of everyday life were Coronation Street’s major quality, creating carnivalesque forms of fantasy and humour which acknowledged the involvement of the audience in the stories.

As such, Coronation Street has excellent potential to treat disabled actors equally, to parody disabling social norms without resorting to heavy-handed educational messages which portray disabled people as ‘issues’.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 2 August 2011

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 18 December 2014

Alison Wilde reviews Love and Other Drugs

Love and Other Drugs Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Edward Zwick, Charles Randolph and Marshall Herskovitz, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway. It went on general release in November 2010 and is coming to DVD and Blu-ray on 1 March, 2011.

 

It looks like its disability season again! Over the past three weeks there has been a spate of disability/illness related films at cinemas including Uncle Boonmee can remember his past lives, The King’s Speech and Love and Other Drugs. Spoiled for choice I decided to review Love and other drugs, not because it was the best (which would have to be Uncle Boonmee, as odd as the film may be) but because Love and other drugs featured, uncommonly, a young woman as a leading disabled character (Maggie Murdock, played by Ann Hathaway) and it dealt directly with uncomfortable issues of relationships and ‘normal life’ expectations.

I chose this film because it features a female character with an impairment in a leading storyline. Although disabled women are more conspicuous than they used to be in film and television content, I can’t say that the quality has improved a great deal, notwithstanding the way-after-the-watershed Cast Offs and occasional films such as Snowcake. 

Given that Maggie’s impairment is Parkinson’s Disease, I fully expected a modern day interpretation of Love Story (1970) – emphasising the heft of tragedy that so often characterises depictions of progressive conditions –  but this portrayal, as a studio film, seemed to take a different approach. Not that I went to see it as a ‘disability film’. In all truth I didn’t know it was –  it was really the only choice at a multiplex when me and my daughter wanted to go to the pictures on a spectacularly grim day. I stubbornly refused her pleas to see Little Fockers for a third time (as much as I enjoy the De Niro-Stiller double act) and this seemed to be the best alternative, given the circumstances.

So it was something of surprise to find that Hathaway was playing a young woman who has early onset Parkinson’s Disease, especially as the film seemed to be aimed at a younger ‘mainstream’ audience. It was marketed as a heart-warming romantic comedy to get us through the harsh winter days, providing no hint of one of its major themes in any of its advertising.  It was unsurprising then that we found ourselves surrounded by 16- and 17-year old young women, many of whom seemed to be having conversations on Facebook or with each other as they watched the film. 

The conversations they were having in the toilets afterwards were even more intriguing. They too were a little shocked to see a film that was simultaneously a love story and a story of impairment and disability (yes, both). Specifically, they found it ‘a little hard to believe’ that someone as ‘fit’ as Jake Gyllenhaal, playing the male lead Jamie Randall, would seriously consider a relationship with someone who has Parkinson’s Disease, regardless of her beauty or the repeated hints of her rampant sexuality (without commitment). So far, so good then; impairment, disability, a woman as a leading disabled character, sex, and the frequent appearance of Maggie’s breasts (ensuring a few more men in the audience than the average rom-com).

Even better, there were numerous references made to the power of health professionals and the drugs industries which mixed the film’s narrative up a little. (I found out later that the film and Jamie Randall’s character in particular was loosely based on a non-fiction book, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy). 

Combining insights on the ruthlessness of drugs salesmen and medical professionals with the health aspects of Maggie’s story helped the screenwriters to create a (light) satire on the (1990s) pharmaceutical/medical industry. As well as adding more humour to the film, the lampooning of the relationship between drugs salesmen and medical professionals and their power also shaped a number of poignant scenes, a number of vignettes powerfully illustrated the consequences of inequalities in health care. For me this added extra power to minor details of the film. This was exemplified by Maggie’s desperation when she was unable to get her medication and most clearly underlined when Jamie’s expensive sports car overtakes her and a bus full of older people who regularly travel to Canada in order buy affordable drugs, 

Zwick, the director, has broken new ground before in films and television and tends to create multi-dimensional characters that often face difficult moral issues. In the late 1980s, as a student with middle-class aspirations, I was an avid fan of Zwick’s television drama thirtysomething, a legacy my daughter lives with after being named after one of its leading characters Hope Steadman (Mel Harris). 

Although he is perhaps best known for tackling issues in an intelligent (liberal) manner, he makes some disappointing casting decisions, having a nasty habit of employing non-disabled actors, Anne Hathaway in this and Sean Penn as a parent with learning difficulties in I Am Sam. He also received criticism for casting in Glory, a film about 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a regiment of African American men, yet told from the point of view of a white commanding officer.

So most importantly then, how was Maggie represented?  The hackneyed story of her tragic decline, her boyfriend’s heroism, and the cliché of love conquering all was not entirely absent. But, the narrative played against these expectations without wading (too much) in schmaltz. Both characters were presented as active agents in their own lives, with faults and insecurities and most importantly perhaps as equally needy and interdependent. 

Despite my resentment of their ‘ideal’ bodies it was good to see a disabled character enjoying a busy sex life and even better to see impairment symptoms such as tremor being depicted (unsensationally) within these scenes. It was also refreshing to see attention to detail in struggles with disabling barriers, ranging from tablet case tops, hard to open packaged food and long waits at the hospital.

Although I found this scene slightly excruciating and rather cheesy, perhaps the rarest and most valuable part of the narrative comes when Maggie discovers and draws strength from a large group of other disabled people who are telling their stories. Her identification with other disabled people acts as a pivotal moment in both Maggie and Jamie’s lives, magnifying differences in their approaches to impairment and disability.

By the end of the film, if Maggie’s impairment is used to convey any moral meaning it is a message of the need for respect – of love that is mutual and based on recognition of intersecting needs and interdependency. In the closing scenes Jamie argues that, rather than seeing her as a project to be cared for to redeem him from his vacuous, shallow and exploitative lifestyle, his interest in her is because she is able to love him despite his limitations. ‘We all have needs’.

I would recommend this film because of the way it represents disabled women. Most of the performances were good but it may have been even more engaging if it had featured less well known faces. It’s a pleasant enough ‘rainy day’ sort of a film but beyond all this it’s art was flimsy and erratic, and I learned nothing new.

