A Witch of the Hills
And with fair reason. I think one of the biggest differences between London and New York is that whereas New York really does look in real life like it does in the movies, the movie versions of London are so wildly detached from the reality they may as well be set on a different planet. Imagine how my heart broke when I found it to be a street of Sloaney girls in hotpants buying overpriced slips and American tourists looking for the pub in which Bill Clinton once drank a Guinness.
Which brings us to Hampstead , the most recent Hollywood vision of London and, after Notting Hill and Wimbledon, the latest to be named after a neighbourhood. We all have to find our muses where we can.
Hampstead is shown to be solely a quaint land of cute cobbled streets where you can buy coffee from a handsome barista in an old phone box. There used to be an obvious distinction between movies that were set in London and had actual British people involved in making them and those that did not. He pops up in Hampstead because it would be illegal for him not to. The director of Hampstead, Joel Hopkins, is, as it happens, from London and there is no doubt his movie loves its idea of Hampstead — and London in general.
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What it does not love, however, is actual Londoners: every single English person in this movie is terrible. This is one of the problems with movie depictions of London. Post Four Weddings, London movies invariably suggest Londoners mix in smug, cold coteries made up only of their oldest friends and almost never talk to anyone else.
One of the charms of London is how closely the shabby rubs up against the glamorous, and modern movies refuse to acknowledge this. Instead, there is a sharp divide between the chocolate box and the gutter, and never the twain shall mix. Withnail and I, by contrast, totally got this quirk of the city and, in the character of Withnail, encapsulated the shabby and glamorous in human form.
But my favourite London movie remains the John Goodman comedy King Ralph , because it shows how near Buckingham Palace sits next to Soho sleaze and council tower blocks, and how much benefit derives from the mixing between them. Along with a young man called Luke, who is to inherit Hill House, they form a cosy party of four not counting a housekeeper who resembles an automaton, and her grouch of a husband, who cares for the grounds. The book is thrillingly well written, full of complex, economical, vivid insight. Even seemingly throwaway descriptions carry weight and set off echoes, and the dialogue dances with wit and subtext, making sudden shifts in tone from sunshine to the chill of cloud passing over.
For this, in the end, is the crux and power of the novel — the ways in which judgments and expectations dictate and trap and make vulnerable the outer and inner lives of women. Jackson is brilliant on the shifting sands of female friendship, the psychological edifices built at first on laughter and blind trust — which then provide the weapons that can wound most deeply.
Jackson herself had a more outwardly privileged and urbane life. The daughter of well-to-do Californians, she married a literary critic called Stanley Hyman while young; they eventually settled in an academic town in Vermont where their circle included JD Salinger , Bernard Malamud and Ralph Ellison. But she too was escaping a mother she felt criticised everything about her, and her husband turned out to be flamboyantly patriarchal and controlling, retrograde even for the time. Stories about anything, anything at all.
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Do not be fooled by the comic tone, Oates warns, this is a cri de coeur. And it comes out as such early in The Haunting of Hill House , where Eleanor, stopping at a cafe on her way, watches a little girl being persuaded to drink milk out of an ordinary cup, rather than her own cup with its motif of stars at the bottom.
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Brave girl, Eleanor thought; wise, brave girl. Does she have a chance at happiness, her own cup of stars? Moments of pure fear are followed by a sense of excitement, a kind of hectic community and camaraderie. There is nothing straightforward or even necessarily hopeful about where this education might lead.
These eddies and shifts are far harder to pull off on screen than shrieks and groans and things that go bump in the night.
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