S/cene [3]: The Crown – Beryl (Episode 4)

S/cene [1]: https://robsfocuspull.blog/2017/07/03/scene-1-the-social-network/

S/cene [2]: https://robsfocuspull.blog/2017/07/03/scene-2-fight-club/

 

The idea of S/cene is to break films down a little more closely and see how nuanced the art of film-making can be.  This time I’ve chosen a short scene from Episode 4 (Beryl) of The Crown.  It’s a stunning TV series that has the production values of a big movie.  I enjoyed the first season (though I did have some problems with it, found here: https://robsfocuspull.blog/2017/07/03/defusing-the-tension-in-drama/).  This second season, however, is a real triumph and each episode is made with gorgeous precision.  As soon as I saw this particular scene I knew I could write about it…

 

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Shooting Princess Margaret

To give this moment some context, it occurs around 37 minutes into episode 4.  This episode is where the season diverts from Queen Elizabeth to branch out to the other characters surrounding her.  It focuses on her sister Margaret who is having a torrid time romantically.  She is one of the most interesting characters of the series because of her ability to be more open with the way she acts.  I also think she is played superbly by Vanessa Kirby, who makes her both vulnerable and fearsome.  Recently, at some lavish (though slightly left-field of the monarchy) party, she met photographer Tony Armstrong – Jones, who is played by Matthew Goode.  It’s casting brilliance because Goode fits perfectly into this world, and has a striking look for a striking character.  The pair have an instant, if jagged, chemistry and when Tony offers to take a photo of her she takes it up – desperate for some fresh air.

The scene opens with Margaret pensively coming into Tony’s studio alone.  Outside the door window is a bright natural sunlight, somewhat symbolising the safety Margaret is leaving.  There’s a non-diegetic soundtrack on the go that is ticking, which is increasing the tension like a thriller would.  Tony shouts: “Upstairs” as soon as she opens the door, indicating very quickly just who is in charge here.  She passes a photograph of several men huddling around and staring at a singular woman.  This background image echoes Margaret’s life in the spotlight and the constant criticism she receives.  It then cuts to her sat waiting under the lights for Tony, and the soundtrack fades away.

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Next, Tony strolls in.  Unlike Margaret (who has a dress on), he is dressed casually with a loose tie and light coloured trousers.  His face is extremely thin, drawn out but still pleasant.  It’s this peculiarity in his looks that makes the camera draw to him, and make us follow his every move.  He says nothing as he enters and then retreats away.  Suddenly the light is on her, and off him.  He’s in the dark, adding more to the mystery of his character.  Purposefully he is making noise to unsettle her and it cuts between them.  They light a cigarette at the same time from different rooms, showing their connection and obvious chemistry.  Margaret gets up to look outside – perhaps thinking of an escape.

Eventually Tony returns to the room and removes his shoes, which enumerates more calmness to his nature.  He starts casually taking photos, and Margaret is clearly fond of him as she smiles.  Despite this effort at a bond from her, his dialogue is sharp – making sure he stays on top of this exchange.  Tony brings up her former lover Peter Townsend who she was forced away from, and the conversation becomes passive aggressive.  He’s edging closer; awkwardly pushing his camera forwards as the sexual tension grows.  The ticking soundtrack begins again.  It cuts to the side of them, almost a wide, in one of my favourite shots I’ve seen for a while.  The screen is split in almost two, her on the left out of the light and the camera on the right in the light.  He is invading her life as he moves the camera into the frame – breaking down her insecurities.  Standing over her, you can’t see his face as he moves her, then slightly pulls down her dress.  It’s a move of total power dominance, yet also sensuality as she gasps.  Tony has walked right into her world and taken over it.  The camera then follows him back and he says: “Do you miss him?” and she replies: “Sometimes”.  He takes the picture.

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This scene is excellent because it reveals so much about the characters in a short space of time.  Like the rest of The Crown it’s wonderfully executed – the lighting is warm, the camera moves gently and the acting is captivating.  Director Benjamin Caron really makes the scene engaging with all the subtle choices he makes, and allows this relationship to be fun to watch.  The Crown is so great because of how it’s made, not necessarily because of its content.  It’s the style of the show that makes it standout, and hopefully it’s been a good example of how the techniques of film-making (tv-making) are what creates the enjoyment of watching.

Defusing the Tension in Drama

Everything that I write on here is completely opinionated and backed up with the smallest amount of substance, but sometimes I think that what I have to say has enough knowledge behind it to be sort of valid.  This could be one of those times, because the art of ruining or ‘defusing’ drama is a part of storytelling that I have been noticing more and more recently. And by this I mean that in a film or a TV show (a Netflix show will become my prime example), where there is a sudden break in the drama.  In which you are quickly disengaged with the details on screen and you return back to the real world.

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My main case study for this will be the Netflix programme The Crown, which I have recently started watching.  Now, some things to get out of the way:  I am only 3 episodes in, so far I’m really enjoying it and this is a tiny critique from a small segment of episode 2.  The segment being the part where a young Queen Elizabeth (then Princess) and Prince Phillip are on a Commonwealth tour in Kenya.  Before this scene there has been a tension brewing, because the Kings death is drawing closer, meaning of course that Elizabeth will soon take the throne. The series is in its early stages so it is delicately spinning the narrative web and carefully introducing its characters.  It is richly shot, with a high density of field (I use this phrase to describe that there is a lot to be drawn visually from each scene).  Then, the defusing comes, and in the shape of an Elephant.

If you have seen the show you will know instantly what I mean, but there is effectively a few minutes in the episode where Phillip and Elizabeth have to evade an Elephant. Firstly, I don’t quite understand the point of this scene, is it to foreshadow dangers to come?  Is it to show Prince Phillip as some sort of hero for Elizabeth to rely on?  It’s certainly not to show the wonder of the animal because they pretty much play that out later in the episode.  Whatever it was there for, it felt completely out of place.  There was no colouring in of the characters gained from this scene, nor a real sense of suspense or danger.  It did not work for me on any level, and I found it all a bit silly.  The CGI was not particularly well done and I’m uneasy about the movements taken by the actors present in the scene. So, from this, all the drama had been killed.  I was taken out of the world and thrown into some weird voyeuristic safari park.  Hence, a massive defuse drama.

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I’m afraid that this has made me come across as some angry broadsheet film critic, but it really highlights what I mean when I’m taken out of the drama.  It is the main reason I can never get fully invested in a superhero or big budget movie, because they are usually full of these moments.  They are put in there as either time fillers, or a feeling that they have to put in some form of action scene at certain time stamps.  Yet, scenes of action or heightened situations can work well in drama.  For example, in the 2014 film A Most Violent Year pretty much nothing happens in its entire run time.  The drama and intrigue comes, like in The Crown, with its interesting characters and dense scenery.  However, when the small parts of excitement come, they blend rhythmically with the rest of the drama.  There is a chase scene in the film that is equally gripping as it is dramatic, because it feels like it is meant to be there. It is clearly hard to balance those moments in, but when it doesn’t work, it is so so obvious.

Side-note:  This is probably the most stupid thing I have ever written because it is nitpicking at the highest degree.  The Crown so far is really great and I bet if I went through some of my favourite things of all time they would all have little things that really annoyed me.  Mostly I think it is like in my mind every filmmaker has to play by my own sick rules.  Though I guess that’s what an opinion is.

ALSO, the director of A Most Violent Year (J. C. Chandor) directed Margin Call, where again nothing happens, but it’s still so bloody tense.