 

 

 

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 3 February 2011

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 4 February 2011

Alison Wilde gives some in-depth focus on the representation of mental health issues in film

Greenberg was directed by Noah Baumbach and stars Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig and Rhys Ifans. It was released on 11th June 2010. Exhibit A was directed by Dom Rotheroe and stars Bradley Cole, Brittany Ashworth Angela Forrest and Oliver Lee. It was released in 2007

There has been a considerable amount of disability on screen this month. Faced with a variety of options, I have chosen to review the two ‘disability’ films, which I've enjoyed the most. In my opinion, tangentially linked to uncomfortable issues of mental health, 'Greenberg' and 'Exhibit A' are progressive films which, despite their somewhat risky content, take a subtle approach to the connections between mental health and disabling cultures.

They also serve as timely reminders that we can't make rules about what should and shouldn't be depicted without losing crucial aspects of our stories - both the incredible pain and joys of being in the world.

But first, a few words about mental illness and representational dilemmas. Characters experiencing mental health difficulties are the life-blood of storytelling even though they may not be picked up on our disability radar as often as they should be.

How many films, TV dramas and comedies can you count that don't have a mental health related storyline, inevitably reminding us of how to be ‘normal?’ Clearly, many dangers lie in this territory across the media, particularly in terms of maintaining old stereotypes of evil or setting up new ones.

Whilst this is an issue to be taken seriously, particularly when stories are framed in terms of individual pathology and people are reduced to their mental health status, critics have often condemned those which place characters with mental health concerns at their heart.

The portrayal of schizophrenia in the character of Charlie (or Hank) in Me, Myself and Irene (played by Jim Carrey) was denounced as a ‘new low’ for its perpetuation of inaccurate and stigmatising images of schizophrenia by the Time for Change campaigning group. This was despite the affection that many people have demonstrated for his character and very direct portrayals of the disabling social world he lives in.

Conversely, Time for Change have praised the portrayal of John Nash’s experience of schizophrenia (and his achievement as a Nobel Laureate In Economics) in A Beautiful Mind as a realistic representation, despite considerable inaccuracies and its distance from the lives of most people.

Whilst it would be relatively easy to avoid using supporting characters experiencing mental distress as dramatic pivots in stories which otherwise marginalise them, I’m not sure that we can represent leading protagonists in a way that both engages us with characters and avoids drama. I’m not even sure if this would be desirable. That said, Greenberg succeeds despite a distinct lack of drama, allowing us stark and revealing reflections on the aching emptiness of life when the structures we construct to give us a sense of meaning, are removed.

Ben Stiller plays Roger Greenberg a 40 year old man, descended from a Jewish father and Gentile Mother. Following a discharge from rehab is he is residing in his brother's family home, in Los Angeles, caring for their dog, Mahler, whilst they are on holiday. Despite his commitment to doing nothing, he is faced with a range of life issues, some new, some unresolved matters from his past. We watch him attempt to handle these in a defensive if somewhat ambivalent manner.

The film tells us little about his mental health, subtly revealing that he is at the beginning of a recovery period. He is faced with concerns about romantic relationships, his impending status as middle-aged man and his unwanted responsibility for an ailing dog. His negotiations with his own fluctuating desires and the expectations for him to conform to social pressures (such as driving a car, and finding a job and a home) add to his edgy defensiveness, conspiring to exaggerate his self-destructive and insensitive behaviour. The maxim 'hurt people hurt people', is an unfortunate, recurring, but knowing motif in this film.

This film takes big risks- Greenberg is not a very likeable person. He probably reminds us of people we have met and criticised for their failure to sort themselves out, or of ourselves and the haunting experience of loneliness or regret we may feel in low periods of our lives. It is also slow and meandering film with no clear sense of direction. For me this was very powerful and added to its stark, yet sometimes funny, depictions of everyday life.

The awkwardness of his life and personality was equally matched by the performance of Greta Gerwig as Florence, his brother's assistant, as they make clumsy attempts to forge some kind of a relationship. Their ineptitude in both sexual encounters and exchanges of affection is, perhaps, true for most of us, and this certainly heightened my engagement with them both. His attempts to make new connections with his old friend, Ivan (Rhys Ifans) are equally fraught. This film has no easy answers for us.

It is easy for us to identify with Greenberg's pain, but despite his semi-misanthropic attitudes and reluctance to conform he was, thankfully, not portrayed as a libertarian savant. As frustrating as some of his actions were, his estrangement from what passes for normal life was poignant, demonstrating some of the disabling effects of contemporary culture in a thoughtfully subtle manner. Whilst most of his time is taken up by his irritation or rejection of those around him these complaints often add to his endearing qualities.

One of the most memorable of these, for me, was a complaint letter written to Starbucks: "Dear Starbucks, in your attempt to manufacture culture out of fast food coffee you've been surprisingly successful for the most part. The part that isn't covered by 'the most part' sucks."

Most importantly perhaps, the divisions between characters were drawn gently, avoiding harsh distinctions between right and wrong, between normal and weird, emphasising universal problems of social belonging and connection.

Exhibit A, an independent film, proceeds in a very different manner. Skilfully drawing us into a complex relationship with its central character Andy King, a loving father of a recognisably conventional family, living in an English suburb (a king aspiring to his own detached castle), it leads us to the increasingly disturbing behaviour and eventual murder we anticipate from the start. We know from the initial seconds of the film that we are about to witness 'evidence' from the crime scene (as the title suggests).

The film proceeds as footage from the family's camcorder, until we are drawn into the film's story. The camcorder frames the themes of the film in a number of ways: simultaneously it is a symbol of an escalating lifestyle they cannot afford, a sign of parental love as a gift from father to daughter and a recurring means to comment on the presence of surveillance in our lives. The camera has, in fact, a leading role to play in the story. As Andy buries himself deeper in debt and lies in his futile attempts to care for the idealised type of family he aspires to lead, his daughter grows increasingly worried about his erratic behaviour and, turning the camera's focus away from the young woman she's 'stalking' next door, she begins use the camera to investigate her father's life. His daughter's possession of the camera reveals secrets which are too difficult to face, forcing him to take control of the camera and the situation.

The camera is used exceptionally well in this film. Despite the suspension of disbelief that may be required to watch the film as recovered camcorder footage, the splicing of an increasingly disturbing family life with moments of family bliss and possibility (such as their coveted move to a home at the beach) is a forceful reminder of the costs of ambition and ever-increasing expectations.

As disturbing and horrific as this film certainly is, it allows us to know and understand the intricate layers of social and cultural pressure which build and escalate to untenable proportions, precipitating his final actions. It is a major strength of this film that the viewer feels compelled to understand Andy King's journey towards murder. And, like Greenberg, we are not pushed into a position of 'blaming' any other characters - the whole family are portrayed as 'ordinary' if equally flawed human beings with their own distinct lives.

