Tom Sutcliffe: It's about as good as it gets

The Week In Culture
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Goodness, notoriously, writes white – that is, it won't show up on the page. Evil, no problem at all – the ink flowing black and creating a contrast so sharp that you could read it from across the room. And one of the reasons for this disjunction is that we take evil to be a more active principal than goodness.

Evil – in stories anyway – is usually a matter of doing things and taking actions. Goodness (though not exclusively) is a matter of not doing things and resisting temptations. And even when it isn't – when something saintly or admirable has occurred – it is difficult to present in a way that doesn't read as instruction. Dreading piety or hagiography the writer eases the pressure on the pen so that, whatever the colour of the ink, the marks aren't quite as decisive.

Something similar holds true for film as well, an art form that finds it very easy to create villains but much harder to fully represent the good. Top 10 movie baddies? Well, you'd be spoiled for choice wouldn't you? And in trawling your memory for candidates you'd have a sharp and immediate impression of how villainy had been encapsulated – from Hannibal Lecter's whickering intake of breath (a little judder of the uncontrolled in that glacially fixed manner) to Ralph Fiennes staring with disgust at himself in the mirror in Schindler's List. Top 10 goodies would be much harder I'd suggest – and particularly if you accept that a hero is a subtly different thing. The hero's job is to defeat evil, and that's a task they can achieve without necessarily being noble or good themselves. Another way of putting this is to say that we expect the bad to be single-minded and obsessive, even cartoonish. We want the good to be persuasively human.

It's always interesting then to see goodness depicted on screen – to know, with some clarity, that what you're looking at is a moment of exemplary moral decision. Curiously, it happens at least twice in Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, curiously because Haneke is a director you'd more conventionally associate with moral failing than moral achievement. He's effectively created monsters before – in his film Funny Games – and he's created men who morally fall short, in Hidden. But in The White Ribbon he creates a modest good man, and delivers a genuinely memorable scene that shows how goodness operates. The schoolteacher who narrates Haneke's film – telling the story of a string of malicious and vengeful attacks in a small German town – has fallen in love with a governess. One day while taking her for a ride in a borrowed carriage he turns off the road to head, he says, for a picnic spot. She thinks he's going to make a move and asks him not to. Her suspicion, you guess, is false and his intentions are honourable but, after one attempt to reassure her, he does what she asks, seeing that she is upset and fearful. And in a film with many instances of power abused there's something wonderfully touching about the disappointed but unreproving way in which he complies. At another point a young boy – knowing that his father's pet bird has been killed (in a kind of mock crucifixion) – brings his own as a replacement, a sacrifice that is an entirely unconscious, but entirely damning, rebuke to the father's cruelly repressive interpretation of Christianity. Which perhaps suggests another possibility too, aside from the tact and naturalism with which Haneke films both these scenes. If you're working on a really dark background it may be a positive advantage for goodness to write white.

Give us a cue, please

An intriguing moment occurs at the beginning of Alan Bennett's play The Habit of Art. Nicholas Hytner's production is one of those fade-up affairs in which an actor is on stage pottering about while the audience are still filing in. This bit is not play, we realise, and so there's no rustling of programmes. We're similarly free to chatter in the preamble to The Kreutzer Sonata at the Gate Theatre, where Hilton McRae also has to vamp until ready – in sight as you walk in, but obviously not instantly expecting our hushed attention. At The Kreutzer Sonata the moment of transition is conventionally signalled by a drop in the house lights, which fades down the conversation simultaneously, as if both are attached to one dimmer switch. It has to be, because McRae is alone on stage. But in the Lyttelton all it takes is for another person to walk on from the wings – and despite the fact that all the lights are still up the audience quietens almost instantly. One man on stage – a bit of time-filling business. Two men on stage – something that needs to be watched, since they will either talk to each other (in which case we need to hear what they're saying) or they won't (in which case we need to work out why). I was impressed that none of us missed our cue, though.

***

The Chief Executive of Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust has complained that hospital dramas are undermining public trust in NHS staff. It's all very well unwinding with Casualty or Holby City, Antony Sumara suggests, but the way the staff behave bears no relation to the real professionals. Patient confidentiality is a joke, the staff flirt and have affairs with each other, and – shock of shocks they eat and drink and smoke directly outside A&E. What Mr Sumara would like, it seems, is a lot more work going on and some onscreen promotion of hand-washing and antiseptic gel.

I haven't visited any Mid Staffordshire hospitals recently so I can't speak for the quality of the A&E departments he oversees, but my experience of London hospitals would suggest that Casualty is not only quite realistic, but could also only improve public attitudes to the people who work inside them. The routine bureaucracy of an A&E admission – and the shell-shocked wariness of those who have to deal with a torrent of drunks – is so alienating that they could do with a bit of a human back story. I also have a feeling that Mr Sumara may not fully grasp the concept of drama.

Comments