Gotham Diary:
Sinister
5 June 2012

Yesterday was a bleak day, and somehow the bleakness got under my skin. I could think of nothing to say or do. The sense of inanition was so frightening that it kept a truly depressed state of mind at bay. I wondered if I’d suffered a stroke of some kind, so empty did I feel, so deeply bored by every thought. 

It was imperative that I do something. I could pay the bills, but paying the bills never takes very long, and it always fills me with guilty resolve: spend less. Even when I do. The main thing, though, is that it doesn’t take very long, so I put off paying the bills and did the ironing instead. I had a great pile of ironing, accumulated since our return from Amsterdam and London. Nothing but napkins, handkerchiefs, and pillow-cases, but massive. I thought: I’ll watch something that will take me out of myself. In the end, though, I went for something that I hadn’t seen before, a much safer bet in chancy moods. If you don’t know what’s going to happen, you never have that awful sinking feeling that this isn’t going to do it for me. There wasn’t much in the basket that I hadn’t seen, but one promising item featured Maggie Smith in a STEPHEN POLIAKOFF production called Capturing Mary.

I capitalized the writer/director’s name because, on the jewel box artwork, it appears in much larger type than that of the title, and in much much larger type than “Maggie Smith.” It’s quite as if Stephen Poliakoff were Alfred Hitchcock. Which he may be, for all I know. Because I watch television — not even the latest round of Mad Men —I can’t say if Capturing Mary has ever been aired here. I bought Capturing Mary when I bought Glorious 39, also by Mr Poliakoff, which bristles with stars (Bill Nighy, Eddie Redmayne, Romola Garai, Julie Christie, and Jeremy Northam). What both films have in common is a backward glance at sinister doings in the highest echelons of English wealth and power. In Glorious 39, a young woman discovers that the family into which she has been adopted are keen to appease Hitler. In Capturing Mary, the wickedness is more subtle, or vague in a Henry James sort of way.

Maggie Smith plays a woman who returns to a great house in Mayfair — empty but scrupulously maintained — to exorcise a demon. Long ago, back in the Fifties, she was an up-and-coming journalist, the “voice of youth,” someone who had taught herself to talk posh at university — and who thought that she could take on the establishment, or at least meet it on her own terms. Invited to choice soirées at the home of a very rich man, she became aware of Greville White, an insidious gentleman who would sidle up to the famous guests and express his regret that their latest novel or cabinet move was not up to par. Eventually, he cornered Mary herself in the kitchen, and regaled her with some gossip. Then he took her down to the wine cellar, where he spilled out truly appalling stories about famous figures — bishops who thrashed boys until they bled, magnates who kept girls as personal slaves; derisive clubland chitchat about Jews and “niggers.” Appalled, Mary fled. At another party, sometime later, Greville presented her with the key to his house, of which she should avail herself at her convenience. Very creepy — because it was clear that carnality didn’t come into it.

Mary rebuffed these strange advances, only to witness the collapse of her journalism career. Assignments were canceled, contracts dropped, new jobs closed to her. Mary knew that Greville was behind it — but was he? (And why?) You’ll have to see for yourself. Greville is played by David Williams, a smooth talker who sounds exactly like Simon Callow if you close your eyes, and Young Mary by Ruth Wilson, whom I’ve never seen before. The Fifties settings are luscious, but the women, aside from a few beauties, are dependably dowdy, dressed to the nines but looking like Mamie Eisenhower just the same. You do not wish that you could have been there. Maggie Smith plays one of her soiled, disreputable personae (which reminds me: I need to see The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne again), making you shudder ever time she takes a pull from her silver flask. It’s conceivable that her footage was shot in two days.

In any case, Capturing Mary pulled me right out of the doldrums. Plus: all the ironing done.