Writing women well: Mare of Easttown
It’s often taken for granted that older men will have relationships with much younger women - in TV and film as well as in life, so much so that it’s barely questioned. From Casablanca, to Mississippi Burning, to Lost in Translation, we’re led to believe that this is the natural way of things; the implication is clearly that men have lothario instincts that they cannot control and older women are not desirable. Yet it was refreshing to see this trend reversed in the excellent Now TV drama ‘Mare of Easttown,’ where Kate Winslet plays grizzled, disillusioned police officer Mare Sheehan, a woman whose joys are few and misfortunes many.
There’s no shortage of other cliches; it is, after all, a crime drama. Easttown is a Pennsylvania backwater largely populated by second and third-generation Irish-Americans for whom the American Dream was never a reality. No-one seems able to leave, despite how often the town snuffs out their dreams, and everyone knows everyone else’s business.
Mare has to live constantly with the memory of her drug-addicted son who killed himself, her estranged husband who lives in a house that backs onto her garden, and the disapproval and anger of town residents railing against a police force who keep failing to solve the disappearance and murder of a number of young girls. A frustrated Mare ultimately decides to take things into her own hands - with mixed consequences.
It could perhaps only feel less hackneyed if it was a plot to Charlie Brooker’s satirical police show ‘A Touch of Cloth.’
Yet what makes ‘Mare of Easttown’ feel original is what goes unremarked in the script. Mare is cantankerous, surly, and stubbornly uninterested in appeasing the expectations of others. On one or two occasions we see her take notice of her physical appearance, but this goes uncommented on by the other characters - except maybe her caustic mother Helen, whose barbed exchanges with Mare make up some of the more hilarious moments in the dialogue.
What’s more, despite Mare’s refusal to be compliant and coquettish, she regularly attracts the attention of the men around her - including the measured and thoughtful (and sultry) creative writing professor Richard Ryan (Guy Pearce), who is new to the town, and a far younger member of her police team, handsome detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters). Colin and Mare get as far as going on a date, and despite the 12 year age gap, no-one comments on it.
In a previous decade her dalliance with Richard might have led to a revelation that he was the murderer (he isn’t), feeding the malicious idea that women who dare to seek love and sexual gratification must be punished. Instead, their romance pauses for more believable and mundane reasons - he ends up moving away for work, just as Mare is starting to get her own demons under control. Despite the relationship not working out (at least, for now), instead of regret Mare is seen to have been changed by the kindness and attention of another human being, and by having her own needs valued for once.
Another small but important detail is that Mare’s ex-husband does not abandon her for a much younger woman - his wife-to-be is the same generation and had children at a similar age.
The only other story I’ve seen recently that dares to have older women form liaisons with men their own age or younger is last year’s musical comedy The Prom, where Meryl Streep and Keegan-Michael Peele have wonderful chemistry as the small-town Indiana high school principal who tries to coax a floundering Broadway star into becoming more selfless.
Easttown might be a backwards place in many ways, yet this means characters who dare to be themselves shine more brightly and more believably. Women like Mare are desirable for their frankness and dedication to duty in a place where everyone nurses compromised loyalties, dark secrets and repressed fears.
Kate Winslet is still remembered by most millennials as Rose, the straight-jacketed heroine from Titanic. Yet finally, in middle age, in this most restrictive of genres, it seems her straitjacket is off.