I don’t really know what to do now that I’ve watched more-or-less every movie Hugh Grant has ever been in.

Guess it’s time for another board games post!

The game I’m intending to talk about is Gloomhaven. Gloomhaven is a bit different from other games that I’ve reviewed because it’s a kickstarter project, and kickstarted boardgames are often a bit … next level. The armchair economist in me is always interested in the ways that different monetisation strategies and sources of funding can make similar-seeming products wildly different because any product needs to angle itself towards the people who are going to be paying for it. For mass-market products, this tends to lead towards a kind of middle ground—enough of everything to appeal to lots of people, not so much of anything as to put off anybody who doesn’t like that thing. Kickstarter products go pretty much the other way—they’re aiming to appeal to a small number of people all of whom have very specific desires and are willing to drop largeish sums of money on having those desires fulfilled, so kickstarter projects, especially in board gaming, tend to be packed to the gills with stuff.

Case in point: Gloomhaven. This game is so huge that getting it home from the shop I ordered it to was a non-trivial logistical challenge. Which is ironic in a way, because “a non-trivial logistical challenge” is also a pretty good way to describe its core gameplay.

Gloomhaven falls within two distinct popular subgenres and, unlike 93% of the other games I’ve reviewed on this blog, neither of those subgenres is “Lovecraftian”. Rather they are “dungeon crawler” and “legacy game”. Long time readers of this blog might remember the idea of a “legacy game” from my review of Pandemic back in 2016, but for those who are new or who haven’t memorised every single thing I’ve burbled about a nerdy topic in the last two years, a legacy game is a game that is specifically designed to be played once (although often over an extended period of time) and to evolve as it is played into a form unique to the play group. I said in my 2016 post that they looked like being the next big thing in board gaming, and I was sort of right. “Legacy elements” has certainly settled in alongside “RPG elements” and “worker placement” as one of the common features a game might include, and enough games have them now that they feel less like a gimmick and more like a legitimate direction that game design can take. Pandemic: Legacy did well enough to get a second season, and the subgenre has developed now to the point that legacy elements are being built into new games from the ground up, rather than being retrofitted into something called “Existing Board Game: Legacy”.

I haven’t talked about dungeoncrawlers on this blog before. I’ve always vaguely meant to, because I’ve spent a lot of time with games like Descent over the years. In case it’s not obvious from the name, a “dungeoncrawler” is a game in which the players take on the roles of adventurers who go out into Dungeons-and-Dragons style dungeons to fight monsters and get loot. These games range in style from quick card games you can play in under an hour to sprawling, dining-table-swamping, weekend-swallowing campaignable epics like Descent: Road to Legend. Generally, when board games people talk about a dungeoncrawler they’re talking about games in the latter category.

The dungoncrawler in that sense has a fairly long pedigree. Even if we ignore actual D&D (which was itself an evolution of fantasy wargaming), they go back at least to MB Games’ 1989 HeroQuest, which very much established the pattern of up to four adventurers with a mix of martial and magical skills going through a series of linked dungeon crawls, gathering gold that they spend between adventures to upgrade their stuff. There have been variations since—the original Descent packed all of the looting and levelling up into a single dungeon, so you would walk through the front door with rusty daggers and tattered chainmail, and walk out the other side in Adamant Armour of Indestructibility carrying the Axe of Slaying Everything; Star Wars: Imperial Assault does the same core gameplay but in the Star Wars universe, and so on—but the core principles remain the same. Some adventurers. Some monsters. Some loot.

My peak level of interest in dungeon-crawling games was in the late 2000s—I had pretty much all of the expansions for original Descent, and it was something of a favourite amongst my friends at the time, but eventually it got to the point that the game was so large and complex that we realised that if we wanted to play a long, involved game in which a party of characters go on a series of linked adventures with an overarching storyline in a consistent world, we might as well just play D&D. Since then, I’ve never really found a tabletop dungeoncrawler that solved that problem. At least not until Gloomhaven. Like a lot of kickstarter developers, the designer of Gloomhaven documented his thought process in borderline excruciating detail, and he seems to have put an impressive amount of thought into what he’s doing and, perhaps more importantly, what he isn’t. Gloomhaven is very specifically designed to feel like Isaac Childres (the, as far as I can tell, sole designer) is GMing you through a highly detailed RPG campaign. And I think this, broadly, is why it doesn’t give me the “why don’t I just play D&D” feeling I usually get from this sort of game—it essentially feels like I already am playing D&D, it’s just that I’m playing a heavily houseruled version run by some guy from Indiana.

 I started this post by saying that Gloomhaven was a dungeoncrawler with legacy elements, and that’s basically true. But you could make a reasonable case that, deep down, it’s actually a card game.

Like in a lot of dungeon crawlers (and, for that matter, a lot of RPGs) you start out your adventure in Gloomhaven by selecting a character. Except that rather than the traditional breakdown of “Fighter/Thief/Magic User/Cleric” (or in proper HeroQuest style “Barbarian/Dwarf/Elf/Wizard”) your options are things like “Vermling Mindthief” or “Savas Cragheart”. Each of these characters is either quite different from classic fantasy staples (like the Inox Brute—basically a big fighter type, but also a sort of weird horned ox dude) or extremely different from classic fantasy staples (like the Tinkerer, who is kind of a healer, but also carries an actual literal flamethrower). Each character has a totally unique set of abilities, all represented by a (slightly) customisable deck of cards, and these cards are the key to basically everything.

And I mean everything. Specifically:

  • Each card has a top half, a bottom half, and an initiative number.
  • The bottom half of the card (usually) contains a movement type action and the top half (usually) contains an attack style action.
  • You must play exactly two cards on your turn, combining the bottom half of one with the top half of the other, with one of the initiative numbers determining how fast you act.
  • You get the cards back when you rest (resting is a thing you can do), but you lose one card for the rest of the dungeon.
  • If you run out of cards completely (by resting too often, or other methods), you are out of the game.

This last part—the part where running out of cards totally shafts you—becomes surprisingly pressing. You have about ten cards in your hand to start with (it varies slightly from class to class). After five turns, you’ll have to rest, and then you’ll get nine back (or less—some very powerful cards are automatically lost when you use them), which means you have to rest again in four turns. Then you get another four, then three, then three, then two, then another two, then one, and that’s it. Which means you have an absolute hard maximum of twenty-four turns to do whatever it is in the dungeon that needs doing. This strict time limit makes the whole game a logistical challenge in the way that most dungeoncrawlers aren’t. Rather than knowing, broadly, that every turn you will move your movement, attack with your best attack, and maybe drink a potion, you need to think about how to optimally deploy your limited cards to eliminate enemies, move yourself towards your goals, and potentially pick up loot. It means that a long corridor can eat your resources just as surely as a pack of rabid wolves or an angry demon.

It also means that the “dungeons” you “crawl” aren’t actually very much like traditional dungeons at all. They’re usually no bigger than three rooms, sometimes even two, with perhaps a half-dozen to a dozen enemies in each. There is absolutely no emphasis on exploration in Gloomhaven’s dungeons. Since the game is GMless, there’s no real way to keep secrets from the players (at least on the micro level) while also keeping the game running smoothly, and so the adventuring party is basically expected to know the full layout of the map from the beginning. There’s no wandering up blind alleys or deciding which way to go at T-junctions, because within the constraints of the game’s core mechanics, an unnecessary detour could prove more likely to stymie your adventuring ambitions than a room full of armed skeletons.

Rather than extensive dungeon maps with hidden rooms full of surprising encounters, Gloomhaven gets its sense of exploration mostly from its legacy elements. At the start of the game, your characters have a large map with one dungeon marked on it, a secret long-term quest which will say something like “explore three crypt dungeons” or “kill one of each type of demon”, two encounter decks marked “city” and “road”, and a small deck of purchasable items. As you adventure, you will unlock more things—complete that first dungeon and you will unlock two more, complete your quest and you will retire your existing character and unlock a new one, have an encounter on the road and you might unlock a new encounter in the city, or a map to a new dungeon, and in that dungeon you might find a new item for the shop.

Gradually your map fills up with stickers representing places you have either been or have yet to explore. Your character sheet fills up with notes and details and achievements and it all builds up into something that feels inarguably like playing a real fantasy RPG campaign. In fact specifically, it feels like playing a 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons campaign or, even more specifically, like Baldur’s Gate. Or at least, a slightly weird playthrough of Baldur’s Gate where you mostly ignore the whole Bhaalspawn thing and run around robbing people.

This is very much my personal reaction, grounded in my personal gaming background, and so I don’t suspect that it will be terribly applicable to other people, but the thing that I like the most about Gloomhaven is how it evokes a style of fantasy gaming that has very much fallen out of fashion. The map you get with the game shows the world that the game will take place in and it’s like the map from a D&D module from the 1980s (or perhaps even more specifically, from a Fighting Fantasy novel). All of the action of the game takes place in one smallish town (the “Gloomhaven” of the title) at the end of two roads, between a couple of mountain ranges and with nearby landmarks called things like “Dagger Forest” and “Lingering Swamp”. Despite the strangeness of the setting (of the six possible starting characters, exactly one is human, and none of the others are any kind of traditional fantasy race) I know exactly what kind of fantasy it is going for.

Bear with me, I’m going to go off on one.