Despite the almost unremitting bleakness of this story, it is told with humour, intelligence and attention to detail. The digging of a hole, for a pool, in their back garden serves as backdrop for increasing tension, is a symbolic reminder of their social aspirations and of his deepening and increasingly murky crisis (the finished pool looks filthy).

The pool is often put to use in the service of dark humour. Andy's repeated attempts to contrive an accident for ‘You’ve been framed’ by filming his son digging and falling into the hole were unforgettable. His desperate attempts to gain money, regardless of the danger to his son, the feeling of incredible discomfort as he pursued the perfect image and his increasing rage at his thwarted attempts actually made me laugh until tears ran down my face. Okay, I was, embarassingly, the only person in the audience who seemed to have this reaction.

This film may be open to a number of different interpretations. It would be sad if these were reduced to a study of individual pathology when this film has succeeded so well in linking mental health with social pressures. For me, Exhibit A shows us how fragile the structures of job status and family position are and how normative and destructive these aspects of life can be when pieces of the fabric of daily life are removed. We witness the devastasting consequences that that expectations of masculinity ’normal families’ and 'normal careers' can have upon men and their families.

Both of these films tell uncomfortable stories in sensitive and compelling ways. Despite their in-depth character studies and challenging or brutal storylines, Greenberg and Exhibit A show how simple it can be to appeal to human similarities, rather than sensationalised stories and portrayals of exceptionality.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 14 July 2010

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 15 July 2010

Alison Wilde questions definitions of disability in her review of the Greek film Dogtooth

Dogtooth (Kynodontas) was directed by Giorgos Lanthimos, starring Christos Stergioglou, Michelle Valley, Aggeliki Papoulia (Greek with English subtitles) It went on general release on 23 April 2010.

This film does not contain any characters with impairments. Nor does it hint at any disability themes. And yet, despite its evasion of direct questions, answers or moral messages - its bizarre story is replete with truly disabling events, often mundane, and increasingly alarming, which echo the ubiquitous and unpleasant disturbances of everyday life.

It is not clear that allegorical meaning can be attributed to this film. So far it has been regarded as an attack on the traditional Greek (or any close) family, a criticism of home-schooling, and a political comment on the over-protectiveness of the nanny state or the Greek bourgeoisie.

So why am I reviewing a story of a non-disabled, middle-class Greek family for dao? Well, because it tells a compelling tale of human action and agency highlighting concerns which lie at the heart of our (and other people’s) oppression, illuminating the banality of evil. Not only does this story follow the attempts of a mother and father to keep their children from the social world, their attempts to do so illuminate the many and profound effects of segregation.

By taking the sanctity of family life to its extreme, it puts the normality of nuclear family life under the microscope. We witness how the seemingly benign, if extreme and ‘dysfunctional’ fear-based attitudes to child-rearing culminate, inevitably, in abuse and violence.

As a story which is premised on the urge to protect ourselves from contamination, we witness the consequences of social segregation for individual psychology and interpersonal relations. The disturbing implications this has for membership of the social world are unravelled - and we see the politics of segregation for what they are: immensely destructive

Initially, the mother and father are portrayed as over-protective parents who have made a benign, if deeply misguided, decision to detain their children from the influences of society. Now in their late teens or early twenties, the son and two daughters (all un-named) have always been protected from the contagion of the world beyond the high security perimeters of their (large) home.

They are confined to an everyday existence shaped by the misinformation which their parents have provided in the form of distorted explanations and blatent lies. Nonetheless, incomprehensible traces of the outside world beyond inevitably seep through. Curiosity is triggered by the aircraft flying above (explained away as toys), and the elder daughter’s thirst for knowledge increases when Christina, a security guard at their father’s firm, is brought home to satisfy his son’s carnal desires.

Gradually the film reveals the propaganda their parents have used to support their goals and the disturbing consequences of their isolation is exposed. The concoction of parental lies and minor events take on a greater significance when the elder daughter begins to talk and barter with Christina for some of her possessions. The exchanges between the two women fuel the daughter’s curiosity, culminating in a series of shocking events. Resistance inevitably rises from containment.

At times, the father’s actions brought Josef Fritzl’s actions to mind but one of the strengths of this film lies in its insidious progression from a benign if deeply dysfunctional existence to horror. We are encouraged to despise the father’s attempts to infantalise, isolate and mislead his children and to sympathise with their plight and lack of autonomy. As such, the film is very timely, telling a compelling tale of the hideous consequences of fear, exclusion and social segregation.

Films about disability have much to learn from films such as this. The themes are powerful yet understated, the acting is superb and despite the disturbing events, the characters are exceptionally believable. The cinematography is striking in its realistic focus and scrupulous and unflinching attention to detail, telling us much of the story. Of particular note is a scene where the girls dance for their parents, presenting an utterly, utterly gripping portrayal of the elder daughter’s turmoil. This moment made my heart ache for the freedom of this girl from the suffocating shackles of protection. Best of all, the story is told with a deep, dark humour.

I have deliberately written little about the film’s content; this is definitely a film that you need to discover for yourself - although I really really want to tell you why it’s called Dogtooth. As I said there are no characters with impairments nor a trace of obvious disability themes. But I left this film with a renewed enthusiasm to fight fear and social exclusion. Without a doubt, this is the best and most powerful film I’ve seen this year.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 23 May 2010

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 30 May 2010

Alison Wilde reviews Tim Burton's recent interpretation of Alice in Wonderland

Directed by Tim Burton, screenplay by Linda Woolverton and starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, Mia Wasikowska and Anne Hathaway. UK release date: 5 March 2010.

For me, film adaptations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There are akin to covers of The Carpenters’ music. It just shouldn’t be done because it cannot come close to the beauty of the original.

For those who haven’t read these books, Alice’s journeys to Wonderland and through the looking glass are the epitome of literary nonsense, playing with logic and language to create absurd, puzzling, yet meaningless worlds, before Alice returns to her own life, seemingly unchanged.

Just as the reader feels that they are on the edge of understanding, meaning slides away. This is perhaps most obvious in the motif of the Cheshire Cat’s ever-changing or disappearing and re-appearing form, and the almost meaningful ’mimsy borogroves’ of the Jabberwocky poem. Despite the impossible task of creating cinematic nonsense, I awaited the release of Alice in Wonderland with eager anticipation, having enjoyed most of Tim Burton’s previous films being particularly fond of Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands.

