Binge-r #109: Harlots + Private Life
Streaming Service: SBS on Demand
Availability: All eight episodes now streaming
Set in 1763 London where mud hems the finest of frocks and one in five women are sex workers, Harlots is a bracing, unapologetic drama about the brothel business and female agency that manages to contain and contrast the many contradictions that it encompasses. With commanding turns from Samantha Morton and Lesley Manville as madams whose enmity stretches back decades, the SBS on Demand show – which adds a second season for streaming today – has been underappreciated since debuting last year. Don’t let it be mistakenly written off as a romp.
There is frequent sex, but the camera never salaciously dwells and the perspective is always from that of the prostitutes – whether marking time or making bank – and the cleavage could be from a Benny Hill Show episode, but the series is predicated on women finding a business, a living, or simply a means of survival in a world that disenfranchises them. “Money is a woman’s only power in this world,” Morton’s Margaret Wells declares, emphasising the point by taking sealed bids for the virginity of her teenage daughter, Lucy (Eloise Smyth). The bitter reality of how this world works is not glossed over, it’s acknowledged as a means of testing the limits of the characters and their willingness to defy it.
Margaret’s payday for Lucy is meant to finish the financing of a move from the slums of Covent Garden to a house in Soho, putting her in competition with Manville’s steely, refined Lydia Quigley, whose airy establishment hosts the city’s ruling class. Peppered with period argot and sabotage, their feuding drives the narrative forward. Morton gives Margaret a grimly sardonic cackle that rarely indicates mere enjoyment, while Manville doubles down on the cold fury of her turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, suggesting that her refinement is merely the thinnest veneer atop controlling rage.
Creators Alison Newman and Moira Buffini – who use female directors throughout the first season – draw in numerous relationships and scenarios, including Margaret’s oldest daughter, Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay), who has graduated to being a successful courtesan maintained by an idiotic noble who in the apt words of his angry wife is “a fopdoodle”. Male characters never take over the narrative, staying in supporting roles that often emphasise their inability to see beyond their sexual needs (the show doesn’t stint on Englishman kink). Disease and deprivation are never far away, matched by acts of solidarity and private tenderness, and it’s all sped up by a contemporary score and pulp friction. There’s no pause for moody contemplation, but that doesn’t mean Harlots can’t recognise the stinging acceptance and contemporary allusions that underpin this Georgian era rivalry.
Private Life (Netflix, 2018, 124 minutes): Netflix has a slate of prominent original movies appearing by the week right now, so naturally the best one of them has virtually no profile. Shot through with bittersweet observation and a peculiar tension that grows as hopes evaporate, Private Life is about a downtown Manhattan couple, Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti), struggling to become parents. The two go through medical procedures that are comical until they’re failed, and recall the trauma of being catfished by a pregnant young mother claiming to want adoption parents, but whatever is transpiring writer/director Tamara Jenkins (2007’s The Savages, also now on Netflix) is always invoking parallel observations that reveal the demands of their quest. At what point, the movie asks, does the pressure to create a life torpedo the relationship of the people trying? The leads are an intuitive match, with Hahn’s combustible emotions – enhanced by Rachel’s chemical regimen – defining the limits of Giamatti’s sympathy and succour. A young and uncertain niece, Sadie (Kayli Carter), becomes part of their plans, and you realise that lives of all kinds take shape in this small but valuable film.
New on Netflix: Writer/director Paul Greengrass (United 93, the Bourne franchise) applies his jagged examination of extremist acts to the 2011 far right massacre in Norway for 22 July (2018, 143 minutes), moving from carnage to aftermath; Casino (1995, 178 minutes) is Martin Scorsese’s Las Vegas epic, with Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and a terrific Sharon Stone as powerful individuals who can’t adapt to organised crime’s brutal evolution.
New on SBS on Demand: David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981, 99 minutes) is a crucial body horror film – an eerie urban conspiracy thriller where the mind’s powers overwhelm physical form; I Am Not a Witch (2017, 89 minutes) is a bracing satire of dogma and discrimination, with filmmaker Rungano Nyoni telling the story of an eight-year-old Zambian girl caught up by institutionalised accusations of witchcraft.
New on Stan: Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World (2017, 133 minutes) is a workmanlike kidnap thriller set in a fractured 1970s Italy, but Christopher Plummer is compelling as the victim’s malignant grandfather, history’s first billionaire J. Paul Getty; Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001, 105 minutes) is the stupidest of Kevin Smith’s loquacious comedies – it’s also the best.
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