People talk a lot about the influence of Tolkien on D&D-esque fantasy, but you can argue (and people who know a lot more about it than me have argued, at some length) that the Tolkienesque influences are actually quite superficial, and that the game’s original designers (Gygax and Arneson for those who are counting) were far more inspired by the weird fiction of the early 20th century—your Howards, your Moorcocks, your Leibers and your Vances—stories that were mostly about self-interested rogues inhabiting amoral universes in which they looked out only for their own advantage. These are small-scale stories about thieves and vagabonds and who are as interested in robbing temples as in saving the world.

Gloomhaven has the default assumption that the player characters are self-interested jerks. You don’t have to be complete assholes, but it probably says something about the themes of the game that a fairly typical random encounter presents you with the choice “do you steal a man’s thing’s while he is taking a dump by the side of the road?” I mean you don’t have to do it, but the fact that it’s even an option says a lot. The tone of Gloomhaven is very specific, and strangely nostalgic. It’s not the boobs and neckstabbing of modern grimdark (for that you probably want Kingdom Death) or the shiny teeth and shiny swords of what people often think of as “traditional” fantasy (for that you want, well, most fantasy games, even the “gritty” ones, which generally assume you’re basically heroes fighting evil). It’s a grubby, localist fantasy about people dealing with what’s in front of them in a world where nicking a couple of gold pieces from a man who is taking a poo can be as big a triumph as battling the evil wizard in the lost temple.

And perhaps, looping back to the start of this post, it’s that specificity of tone that saves Gloomhaven from the “why don’t I just play D&D” problem that I usually get with these sorts of game. The answer winds up being “because it’s actually doing something specific and different.” Whereas playing Descent made me want to play D&D, playing Gloomhaven just makes me want to play more Gloomhaven. It has that virtuous cycle thing you get in a lot of video games that mix combat missions with base management where during the combat missions you’re excited to get back to the base and start spending all the loot you’re picking up, while back at the base you’re excited to get back out onto the missions to try out all the cool new gear that you’ve just bought.

I usually end these reviews by saying whether I recommend this game and, if I do, who I recommend it for. But that’s really hard to do with Gloomhaven. I don’t know anybody who has so much as looked at this game who isn’t at the very least impressed by its scope and ambition, but at the same time I feel like this game is very uncompromisingly pitched at its target market, and that target market is, well, people who want to play a game exactly like Gloomhaven. And you probably already know if you want to play a game exactly like Gloomhaven. You don’t even really need to read reviews, you just need to ask yourself “do I like the idea of spending about a year playing a tactical dungeon crawling game of ever-increasing depth and complexity?” Or perhaps more simply “do I want to play a board game that comes in a box so big that I could take the pieces out and use it as a travel bed for a large housecat?” Or even more simply “is dropping $150 on a single board game a total deal breaker.”

Because, oh yes, this game also clocks in at $150. And the fact that pretty much everybody who has bought a copy agrees that it is probably worth it says something about how well constructed the whole thing is.

I normally also say something about how well I think this game would play with a hypothetical ten year old and while my first instinct was to say something along the lines of “oh sweet Jesus, no a thousand times no what could you possibly be thinking” I actually suspect it kind of depends on the ten-year-old. I remember reading something years ago, either in the original novel of Jurassic Park or on some blog somewhere (or hell, maybe it was Churchill or Shakespeare, that’s the usual go-to for quotes whose origin you can’t quite remember) which pontificated that the reason children love dinosaurs so much is that as a child you are essentially powerless and that, for a certain type of child, learning about something is a way of exerting power over it. Accumulating knowledge about these vast terrifying lizards is a way of experiencing a sense of freedom and self-determination that you don’t normally get until you’re a grownup with a job. And I suspect that for a lot of slightly older young children, complex board games can do the same thing. Warhammer is as complicated as all getout, and it’s crazy popular with that demographic. Yes, the rules of those sorts of miniatures/card/whatever games are byzantine and arbitrary, but to a child all rules are byzantine and arbitrary, and at least with a game you know that the adults don’t get to just change the rules without telling you why.

I mean, I should stress that I’m not in any way actually recommending this game for ten-year-olds, I mean as well as the vulgar-but-arguably-harmless encounter where you steal from a pooping man, there’s encounters in the deck where you’re invited to kill innocent travellers for their money, so it’s something you’d want to make a very informed decision about sharing with your tweenage kids. I’m just pointing out that the actual complexities of it aren’t necessarily as child-unfriendly as they might seem on the surface.

The final axis along which I tend to recommend board games is two-player compatibility. We’re currently playing with a full loadout of four players, and this has its advantages and disadvantages. My cursory peripheral reading suggests that the game is easier with more players, but also that because of the complex interactions between player abilities, that each extra player slows the game down more than the last. Because the game is very focused on tactical combat, a two-player party will need to be really certain that the characters complement each other—if you both wind up playing squishy ranged characters, there’s a good chance that you’ll just get swatted and if you both wind up playing beefy meatshields there’s a good chance that you’ll struggle for damage and utility effects. Still I’ve heard pretty positive things about the game at all player counts, so if you and your partner have $150 and every weekend between now and Easter 2019 burning holes in your pockets and calenders, you might want to give Gloomhaven some serious thought.

And for some reason I also feel compelled to point out that Hugh Grant doesn’t feature in this game anywhere.

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All right folks. This is it. The last review of a Hugh Grant movie that I will ever have to write (well, until he makes another one, but I’m not sure what I’ll actually do then). So I’m going to wrap up the Grantathon with a bit about Paddington 2 and then with a highly spurious look back over his entire career, in which I try to pretend that this whole deeply silly project has been building up to something.

Paddington 2

It might just be the hype that inevitably comes with having watched every single film somebody has made since the late 1980s but, oh my God, I loved this movie. Although it was a bit weird because, in this movie, Hugh Grant plays a villainous actor whose schemes are thwarted by Paddington Bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) and I’d fairly recently watched A Very English Scandal, in which Hugh Grant plays Jeremy Thorpe, a villainous politician, whose political career is thwarted when he attempts to murder his former lover, Norman Scott, played by Ben Whishaw. There’s even a plot-significant dog in both pictures. 

Anyway, this is just a silly, fun movie that—speaking of someone who has no expertise in this area because I don’t have children—feels like one of those kid flicks that was very much written with the awareness that it would be watched by parents and that it had damn well better give them something to hold their attention as well. Thus we get the heart-warming tale of Paddington Bear trying to buy a birthday present for his Aunt Lucy only for said birthday present to be stolen by the evil Phoenix Buchanan and, oh my God, Hugh Grant is loving the shit out this role. At least I hope he is because he’s a fucking joy to watch. He does accents, he wears a series of silly disguises, he sings and dances, and fights a bear. I could not wish for a better film on which to end the Grantathon.

I’ve vaguely run the numbers and you could make a reasonable case that Hugh Grant has been playing people who used to be famous and now aren’t for longer than he was actually famous (if you assume that the peak of his fame ran from Four Weddings and Funeral in 1994 to Love Actually in 2003) while the “guy who was big in the 80s” years began in 2007 with Music & Lyrics and continue to the present day. And it’s even got the point where washed-up-used-to-be-Hugh-Grant Hugh Grant will have scenes where he interacts with an image or a clip for earlier in his career as if it was from the fictional career of the character he’s play – so in The Rewrite, there’s a bit where he watches himself at an award ceremony and it’s clearly a clip of a younger Hugh Grant at an actual awards ceremony and the walls of Phoenix Buchanan’s house in Paddington 2 are plastered with legit young Hugh Grant headshots. 

Just to make this the deeply meta and retrospectivey post it was always going to be, I’ll add that I sort of find it ironic that perhaps the single best way to sum up the latter phase of Hugh Grant’s career is a quote from a Hugh Grant movie (I admit, my perception is a bit skewed on this matter by my recent all Hugh Grant die). There’s bit in the infamous brownie scene in Notting Hill where Anna Scott is explaining why her life is not without its own difficulties and it ends with her saying that eventually her looks will fade, and the calls will stop coming in, and one day she’ll just be someone “who looks a bit like someone who was famous for a while.” Which, ironically, pretty much sums up about half the roles Hugh Grant gets cast in these days. And while it’s problematic that, even in the 21st century, male actors get to have that kind of career renaissance where they deconstruct or build on their former persona whereas female actors don’t I really do enjoy Hugh Grant’s “used to be Hugh Grant” films.

Goodness of film: I’m just going to give this a 5 – which feels a bit off because I also gave a 5 to Remains of the Day and I’ve given 4s to films I’m sure were actually better than Paddington II. But, fuck it, my Grantathon, my rules, and I’m on an adrenaline high. But it actually is charming as fuck and I always respond positively to a film that’s got basically every British actor in it.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 5. He’s playing a vain, pompous, foppish actor whose career has gone downhill and he sings, dances, and has a sword cane.  Also his agent is Joanna Lumley and while I’m sure his real life is not Joanna Lumley they should be.

Grantrospective

And, for the record, I’m very aware that at this point I’m not really doing puns any more. I’m just putting bits of Hugh Grant’s name into other words. 

So. Um. Gosh. Well. What a long, strange, Hugh Granty trip its been. I think if I’ve learned anything from this process, it’s that if you watch 37 movies chronicling an actor’s entire career you will quickly come to either really like them or really hate yourself. 