The Burton, Depp, Bonham-Carter triumvirate has worked well in films such as Sweeney Todd, Corpse Bride and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and, once again, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter seemed ideally suited to their roles, this time as the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen.

The trailers for the film led me to expect a quirky, nonsense-based approach to Lewis Carroll’s original stories of Alice. I found the snippets shown of the Mad Hatter’s tea party particularly enticing. I was intrigued to see how Tim Burton and Linda Woolverton would depict the Hatter’s ‘madness’ and hoped that it would reflect something akin to Burton’s earlier depictions of ‘outsiders’.

His capacity to create multidimensional and often beguiling human beings is most obviously seen in Johnny Depp’s characterisation of Edward Scissorhands but can also be found in characters such as ‘Carl the Giant’ in Big Fish (Matthew McGrory).

So I had high expectations. But most of all I wanted to find out why the Red Queen had been cast with such a large head. Marketed as a sequel it doesn’t seem necessary to be true to the original but Burton’s Alice takes what it wants from both of these books creating a mish-mash of Alice-related paraphernalia, tailored perhaps to Disney’s most lucrative merchandising options.

Character-wise, the film is more closely related to Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, featuring Tweedledum and Tweedledee (expertly, convincingly and amusingly played by Matt Lucas), the Jabberwocky (strangely similar to the Jabberwocky of my imagination), the chessboard battlefield and, of course, the Red Queen.

As I expected, Depp’s performance, with the exception of an excruciating dance routine (or Futterwacken) was excellent - encouraging empathy and identification from the audience. He took the material as far as he could in the portrayal of the hatter as a wise, confused, mercurial, creative, but essentially good character. Judging from the trailers I had expected a sequel based on the Mad Hatter’s point of view, which would have been a novel way of approaching the material. His role was certainly pivotal to the story but this sadly wasn’t the case.

Although Burton played with ideas of normality, madness and sanity from the start, the way these ideas were confronted was superficial, being largely confined to schmaltzy statements in moments of intimacy. Early on Alice’s father confides that ‘all the best people are bonkers’, a reassurance which Alice passes on to the hatter when he is distressed later in the film.

I was disappointed to find that moments of nonsense and ‘irrationality’ or delusion or were scant, quickly contained, and in some cases ridiculed. The character of Aunt Imogene played by the (grossly under-used) Frances de La Tour is derided and used for comedic value as a sad spinster who is convinced that she is betrothed to a Prince.

Overall, themes of rationality were tied to the poles of good and evil. Aside from the (way too brief) party scene, moments of nonsense were most closely tied to the cruelty of the Red Queen, from the maltreatment of the pigs as footstools and the use of flamingos as croquet mallets (as Carroll did), to her reasons for creating carnage. 

Meanwhile, Alice’s journey becomes ever more deliberate and rational as she develops into the heroine of the piece. If she were Carroll's Alice, she would be meandering with a sense of wonder, experiencing life in all its pain, glory and confusion!

Despite another excellent performance by Bonham-Carter, Burton’s portrayal of the Red Queen is symptomatic of the weaknesses of this film. She is a hybrid character which seems to be loosely based on the personality of Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts, confusingly named after the Red Queen in Alice through the looking glass. These queens have been confused before but neither of them characterised as evil protagonists in Carroll’s work, notwithstanding the Queen of Hearts worrying ‘sentence before verdict’ approach to capital punishment and justice.

Framing the central themes around the goodness of the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and the wickedness of the Red Queen was a great disappointment. It made the film feel more like ‘Hatty Potter’ and it deprived some fine actors of the opportunity to develop their characters properly. One such moment occurs when Alice reaches the tea party and Johnny Depp begins a very promising performance as the Mad Hatter. Lines such as ‘of course it’s Alice, I’d know him anywhere’ were all too scarce.

One thing that did seem particularly nonsensical about this film was the addition of characters with impairments, perhaps the only thing (apart from 3D) which this film has in common with Avatar. This seemed odd, as Burton seems to have a reasonably good record for casting disabled people as disabled people in his films, including actors such as McGrory, and Deep Roy as all of the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (notwithstanding issues of disability or racial stereotyping in Dahl’s original use of ‘imported pygmies’ ).

But, aside from the impossibility of employing scissor-handed actors for the part of Edward Scissorhands, Burton’s attitude to casting actors has usually been appropriate to disabled characters, which made the portrayal of the Red Queen and her ‘disabled’ courtiers all the more disappointing. It was implied here that the queen chose them on their basis of their very visible impairments, a predilection which is presumably based on her feelings towards her own large head (three times its usual size), especially as she welcomes Alice to her court because she is unusually tall.

This could have raised some interesting questions about collective disabled identities, but the opportunity was missed, resulting in the portrayal of physical impairment in wholly negative terms; highlighting the queen’s self loathing and the snivelling, parasitical behaviour of her courtiers.

These characters were firmly cast as figures of fun and at best, did nothing to further the story. This seemed utterly pointless, assuming there is no intent to demean disabled characters. However, apart from this, Bonham Carter’s characterisation of the Red Queen was amusing and compelling.

Her face was beautiful in its storybook simplicity, emphasising her character as the Queen of Hearts. Although she was referred to as the Red Queen, the unmentioned heart motif predominated, carried through in the shape of her lipstick, her face definition, her hair and much of the architecture of her palace. The size of her head, juxtaposed with her petite frame, contributed to her caricature of the Red Queen, emphasising the incongruence of her compulsion for decapitating her subjects and the oft-quoted line ‘Off with their heads!’

It may seem fussy, but as much as I liked her characterisation I was disappointed by two interconnected things; the way she was used to perpetuate disabling images of impairment and the dissonant relationship of her characterisation to Lewis Carroll’s work. Together this worked to over-simplify her character and narratives of impairment into (all too easy) moral tales of good and evil.

Looking slightly deeper, it was more than a little disconcerting that the Red Queen was used as a metaphor for Alice’s mother, evident in the repetition of gardening analogies and overpowering social expectations. Given Alice’s obvious devotion to her father and her determination to follow in his footsteps this is, on a psychological level, a tale which frames her as a girl who re-enters Wonderland to strengthen her hostility towards her mother and her identification with her father. Echoing these impulses, her close relationships throughout with the film are made with older male figures such as the hatter and her father’s business partner (even the Cat and the caterpillar are male).

