We’ll Take Manhattan

We’ll Take Manhattan debuts tonight on Ovation at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Some programs you watch because they concern a topic with which you have either great interest or great knowledge. Some programs you watch because they concern a topic about which you know nothing yet about which you are keen to learn. And some programs you watch because you have a huge crush on Doctor Who’s Amy Pond and are keen to see Karen Gillan onscreen before that show returns to the airwaves later this year. If you look at my personal pie chart for the television film We’ll Take Manhattan, you’ll see Categories 2 and 3 taking up all of the room, with a roughly 50/50 split for each one. Just thought I’d establish context here at the outset. If you’re an expert on fashion photography, it’s quite likely you’ll have a much different takeaway from this film that those of us who aren’t. But for those in the Fashion Photography 99%, this one’s for you.

We’ll Take Manhattan stars Gillan as model Jean Shrimpton, who, along with photographer David Bailey (Aneurin Barnad), revolutionized the world of fashion photography in the early 1960’s. After premiering on BBC4 this past January, it airs tonight for the first time on these shores on Ovation. Yes, that’s actually a station. No, I hadn’t heard of it either before this film. Ovation positions itself as a station dedicated to programs about art, dance, music, and performance. We’ll Take Manhattan definitely fits the bill in terms of content: The focus of the film is an iconic New York City photo shoot that Bailey and Shrimpton conducted in 1962 for British Vogue Magazine. That’s two years before The Beatles arrived for their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. And if you believe Manhattan, the Bailey/Shrimpton photo shoot kicked off The British Invasion, not the Fab Four.

But will you believe it after watching this film? That’s a tough call. A lot of lip service is paid to the ways in which Bailey and Shrimpton’s collaboration broke the mold, and how it represented the first glimpses of a 60’s youth movement yet to be visually represented. Yet there’s very little in the film in terms of identifying what Bailey’s work (and Baily himself) was actually rebelling against. The introductory scenes paint the fashion photography scene as a dull, dreary, and slow-paced endeavor. But rather than capture that scene in succinct strokes, it glosses over it entirely in favor of watching the smooth-talking Bailey worm his way ever higher in the fashion world through a combination of brash personality and good looks.

His relationship with Shrimpton isn’t merely professional. The two were also lovers for years, which apparently wassn’t such a big deal from a vocational perspective but does pose a problem in that he’s married for the duration of their affair depicted onscreen. One might fairly assume we’d see a glimpse of the home life that Bailey is constantly escaping, but his wife remains offscreen for the entire running time. It’s yet another of the many shortcuts that Manhattan makes. It’s never quite sure what it wants to be as a film. Is it a cultural study? Is it a tale of forbidden love? Is it about the creative process? It veers off into each direction for a few minutes, only to quickly course correct when the mood strikes it.

If this were a narrative choice meant to emulate Bailey’s mind, perhaps this could have worked. But the film isn’t constructed as artfully as Bailey’s photos. What results is something akin to A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Asshole. Along for the ride to New York is British Vogue fashion editor Lady Clare Rendlesham, played with delicious energy by Helen McCrory. McCrory serves as the old guard of the fashion world, the epitome of all that which Bailey loathes. Thus, we watch scene after scene of the two tussling over every detail of the shoot. These discussions are at first intriguing but ultimately turn repetitive to the point of exhaustion.

They aren’t characters expressing personal thoughts so much as two people shouting points of view at one another, and the energy of the actors can’t hide the fact that very little progress is made throughout their many arguments. Bailey is always right. Lady Clare is always wrong. Even if Bailey has a strong case, he still makes it in a bratty manner that essentially ensures that Lady Clare won’t listen. As such, neither side really learns much about the other, and they barely learn anything about themselves.

In some ways, Lady Clare is a figure that wouldn’t be out of place amongst the aristocracy in Downton Abbey, one aware that change is coming but unable to deal with it. And writer/director John McKay at times seems to sympathize as much with her as Julian Fellowes sympathizes with the Granthams. It’s tempting to see Manhattan as a The Tragedy Of Lady Clare at time, which speaks to McCrory’s fantastic performance. But this is still Bailey’s story, and his bull-in-a-china-shop act is one that is never truly questioned at any point. Proving his genius might have been the point of this film, but we already have the photographs for that. An exploration into what made him tick would have been far more intriguing. But there’s far too little of that throughout the movie’s 90-minute running time.

You might have noticed that I started off talking about Gillan, but have said little about her since. Her Shrimpton is definitely the third lead here, shrinking into the background as soon as the trio reach New York. Jean is a bit of cipher: She’s gorgeous in the eyes of Bailey, and I’m sure more than a few tuning in to watch this film. But why Shrimpton herself was such a revolutionary and risky choice is barely explained inside the narrative. Just as we get a shorthand version of how Bailey differed from his predecessors (he doesn’t use a tripod, for example), we get an even more cursory explanation for why this “plain” girl stood out amongst her peers. Atop all this, no matter how much Manhattan tries, they can’t make Gillan look plain. This creates a dissonance when you hear editors mock her appearance left, right, and center.

The photo shoots themselves are a lot of fun, allowing Gillan and Barnad to exhibit chemistry lacking in the romantic aspects of their relationship. (The two never seem closer than when there’s a camera between them.) The iconic photographs aren’t slavishly recreated, but they are close enough to the real thing to make a connection between what is framed inside the film and what one might find through a cursory Google Image Search. But “cursory” is unfortunately the best word to describe this film. Given its short running time, there are too many balls in the air at once for it to successfully juggle.

After all, Ovation is marketing this as much a love story as a dramatic study of artistic inspiration. But the love story is easily the least interesting thing about it. That’s not to say such a version couldn’t be made, and made well. But that’s not where this film’s strengths lie. There’s a kernel of something powerful in the line drawn in the cultural sand between Bailey and McCrory. It’s something that speaks to a familiar topic (The British Invasion, the youth culture of the ‘60s, the generational struggles that grew over the decade), but through an angle rarely depicted. But Manhattan doesn’t take nearly enough time to depict their disparate worlds. And without that crucial contexts, their arguments seem like little more than academic debates played out in period clothing. And given Ovation’s primary programming ethos, that seems like a wasted opportunity indeed.

Stray observations:

  • In terms of the overall look of the film, there is strong production design for all scenes based in England. In New York, Manhattan let the lenses of the camera recreate the look and feel of the city more than anything else. It’s serviceable, but hardly possessing the more elegant design of Mad Men or The Hour.
  • Diana Vreeland makes several campy appearances throughout the film. I had to look up who she was, but my wife was extremely excited when she popped up throughout the proceedings. She announces “England has arrived!” upon seeing Bailey’s work, which the film treats as the moment America opened its doors for business with the British.
  • There are some short scenes involving Shrimpton’s family, but they are so cartoonish that I couldn’t bear myself to bring them up in the review itself. But at least they serve to give Shrimpton some psychological and emotional context, which is more than can be said for just about every other character in the film.
  • The most human-sized moment for Bailey all film? When he temporarily loses interest in sex upon learning there’s a television in his New York hotel room.

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