Although I started out this project rating all the films out of 5 for Hugh Grantiness I think, looking back, Hugh Grant has played a wider range of roles than he usually gets credit, and I suspect that part of the reason my Hugh Grantiness ratings have crept up recently is that I’m better able to see how the Grant oeuvre can encompass a multiple of styles. Hugh Grant is large. He contains multitudes.

I was going to do a few best and worsts, based purely on what I can remember off the top of my head, so expect to see “things that were recent” and “things I’ve seen more than once” over-represented.

Best films

This depends a lot on whether you think a good Hugh Grant film is a good film that features Hugh Grant or a film in which Hugh Grant is good. Like Remains of the Day is amazing, and Hugh Grant is fine in it, but he’s not in it very much. And, therefore, in the spirit of the project, I’m going with “best films in which Hugh Grant is if not the lead at least a major recurring character” (thus also disqualifying Maurice).

Notting Hill has to get a mention because, although I acknowledge it’s problematic, I super duper love it and it’s kind of the Grant-Curtis love letter to an imaginary Britain film that’s aged the best. And with my romance hat on it, I think it plain and simple works as a love story, and does some quite interesting, subversive things.

An Awfully Big Adventure is kind of my outsider pick because it is a weird-arse film but, as I think I said in the review, after I watched it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for a week (and it still occasionally pops up in my head, giving me a moment of profound melancholy). It’s also one of the best examples of Hugh Grant doing a character that’s not at all Hugh Grant, and doing it incredibly well.

Florence Foster Jenkins: obviously I talked about this literally a couple of days so I won’t go into the details. And maybe there’s a certain amount of bias here because I watched it recently but I think it deserves a place here because it ticks so many Hugh Grant boxes and not just in the campy, says gosh a lot say, but in the sense that it’s a complicated character role he can really get his teeth into. It allows him to play a romantic lead, but in a non-standard way. Because the character is a washed up, failed actor it taps into what you might want to call the meta of Hugh Grant. And because he’s playing across from Meryl Steep, who is phenomenal, they bring out the best in each other.

Honourable mentions (and these will literally just be mentions otherwise I’ll write another six paragraphs): Music & Lyrics, Sense and Sensibility

Worst films

I have disqualified Night Train to Venice from his category because I’m honestly not even certain it qualifies as a film. It is Malcom McDowell in a big coat, and some stock footage, like loads of stock footage, and a child falling off a balcony onto Hugh Grant.

Other than that, in no particular order, my three worst Hugh Grant films are:

Bitter Moon: because, um, this is a Roman Polanski movie that contains a lovingly detailed description of an underaged girl’s vagina.

The Bengali Night: I talked a lot about the race angle in this film and the really problematic way it’s based on a really self-serving memoir that profoundly upset the person it was about. It’s also just a badly made film. Like I know it was the 80s, but the sound was fuzzy, the picture was fuzzy, Hugh Grant’s accent was fuzzy. It’s a fuzzy movie. 

Nine Months: and I know this is personal but this is movie is just “1995 called, it wants it’s everything back.” I mean, halfway through I was genuinely missing Night Train to Venice.

Dishonourable mentions: the aforesaid Night Train, Cloud Atlas

Best Worst films

Lair of White Worm: just oh my god. The snakes and ladders scene, the snakes and ladders scene. A really young Peter Capaldi with huge hair. Random nun boobs. So much lingerie. An actual folk rock adaptation of the Lampton Wyrm only they re-named it as the D’ampton Wrym for no reason. Hugh Grant’s dream pencil erection on a plane. Dynamiting a snake. This is perfect film for deciding you should force your friends to watch when you’re drunk at about half one and then you wake up in the morning and wonder why none of them like you anymore. 

Sirens: much Australia. very boobs. wow.

The Lady and the Highwayman: Unique amongst Hugh Grant’s filmography, this one contains a fight scene in which he’s actually supposed to be good at fighting. Although, actually, he still fights like Phoenix Buchanan in Paddington 2 (“stage fighting, level four!). Also, it’s an adaptation of a Barbara Cartland novel (oh, why don’t we do those anymore?). Also foxy evil Barbara Castlemaine. Also epic hats. Also Oliver Reed as Charles II. Also hughwayman.

Honourably dishonourable mentions: Did You Hear About The Morgans 

Best accent

All the accents he does in Paddington 2 are actually quite okay and he does several. Yay Hugh.

Worst accent

Discounting the deliberately awful accent he does in Mickey Blue Eyes, where he’s being bad at being Kentucky Irish, I think this one has to go to Champagne Charlie. Where I seem to recall he was sort of supposed to be French but, honestly, fuck knows.

Worst Facial Hair

It’s gotta be Maurice. That moustache haunted me for the entire project.

Best Dance

Controversial opinion here. Although the PM’s dance in Love Actually is iconic, the Lindy hop in Florence Foster Jenkins is fucking spectacular. I would watch it in a gif forever.

Best Fight

Much as I love “I give up, my face is in the butter” from Music & Lyrics, it has to be the first Bridget Jones movie. I mean, this is two middle-aged British men who feel very strongly they should be having a fight right now but have no idea how to go about it. It’s hilarious and delightful. The one is the sequel is a pale imitation.

Honourable mention: one of the few moments I didn’t hate in Nine Months was the one in which Hugh Grants fights badly with a man dressed as a dinosaur.

Best Song

Given that Hugh Grant is an actor not a singer, I’m actually surprisingly spoiled for choice here. It feels like cheating to pick something from the film in which he plays a legit singer-songwriter but I have to mention that “Don’t Write Me Off Just Yet” is genuinely adorable and “Pop Goes My Heart” is super catchy.

Had I been compiling this list two days, I’d have actually given the top spot to Hugh Grant’s rendition of Killing Me Softly (with his eyes closed) at the end of About A Boy. But then I watched Paddington 2 and Paddington 2 closes with Hugh Grant performing Rain on the Roof from Follies dressed in a pink prison uniform with a chorus line of prisoners and guards.

I just don’t think the world for Hugh Grant Does Actual Fucking Sondheim. Respect.

Most Quintessentially Hugh Grant moment

Okay, this time “I give up, my face is in the butter” is taking it. It’s incredibly British, incredibly silly, dryly funny, and is a consequence of his failing to live up to conventional standards of masculinity while trying to do what’s best for someone.

Most Surprising Hugh Grant moment

Despite the aforesaid Actual Fucking Sondheim, I think coming out of Four Weddings and a Funeral to see Hugh Grant sneering and covered in his own vomit as Meredith Potter in An Awfully Big Adventure was genuinely eye opening. Up until that point, he’d either been in fairly minor roles, basically terrible roles or classic Hugh Grant roles. So it was the first time in this project I got to see how good he could be as a character actor.

Most Romantic Hugh Grant moment

I’m sorry, Don’t Write Me Off Just Yet, you’ve been piped at the post yet again. Because I’m actually giving this one to the scene where Edward Ferrars proposes to Elinor at the end of Sense and Sensibility. Both characters have been profoundly constrained by duty and circumstance and propriety for the entire film, so suddenly seeing them free to express emotions to each other, and have those emotions reciprocated is incredibly powerful. Also I really like Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars – it’s a very Hugh Granty role but I think he brings a lot of depth to a character who can easily become a bit of a cipher.

Hugh Grant film with lowest Hugh Grant content

Not counting, Travaux (Housewarming), a 2005 French movie in which Hugh Grant has a very brief cameo, essentially as himself, right at the end, which I decided to edit out of this because he’s not strictly playing a character in it. This one goes to White Mischief where he plays a named character, confusingly if I recall correctly, named Hugh, who appears in the first five and then never again. 

Aaaaand. That’s it. Thank you for bearing with me while I watched every Hugh Grant film I could get my hands on. I hope you found it … Hugh Granty? 

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Oh my gosh, this is so nearly over and it’s probably testament to how many Hugh Grant movies I’ve watched that the way I chose to express my emotions on this occasion was to say ‘oh my gosh’. I’ve got 5 movies left to review in the Grant oeuvre. I’ll do four in this post and end on Paddington 2 and an overview (overhugh?) of the whole project.

Cloud Atlas

I feel ambivalent about this film. On one level, it’s absolutely the kind of shit I like and I’m actually really fond of the book. But I couldn’t quite shake the feeling with either the book or the film that it mostly exists as a vehicle for a clever structural trick. And, for me, that trick works fairly well in the book because it unfolds more slowly and so you get a gradually dawning sense of what’s going on and how the stories fit together. Whereas in the film, because of the constraints of the medium, it’s a lot more obvious from the beginning and, therefore, you’ve got a lot more time to get bored of it.

At which point, I should probably explain what happens in the film and what its central gimmick is. Warning, spoilers. Although mainly spoilers for, like, the structure? Cloud Atlas consists of six stories covering a time span from the mid-19th century to an imagined post-apocalyptic future. And, where in the book, they’re told strictly in chronological and then reverse-chronological order the movie jumps between them more much freely. The stories are: a 19th century travelogue, a set of letters written by a composer to his gay lover in the 1930s, a Grisham-esque 70s conspiracy thriller, an almost Ben Elton-esque farce about a vanity publisher whose brother tricks him into committing himself to an old people’s home, a cyberpunk thriller set in Dystopian future Korea, and a Leibowitz-esque post-apocalyptic tale narrated in an an imaginary future-dialect. The twist, as it were, is that the central character in each story reads or otherwise accesses and generally identifies with the story of the central character from the previous narrative. This makes a lot less sense in a movie because we keep jump-cutting between the stories so it’s easy to lose track of the point where the overlap is supposed to happen, although to be honest I feel like a lot of the links are quite tenuous anyway.

I can buy the idea that the tortured Ben-Whishaw-playing-the-character-he-always-plays-in-everything composer could have read and might have become fixated with journal of a 19th century lawyer. And that he might read parallels between the experiences of Adam Ewing, as he finds himself trapped in the middle of the ocean being slowly poisoned by a man he thinks is he friend, and his own situation, stuck in a country house, being gradually undermined and exploited by a man he used to admire. Perhaps, more to the point, I can see how having that explicit link between both stories makes them both stronger. But a lot of the links after that just feel quite forced. I mean, I can just about see how a story about a disempowered old man trapped in an old people’s home could have resonance to an artificial human in a Dystopian future but I don’t see how that cultural artefact of all cultural artefacts survived two hundred years and got to Korea and, also, why does she even speak English? And I get that I’m being a little bit pedantic here but I think the reason it bugged me is that it felt like an idea that was really strong as a way to connecting two stories was stretched out into a way of connecting six to the point that it just fell apart.

The other way that the movie tries to communicate the connectedness of its various narratives is to have the same actors playing different roles in different timelines. And this successfully reinforces a sort of nebulous theme of connectedness but introduces a number of other quite significant issues. The first issue, and I wasn’t sure when to bring this up but now seems as good a time as any, is that it does mean that in the Dystopian Korea segments quite a lot of significant characters are played by white actors in, um, the sort of makeup they put Sean Connery in for that one James Bond movie? And, um, I just don’t think that’s okay. To be very, very fair to the film, there are also a couple of scenes where the Asian actors are whited up to play Europeans but the context is very very different, much in the same way that there’s a difference between having a black Captain America (which I believe they did for a while) and a white Black Panther (which they have sensibly avoided).

The less problematic and more structural issue with the recurring cast is that you spend more time trying to work which character is a different character in a false beard than you do really paying attention to the story. I think the basic issue with the recurring actors gimmick is that it seems to have implemented without intent. There are times when it seems to imply that these two characters are literally reincarnations of the same person enacting similar stories throughout time (like, Adam Ewing makes it home, declares eternal wav for his wife, who is played by the same actress who plays Sonmi in the cyberpunk story, and that he will spend the rest of his life fighting against slavery, and the same actor plays the lover of Sonmi, and they are both in wuv and fighting against clone slavery 200 years in the future). Then there are times when it seems that a particular actor has a particular role in the story, like the way Hugo Weaving always plays enforcers or interrogators or symbols of corrupt authority (which may or may not also represent literal reincarnation which, if it does, it seems odd that Hugo Weaving always reincarnates as some kind of dickhead and what does that say about, well, anything). And also there are times when it just seems like a pointless Easter egg, like Ben Whishshaw, and indeed, Hugh Grant (yes, he is actually in this movie – I’ll talk about that in a second) both turning up as random cannibals. All of which just renders the whole thing incoherent.

I think what I’m working around to here is that this is just not a great film. It’s also three and a bit hours long which is simultaneously too short because it means each story basically gets as much time as one episode of the average sitcom, and far too long because, dude, it’s three and a bit hours.

Goodness of film: 2.5. Like what it does, it does well. But what it does is largely meaningless if very stylish. It’s basically exactly what you would expect a David Mitchell novel adapted by the Wachowskis to be like.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 1.5. He plays multiple roles in it, but at least one of them is a non-speaking cannibal and the others are around for all of eighteen seconds. Also he never dances or punches anyone.

The Rewrite

So this is Music & Lyrics but with screenplays, and also not a lot like Music & Lyrics. It did, however, make me want to Music & Lyrics. In this film, Hugh Grant plays a washed up one-hit-wonder, only this time his one hit instead of being pop music was a late 90s movie called Paradise Misplaced, about two angels who have to go and rescue someone from hell (minor nerdy pedant point, every single person he meets loves and fondly remembers this movie, even though I can think of zero examples of fantastical films from the 90s that achieved anything remotely resembling critical or commercial success. I mean, yes, there was City of Angels but the film that’s described in this movie seems more like a Neil Gaiman thing). Anyway, he hasn’t had a hit in years and his agent books him a gig on Battles of the 80s Hasbeen… I mean teaching screenwriting at a university in upstate New York. 

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. You’re probably thinking, he starts off resenting this role and believing that he’s too good for it, cutting a bunch of corners, behaving really unprofessionally and generally not doing the job properly, but then gradually he comes to realise that he cares about his students and really wants to help them achieve their goals and dreams so he pulls it out the bag and becomes the best university teacher ever. And you’d be absolutely right. This is not an unpredictable movie. 

There are, in fact, exactly two unpredictable things in this film. The first is that the romantic interest is actually only four years younger than Hugh Grant, which for a Hollywood romcom is positively subversive. And the second is that there’s a bit where he realises that one of his students has written a script that is way better than anything he has written in years and he just behaves really well and professionally about it (despite behaving badly and unprofessionally about pretty much everything else). 

I’m aware that I say this a lot about poorly received Hugh Grant romcoms but I did actually really enjoy this movie. Much like Music & Lyrics, its themes are deeper than its vehicle suggests – in that it seems genuinely interested in the way that our context shapes our behaviour and expectations. To take the most obvious example, the central thematic question of the film is incapsulated by the arguments that Hugh Grant’s character has with Marisa Tomei over whether writing can be taught. He argues that it can’t, she argues that it can but the point is that his beliefs are grounded in his experiences in Hollywood and hers in her experience of pursuing her dreams and failing but not giving up on them. Because his first movie was a huge success, and because (as he says himself in the film) being a huge success in Hollywood is incredibly seductive it was for easy for him to develop a worldview where your work is a reflection of who you are rather than what you can do. So when his later films were less successful he wasn’t able to go back and analyse the factors that had led to his writing one good movie and three terrible ones because, from within the paradigm he accepted, creative output is defined entirely by this nebulous, innate thing called talent. By contrast Marisa Tomei’s character has been a dancer, which requires a lot more specific practice than being a writer (there’s no way to get good at dancing without drilling specific moves and no amount of talent will make up for a lack of technique) and so she views success in any area as a matter of application. 

This theme of people existing in a specific context is reinforced by the secondary cast – from CJ Cregg’s elitist Austen scholar who is unable to see value in anything that isn’t classical literature to the Head of Department who, despite loving and being extremely happy with his wife and four daughters, feels an overwhelming social mandate to voice complaints he doesn’t really feel about how terrible it is to be the only man in a house of five women. And for what it’s worth both of those characters skirt a problematic borderline because it’s not clear to what extent we’re supposed to look at them and think “ah yes, I can see the ways in which these people’s personality quirks are reflections of the way they are restricted by their past experiences and cultural expectations” and to what extent we’re just supposed to shrug and go “women, am I right?” On an only tangentially related noted, I do feel constrained to mention that I have never met an Austen scholar who didn’t love Clueless so this was an element of Allison Janney’s character I found deeply unrealistic. And the upset me.

Goodness of film: 3. It’s not bad and it’s definitely trying to do interesting things. I’m genuinely not sure if the film really counts as a romcom because the actual romantic relationship is quite secondary and I can’t decide if that means it’s expanding the kind of stories you can tell within the romcom format or if it just, well, isn’t one. For example, rather than the film ending on a declaration of undying love, it ends with the main characters committing to maybe giving a relationship a go at some point in the future, which some people might find disappointing but I found created this nice sense of two more mature people who have other shit going on in their lives and can’t just drop everything for a fairytale ending.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 3. He’s perfectly fine in this but I can’t help comparing it unfavourably to other films where he does the slightly-washed-up-used-to-be-big-in-the-80s-slash-90s thing in a way that’s either sleazier or more endearing.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

I think the weird thing about The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is that it’s kind of like Bond movies were before Bond movies stopped being like Bond movies and started being like Le Carres. It’s this weird mix of action, suspense, high camp and black comedy.  Apparently it bombed at the box office and I can sort of see why because it feels like its a little out of step with the aesthetic of 2010s (I was going to say “of it’s time” but, actually, I’m so far through this project that I’m now reviewing films that came out comparatively recently). However you cut it, TV and movies, especially of the actiony-adventurery variety have been getting increasingly grimdark for the last decade. Hell, look at the DC cinematic universe, and its more than slightly painful attempts to make Superman gritty and realistic. So I get how cinema goers in 2015 might have not known how to handle a film where, for example, a guy sits eating a sandwich in a stolen truck while, in the background, his partner/rival has a spectacular and explosive laden duel to the death with nazis on a submarine. But I’ve got to admit, I kind of dug it.

There’s not much to say here, really. The film is a sequence of strung together set pieces, the plot makes zero sense and it’s got that problematic thing that goes back to Indiana Jones where “nazi” is kind of used as a code for “non-specific bad guy” which is trope on which people’s mileage legitimately varies. Also Hugh Grant is barely in it. The character he plays—Waverley—was quite a significant figure in the TV series, because he’s head of U.N.C.L.E., but because this film is sort of an origin story he basically just shows up at the end and is briefly cool. He’s playing enigmatic British spy guy number 47 but he’s sort of the person you’d want to play that role, especially now he’s older and looks a bit more used teabag and a bit less lost puppy.