And I think it’s worth asking again, why does disability enter into this frame through the badness of the Red Queen? However, any resemblance to Bergman’s Persona, as a thoughtful exposition of the Electra complex, ends here. Alice’s close identification with her father and contempt for her mother is treated as a favourable outcome. This is a very radical departure from the Alice I thought I knew.

I like to think that Burton would have made the film quite differently if money wasn’t such an important consideration. If Disney and the need for a mass audience wasn’t such a big part of the equation maybe Burton’s creativity could have been given full reign, facilitating a more courageous approach to the film’s ‘painting by numbers’ structure. Certainly, his love of Lewis Carroll’s work is evident in the aesthetics of the film, with the glorious images of the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen, Tweedledum/dee, the Cheshire Cat and even the Jabberwocky all paying homage to the creativity of the originals.

The use of 3D technology was exceptional, the high point being Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole, which made up for the strange images of the first ten minutes of the film, where the landscapes of Alice’s real life, reminded me of 3D pop-up card. One hopes that the vibrancy of the art throughout most of the film may encourage children to read the originals. There must be a greater chance of this than Harry Potter leading readers to great literature (or even a good read).

As an Alice enthusiast (from the age of 4) I have rarely seen good film versions of Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass. Although none can compare to the reading of the original literature, there have been some enjoyable versions, including Jan Švankmajer‘s Alice (1988) Jonathan Miller’s TV play (1966) and William Stirling’s (correctly named) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1972). These interpretations seem more faithful to the spirits of nonsense, discovery, uncertainty and philosophical questioning found in the original Alice books.

Burton’s Alice follows the propensity of blockbusters to tell a crude tale of morality. This gives it many similarities to the likes of Harry Potter, Avatar and others. Like them, this Alice feeds moments of the original story into predictable storylines, signposted with remarkably similar soundtracks. Much though I have enjoyed Danny Elfman’s music, I may well walk out at the sound of the next heavenly choir.

This is Tim Burton’s Alice not Lewis Carroll’s. As such it works as an entertaining but very formulaic film. Aside from the visual feast, it does little to introduce readers to the original Alice. Wonderland is also the ideal place to question the nonsense of disability. Maybe next time.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 30 March 2010

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 30 March 2010

Alison Wilde reviews Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll - a biopic about the life of the disabled rock star Ian Dury

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll went on general release on 8 January, 2010. It was directed by Mat Whitecross and written by Paul Viragh. It stars Andy Serkis, Bill Milner, Olivia Williams, Naomie Harris and Ray Winstone.

I fell in love with Ian Dury and the Blockheads the minute I heard ‘Hit me with your rhythm stick.’ I still think ‘Wake Up’ is one of the best love songs I ever heard. Buying New Boots and Panties in 1977, I began to listen intently to the lyrics, was easily seduced by the wit and vulgarity, and was gripped by tales of southern characters such as ‘Clever Trevor’.

Being a girl firmly rooted in Yorkshire, the colourful images Ian Dury painted of people in places such as Billericay sounded very exotic, making me yearn to explore the South East of England. When I did, the vivid portrayal of Patricia put me off Plaistow and, to be honest, Billericay didn’t quite live up to the lyrics.

But thankfully I was in London to watch Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll on the day it was released. With apologies to suitably talented disabled male actors that were overlooked in the casting of Andy Serkis as Ian Dury, this film and Serkis’ performance surpassed my expectations. I can’t imagine a better performance.

Although I was aware that Serkis’ left arm was ‘wrong’ occasionally (when it was seen), slightly breaking the thread of belief, his performances with the Blockheads were entertaining, sometimes moving and woven tightly into the story of his life. At times I forgot that it was Serkis’ voice rather than Dury’s. His physical resemblance helped in the suspension of disbelief, though occasional close up shots of his face reminded me of a young Boy George. For once, any physical dissonance didn’t matter to me as a viewer, due to the quality of the story being told.

Dury’s life story was deftly handled, allowing us glimpses of his personality, his personal philosophies, his relationships and his attitudes to disability. Apart from a strange animated segue which informed us (tongue in cheek) of the dangers of polio and how he contracted it, it was disability rather than impairment concerns which predominated.

Disability issues were addressed in a direct and entertaining manner. Handled sensitively, seen primarily from his character’s viewpoint, the narrative took us into a number of areas which seem to be taboo in mainstream cinema. There were portrayals of incontinence and the consequent social humiliation, for example.

Subtly, but assertively, incidents such as this were tied into the abusive conditions Dury was subjected to as a child. Pivotal moments of bullying in a residential institution were revealed in flashback and related to his anger and outspoken attitudes to disability in his adult life, (scenes which included a number of disabled child actors).

Thankfully these vignettes were not used to make excuses for later excesses but helped to illustrate the wider canvas of his life, so often missing in biopics. The treatment he received in the ‘care’ of residential schoolmaster Hargreaves (Toby Jones) gave the audience an especially valuable flavour of the way disabled people have suffered abuse in institutions and how this may have fed into Dury’s ambitions, without distracting us from his talents as an entertainer.

Although we were encouraged to believe that early experiences of bullying had made him both angry and determined to succeed, this was not overdone and I left the cinema feeling as I had when I went in - that he was a talented and hugely entertaining performer, with a wonderfully idiosyncratic style and sharp political edge. Nonetheless, the firm focus put upon Dury’s musical career gave us little indication of his other creative talents, of his work in art, acting and teaching, nor of his second wife and their children.

The story told in the film focuses on four main areas of his adult life: his music and relationships with the band, his relationships with women, his relationship with his father and with his son. This added to a more nuanced portrayal of his personality allowing us a multidimensional (if fictionalised) understanding of most parts of his life.

Personally, I would have enjoyed seeing more of his relationships with the band, especially Chas Jankel. I was pleased to see that parenting played such a major role in the film but dismayed to find that it focussed almost exclusively on his son, Baxter, with few appearances of his daughter, Jemima. Whilst this may echo the reality of family relationships, the reasons were never made clear and I found myself wanting to know more about his relationships with his other children.

I do have some bias here, because I disliked the casting of his son Baxter, played by Bill Milner. Although I enjoyed Milner’s performance as Will in Son of Rambow (2007), he was miscast as Edward in ‘Is anybody there?’ (2008).

Edward is the son of a Northern couple who run a care home, befriending a new resident who is a retired magician (Michael Caine). This was a casting decision which ruined ‘Is anybody there?’ for me. His personality was one-dimensional and his efforts to ‘pass’ as a Northern, working-class lad were unconvincing.

