Monday, 1 February 2010

Mo, Channel 4

Here's a quick review of Mo that I wrote last night for Orange.

From a more writerly point-of-view, I thought that screenwriter Neil McKay did a good job of combining the private and public aspects of Mo Mowlam's later life. The film moved beyond regular biopic material with thought-provoking stuff like the suggestion that she could have had her brain tumour for years before it was diagnosed. As a result, all the things that set Mo apart from other politicians - her lack of inhibition, straight-talking etc - could have been symptoms of the disease rather than her own characteristics.

Although Julie Walters is obviously a brilliant actress, I was a bit worried by the casting in the first few minutes, as it seemed hard to look beyond the actress to the character beneath. The opening ten minutes also had more pat-the-dog moments than last year's Crufts, as it was made clear to us that the lusty, pint-swigging, approachable and committed public servant wasn't like other MPs. That made it look a bit like it was going to be a hagiography, but the tone soon became much more complex.

I'm not an expert on the subject, but McKay seemed to steer an efficient way through the complications of the Northern Ireland peace process in which Mo played such a large part (although there appeared to be quite a bit of info-dumping, followed by Mo sighing in exasperation, "Do you think I don't know that?")

More than anything, though, I think McKay's script showed that research is the key to an drama that goes beyond the obvious and makes us see the subject in a new light. He clearly conducted extensive interviews with those close to Mo, and seeing her life from every angle offered him a greater number of choices and the ability to draw links between the various aspects of Mo's life. Even if you're not writing a biopic, doing thorough research on your arena or the subject you want to examine will give you all the ammunition you need.

Link: Interview with Julie Walters, Neil McKay and director Philip Martin (found by tireless blogger and screenwriter's friend Robin Kelly)

Anyway, here's the Orange review:

Mo Mowlam was that rarest of things: a politician who people trusted – and even liked. This engaging but ultimately harrowing film, starring national treasure Julie Walters, soon painted a vivid picture of the Mo we thought we knew: earthy, unpretentious, committed and with a gift for puncturing pomposity.

The film started in the run-up to the historic 1997 election, when Mo was suddenly diagnosed with a brain tumour. The prognosis: two to three years. However, despite her concerns over her political future, the news of her illness cemented her as a public hero – “the people's politician” – in sharp contrast to the slimy Peter Mandelson (Steven Mackintosh), who kept turning up like a bad smell throughout the film.

After the election victory came the main part of Mo's story, as she was given the seemingly poisoned chalice of the Northern Ireland job. The film combined the personal and political aspects of her life, as her unorthodox political style broke down long-standing barriers. However, as the peace process reached its climax, Tony Blair began to take over, snaffling much of the glory for the historic Good Friday Agreement. Her authority also began to diminish as the new institutions began to take shape.

Before long – after a jaw-dropping pregnancy scare – it became clear that Mo's final decline had started. Her paranoia about the “devious c***” Mandelson proved justified as he was given Northern Ireland and she was shunted aside. With her anger and bitterness towards Tony Blair eating away at her, and without a strong political challenge to drive her forward, her illness began to take over.

The last part of the film was difficult – even heartbreaking – to watch, but it was also admirably candid about the difficulties that faced Mo and those around her as she approached the end of her life. Feeling that her life had meant nothing, she started to lash out at those closest to her, before finally finding peace again. She died in August 2005, at the age of 55.

This film was an honest and worthy tribute to this complicated woman, and Julie Walters' typically committed performance – supported ably by David Haig as her husband, Jon Norton – made it compelling viewing. With public faith in our MPs at rock bottom, it was a reminder of how unique a figure Mo Mowlam really was.

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