Goodness of film: I think it’s another 3. It’s a perfectly serviceable spy flick and a nice antidote to modern Bond or all of the grainy sad-faced espionage stuff that’s on the BBC at the moment. I feel sort of bad that it’s so badly angling to be a franchise and so definitely isn’t going to be one.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 2. It’s a good role for him but he’s in the film for all of twelve seconds, and mostly sitting in a helicopter giving instructions over a radio.

Florence Foster Jenkins

This one is deeply tragic. And, obviously, it’s sort of difficult because the part of me that still has a sense of class consciousness is always a bit sceptical about stories that ask you to feel sorry for somebody whose life is very sad apart from the tiny detail of them having been born into massive wealth, often at time when truly unimaginably horrendous things were happening to the sorts of people who don’t get historical biopics made about them.

Florence Foster Jenkins was a real person who was something of a cult figure in what can loosely be dubbed artistic circles in New York in the first half of the 20th century. Her basic claim to fame is that she was an incredibly bad singer who nevertheless gave opera performances. These shows were mostly private and delivered to a carefully cultivated audience of people who could be relied on not to be dicks about it, and historians are divided about whether she was in on the joke. The narrative presented in the film (which more or less tracks to Foster Jenkins’ real biographical details, although obviously the emotional arc is pure speculation) is that that Florence Foster Jenkins was a young and talented pianist (she was) whose passion for music was so great that she ran off against her father’s wishes with a musician (she did) who gave her syphilis (he did) which caused nerve damage that ruined her musical career (this isn’t entirely true – she actually injured her arm in an unrelated incident) and she was left alone in New York with no creative outlet but tonnes of money and so threw herself into singing, even though she was demonstrably terrible at it.

Frankly, she lived a weird life and it is a weird premise for a film but there is something strangely affirming about it because it’s essentially about a woman who is dealt a shitty hand by life (apart from the aforesaid small detail of her massive wealth), is denied the opportunity to truly fulfil her dreams, largely as a consequence of other people’s selfishness, who, by sheer force of will, constructs a world around herself in which she lives them anyway. It helps a lot that she’s played by Meryl Streep and Meryl Streep is the bomb.

Hugh Grant plays her common-law husband, St Clair Bayfield, who is sort of cheating on her and lying to her for the whole film but who also makes real sacrifices to protect the illusions that allow her to be happy. Maybe I’m just inclined to be supportive of non-standard relationships but it seems like he’s genuinely devoted to her and understands her, and is as thwarted as she is in some ways, his own career as an actor having gone essentially nowhere. The central conflict of the film revolves around Florence Foster Jenkins’ one public performance, in which she caved to public pressure and sang at Carnegie Hall. In real life, the show received terrible reviews, which she found distressing. In the film, this is recast as one vindictively terrible review from a legitimately evil journalist that she finds so distressing it literally kills her. To be fair, she did die the same year as that concert but she was in her late 70s at the time.

Perhaps I’m just getting sentimental in my old age but I did find it an incredibly moving film, partly because I have a soft spot for historical eccentrics, and partly because Streep and Grant are really good at what they do, and have amazing on-screen chemistry. Streep is strong and vulnerable and weird all at once. And Grant is devoted and charming and slightly duplicitous. And strangely enough, it’s his comfort with duplicity that allows him to be what Florence needs him to be: someone who will let her live in the world that she wants to live in. 

Goodness of film: 4.5. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I really enjoyed it and got a lot out of it. Pretty much the last line in the movie is a real Florence Foster Jenkins quote, which is “people may say I can’t sing but no-one can say I didn’t sing” which I just find weirdly inspirational. 

Hugh Grantiness of film: 5. This isn’t a typical Hugh Grant role, although the more of his films I’ve watched, the more I realise that “typical Hugh Grant role” is something of a dismissive oversimplification. But it is a strong, late-career example of the kind of the character work he’s not been allowed to do since Four Weddings. He’s just really good in the film. Also he dances. And he dances the motherfucking Lindy hop.

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So long time no Hugh Grant update. It’s almost like I’ve been busy with actual work or something. I’m getting scarily close to the end of the Hugh Grantathon, which leaves with me with a tremendous sense of both accomplishment and having wasted a colossal amount of time watching slightly mediocre movies from the mid 90s.

And, therefore, without further ado here’s some slightly mediocre movies from the mid 2000s.

American Dreamz

Well this one’s depressing. Remember how between 2000 and 2008 George W Bush was president and left wing people in America thought it was like the worst thing that could possibly happen and everyone was like “oh my God this guy is such a moron, he constantly panders to his deeply socially conservative base while making a real big thing of how down-to-earth and uncomplicated he is to cover up the fact that he’s only really serving the interests of billionaires and his personal friends”? Well, don’t we feel silly now. American Dreamz is an only slightly mean-spirited satire of things that people thought were really, really important in 2007, which is to say a right wing president who’s a bit goofy sometimes and TV talent shows being popular. What can I say? It was a more innocent time.

Although it comes across as very, very dated now and I can’t tell if it’s whacky comedy terrorists have got more offensive or less offensive with time I did sort of weirdly like this movie. Hugh Grant plays a character who is definitely not Simon Cowell right down to his low-cut white shirts. And the emotional heart, or I suppose bleak satire of an emotional heart,of the film is his relationship with a contestant named Sally Kendoo. Basically they’re both ruthless, heartless, mercilessly ambitious glory hounds who hate themselves and are wiling to use and exploit anybody to get what they want, even though they know that getting what they want won’t particularly make them happy. Like, it’s not actually a love story because, well, they’re both too awful for that and also *spoiler* Hugh Grant’s character winds up dead at the end in a Shadow Of The Vampire-esque nothing-outside-the-frame-is-real type moment but I’m just really, really into the trope where two fundamentally terrible human beings each recognise that the other is the only person who understands them.

I mean, ultimately American Dreamz is a set of cheap and obvious jokes about reality TV, a set of cheap and obvious jokes about Islamist terrorism, and a set of cheap and obvious jokes about the Bush presidency (“lol, wouldn’t it be hilarious if the president went on a reality TV programme, wouldn’t that totally undermine and devalue everything the office is supposed to stand for”). Which means it’s not actually good in any useful sense of the word but it’s a weirdly fascinating a cultural artefact. And, as I said above, I was really into the dynamic between not-Simon Cowell and Sally Kendoo. Also, and this wasn’t a really a thing in mass media in 2007 so I’m not sure it’s deliberate, but the character of Sally Kendoo is basically ace. She very explicitly tells Hugh Grant that sex doesn’t interest her but she’s willing to do it if it gets her what she wants. And this is really difficult from a rep perspective because, on the one hand, it’s quite an incidental part of her character and isn’t particularly presented as coming from a place of abuse or damage. But, on the other hand, it is kind of represented as part and parcel of her fundamentally aberrant and basically sociopathic personality. So, yeah, bit of a bit mixed bag there.

Goodness of film: It’s probably a 2 but I’d like to give it a 3 because I actually kind of enjoyed it.

Hugh Grantiness of film: I’m going to give this a 3. It’s very much one of his character roles, although the character is a bit similar to some of the cad archetypes he’s played before and even more similar to, well, Simon Cowell. But a lesser appreciated element of the Grant oeuvre is his ability to portray a truly intense level of self-loathing hence the exactly average rating.

Music and Lyrics

There are two schools of thought about whether Music and Lyrics is a good romantic comedy. Everybody else thinks it’s terrible. I think it’s great. I will say that sexual chemistry wise Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore are, well, they don’t have any. Which for some people watching a romantic comedy I can see would be a bit of a deal breaker. But, for me, that criticism overlooks all the other things that are great about their relationship. They communicate well, they work well together, they support each other, they actually bring out the best in each other, and those are not small things. Nor are they the sort of things that normally get celebrated in romantic films.

The plot here is that Hugh Grant is a washed up 80s popstar (which is kind of the role he was born to play) who is offered an opportunity to revive his flagging career by writing a song for someone who, in 2009, definitely wasn’t Britney Spears and in 2018 definitely isn’t Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus. Unfortunately, he’s good at writing music but bad at writing … um … it’s in the title of the film. However, as fate would have it, the irrepressibly quirky woman who shows up at his apartment to water the plants has a natural talent talent as a lyricist. Stuff happens. They fall in wuv.

I think part of the reason this movie gets filed under the “generic and forgettable romcom” category is that has a somewhat mixed opening that doesn’t quite fit with the movie that follows it. Hugh Grant’s character is set up really well, partly because since he’s an actual celebrity it can open with a TV show giving a potted summary of his career that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about his core conflict. Drew Barrymore’s character, on the other hand, is a bit of a slowburn and the film is so keen to give its couple a meetcute that she comes in being weird and intense in a bunch of ways that she just isn’t for the rest of the movie. Like she’s randomly hypochondriacal and she talks in this incessant stream of consciousness. And maybe the implication is that as she gets to know Hugh Grant’s character better she calms down but it just feels a bit forced. I mean, one of her personality traits is that she takes things more seriously than one might commonly expect and this is sometimes a good thing (for example, when she responds to Hugh Grant’s pop music or insists that they can’t just phone in the last verse of Way Back Into Love) and sometimes negative (like, she tends to over-think everything and experiences an intensity of hurt from the insulting book her former mentor/lover wrote about her that is understandable but out of proportion) but all that is a complex knot of human-ness that is hard to communicate in one scene about plant watering.

