Jodie Comer puts the hard truths behind sexual assault centre stage in ‘Prima Facie’
Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
Friday 22 April 2022 By Matt d’Ancona
Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.
Ten days have passed since the finale of Killing Eve dropped on BBC iPlayer, and fans bade farewell to the exotic, psychotic assassin Villanelle, memorably played by Jodie Comer, who has already moved on to her next project. It’s one that brings her hurtling down from the hyper-real world of the erotically charged spy thriller to the terra firma of a profoundly serious social and political issue. In Prime Facie (Harold Pinter Theatre, booking until 18 June) – Suzie Miller’s brilliant, gruelling exploration of the gap between law and justice in the treatment of rape victims – the Liverpudlian actress plays Tessa Ensler, a defence barrister who relishes the performative arts of the courtroom and what she calls the ‘game of law’. She knows how to corner a witness, knows when he is ‘f**ked’, knows how to keep winning.
Then – in a shocking dramatic gear change – Miller’s play shifts from swagger to horror, after Tessa is raped and suddenly finds herself quite differently located within the justice system. Used to the manoeuvring, position-taking and thespianism of her profession, she is now at the mercy of the ‘game’ she once adored. She is, as Miller has written, ‘thrust into a situation where she tests the system for herself… the walls of this trusted watertight structure start to crumble, and there is nothing safe to cling to.’
As a consequence, the second part of Prima Facie is a gruelling dramatic inquiry into the failure of what we call ‘due process’ to deliver justice to rape victims. As Tessa tells the court, she is herself an expert at picking holes in the testimony of a witness: ‘But this is not a car accident, a home invasion, this is rape. A crime against the person. And now I know that when a woman says “no”, when her actions say “no”, it is not a subtle unreadable thing at all.’
The relentless quest for ‘consistency’, she says, is a structural injustice: ‘As a victim-survivor, let me tell you that the rape and perpetrator are vividly recalled, the peripheral details not so clearly. If a woman is rattled by reliving the nightmare in court, if a woman’s experience of the rape is not the way the court likes it to be, then, we conclude that she is prone to exaggeration. And it is because of this that she is so often disbelieved.’
In this respect, the statistics speak for themselves. In the year to September 2021, police in England and Wales recorded 63,136 sexual offences, the highest annual figure to date. Yet only 1,557 prosecutions followed in the same period, compared with 2,102 in the previous 12 months. In the past four years, rape prosecutions in England and Wales have fallen by 70%. On 12 April, the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee was highly critical of the government’s rape review, which, it said in its report, ‘lacks ambition’ and ‘focus’.
As Comer told the Sunday Times: ‘Something isn’t working.’ This is undeniably so – and all the more alarming when considered against the broader social backdrop of structural misogyny in the police service, the horrific murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, and fears that the initial momentum of the #MeToo movement, so powerful in 2017, has been lost. Miller’s play is, among other things, a reproach to liberal complacency and the delusion that systemic change can be achieved by slogans, hashtags and good intentions alone. (Do check out Tortoise’s own Policing Inquiry and Louise Tickle’s most recent Slow Newscast, Fallen Women.)
Though Justin Martin’s production is still in preview, Comer’s performance is already dazzling and capsizing audiences with its sheer candour, emotional impact and furious demand for justice. Determined not to squander that energy, she and Miller are collaborating with the Schools Consent Project, which sends expert speakers into schools to teach 11 to 18-year-olds the legal definition of consent and sexual assault, and to discuss the practical implications for their lives. The play has also sparked interest in Westminster and Whitehall.
As we have seen so often in recent years, cultural prominence and political clout are increasingly intertwined and sometimes indistinguishable. As well as a prodigious achievement by one of our finest dramatic performers, Prima Facie has the potential to be a consequential intervention in a crisis of justice that could scarcely be more pressing. Don’t miss it.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent (general release, 22 April)
How badly wrong could this film have gone? So badly. The idea of a star playing themselves in a movie is nothing new: Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999) set a high bar, below which have slid Jean-Claude Van Damme in the atrocious JCVD (2008), Eric Cantona in Ken Loach’s Looking For Eric (2009) and most of the cast of This Is The End (2013). But Nicolas Cage, it turns out, is absolutely brilliant at playing Nicolas Cage.
Tom Gormican’s terrific comedy thriller opens with the actor struggling to get the parts he wants and to be a successful father to his (fictional) daughter, Addy, played by Lily Sheen. Presented with an opportunity to make a fast million dollars by attending the birthday celebrations of a wealthy superfan – Javi Guttierez (Pedro Pascal, fantastic) – Cage heads for Mallorca, where he is intercepted by two CIA agents who claim that the kidnapped daughter of a politician is being held at Javi’s compound and recruit Cage to their rescue mission.
Unexpectedly, his supposedly wicked host turns out to be a delightful companion and a true cineaste: his dialogue with Cage is hilarious, reminiscent of French arthouse rather than Hollywood blockbuster. As the actor wrestles with his dilemma – should he betray his new friend, who wants to make a movie with him? – the references to his past work pile up. A self-effacing jester or a dramatic genius? This movie shows we can have both. As the man himself would say: rockin’ good news.
The Trials Of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency Of An Ordinary Man, 1945-1953 by Jeffrey Frank
In Jeffrey Frank’s fresh account of Truman’s years in office, the question, as ever, is how an apparent mediocrity – the beneficiary of T.J. Pendergast’s corrupt political machine in Missouri – made it all the way to the Oval Office. Lacking Roosevelt’s charisma, he was nonetheless blessed with a lower-wattage charm that inspired loyalty and – in 1948 – electoral confidence. It’s striking how much of the modern global order – the United Nations, Nato and the International Monetary Fund – was established in the Truman era. ‘I’m a homegrown American farm product,’ he told one audience. ‘And I’m proud of the breed I represent – the completely unterrified form of American democracy.’ The battle to defend that particular allegiance from its foes, domestic and foreign, continues to this day.
The Line Is A Curve by Kae Tempest
Less than a year since Paradise, their triumphant reworking of Sophocles’s Philoctetes, opened at the National Theatre, Kae Tempest returns with their fifth studio album: a soul-piercing exploration of identity, resilience, memory, love and much else. Against a soundscape of electronica, hip-hop and trance, the great polymath speaks their lyrics with an urgency worthy of Eminem and a grace reminiscent of Joni Mitchell or Billie Holiday. While the premise of the project – overseen by executive producer Rick Rubin – is overtly melancholic, the album’s emotions are far from static. An artist at the very peak of their powers – and not to be missed on tour.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner