The bastard of hope is disappointment. Three new films, Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen Brothers), The Armstrong Lie (Alex Gibney) and The Invisible Woman (Ralph Fiennes) concern protagonists who want to believe, in something or someone, and whose belief is thwarted. The unreasonableness of hope – the gradual withering of its credibility – is examined in these films. Through varying explorations of this common theme, the alienation of expectation is revealed to us, the aspect of being human that irresistibly obliges us to delude ourselves in the name of our desires.
The Coen Brothers’ latest offering concerns a quasi-fictitious, failing American folk musician in the 1960s, whose bandmate has recently committed suicide (the film was based very loosely on the biography of folk singer Dave Van Ronk). Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie is a documentary taking the disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong as its subject. When Gibney began making the film in 2009, Armstrong had not yet been consumed by the doping scandal which would see him stripped of his seven Tour de France wins; by the end of the film’s production, the disabusing of the public, including Gibney, as to Armstrong’s deceit was complete. The Invisible Woman, Fiennes’ second film as director, is an adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s eponymous book. The film observes the clandestine relationship between Charles Dickens (played by Fiennes himself) and Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), a young actress. Inside Llewyn Davis’s titular protagonist (Oscar Isaac) fails to achieve objectives both crucial and relatively inconsequential, while through The Armstrong Lie we feel that the filmmaker has been let down by his subject (“he had lied to me, straight to my face,” Gibney says with obvious indignation in one voiceover); and Dickens is unable to fulfil Ternan’s expectations, refusing to publically acknowledge a mistress as it would damage his reputation.
In Inside Llewyn Davis, our protagonist spends much time in transit between places, whether on the metro, with the appealing but mischievous tabby cat he has acquired by accident, desperately hitchhiking home to New York from Chicago, or couch-surfing. The message is clear; he’s not getting anywhere. As he hitchhikes, we see lengthy shots, showing the back-window glass of the car he travels in and its indistinct raindrops, blurred with red tail-lights and the night; all of Davis’s journeys are long and their ‘point’ unfathomable. It feels as though Davis painfully travels almost in real time, in his convoluted attempts to make things right both with the fugitive cat, and with the wittily contemptuous Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan), who may or may not be pregnant with Davis’s child. Farcical and funny though the situations thrust upon Davis are, the weariness that Isaac lends him gives us the impression that Davis is just going through the motions; he has already given up, almost as though he already knows what will happen next.
The source of the sap on Davis’s ability to do anything successfully, other than his own immaturity, seems to be the skilfully handled suicide of his musical partner, Mike. The reasons for Mike’s suicide are never revealed, it is unsensational fact; we never even see what Mike looked like. The dulling burden of Davis’s grief is alluded to in the lack of pleasure he seems to derive from his music, how it seems even to irk him; “I hate folk!” he rants, the loneliness of his failure conveyed through close-up shots.
Davis’s underplayed grief is suggested as an ongoing source of personal stagnation; Gibney’s real-life anger with Armstrong cauterises him as a filmmaker. He clearly feels that Armstrong personally deceived him: “he owed me an explanation”, Gibney explains. Critics have suggested that the film falters in the lack of real answers that are given by Armstrong in his words to Gibney; they too want to know what really happened. The film’s apparent fault reveals to us more about ourselves than about Armstrong. The feeling that Armstrong’s ‘lie’, to use the title’s emotively charged language, was told to us personally, emerges; he betrayed our investment in him. Armstrong’s actions were shocking but maybe he got away with them for so long because, as the filmmaker admits, we wanted to believe.
Whilst Armstrong broke the heart of the world’s public, Ternan, the ‘invisible woman’ of Fiennes’ film, privately suffers the awful realisation that Dickens values the love of the British public more than that which she can offer him. Dickens tries to have his cake and eat it, going to more and more elaborate lengths to maintain a double life, unable to see that he has become a character worthy of his own writing. The film is about Dickens’s multiple lives, but Ternan reasonably asks, “What life is there for me?” Of course, we have sympathy for Dickens, unable to divorce his wife, with a juicy and therefore potentially ruinous secret. This is essentially the old tale of the classically flawed artist: brilliant, but a personal failure; behaving badly towards his wife and his lover, all in the name of his love affair with the British public. The Invisible Woman suggests that great artists will always fail in their private lives, because the love that they will always return to is their work.
The disenfranchised hope of Inside Llewyn Davis is sad but gently conveyed; in The Armstrong Lie it is sensational but unexplained; and in The Invisible Woman it is unfair but forgivable. These films are really about our expectations of people who are inadequately equipped to fulfil them; the film medium helps us to realise this, but our position as spectators is somehow privileged. Exempt from the film worlds in which these flawed characters operate, we are given the choice to watch with either judgement or compassion.
A one-off screening of The Invisible Woman, including a Q&A session with director Ralph Fiennes, will take place at 1.45pm on Saturday 1st February at the Phoenix Picturehouse.