Thursday, October 17, 2013

Culture Shock 10.17.13: Gillian Anderson rises to the challenge of 'The Fall'

Americans may be forgiven for thinking Gillian Anderson has kept a low profile since "The X-Files." Actually, she's kept busy, living and working in the United Kingdom, and picking up, through osmosis, a British accent that at least is more convincing than Madonna's.

Her gripping new five-episode BBC television drama, however, should have audiences on both sides of the pond taking notice.

In series 1 of "The Fall" (Netflix instant, DVD), Anderson stars as Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, a member of the London Metropolitan Police sent to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to get a result in a murder case the locals can't close. As both an outsider and a woman of authority in a male-dominated field, Gibson arrives to a situation primed for tension.

The tension only ratchets up when she begins to suspect there is more to the unsolved murder than just one unsolved murder. There is a serial killer at large, honing his skills, developing his technique and preparing to strike again.

Unfortunately, she's right, and the audience knows who the killer is even if Gibson doesn't.

Paul Spector (an unnerving Jamie Dornan of "Once Upon a Time") is a family man and a grief counselor. He works with couples who have lost children. He also stalks and kills woman, and he's getting better at it.

Female avengers pitted against male serial killers are nothing new. The metaphor of men who literally objectify women is too easy to pass up. "The Silence of the Lambs" perfected the genre, which is feminist while also a target of criticism from feminists. It just goes to show, you can tell a feminist story yet get zero credit if you don't tell the "right kind" of feminist story.

In "The Fall," the heroine isn't a rookie like Clarice Starling of "Silence," but a veteran who has dealt with serial killers before. The power dynamic is different. Gibson, whom Anderson plays with world-weary confidence, has power, and the men around her don't, or they don't have as much.

As a pattern emerges among the killer's victims — young, attractive, up-and-coming professionals — Gibson deduces a motive. The killer is targeting women who have some measure of power and success, or at least more of it than he does. It's garden variety misogyny.

So far, little of that strays beyond the standard feminist critique of society's gender roles, but what makes "The Fall" interesting is where its sexual politics do diverge from the politically correct.

Gibson is completely comfortable with her sexuality and with using it, on occasion, to get what she wants. She has what British sociologist Catherine Hakim calls "erotic capital," and she knows how to spend it.

The day she arrives in Belfast, she picks up a fellow officer for a one night stand. Later, when the secret gets out, she confronts another officer about the double standard. No one thinks twice about a one night stand when the man is the instigator, she says. Then when told her fling is married, she responds she didn't know that and, in any case, that's his business, not hers.

For Gibson, embracing her own sexuality gives her a "male" outlook on sexual relations. Men are subject to her female gaze, and all is fair game. So, is that feminism or not?

All of this, however, is subtext for Gibson's pursuit of Spector, who at heart is an arrested adolescent who fancies himself beyond good and evil. It's a delusion that stands in stark contrast to the bleak landscape of Belfast, a working-class wasteland still not far removed from decades of sectarian religious conflict. Everyone there has seen too much, and everyone there, newcomer Gibson included, is compromised.

This is no paradise of Eden. This is the world after the Fall.

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