We'll Take Manhattan

Karen Gillan gets a chance to shine on her own in an otherwise underwhelming biopic...

 

2 stars

 

 

Karen Gillan and Aneurin Barnard in We'll Take Manhattan

 

Air date: UK: 26 Jan 2012, BBC Four, 9pm

 

Following close on the heels of the much-talked about Holy Flying Circus, comes BBC Four's latest addition to its cottage industry of biopics of post-war British pop culture heroes and villains. So it's no surprise to find out that the latest entry in the canon is yet another, post-Suez, pre-punk, icon of the me generation's anecdotage.

 

Shrimpton and Bailey in We'll Take Manhattan

We'll Take Manhattan attempts to dramatise how Jean Shrimpton, the prototype supermodel, first came to be discovered by one-man Swinging Sixties nexus point David Bailey, and thus! The! Sixties! Were! Born! For The Millionth Time On British TV!

 

Playing 'The Shrimp' is budding actress Karen Gillan, star of the little-known, obscure, science fiction soap opera Doctor Who. It's fair to say that a sizeable, possibly hairy-handed, number of viewers will be tuning in to see what Karen does next.

 

The disparity between Karen's signature role as Amy Pond and the Shrimp is, in itself, intriguing – and provides sharp relief from Amy's high octane personality. It brings out the more vulnerable, eager to please qualities she exhibits in that character in her quieter moments.

 

Looks-wise, the resemblance is very close. It's certainly the best dream fit BBC Four have had this side of casting Steve Punt in the role he was born to play as Eric Idle.

 

The story begins with Shrimpton enrolling in well-to-do Lucie Clayton's Modelling Academy, where 'gels' were taught the arts of deportment and etiquette. It's been affectionately, well documented by Karen's co-workers on Who that in the grace stakes La Gillan is akin to 'a drunk giraffe,' and this gangly awkwardness comes into play well in many scenes as one of its most winning qualities.

 

These early scenes also prove something we know already but is a pleasure to revisit – that British film and TV has an uncanny ability for recreating the pre-Beatles, post-rationing turn of the sixties; canary yellow cardigans, secure hair, Sunbeam cars, Bakelite phones and dustmites playing around stuffy rooms are all present and correct. The hum of An Education is definitely there.

 

The central focus of the film sees Bailey persuade British Vogue's imperious fashion editor, Lady Clare Rendelsham (Helen McCrory), to use Shrimpton for a style feature using all the iconic locations of Manhattan. Bailey decides the feature would be bettered by using everyday locations.

 

Karen Gillan as Shrimpton in NYC in We'll Take Manhattan

It's here, where the story of how the Sixties youthquake rocked the last drowning rats of the Good Ship British Empire, descends into cliché. It's been told – and parodied - so many times.

 

Bailey's stylistic decision no doubt caused seismic shifts in how 'the look' changed in the 1960s, but the story is told so flatly (and besides we've swallowed the legend of how the movers and shakers of sixties London changed everything) that it all seems trivial.

 

Bailey spits out an agenda for generational change that's so clichéd and over-familiar from a 2012 perspective, that it's worth quoting in full: "There's a new world coming with new rules where people will be beautiful not because of who their daddy was but because of who they are, right here in front of the camera! You're dead and gone, all you and your hoity toity pals, you just don't bloody know it yet!"

 

It's The Kids In The Hall's "you people have carpet on your heart" grunge kid speech or Eric Idle's middle class miner in full spleen. And when a film about the shock of the new recalls such well-worn clichés as if fully minted, you know you're seeing the last nail in a moribund genre's coffin, and (despite hindsight) you're with Lady Clare when she scoffs at his "campaign of juvenile defiance."

 

Indeed, the real star of Let's Take Manhattan is Helen McCrory, playing it with shades of Bette Davis in All About Eve - and The Anniversary, if you count the colour-coordinated gloves in every scene.

 

If you're of a certain age where you've seen the story of how the babyboomers slung away the traditional attitudes of the establishment so many times it becomes a tiresome trope, you also reach a point where you find yourself siding with the older guard in sympathies.

 

And so it is with McCrory's Lady Clare. She may be titled, but is in charge and it's her job that's on the line if the brief is not met. She knows Bailey's speciality – pre-Shrimp: "Bailey's career runs on this, body types, how a lady stands."

 

The Manhattan soiree gives Karen Gillan, the model, a chance to shine, showcasing her gaucheness and her porcelain beauty, as she's caught in a corona of light, and we see her grow in confidence under Bailey's firm tutelage. But it's all over before it's barely begun.

 

Karen Gillan as Shrimpton with a teddy bear in We'll Take Manhattan

This biopic of the girl (and her Svengali) concludes with a triumphant homecoming to the offices of British Vogue – Lady Clare! Duffy! Beaton! Even Auntie Em! - with not even a period-music soundtracked montage to demonstrate her impact on the fashion culture in the years that followed.

 

Wasn't this the girl that revived the bob, first rocked the mini-skirt, opened the door for Twiggy and Penelope Tree? The baby boomer bibles tell us that Bailey and the Shrimp were the inaugural king and queen of Mod Britannia, a new classless aristocracy based on revolting in style.

 

But as the story stops before it really gets started, unless you know the full story, you'd be wondering what the fuss was all about.

 

James Gent

 

See a preview clip here:

 

 

 

We'll Take Manhattan
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