Anyway, once you get past that shaky start, it quickly becomes apparent that is a story about two deeply but banally damaged people and how they eventually learn that while they can’t fix each other’s damage they can help one another to move on. I just … think that’s really nice.

Also the songs are genuinely quite good and really well-observed – from the skeevily sexualised cultural appropriation of not-Britney’s big number to the cheesy 80s nonsense of Pop Goes My Heart (d’you see, because the band is called Pop).

Goodness of film: 5. Don’t care. Love it.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 4.5 Like, this is basically Hugh Grant in 2008 playing a character who, in 1989, was Hugh Grant in 1997 because of the weird way Hollywood ageing works. But he’s super charming and very self-deprecating, which I like because I’m English. Also he sings. Also he dances. Also he is bad at fighting. Actually this should be a 5. He does all the best Hugh Grant things. 

Did You Hear About The Morgans

This one actually is a generic and forgettable romcom. And I would argue that Hugh Grant has even less sexual chemistry with Sarah Jessica Parker than he does with Drew Barrymore. 

I ended up quite enjoying this film but mostly because I went into it with rockbottom expectations. Basically, everything you need to know about Did You Hear About The Morgans is summed up by the two things written on the DVD box. The first is the tag line “they’ve fallen out of love and into witness protection” which is, yeah, that’s the plot of film. It’s also about as pithy and witty as the film ever gets. The second thing that’s written on the DVD box is a quote from a review which describes it as “the perfect date movie.” Something I’ve become increasingly aware of in my old age is that every time you see a quote on an advertisement for anything that quote is the single most flattering thing that the person making that advertisement could find that had been said in any context. For example, I was recently looking at the Steam page for a videogame which included the quote “is bigger and more lavish than its predecessor in every way.” I happened to have read the review from which the quote was drawn and therefore knew that the end of that sentence was something like “but still feels somehow hollow in comparison to it.” In the same way, I can’t help but feel that “the perfect date movie” is pretty much the faintest praise that a film can be damned with. I mean, what it’s basically saying “this is a great film to go and see if seeing a film really isn’t the point of your evening.”

Anyway, in this film Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker fall out of love and into witness protection. Which is to say, they witness a guy getting thrown off a balcony by a nondescript white man in a black beanie and when they go to the police they discover that the crime they witnessed was part of a major on-going criminal investigation into some big crime thing. They’re given police protection but the assassin who have they have seen once from a distance immediately comes to Sarah Jessica Parker’s apartment in broad daylight and shoots a cop in order to reduce the number of people who can place him at the scene of a crime. This leads to the Feds realising that that Hugh and Sarah Jessica need to be sent to Montana to have a heart-warming education in what really matters.

Now I’d say I don’t want to nitpick but that’s not true. I love nitpicking. But as much as I moderately enjoyed this film I really couldn’t get over the fact they shouldn’t have been in witness protection in the first place. The connection that the Morgans have to the crime is that the guy who gets killed was a client of Sarah Jessica Parker’s (she’s some kind of real estate agent) but, the thing is, being able to identify the victim isn’t useful. Generally, and I admit I only really know about this from movies and TV shows, people who get put in witness protection are people who can give cast iron evidence that a particular person is definitely guilty of something. All Sarah Hugh Parker can do is say they saw a guy in a beanie push a guy off a building. That isn’t helpful. The professional killer who hunts them down is clearly and demonstrably increasing his own risk of capture every single time he tries to take them out. Like the only way it makes sense is if the hitman actually is Michael Kelly and what the Morgans are telling the Feds “yes, the killer was definitely that guy who was in House of Cards, here’s his IMDB page.”

But I digress. There follows a film that is exactly like you expect a film about two cynical New Yorkers who go to small town America expecting to hate it to be. Blah blah community blah blah salt of the earth blah blah God’s own country. And the thing is, it’s actually nice. It really is. Like there’s a bit where Hugh Grant runs away from a bear. And a bit where they get taught to the shoot by The Cowboy from The Big Lebowski and Sarah Jessica Parker turns out to be better at it than Hugh Grant because ha! take that gender stereotypes that basically haven’t existed for twenty years. And it all ends with the locals rallying around them to defeat Michael Kelly at a rodeo. Because of course it does.

The aspect of the film I was most worried about at the beginning but wound up liking the most by the end was the source of tension in the Morgan’s relationship. We discover early on that Hugh Grant cheated on Sarah Jessica Parker and we also learn that Sarah Jessica Parker is super keen to have a baby, which made me a little bit uncomfortable because I’ve seen too films (quite a lot of them involving Hugh Grant) where the female lead’s only role is “I want babies now please”, often in the most inappropriate of circumstances (eight weeks, Bridget Jones, eight weeks!). And again, it is fine to want children. It is a thing that some women want and I do understand that. But even in 2009 it was getting to be a problematic stereotype. As the film develops, however, it became clear that I’d made some incorrect assumptions about what the setup was going to be. At first glance it appeared the dynamic in their relationship was basically “she wants to have babies, he wants to have sex with other women” but actually, as they find themselves in a small town with no WiFi forced to talk through their problems, it becomes clear that the narrative was really “they want to have children, she can’t have children, that takes an emotional toll on their relationship that eventually drives them apart” and Hugh Grant cheating is ultimately a symptom of that rather than the basis of it. It’s sufficiently mature and nuanced that I’ll even almost give it a pass on the fact that the assassin tracks them down because Sarah Jessica Parker is so unwilling to lose her appointment with adoption agency that she calls them from fucking witness protection having been specifically told that it’s the one thing you really definitely should not do. Almost. But not quite.

Goodness of film: This is a flat 2. Like, it’s fine. It is, in fact, the perfect date movie. Watch this film if you are more interested in the person you are watching it with than what you are actually watching.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 2. I mean, yes, technically he’s bad at fighting in this movie as well but since the only things he fights badly are a bear and an actual assassin it doesn’t have quite the same joy to it as his classic weedy Englishman duels. He’s fine but he’s basically playing an English man whose personality is he’s an an English man. He gives an okay performance with an okay script in an okay movie.

Pirates In An Adventure with Scientists (called Pirates A Band of Misfits in the US for what I suspect are Madness of King George reasons)

This is a fun animated film in which Hugh Grant provides the voice of an inept pirate captain called The Pirate Captain (there’s this whole thing in the film, and the book its based on, where all the pirates’ names are just descriptions of what kind of pirate they are like The Pirate With Gout or The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate). It’s basically a romp. And so historically inaccurate that I’m sure it must be being deliberately historically inaccurate. It’s specifically set in 1837 which is supposed to be in Victorian England and, I suppose it technically was, as long as it was after the 20th June but Victoria’s coronation wasn’t actually until 1838. It’s got a cameo from Jane Austen who died in 1817, there’s references to Dracula despite the fact Bram Stoker wouldn’t be born for another decade and, let us not forget, there are pirates in it even though they kind of stopped being a thing more than a hundred years earlier. And also the plot is about The Pirate Captain trying to win the annual Pirate of the Year Competition and attempting to do this by teaming up with Charles Darwin (who, bizarrely, is sort of historically accurate in that the story takes place shortly after he got off The Beagle and shortly before he published his notes about it) who is trying to win the annual Scientist of the Year Competition by using The Pirate Captain’s pet parrot Polly who isn’t really a parrot, she’s a dodo. Probably by now you have a very clear idea of whether you’re going to like this film or not. Needless to say I did like it because pirates. Also scientists. Also adventures. And Ducky was very pleased by the bird rep.

I have legitimately no idea how this film would play to an America audience because it strikes me as very, very British. It’s by Aardman Animations, the studio behind Wallace and Gromit, it has a cast of beloved but a bit obscure English people, like Lenny Henry, Brian Blessed and Imelda Staunton alongside some comparatively bigger names like David Tennant and Martin Freeman. And all the jokes are just silly and puerile and faintly bathetic.

My favourite factoid about the film and, warning, this contains spoilers from a 2012 kids movie about pirates and a dodo, is that there’s something of an irony to the plot twist at the end where Darwin is shocked to discover that Queen Victoria doesn’t want the dodo to put in a zoo but because she belongs to a secret society of gourmands whose sole purpose is to eat as many rare and obscure animals as possible. The irony in question being that, in real life, Queen Victorian almost certainly didn’t belong to such an organisation but Charles Darwin actually did.

Goodness of film: 3.5. It’s fun. It’s a cartoon about pirates. If you want to watch a cartoon about pirates, watch this cartoon about pirates. Or, to be honest, pretty much any other cartoon about pirates.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 2? It’s a difficult one because I’m honesty not sure I would have recognised The Pirate Captain was Hugh Grant if I didn’t already know it was Hugh Grant. But it is quite a Hugh Granty in that it is someone bumbling, incompetent and emotionally constipated. Also I was freaked out by him having a moustache in Maurice. He’s got a massive luxurious beard and is a cartoon character. 

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2002 to 2004: the Godawful Manchild Years.

Between 2002 and 2004 Hugh Grant was in four movies and in three of them he played a godawful manchild. And in one of them he plays the Prime Minister of Great Britain who is actually also secretly a godawful manchild. You’re just not supposed to think that.

