“Is that the back of Evelyn Waugh’s head?”
Whether you care for his work or no, the body of work that Stephen Poliakoff has accumulated is most impressive as he consistently gathers top-calibre casts to deliver his often obtuse musings on human nature. And in what for me is a dreamily fantastic bit of casting, in Capturing Mary he has Maggie Smith and Ruth Wilson playing the older and younger versions of the same woman. That woman is Mary, who in the present day visits a hugely significant house and when the caretaker there takes pity on her, she regales him of tales of just why it was so important.
It turns out that she was a journalist and something of a socialite in the 1950s and so attended many a high society soirée in this venue and at one of those parties, she met Greville White, the man who would irrevocably change her life and not for the better. With his purpose unclear, he revealed a wealth of dark and dirty secrets about the rich and famous and important and influential people in the same house as them, secrets which involve some most distasteful revelations indeed. Greville saw this as an opportunity for Mary to join him in cahoots on the fringes of this powerful upper class world but she decided to demur.
From then on, Mary entered a downwards spiral and we see the effects of that in both time periods. Wilson’s younger Mary runs up against an old boy network in the press that has closed its doors to her due to a whispered word from Greville, and Smith’s older incarnation ruminates about being caught out of time – if she’d just been born a decade later, the hugely different attitudes of the 1960s would have changed everything. It is such a pleasure to have these two actresses portraying the same character, the subtle mannerisms that connect the performances, the sheer depth of talent and range in both of them making it a real treat to watch.
It is a challengingly obtuse piece of work though, beyond a commentary on how the class system in England will seemingly always persist, I couldn’t really identify what Poliakoff’s intent was, especially with a late plot swerve which left me frankly baffled. In some ways, it just is what it is, this is how he works and we could just accept it. That said, it doesn’t always make for the most satisfying of watches and so I’d struggle to honestly recommend it. Danny Lee Winter’s appealing Joe who listens to the older Mary and David Walliams as the sinister Greville maintain a strong level of acting performance though and so it certainly not without interest.