” My past is everything I failed to be” Fernando Pessoa in the book of disquiet.
Mary Gilbert (played by Maggie Smith in the present time and Ruth Wilson in her youth) arrives unannounced in a luxurious London house where a young man, joe, works as a caretaker. The house is not lived in but kept clean, shiny and beautiful with fresh flowers.
Joe, who isn’t supposed to let strangers in, breaks his rule for the first time, by letting Mary in, not really knowing why.
As in all of Poliakoff’s stories, the past is of extreme importance, and in Capturing Mary, we are given hints of deep underlying secrets and haunting memories about to unfold as Mary starts to recall her past.
Joe offers Mary some tea and Mary starts telling him about a time when she was young and frequented soirees in this house, where a very selective few gathered, industrialists, politicians, novelists and actors such as E.M Forster, Evelyn Waugh, Ava Gardner or Alfred Hitchcock, amongst others. Mary, was invited because, as she recounts, she had become rather well known in her own right, having written a lot of journalism at oxford and having one of her own pieces picked up by a Sunday newspaper.
Mary recalls how she got her own newspaper column and was able to express the feeling that it was important that audiences were treated as adults and that sexual love should therefore be a proper subject for cinema and that audiences might ultimately be allowed to see some representation of the actual sexual act. This of course caused a stir in a time where a conservative elite still ruled over Britain. Through her writing, Mary seemed to embody (Quite unwillingly) the voice of youth, but also the voice of radical and imminent change, women’s emancipation at the foreground of the sixties, swiftly announcing the crumbling of an old establishment. It’s in this setting, in one of these soirees, that she meets Greville White, a mysterious man of social influence, who seems to know everyone and everything, while remaining absolutely discreet and anonymous. He was, as Mary recalls, one of those persons who seemed to do both everything and nothing. People seemed nervous around him as if under some spell, some powerful web that Greville inconspicuously weaved around them.
One of these soirees, Mary and Greville meet in the kitchen and he offers to show her the wine cellar. This is when Greville reveals some of his secrets. Horrific stories he knows of or has even witnessed firsthand. Stories relating to child abuse, antisemitism and slavery amongst other unnamable acts, stories involving famous public figures, politicians, archbishops etc.. Greville reveals all these sordid details in a very calm, detailed and specific manner, recalling the year, the exact location and all the real names. Mary is of course shaken, taken aback, but she believes every word, she knows he is telling the truth.
All these things Greville tells her, (Things that Poliakoff only lets us sense, since so little is actually said), are only a slice of an utterly horrid reality that runs deep underneath a world glazed with flamboyant glamour, richness and sophistication.
Later on, left with her thoughts, Mary realizes that having told her all these things, Greville won’t let go of her so easily, as if by telling her all these details he cast the first web of power over her.
Fearing and rejecting Greville’s advances, Mary keeps her distance and as a consequence and most likely due to Greville’s influence amongst editors and publishers, she slowly sees her chances of pursuing a brilliant career as a writer vanish.
Unlike so many contemporary TV dramas, the relationship between Mary and Greville doesn’t fall into any clichés around sexual attraction, passion or unrequited love. Though there is an obvious sexual charge, the two never even touch each other. The whole dynamic is subtle yet unsettling, and this is something that Poliakoff does very well in his films. He shows us how the smallest events can dictate years to come and how absence, silence and questions left unanswered are powerful forces that lie dormant, but have the power to come back decades later to haunt us.
The filming is stunning, the acting is of the highest caliber (Maggie Smith delivers as is expected a flawless acting), but the big surprise was really David Walliams who turns over an exceptional image of creep and mystery, no-one expected I’m sure. Ruth Wilson is equally startling and delightful in her role as “young Mary”.
In Capturing Mary we are given the sense that things in life happen before our eyes and before we can actually assimilate and react as we later think we should have.
As in all Poliakoff’s films, Life is always an individual journey that happens far beyond our control, a journey we only really experience in retrospective and not in the present.
This is a film that does not rely on action or big events yet it stayed in my memory and grew with time. It made me want to revisit it, and each time I did, I rediscovered one or another intricate secret.
RELEASED: November 2007
Director: Stephen Poliakoff
Running Time: 105 mn
Cast: Maggie Smith, Ruth Wilson, David Walliams
Rating: 4 stars