Although Milner’s social background is probably nearer to that of the Dury family, there seemed to be no difference whatsoever between the portrayals of Edward and Baxter. At times I felt that he was living a double life; the one we could see on screen with Ian Dury, and another back at the care home.

Thankfully, there is little dissonance between Serkis’ performance and my initial preconceptions of Dury. Despite the minor technical flaws, I found the portrayal of his sexuality and relationships with women succeeded in reflecting a multi-dimensional picture of Dury’s character. Occasionally sleazy and insensitive, and often charming, we get impressions of many aspects of his personality, illuminating both his virtues and his shortcomings.

It became easy to see how he provoked both enormous affection and considerable hostility from both the women who were featured in the film, his first wife Betty and girlfriend Denise. Indeed, Dury came across as loud, gregarious and confident in this characterisation, the life and soul of the party, but I remain curious about any other sides to his personality.

As a teenager going out with my friends, I once met him and the Blockheads. We were invited backstage after a show and he seemed subdued. So I got the impression that his stage persona was quite different to his personal demeanour. Not that a man sitting quietly in a corner, with little to say would have made a very good film! Maybe he was depressed at being in Bradford - I know I was.

It is difficult to know how ‘true’ this impression of Ian Dury’s life is to ‘reality’ but it succeeded in communicating the importance of his contribution to music, entertainment and lyric writing in particular. Within the limitations of a biopic, the film also excels at presenting disability issues; it is direct and often subtle in its approach.

Whether or not Dury identified with Gene Vincent as a disabled musician, the (restrained) homage made to him and his influence on Dury is made very clear, demonstrating the power of disabled artists, the importance of collective histories and the legacies bequeathed to us all.

Check out the film trailer on You Tube

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 26 January 2010

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 5 February 2010

Alison Wilde reviews Avatar - the most expensive film yet made

Dearie dearie me...

A disabled character as the central protagonist, beautiful animation, Sigourney Weaver, a critical perspective on (inter-planetary) colonialism and anti environment values - what could possibly go wrong?

Okay, I admit it - I was seduced by the art of this film and the immersive experience, the 3D effects were subtle and added to its wonder (though it was sometimes a little difficult for the eyes). For the first day after seeing Avatar, I was ambivalent but less than critical of the story-telling. Now I am a little ashamed that I added to the box office takings.

Directed and written by James Cameron, the movie stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaner, Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang.

It’s hard to know where to start criticising this film (I could complain for hours) and part of me is loathe to spend a minute more of my life thinking about it. But here goes.

Despite good intentions, reminding us to respect cultures other than our own, to appreciate the value of things we cannot know and its obvious messages about the horrors of Western imperialism, the film’s plot is predictable, patronising, lazy, derivative and confused. Alongside many computer game figures, think Disney’s Pocohantas (American Indian princess figure) meets Studio Ghibli (especially Howl’s Moving Castle) and Dances with Wolves. But mostly Pocohontas, this time without the singing.

James Cameron (once again) has very low expectations of his vast audience. I did actually think of leaving the cinema when it was revealed that the RDA, a large mining organisation comprised of mercenaries, is on an expedition to the moon Pandora in search of (..sigh) unobtanium. As the name suggests, Pandora is run according to (ostensibly) matriarchal values by tall, blue, native aliens. Anyway, I stayed for what seemed an eternity, to the end of the film, so I could write a review but also because I thought my thirteen year old daughter was enjoying it (she wasn’t).

In a year that Simon McKeown used motion capture technology to represent real disabled people to creative and captivating effect, it seems wrong that Cameron should use the same technology and his obscenely massive budget to represent disability in such a poor and pointless manner.

Whereas McKeown created images, for posterity, of disabled people with impairments which are likely to be eradicated, Cameron’s story (set in the year 2154) revolves around a newly disabled marine, Jake Sully, who is played by a non-disabled actor Sam Worthington.

Adding insult to injury, Jake is asked to control a non-disabled lab grown avatar, modelled on the body of his newly-dead brother. When Jake is transported into the avatar’s body he is indistinguishable from the native population, the Na’vi, tall, athletic bipeds with tails. Unlike McKeown, Cameron uses the motion capture technology to transform Jake and the mission’s chief scientist, Grace (Sigourney Weaver), into avatars, whereupon Jake is rendered non-disabled (he returns to base, as disabled, when the avatar sleeps).

There is no apparent reason for this character to be disabled in the first place, other than to frame Jake’s moral dilemma; whether to put the good of the Na’vi before the before evil of the invaders. Taking a decision to side with the native people means Jake will remain disabled, as a human being, spurning Colonel Quaritch’s reward of ‘new legs’ for successful infiltration and relevant information.

So although the film is critical of Western military power, it simultaneously communicates a message of disabled warriors as heroes. And in the end, like many disabled male characters, Jake’s heroism is rewarded by the full restoration of his masculinity; the girl, the legs, the cultural power and the biggest ‘bird’ on the planet (I’ll come back to this).

As the title ‘Avatar’ suggests, the films major themes revolve around issues of technology and spirituality- Jake controls the Avatar (as a 3D , non-disabled representation of himself) in its life within the planet’s community and is an Avatar in a Hindu sense, in that he is becoming a new ‘Na’vi’ manifestation of his earthly self.

But, whilst we are being asked to identify with the more spiritual, interconnected and less violent realm of the Na’vi culture and despise military and imperialist values as weak and greedy, the battle’s outcome is dependant in the end on a single white American, marine; it all rests on Jake’s strength of power (and body). The nature/culture divide between the humans and the Na’vi is reinforced in many ways, not least by the voices of the Na’vi as Black, Native American and Hispanic, counterposed with the (predominantly) white invaders.

Predictably, Jake’s storyline includes his redemption through the love of a Na’vi princess and eventual cultural acceptance by the Na’vi. The storyline of love found, lost and found again is both banal and offensive. After she and the rest of the Na’vi renounce him for betraying them, his fate is suddenly transformed when, enacting a spiritual form of rape, he commandeers the toruk, the biggest bird (or flying beast) on the planet.

The smaller versions of this creature (known as ikrans) are used as a crucial form of transport between the moon and the floating Hallelujah mountains. The Na’vi people each choose their own ikran by mutual consent. The toruk, in contrast, is an enormous bird which is the spiritual equivalent of a Lamborghini. His descent on this beast instantly redeems Jake and renders him the new Na’vi leader, conceptualised as a new Messiah. Shallow.