Let’s get going.

Two Weeks Notice

In this film, Hugh Grant plays a godawful manchild. He is a rich property developer who hires a feisty, somewhat hippie-ish, deeply idealistic lawyer to be his personal counsel and winds up relying on her to make his every decision for him because he’s a godawful manchild. This is far more endearing that it has any right to be, because on a rational level I shouldn’t really find “he is immature and she puts up with it” to be a romantic dynamic. But I sort of kind of did? I think what it comes down to is that Hugh Grant is actually quite charming when he’s being hopeless and Sandra Bullock is quite charming all the time.

The film did lose me towards the end. Essentially the arc of the movie is: Hugh hires Sandra, Sandra realises that working for Hugh is taking over her life and stopping her doing the good and useful things she wants to be doing, so she gives him her two weeks’ notice (d’you see, just like the title of the film) and he starts trying to find a replacement for her, during which time they discover they are in wuv. The replacement, however, is an attractive redhead and Sandra Bullock gets debilitatingly, mind-meltingly jealous and insecure. And, the thing is, the film works fine if the story is “Sandra Bullock works for an immature guy, falls for him and has to balance her affection for Hugh Grant versus her desire to achieve the sorts of things she wants to achieve.” Nothing is actually gained by extending the plot to include “also she’s sad because the boy she likes likes another girl.” It’s an additional source of conflict that plays into gender stereotypes and really isn’t needed.

On a totally unrelated note, there’s a slightly odd scene about halfway through where Sandra Bullock gets a sudden attack of diarrhoea in the middle of a traffic jam and she and Hugh Grant have to get out their car and ask to use the toilet in somebody’s mobile home that happens to be a few cars in front of them. With hilarious consequences. As a big romantic gesture moment it’s somewhat unorthodox but also weirdly subversive because, honestly, I can’t think of a single other romantic comedy where the heroine’s need to do a massive poo has been a significant moment of emotional development. And, actually, it’s bizarrely refreshing to see a romantic movie from 2002 that admits women use toilets for something other than having moments of personal doubt or realisation.

Goodness of film: 3. It’s a completely bog standard romcom with some sweet moments, a surprisingly liberating approach to female bowel movements, the sort of slightly groan-inducing gender politics that you’d expect from the early 2000s, and a Donald Trump cameo.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 3.5. He’s a main character, he’s playing an early iteration on a character he’d play for the next several years, but he neither gets in a fight nor dances so it’s not quite worthy of a 4.

About a Boy

In this film, Hugh Grant plays a godawful manchild who is ambiguously rescued from his godawful manchild status by his relationship with an actual child—the “boy” about whom the film is. Incidentally the boy about whom the film is will go on to have a quite successful career, best known over here for being Tony from Skins, but probably best known in the US from supporting roles in Mad Max Fury Road and the more recent X-Men movies.

I might be completely off base here but I feel you can only really understand this phase in Hugh Grant’s career if you have a sense of where England was in the late 90s / early 2000s. Tony Blair was PM, the Millennium Dome hadn’t been a complete disaster, and there was this weird sense that Britain was cool (Britain is never actually cool but people in other countries had heard of Oasis and David Beckham). Which meant in the late 90s and early 2000s there were quite a lot of British films about Britain and Britishness made in Britain about Britain stuff. In particular, pretty much every novel Nick Hornby ever wrote got turned into a movie and, of course, the guy behind Four Weddings wrote an epic, multi-viewpoint love letter to Blair era Britain with Hugh Grant in the starring role. It’s all a bit cringe, really.

About A Boy is peak turn-of-the-millennium Britain. It’s got a Badly Drawn Boy soundtrack, it’s about a shifting sense of family, it’s sort of heart-warming and cynical in equal measure, it’s weirdly obsessed with consumerism like American Psycho, and there’s a particular emphasis on men redefining what masculinity means in a world where traditional gender roles are increasingly challenged.

tl;dr it’s kind of dated but I kind of like it.

Goodness of Film: 4. It’s a perfectly adequate film.

Hugh Grantiness of Film: 4.5. He’s in it all the time, he’s playing a recognisable Hugh Granty archetype but he gets to do a bit more with it. At this stage of his career, Hugh Grant is basically playing, well, godawful manchildren as we’ve established but they tend to be in the context of straight forwardly romantic stories (Hugh Grant is selfish and/or immature, he meets a nice woman, she helps him to be less selfish and/or immature, the end). Whereas, because About a Boy is, well, about a boy he shows a similar arc but can’t rely on established genre conventions to sell his emotional growth to the viewer. And, actually, there are quite a lot of beats in ABAB that could actually be lifted directly from a conventional romantic comedy (most notably the scene where Hugh Grant publicly humiliates himself by singing Killing Me Softly in front of a hall full of angry British teenagers—by the way, this film gets an extra half point of Hugh Grantiness just for that moment) but because they’re about human connections in general on this occasion they become more resonant and feel more nuanced.

PS – this film also stars Tonks from Harry Potter as a surly teenager.

Love Actually

In this film Hugh Grant plays godawful manchild who happens to be Prime Minister. So the last couple of entries have been quite short (by my standards) because I suspected I might have quite a lot to say about Love Actually. Because, when you get right down to it, Love Actually is actually six-to-eight very short films all stitched together with the slightly peculiar framing device of a children’s nativity concert and Heathrow.

Every time I’ve reviewed a Hugh Grant / Richard Curtis movie I’ve said that they derive their emotional impact by evoking a very specific idea of Britishness to which the vast majority of British people, in fact, have no access. Love Actually is better in some ways, worse in others.  Pretty much everyone in it is still incredibly middle class—I was sitting down trying to work out if I could remember any working class characters who were in it and there’s only really Natalie. I mean, I initially thought of Colin God of Sex, who we first meet doing minimum wage work handing round canapes at a wedding and sandwiches at offices, but then I realised that while he might be working a fairly entry level job he’s also from a sufficiently affluent background that he can ditch everything and fly to America as part of a crazy plan to get laid without having to worry about where the money is coming from or if he’ll have somewhere to live when he gets back. Also his best mate (or at least the only friend he seems to have) appears to have a relatively high-powered job in the film industry.

On the plus side, there are actually Brits of colour in this one, with speaking roles. None of them are the centre of an actual story (the closest we get is Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays the guy that the girl that the guy in the unrequited love story is unrequitedly in love with is married to) but it is, at least, a bit more reflective of contemporary British society than Four Weddings or Notting Hill. Of course, probably the biggest gap between the lives of the principle characters in Love Actually and the life of the average Brit in 2003 is a rather higher proportion of Love Actually characters than actual Britons personally know the Prime Minister.

Apparently (and by “apparently” I mean “according to Wikipedia”) Love Actually was originally going to be two films, each about just one of the subplots that wound up in the final movie. I’m not sure which those plots were (although I’m 99% certain the Hugh Grant plot would have been one of them) but Richard Curtis got frustrated halfway through writing and decided to, instead, do an ensemble piece about different manifestations of love. And that’s basically what I think is great about Love Actually and also what I think is terrible about it.

Because the thing is, I do feel that there is a shortage of stories about love in the non-romantic sense. And obviously there are plenty of stories that sort of de facto are about love in the non-romantic sense in that buddycop movies are about affection between co-workers and war movies are about comradeship but you don’t normally get stories in any medium that are about non-romantic love in the way that romances, or romantic comedies, are about romantic love. And so the fact that Love Actually tries to be that is genuinely sort of remarkable.

Just to help clarify my own thoughts (I warned you this was going to get long) the types of love that the film tries to address are as follows: traditional romantic love (Hugh Grant and Martine Mccutcheon, Colin Firth and Lúcia Moniz, Martin Freeman and Joanna Page), unrequited love (Andrew Lincoln, Keira Knightley and Chiwetel Ejiofor), familial love (Laura Linney and whoever the heck plays her brother, Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, Liam Neeson and Thomas Brodie-Sangster), lost love (Liam Neeson and his dead wife), first love (Liam Neeson’s kid and Joanna, the girl from school), love gone stale (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman), love betrayed (Colin Firth again), love for one’s country (Hugh Grant and the cringe-worthy David Beckham speech), love as public recognition or adulation (Billy Mack, looking for a comeback at any cost), and the love of friends (Billy Mack and his fat manager).

Just looking back at that list is kind of exhausting. And it highlights the structural issue that makes some of the stories in the film work better than others. Because with around eight different narrative threads to develop and a run time of about 145 minutes no individual arc can have more than 18 minutes of screen time, which means everything gets very compressed. And I think the extent to which any given story works depends on the extent to which the individual viewer is willing to accept the compromises that have to be made for the sake of compression. I’m now going to go through these stories in no particular order and talk about the ones I think work well and the ones I think work not so well. This does mean that that 87.5% of what follows will be talking about things that aren’t Hugh Grant.

