Radical, angry, creative: British women lead a screen revolution

The Golden Globe nominations prove that the industry is in the throes of a sea change for female writers and directors

Corks popped across the film industry when three female directors made history by getting Golden Globe nominations last week. Alongside Regina King and Chloé Zhao was British newcomer Emerald Fennell, until now best known as Camilla in The Crown and for stepping into Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s shoes as show runner on Killing Eve. Her alarming feminist thriller, Promising Young Woman, picked up a clutch of coveted nominations.

“When those directors’ names were announced I ran around the room screaming,” said Jessica Hobbs, one of the directors on The Crown. “I messaged Emerald who couldn’t believe it. I told her I knew it was coming.”

Yet, audible above the celebratory hubbub, an angry question was being asked. How could Michaela Coel’s celebrated and urgent BBC series, I May Destroy You, possibly have been overlooked?

If such noisy anger is something women are more comfortable with these days, then Coel, Fennell and Waller-Bridge have something to do with it. Together with a handful of others, they represent a new wave in British entertainment that takes no prisoners. Hobbs believes their arrival has changed the scripts that woman will write for ever. “We always wanted these radically interesting voices, but now they no longer feel like they are in the slipstream,” she said, expressing faith that Coel’s show would be recognised at the Emmys.

Both Promising Young Woman, a heightened revenge tragedy starring Carey Mulligan, and Coel’s show are powered by righteous fury, not only from the lead character, but in the storytelling itself. They come from different creative impulses, but are part of an identifiable challenge to the way women have been portrayed. Both dramas let the history of a sexual assault unfold in undiluted form. And both allow the women at the centre of the mysteries to show pain and confusion.

“The floodgates have opened and so, of course, you get a lot of dead bodies flowing through,” said British playwright Tamsin Oglesby. “These are not all revenge dramas exactly, but the result is often to reject a man. Romance is not what it used to be in that sense, and never will be, but they also pose the question, ‘OK, what do we want then?’”

Alongside Coel and Fennell stands not just Waller-Bridge, who turned the tables with her funny series Fleabag, but Billie Piper , playwright Lucy Prebble and their acclaimed Sky drama I Hate Suzie. This show dared to put a dislikable celebrity in the middle of a darkly honest portrayal of fame. Darker still is Piper’s own directorial debut, Rare Beasts, released in May. Piper plays Mandy, a damaged single mother negotiating the expectations of a malevolent new boyfriend. Talking about the film, which Piper also wrote, she has said: “This is a film about what it means, and what it costs, to be female.”

Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You was snubbed at the Golden Globes, despite widespread critical acclaim.
Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You was snubbed at the Golden Globes, despite widespread critical acclaim. Photograph: Natalie Seery/BBC

These furious dramas are remarkable for the unashamed intimacy they put on screen and because they do not bother with standard “relatable” heroines. The central characters are at a loss and frequently vengeful, although to suggest they all follow the same path would be criminally reductive. At most they do seem parallel symptoms of an angry moment.

“‘Angry’ is a difficult word for women, as it’s always been regarded as an unseemly emotion. Female desire has also always been incendiary. It is what witches were made of,” said Oglesby, who is now writing a TV series, but is best known for the play Future Conditional. “There is something fantastically unsentimental about these new stories. It is liberating and there’s a feeling that at last we can write about what we want. It is not totally new, of course. When Brecht first went to Hollywood, he said the tagline for his screenplay would be ‘Boy meets girl. So what?’”

For anyone wondering what has caused all this anger, well, at least they are asking the question. It could be to do with lower pay, lower status, widespread abuse and a traditional pressure to be nicer than men, but each writer has their own beef. In Rare Beasts Piper describes a woman’s lot as “scratching around for crumbs and daylight”.

Suzanne Mackie, an executive producer of The Crown, welcomed this fresh agenda as she celebrated her own Golden Globe nominations: “We are in the wake of the #MeToo moment and its tendrils are powerful; they get everywhere. There is a kind of reckoning going on that will eventually settle.”

She has already found that female writers and directors are suddenly easier to hire. “When you wanted women there used to be a huge waiting list for the established names. There has been a sea change during the eight years I have been doing The Crown.”

Oglesby warns that if retribution becomes the only voice of women in drama it will be self-defeating. The key, she suspects, is to appreciate the perspectives of other characters. “There was a lot of anger driving Fleabag, but it took issue with situations, rather than with the people.”

Hobbs believes these stories are already inclusive and not just for female audiences. “I loved the rub between the male and female leads in Fleabag. Men are also glad to see women as they have always really been.” She watched I May Destroy You with her director husband. “He gripped my hand, saying ‘this is the greatest thing ever made!’ So it is for everyone. The floodgates have opened to female storytellers and funnily enough there is a lot of stuff to say.”


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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