Film: The Big Picture - A clear and pleasant danger


The Fifties nowadays seem not so much another era as another planet. That's why nerdy Nineties teenager David (Tobey Maguire) takes cover from domestic discord in the refuge of Pleasantville, a Fifties sitcom that offers a never-never land of picket-fence contentment and calm. He obsessively rehearses its trivia, its characters and plots, much to the chagrin of his twin sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), a stroppy miss whose primary concern is bagging the high-school stud. One night, during a fight over the TV remote, the rivalrous siblings are beamed right into the middle of an episode of Pleasantville: they suddenly find themselves squeaky- clean children of George (William H Macy) and Betty (Joan Allen) in a black-and-white idyll of perfect manners and sensible clothes.

The exquisite conceit of Gary Ross's feature debut brings to mind the artificially controlled atmosphere of The Truman Show. But where the latter is an escape movie, in which Truman must finally twig that he's a prisoner, Pleasantville satirises an enslavement not to television but to an ideal of normality. Ross has tremendous fun imagining his hermetically sealed TV town, a community of milkmen in pristine white, firemen whose only job is to rescue kittens from trees and school basketball teams that never miss a shot. Marooned within this throwback microcosm, David urges Jennifer to play along, even if it means her eating the mountainous breakfast Mom has prepared (this is pre-diet-obsessed America) and wearing a girdle ("I've got like three pounds of underwear on," she moans). His instinct is to preserve the status quo and protect these folk from the shock of the real world.

This first half-hour passes in a trance of hilarity as the innocence and conformity of Pleasantville register in Jennifer's disbelieving looks. But she soon decides to trade bobbysoxer wholesomeness for a more Nineties approach to dating, giving her wide-eyed suitor a night he'll never forget - nobody in Pleasantville has had sex before. As inhibitions melt away, dabs of colour randomly appear against the monochrome - a red rose, a pink tongue, a convertible, a print dress. Then, slowly, individual people bloom into colour. Creative inspiration is uncorked: Mr Johnson (Jeff Daniels), the owner of the diner where David works, discovers a talent for bold modernist painting.

The cause of this Technicolor transformation keeps us guessing: at first one assumes it's all the sex they're catching up on, or the force of romantic love. This uncertainty gives rise to a pair of beautiful, complementary scenes. David finds his mother in distress - she, too, has gone "coloured", and is terrified of showing her face to her husband - and so, he helps her apply monochrome make-up to hide her new-found flesh tones. The strangeness of the scene is complicated by its awful poignancy; a whole lifetime of subservience and self-modesty feels locked up in Joan Allen's face. This scene is answered later when Mr Johnson, who's been in love with David's mother for years, wipes a tear from her face and uncovers a tiny blush of skin beneath - the skin she has tried to camouflage. It has the magical revelation of a picture restorer finding fresh pigment beneath the dullness of an old painting.

The lovely wit of this retro fantasia feels almost too good to last and, sure enough, the film gradually darkens into a parable about prejudice and difference. At first Betty's defection from home is cause for bafflement: husband George simply can't understand why she isn't there to greet him at six o'clock with dinner on the table. Macy plays this scene superbly, doing a slow double-take in the hope that repeating his routine "Honey, I'm home!" will somehow make his wife materialise. Then other husbands find their dominion collapsing, and the mayor, Big Bob (JT Walsh), decides it's time to mobilise the forces of righteousness and restore some order. Colour is outlawed, and differences of skin pigment become a target of mob paranoia and resentment. Mr Johnson's diner is vandalised, books are thrown on bonfires; in shop windows NO COLORED signs are hung.

Are we to infer from this that small-town Fifties America was not only quaint and provincial but a hotbed of racists and philistines too? In prompting us to examine its moral implications more closely, the fantasy of Pleasantville begins to fray. Contradictions and inconsistencies make hairline cracks over its fragile veneer. We're told, for example, that all the books in the town library are blank - only when David remembers the plot does the text magically appear. But how many plots would he have to recall to provoke a book-burning? The question of why people change from monochrome to colour seems to be answered in a courtroom finale; as David explains, it's caused by intensity of feeling, including hatred. But in that case, wouldn't the mob which stoned the diner and burnt the books also have changed into colour, motivated as it was by anger?

The film also fudges the issue of sex, portraying it as an exclusively good and liberating experience. I felt my more conservative hackles rise at this, ignoring as it does the complications of teenage sex and, for instance, the traumatic possibilities of divorce. Gary Ross may argue that it's merely a fantasy, yet for all the brilliance of his conception, he has a blind spot when it comes to human consequences. He never acknowledges the basic truth that innovation is a double-edged sword: the cost of anything new worth having is the loss of something old worth keeping. That "something old" is, of course, innocence, and the film's ambivalent yearning for it is both its strength and its weakness.

Let's be clear: Pleasantville is a technical marvel, enlivened by a smart script, great visual jokes and a handful of fantastic performances. But its thinking is confused, and faintly patronising. The film-makers start out gently mocking a place for its lack of reality. Then, when fear and prejudice sweep through town, they come over all moralistic because it has too much reality. They want intellectual sophistication to co-exist with prelapsarian innocence. They want understanding without volition. In the end, they want it both ways - isn't that just like the movies?

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own