Fans of action films will probably enjoy the extensive crash, bang, wallop scenes where the two cultures eventually clash. I found this hard to endure; tedious, noisy and very predictable.

Frankly, if I want to sit through a 162 minute film, based on CGI and/or motion capture technology, I’d rather it was one with more substance, like the Evian roller babies. Or better still Motion Disabled.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 14 January 2010

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 23 April 2010

Alison Wilde reviews all six episodes of Cast Offs being shown on Tuesday and Wednesday nights on Channel 4 at 11.05pm for the next three weeks

I was quite worried when I heard about Cast Offs. After waiting so long for better disability representations, Channels 4’s aim to challenge tedious old stereotypes by featuring real disabled actors in new types of roles seemed very ambitious.

There are so many issues to overcome. Is it possible to provide entertaining drama which appeals to both disabled and non-disabled viewers? How would Channel 4 represent a diverse group of people and reach a wide audience? And could this be done without creating nasty new stereotypes? Time will tell how well the programme is received, but the challenge to images of disability is unprecedented.

The first episode of Cast Offs sets the scene for the rest in the series in getting straight to the main points. Its ‘mockumentary' style allows the cast to ridicule reality TV formats, conventional stereotypes of disabled people and non-disabled people alike.

With a slight parody of reality TV genres, this spoof survival show set on a British island, allows us an uncompromising focus on relationships between disabled people. This is something we never seem to get with their incidental or temporary appearances as background characters in drama and comedy (as important as supporting roles may be).

Driven by humour, unsentimental attitudes towards impairment and abrasive relationships between the characters, the show wastes no time in establishing its ground.

Stereotypes are subverted from the start and people are mocked on the terms of their impairment status. No one and nothing escapes, including disability politics. Derision is used to create humour throughout the series, and is often related to Tom’s blindness, April’s cherubic face, Will’s thalidomide-affected arms, Dan’s paraplegic legs, Gabriella’s deafness, and Carrie’s restricted growth.

This feels particularly true of the first two episodes where talk about impairment and disability is often used to forge relationships between the characters and shape group dynamics, allowing us brief glimpses of their characters. We certainly get a feel for the rest of the show which we might expect to resemble ‘Lord of the Flies on crack’ as Tom predicts.

The progress of the castaways through their 90 days on the island is cut with flashbacks to each character's life and there is an immediate focus put on Dan. This was slightly disconcerting for me in this first episode as I found myself wanting to know more about the other characters and occasionally found myself a little lost. However, the series gets more compelling with each episode.

As the series proceeds, I became increasingly drawn into each person’s story, but simultaneously I wanted to see much more of their interactions on the island (though maybe this is because I've watched too much reality television). Overall, the series allows us to make strong attachments with all the characters while unravelling a number of disability themes along the way.

The first episode introduces several disability issues. Through time spent on the island and flashbacks of Dan’s life, three main issues arose: coming to terms with a new impairment and disabled identity; the roles of parents; and sexuality.

We witnessed the roles other disabled people play in forging new disabled identities, both in the macho environment of the pub and the basketball team and then on the island. Dan’s journey is a theme followed through in succeeding episodes.

The depiction of the relationships between Dan and his parents was excruciating to watch. This was an exceptional portrayal of family dynamics, demonstrating the demeaning effects of protective attitudes towards impairment. I felt this depiction of parenting had universal appeal and was handled well, providing a poignant depiction of a newly disabled family.

Watching Dan’s parents made me wince in recognition of my own parenting excesses - as well-meaning as they may be. Not funny! Nor was it represented as such.

Conversely, much of the humour about sex and sexuality was very funny. Up to a point. After a while I felt a little weary of the sexual references. Similarly, I was aware on several occasions that I was receiving a political message about disability and the ‘golden thread’ was broken a little.

On the whole, the script was very well written and very funny but some of the funniest moments, for me, were nothing to do with either sex or impairment. When April asks about dietary requirements and issues of vegetarianism and dairy products are brought up by Will and Gabriella, Tom (who gets many of the best lines) replies, ‘I prefer food cooked by other people.' A man after my own heart.

There is so much to be changed in disability representation and one show can only scratch the surface in changing representations of disabled people. Recent innovations such as Beyond Boundaries and Britain’s Missing Top Model have featured real disabled people but they didn’t tell us much about the reality of disabled people’s lives. Instead, they focussed mainly on endurance, perfection and non-disabled people’s ideals.

This time stereotypes are confronted and challenged. But we can’t avoid the creation of new ones. There is, for example, a risk that we may all be seen as witty, sardonic individuals. There is also a danger that disability will be referenced to only sensory and physical impairments, as issues of learning difficulties, cognitive impairments and mental health concerns aren’t addressed. I was also a little disappointed to find that the central characters were all white.

However, the main question being asked today seems to be, ’Should we laugh at disability?' Surely this question is framed in the language of ‘special needs’? It seems ironic that the biggest issue is about protecting us from laughter, a taboo which seems to be on a par with the denial of disabled sexualities. I have really enjoyed comedy created about disability and impairment by non-disabled writers, directors and performers, including the films of the Farrelly Brothers, Little Britain, comedy from Russell Brand and even Ricky Gervais.

But, occupying similar territory, this show has even more potential because (like Disability Arts) it puts disabled people centre stage as actors and writers, as creators and subjects of culture. Despite its flaws, this is a valuable and entertaining beginning.

Much has been achieved in the past from genres which rely on the situational humour of people speaking for and parodying themselves in oppressive structures. This has worked for women in comedies such as Golden Girls (NBC), French and Saunders (BBC) and Absolutely Fabulous. Who can forget the Goodness Gracious Me (BBC) characters who ordered bland food and chips in their ‘Going for an English’ sketch?

In a similar manner to these shows, the characters in Cast Offs have begun to parody disability, non-disabled values and the paradoxes of identity and inclusion.

There is much to look forward to in this series, not least the wonderful array of hats worn by Carrie. It gets better as it goes along and I was left wanting to see much more of the characters and perhaps some new ones. Let’s hope so!

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 25 November 2009

Last modified by Anonymous, 26 November 2009

Alison Wilde reviews the latest Terry Gilliam film - The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus went on general release in October 2009. It was directed by Terry Gilliam and written by Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown. It stars Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Verne Troyer, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield and Tom Waits, with Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell.

