BINGE-R #42: Outlander + Friday Night Films
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All 16 episodes now streaming, plus season two
Quietly appearing on Netflix recently after debuting elsewhere, Outlander puts a smart, welcome perspective on both the travel back in time thriller and the period adventure by placing a woman – Catriona Balfe’s Claire Randall – at the centre of the narrative. Challenging convention let alone time’s flow, the character allows for nuance in the plotting, albeit with the risk of exploitation in how the new age’s barbarity is impressed upon her. Adapted from Diana Gabaldon’s novels, the British-American co-production develops with steady assurance – I found the first three episodes intriguing despite a problematic issue we’ll get to, and there’s obvious scope for it to deepen.
It begins in 1946, with World War II six months over and Claire, a discharged army nurse, on a second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands with her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies), after five years apart. Outlander doesn’t rush, and it takes most of the first episode for Claire, due to unexplained phenomena and mystical stones, to be sent back to 1743. This allows showrunner Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica) to establish the marital bond – “sex was our bridge back to each other,” observes Claire, and they cross that bridge repeatedly – and plenty of handy historic fact, courtesy of Frank’s genealogy hobby, that is suddenly all too real when English redcoats and kilted Scottish warriors are exchanging musket fire.
Claire soon meets her husband’s ancestor, English officer ‘Black Jack’ Randall (also Menzies, but back to his usual menace), whose sword to her throat and attempted rape illustrates both the era’s casual brutality from the southern occupiers and failings in the Randall family tree. Struggling with disbelief, Claire takes charge to save the wounded Jamie (Sam Heughan), the hunkiest of the Scottish rebels who rescue her from ‘Black Jack’ despite their suspicion about her English accent. She is forthright with her new hosts, which alarms them. A male character in the same scenario would swiftly win his hosts over by besting the English, but Claire has to be careful with her decisions. Having to choose when to act adds a level of suspense to the storytelling.
The problem? Too much of this, already conveyed by the tense turns and fiercely striking environment, is explicitly stated in Claire’s overly generous narration. New programs nervous about how they’ll be received can overplay their hand, and that’s what Outlander initially does. It’s not necessary because not only is Balfe a worthy heroine, the chemistry between Claire and Jamie, who has his own secrets, is obvious. Be warned, however: don’t play a drinking game involving Heughan being shirtless – you’ll get hammered. Still, switching the gender roles so that Jamie’s appraised by the camera before it returns to Claire is typical of the show’s strengths: by going back it takes a step forward.
>> Bonus Binge: For a further take on England’s subjugation of Scotland in the 18th century, watch Rob Roy on Stan. Michael Caton-Jones’ harsh 1995 drama, which stars Liam Neeson, Jessica Lange and Tim Roth, is a sturdy tale with a vengeful kick.
THREE WEEKEND MOVIES
If you want an innovative documentary…
Casting JonBenet (Netflix, 2017, 80 minutes): A fascinating true crime documentary that never shows its real life subjects, just multiple fictional depictions, Casting JonBenet uses the infamous and still unsolved 1996 murder of six-year-old Boulder child beauty pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey in her family home to examine America’s obsession with crime, the escalation of conspiracies and the need of outsiders to join together in their judgment. Australian filmmaker Kitty Green (Ukraine is Not a Brothel) cuts between the auditions and intimations of unknowns hoping to portray those involved in the case, particularly JonBenet’s parents Patsy and John, and in their neediness to belong the cast chart the public’s obsession with the case and their own culpability (“I have personal experience with murder,” says one actor with self-promoting confidence). Just when you think the film’s petered out, Green puts the many hopefuls in character on set, dreamily panning across them to create a finale that ties them and the case into endless, unknowing tragedy.
If you’re after a pithy Irish crime comedy…
In Bruges (Stan, 2008, 108 minutes): A film ultimately about how the truths we carry are inescapable, In Bruges follows the poor attempt of two London-based Irish criminals – Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) – to lay low in the picturesque Belgian city following a hit. The former is a time-worn veteran, the latter his impish, guilt-ridden offsider, and between them they’re a showcase for the mordantly logical exchanges that mark the work of playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh; Farrell, using his native accent, has never been funnier or more charismatic. The supporting cast includes Peter Dinklage as a sketchy American actor, Clemence Poesy as a laidback love interest, and Ralph Fiennes as the duo’s threatening boss. It’s only after the furious finale recedes into melancholic acceptance that you realise how involved the drily madcap story has become.
If you prefer a stark American drama…
Winter’s Bone (SBS on Demand, 2010, 96 minutes): Debra Granik’s uncompromising low-budget drama was the film that made Jennifer Lawrence, who was Academy Award-nominated (and quickly cast in her first X-Men blockbuster) for her portrayal of Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old trying to safeguard the remnants of her family and their home after her father, a talented but unreliable methamphetamine cook, skips out on his bail. Ree’s quest takes her into the crime clans that populate the backblocks of America’s Ozarks Mountains, a cloistered and blood-bound world where drugs and money have ground down the margins of what is acceptable. Lawrence gives Ree a quiet strength that at its bleakest moments, such as when extended family members beat her down for persisting in her search, reveal a lifetime’s duress and shards of coping humour. Thankfully, neither Ree nor the movie pass judgment.
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