Director: Rolfin Nyhus
Writer: Rolfin Nyhus
Cast: Eleanor Shaw, Eva Bradley-Williams, Declan Spaine, Dave Binder
Running time: 13mins
Mental health issues, substance abuse, and the friction those can cause between family or friends are extremely sensitive topics. That should not come as a surprise – but too often, filmmakers trivialise these themes as sensationalised plot devices, aiming simply to shock audiences, rather than the more difficult task of engaging them with substantial character arcs, or empathetic storytelling.
While I don’t think that Rolfin Nyhus necessarily approached The Gossip from such a cynical starting point, materially he seems to have ended up with the same result. The director statement he is promoting the film with notes it is set in Margate, “where spectacles such as The Jeremy Kyle Show… choose to demean, ridicule, or patronise people from impoverished backgrounds,” while asserting Nyhus “wanted to approach these characters with empathy and on their own terms”. But for all those good intentions, the vague nature of his script and ham-fisted conclusion do little to correct the social stigmas he is apparently railing against.
The story follows Kirsty (Eleanor Shaw) as she tries to decide what to do with her evening, while still worse for wear from the previous night. A Cassetteboy edit of Jeremy Kyle blasts from a screen in the background (further highlighting that we are watching something empathetic and dignified, not like that exploitative and cruel show) while the dishevelled Kirsty reads from a book of Sylvia Plath poems (a distasteful piece of foreshadowing, and if you don’t like where this is going, get out now) – before a series of phone conversations kickstarts the plot.
Kirsty is stranded between two equally unappealing alternatives: spend the evening with her ‘best friend’ Meesha (Eva Bradley-Williams) – who she seems to have a rocky relationship with – or stay in, and be kept company by Jimmy (Dave Binder), a man clearly pressuring Kirsty for sex while sporting the physical allure and intellectual charm of Down Terrace’s Tony Way.
Not keen to spend time with either, Kirsty tries to tell Jimmy she is not interested – something which falls on deaf ears – before calling Meesha to say she doesn’t feel like coming out. Meesha does not take the news well; but she is prevented from giving Kirsty both barrels as the call is disrupted by static interference, and she places the phone back into her pocket.
When Meesha is joined by another friend, she immediately launches into a spiteful tirade about her ‘friend.’ Egged on by Tony (Declan Spaine), she quickly volunteers a host of nasty opinions, and alleges that Kirsty has substance abuse problems, while mocking her for supposedly being sexually active with multiple partners. This is, of course, not something anyone should be shamed for, or anyone else’s business; but it is also something that the film fails to address. The idea people might think you were ‘sleeping around’ being the worst conceivable thing to befall you is quite dangerously left hanging.
To the credit of the actors, the dialogue comes across as a stream of organic conversation, while they stroll down the side of a busy road in Margate – motorists routinely sounding their horns at them all the way. The problem is that none of the characters have been given any background beyond this grotesque and petty mud-slinging.
Meesha is a one-dimensional villain, burying Kirsty for – as far as we can tell – standing her up for a non-descript day out. For that, the sensitive, cultured character has her reputation publicly dragged through the dirt by a character in heavily accented estuary-English – a character who seemingly only lives to create ‘drama.’ So much for addressing characters from working class backgrounds with “empathy and on their own terms” then – instead we’re treated to a stereotypical slanging match that might as well have occurred on Jeremy Kyle.
The film still seeks to differentiate itself from the hyperbolic exchanges seen on day-time TV, of course, but not through addressing the “reluctance to have honest and patient conversations with those dearest to us” that Nyhus’ statement also lamented. Sadly, there is no scene where Kirsty and Meesha’s story comes to a head. They don’t confront each other. There is no discussion of the possibility that Kirsty has mental health or alcohol abuse difficulties she needs to address; there is no noting that whatever Kirsty’s problems are, Meesha has no right to speak about her in such a horrendous manner; and while they might have been childhood friends, it is never noted that they have grown in different directions, and keeping their bond on life-support is doing them both more harm than good.
Instead, an ill-judged melodramatic turn is supposed to stand in for all of that. If you are triggered by themes around self-harm or suicide, you should not read on.
By a cruel twist of fate, Kirsty is aware of everything that has been said about her. Alone in her flat, her world turned on its head, she pours herself a final drink. Sobbing on the floor of her home, she then takes a steak knife, measures out a spot on the left side of her chest where she believes it will do most damage, and drives it toward her flesh – a freeze-frame ending implying these are her final moments.
With so little background to the characters, and so little consideration apparently put into this ending, can we say that this film lives up to any of Nyhus’ earlier promises? I would argue not. What we are given is a petty feud between working class caricatures – which, in the extended universe of the trailer, you might like to know originated from Kirsty saying something mean about Meesha in a pub toilet – that quickly devolves into a mawkish, exploitative mess.
We don’t know anything about the pressures in these people’s lives. We don’t hear anything about their jobs, dreams, or financial status, whether they want to stay in their town, or go somewhere else. We never see what might cause them to drink heavily, or what different life situations might be behind their fractious relationships. They are simply presented as the causes of each other’s misery, by virtue of wanting to be nasty. Because that’s what working class women do, after all… Without any of this, the ‘shocking’ conclusion trivialises the suicide of a young woman to deliver little more than a makes-ya-think moment, where working class bodies are used to teach middle-class life lessons. “Treat each other with respect, or you’ll end up like the Poors in Margate.”
On a technical basis, there is lots to celebrate in The Gossip. It is excellently acted, while its grey, windy shots of Margate wouldn’t be out of place in a Ken Loach kitchen-sink drama. Where it falls short compared to the auteurship of Loach or Mike Leigh, though, is that there is so little effort to construct its characters – likeable or otherwise – as anything more than embarrassing Little Britain stereotypes.