For me, the imperfections of this film add to its pleasures. It is not the easiest story to follow. I had to watch it twice to appreciate the many tales that were being told within a complex narrative. This however seems entirely in keeping with a film which, above all else, is a hymn to the power of storytelling and the possibilities of the human imagination.

This is most obviously seen in the magical powers of the Imaginarium itself - Doctor Parnassus’s travelling theatre and the land of imagination behind its mirrored doors. Stepping through these doors, audiences enter into the depths of their own imaginations, channelled by Doctor Parnassus’s hallucinatory trances.

Featuring Verne Troyer as Percy, Doctor Parnassus’s wise, long-suffering assistant, I was particularly interested in seeing whether disabled characters’ stories would be told. Let’s face it, people of restricted growth seldom fare well in fairy tales.

I wasn’t disappointed. This is an ensemble piece, where the characters’ lives are intertwined in both reality and fantasy. Percy has a place in several tales of morality where his status as a disabled person is largely irrelevant. He has a central advisory role to play in his relationship with Parnassus, a former eastern monk, often acting as his conscience.

Similarly, he has helped Doctor Parnassus struggle with the consequences of a Faustian pact for immortality made with the devil, Mr Nick (Tom Waits), many centuries before. To cut a complex story very short, the Doctor is faced with handing his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) to the Devil. That is until he is offered a new challenge: a chance to win her back.

The moral poles of good and evil seem to be embodied in Doctor Parnassus and Mr Nick. Similarly, collective storytelling and the power of the imagination are pitted against individual choice and consumerist pleasures and there is an ongoing dialogue on the values of difference and ‘normality’. For instance, Valentina’s secret dream is to build a perfect home and a nuclear family, having dedicated a shrine to snippets from ‘Ideal Home’ magazine.

Greed, status and moral choice are futher themes that dominate in the visitors’ experiences of the Imaginarium and in the journey made by Tony (Heath Ledger), after he is rescued by the troupe (he is found hanging from Blackfriar’s Bridge, in circumstances which echo Roberto Calvi’s death). Accordingly, in the phantasamogorical world beyond the Imaginarium’s mirrored doors we are treated to lurid scenes of rabid consumerism and naked ambition, which feature death, destruction and ‘purification’ along the way.

As a member of a travelling sideshow troupe, Percy’s role as a circus attraction ‘freak’ is familiar territory. A number of opportunities for transgression however are seized.

From the start of the film we are witnesses to the prejudice and hostility of non-disabled people. He is the main target of abuse from the feral (and rather stereotyped) northern tourists and is subjected to the contempt of local policemen and insults from Tony.

Sparring between these two characters brought the film to life, rescuing Percy from his somewhat martyred role as the Doctor's guardian, and providing Verne Troyer with some of the best dialogue in the film. When Tony regains consciousness after his rescue, he asks where he is and Percy replies, ‘Geographically, somewhere in London; socially, on the margins; and narratively, some way to go.'

At times like this, it appears that Percy is the prime storyteller, a status that is reflected in the subversion of the Rumplestiltskin role. This is seen most obviously in the fight to rescue Valentina from the Devil. In my pleasure at viewing such a strong and relatively nuanced disabled character, I found myself trying to forgive the worst lines of the film: Doctor Parnassus asks, ‘What would I do without you?' And Percy’s reply? ‘Get a midget.'

In the wake of Heath Ledger’s death, the casting of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell presented the multiple personalities of Tony beyond the mirrored doors in a disturbing though seamless manner. These performances added to the portrayal of Tony as a slippery, sleazy if charming man, the disgraced leader of a children’s charity ‘Suffer the Children’. Tony first appears as a grubby saint dressed in a white suit, soiled from his near-death experiences This demeanour unravels throughout the film. Even the Devil disapproves of his charitable deeds.

Many of this film’s pleasures are, for better or worse, made possible through extravagant visual landscapes and carnivalesque scenes featuring Tony, Valentina and the Puckish Anton (Andrew Garfield). Despite its flaws and the sad history of its production, this is a wonderful fairy tale for our time. Both entertaining and disturbing, it deals with the complexity of moral choice, lampooning charity and challenging social hierarchy with its focus on the grotesque  remaining firmly on consumerism, greed and ruthless ambition.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 12 November 2009

Last modified by Anonymous, 12 November 2009

Alison Wilde takes a look at Snow Cake - starring Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver and Carrie Ann Moss.

Snow Cake went on general release in September 2006. It was directed by Marc Evans, written by Angela Pell and stars Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver and Carrie Ann Moss.

"I know all about autism, I’ve seen that movie" is the most memorable and ironic line in Snow Cake. With inevitable similarities to Rainman and other schmaltz ridden or ‘worthy’ tales, this story centres on Linda Freeman (Sigourney Weaver), a woman who has autism. However, the main emphasis is put upon Alex Hughes (Alan Rickman), a man who is reluctantly embarking on a journey of self-understanding, instigated by Linda’s hitchhiking daughter, Vivienne Freeman (Emily Hampshire).

The story of Linda and Alex (and his romance with Linda’s neighbour Maggie, played by Carrie-Ann Moss) really begins when he visits Linda to confess that he was the driver of the car in which Vivienne died. The rest of the film is centred upon the growing relationship between Linda and himself and their interactions with the local community.

The story is well acted and frequently moving but it misses opportunities to create greater authenticity, such as casting a disabled actor. Avoiding the common discourses of exceptionality and cognitive impairment, Linda is portrayed, overall, as quirky and prone to frustration. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of her characterisation is her apparent lack of sexuality. Just to make this point absolutely clear, Linda comments that the sound of her daughter experiencing orgasm was akin to her own superior pleasures of eating snow, a central motif as the title suggests.

Nonetheless, we are encouraged to learn new perspectives on autism, particularly in understanding the importance of disabled people’s independence and of the underestimated possibilities of disabled parenting. Perhaps most crucially it underlines the value to disabled people of empathetic forms of social support, especially when members of the community become a little more involved in the grieving process.

Despite portrayals of the actions of the local community as a prime cause of Linda’s difficulties, the story generally sticks to the usual strategy of using impairment as a deviation from cultural norms - ironically, music for the film was provided by Broken Social Scene.

Occasionally the disabling effects of cultural norms are put under the spotlight, including the harassment Linda is subjected to by the local law enforcement officer. Most movingly, this is accomplished when Linda dances at her daughter’s wake, to the disgust of local community members. This is the film’s greatest strength; the portrayal of prejudice as the greatest disability of all.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 20 October 2009

Last modified by Anonymous, 8 November 2009