Colin God of Sex and the Body Doubles. I’m going to do these ones first and together because there’s not a lot of say. Colin’s arc is basically non-existent. It’s a gag so throwaway that, looking back, I didn’t even mention Colin Frizzle in my rundown of types of love featured in Love Actually. To give it its due, if you’re going to do an exploration of everything that gets the label of “love” attached to it then pure erotic love as embodied in Colin Frizzle (And He’s Got A Big Knob) is a thing that I can see why you’d want to include. Similarly, sweet couple meets by having charmingly ordinary conversations while pretending to fuck is quite a good joke. Admittedly it’s only one joke but John and Just Judy’s scenes all put together probably take up about three minutes of screen time. Although, and I admit that it’s taken me twenty years to ask this question, I do belatedly wonder who the heck is getting Martin Freeman to be their body double. I mean, I’m all for body positivity and Martin Freeman is great but, generally, when you see a nude scene in a movie the man does not look like Bilbo Baggins.

Jamie and Aurelia. If I had to take a punt on which other story was originally going to be a whole film it would be this one because there’s quite a lot going on here. Jamie starts off in one relationship, comes home to discover his partner is cheating on him with his brother, goes to France, writes a book, falls in love with a woman who doesn’t speak his language, comes back to England, learns Portuguese, then goes to wherever she is (it’s not clear whether they’re in France or Portugal at that point) and proposes to her. This, for me, is a good example of where the compression isn’t a huge issue. We are so trained to fill in the gaps in a romantic relationship that we never even bother to question how you can fall in love with a woman you can’t talk to when all she does is clean your house. Or, even more perplexingly, how you can fall in love with a man you can’t talk to who is also twice your age when all he does is be in a house while you are cleaning it. Their scenes together, because her dialogue is subtitled, give us a good sense of what Jamie and Aurelia are like individually, and even communicate to us how they might be compatible, but they don’t see what we get to see. She doesn’t know that he’s just said “there better not be eels in here” just before she says “try not to disturb the eels” and he doesn’t know she’s warned him about the eels just before he disturbs them. Their relationship is sold to the viewer entirely through second level coding and signalling. This works fine and I think tends to work best in the conventionally romantic relationships (with one exception, see later) because we know what those beats are supposed to be. Also Colin Firth is great and it’s nice to see him getting work.

Liam Neeson and his kid and his dead wife. I feel very ambivalent about this one. Like, obviously starting with a dead wife is fridgey as fuck and, thinking about it (and, as ever, I only have limited standing to talk about gender issues) it’s mildly problematic how few of the romantic love stories in this film are from a female viewpoint. The bereavement story is about a man with a dead wife, the first love story is about that man’s male child being in love with a girl who isn’t really in it, the unrequited love story is about a man who’s in love with his friend’s wife, Colin Firth’s story is about a man whose partner cheats on him and then falls in love with a woman who is given much less psychological interiority than he is, we only ever see Natalie from the PM’s point of view etc. etc. Anyway, like the straightforward boy-meets-girl stories you know the beats of a bereavement so well that the Liam Neeson arc is emotionally moving without really earning it. Pretty much the only thing we know about Joanna is that she was the sort of person who would ask for the Bay City Rollers to be played at her funeral which is, in some ways, a very skilful piece of writing because that lets you fill in a lot of details about who she was for yourself.  But it’s also the bare minimum amount of characterisation you can really do. The parallelism between Liam Neeson grieving for his wife and Sam being sad because he likes a girl who he thinks doesn’t like him actually works really well—although Sam is an awful precocious moppet. There are a few really standout scenes in this story like the bit where Liam and his moppet re-enact Titanic together, reframing a conventionally romantic moment into something about familial love and emotional support (d’you see, because the film is about love actually…). I also really like that Liam Neeson is Sam’s stepdad and that Sam is obviously grieving for his mother but is handling that through focusing on kid stuff. This is probably the story that most suffers not from compressed storytelling but from the fact that the events of the film canonically take place in the three weeks leading up to Christmas 2003 which means that while, in a meta narrative sense, Liam Neeson has gone on a movie’s worth of emotional journey between his wife’s funeral and dating Claudia Schiffer in the final scene, in actual diegetic time it’s been less than a month. Dude is fucking cold.

Creepy Unrequited Love. This is a good example of how the workingness or not of the compressions depend a lot on your personal preferences, preconceptions and assumptions. From a certain point of view, I should probably have no more trouble with this bit of this film than I do with Eponine in Les Miserables. The thing is, because of the way it’s compressed and because of the way it’s framed, it comes across to me as super creepy and in need of a lot more surrounding material to not be creepy. Like seriously, dude spent the whole of his best friend’s wedding following the bride with a camera and doing loving, lingering close ups of her face and body. What is he planning on doing with that footage? And when she comes over it’s like right there on the shelf so he’s obviously been watching it. Oh my God, is he cranking? Is it his crank bank? And her reaction to finding his weird stalker masturbation video is to be momentarily surprised and then flattered. And then when he shows up at her door with passive aggressive signs and fake carol singers and a request that she actually lie to her husband (having presumably like just got back from honeymoon) she legit kisses him. I cannot even with any of this. And I think part of the problem is that unrequited love is a subtler thing to evoke than straightforward romantic love, which means you need very clear signals about what kind of story you’re telling. And similarly there’s no really a way that story can end that isn’t cue cards on a doorstep because, what’s the alternative? He just sort of gets over it? I mean, let’s be clear, in real life that is an alternative and it is the correct alternative, and in a longer film it would be an alternative you could genuinely explore. But with eighteen minutes of screen time “say it’s carol singers” is all you’ve got space for. Even then, I don’t think the compression and simplification would be so problematic if “stalking is love” wasn’t such a well-established and harmful trope. But it is so it is.

Problematic Mental Health Love. So one of the few stories in this film that’s properly from the point of view of a female character is the story of Sarah the American, her long-term crush on Karl the Enigmatic Head of Design, and the mysterious calls she keeps getting on her mobile phone. Sarah, and her phone, can often be seen in the background of other scenes and it’s only when she gets together with Enigmatic Karl (who, somewhat surprisingly for a graphic designer, has a body like a Greek god) that we learn what’s going on. What’s going being that her profoundly mentally ill brother keeps telephoning her from what appears to be a psychiatric facility because he has constant delusions in which people are trying to kill him or he needs to be exorcised. Again, more subtle story, more lost in compression. I honestly can’t tell what I’m supposed to take away from this one and I feel like that’s a matter of incoherence rather than complexity. And in fact is probably to do with my having relatively strong opinions about mental health issues, which I suspect do not align with the opinions of the writers of this film (if they have any). Generally, Love Actually presents love as an uncomplicatedly positive force, even Creepy Guy’s Creepy Stalker Love for Keira Knightley within the structure of the film is framed as a good thing (which is presumably why she doesn’t immediately confiscate the wedding tape and vomit on his face). By which standards, I think we have to assume that Sarah’s willingness to drop everything no matter where she is and what she’s doing to take a potentially endless series of phone calls from her profoundly unwell brother is a good and loving choice, even though it is also portrayed as meaning that she can’t have anything else that she wants. The thing is, there’s one line that makes me question that. While Sarah is trying to get it on with Enigmatic Karl the phone rings once and she answers it, then it rings a second time and Karl goes to stop her answering it, saying “will it make him better?” Now, I am not a mental health professional and I appreciate there are a range of approaches you can take to this kind of situation but I am very much with Karl on this one. Within the context of the film, it is clear that Sarah’s brother’s illness has a significant negative effect on her life. There’s a scene in which it makes him actually attack her. And even leaving that aside the implication seems strongly to be that she has to be constantly aware that he might call any time for an indefinite length of time and she will just have to deal with that no matter what else she might be doing. That is not sustainable and it is not healthy for her and (and, again, not a mental professional and, of course, this character only exists in 18 minutes of footage in a film from 2003) isn’t healthy for him either. In fact, the thing the most confuses me about this plot arc, watching the film as my present day self with my present day level of knowledge, is why this man who is definitely in a mental health facility and who definitely is sufficiently ill that he requires constant supervision and might even pose a physical threat to himself and others is allowed unrestricted access to a telephone. As far as I know, that’s just bad practice.

Just Before Our Love Got Lost. This is probably my favourite arc (if you don’t count the Bill Nighy one which gets bonus points for being Bill Nighy) and is probably the one I consider the most successful, mostly because it’s so petty and shit.  I mean, I appreciate that it’s laddish, boorish and point missing to observe that Alan Rickman doesn’t even get a shag out of it but I sort of think it’s relevant that he doesn’t even get a shag out of it. Basically, this is a man who compromises however many years of marriage (it’s not made clear in the film but they’ve got two kids of school age) for literally nothing except a moment of feeling desired. It’s simultaneously the most pathetic and most understandable thing in the world. And I think I find it especially fascinating because of the way it plays with our cultural assumptions about the way men, women, sex and relationships work. To grossly oversimplify a complicated bit of sociology, conventional culture has a tendency to treat sex as something men “get” from women by giving them something of value in exchange, be that marriage or jewels or emotional commitment (which, of course, conventional culture assumes that men themselves do not want or get anything out of). So the fact that the film frames the act of giving a gift as possessing, in and of itself, a level of intimacy that amounts to betrayal is almost subversive.  And perhaps I’m just reading a lot into the story that isn’t necessarily there but I also find it fascinating that Alan Rickman buys Mia a golden necklace, which is something he’d never think to buy for his wife, but he buys his wife a Joni Mitchell CD which is actually, when you think about it, a more thoughtful thing to give somebody. And so the necklace become a pure and ultimately meaningless symbol: it’s the sort of thing that we are told we are supposed to give to (or expect to receive from) people we are romantically interested in even though in reality it’s no more thoughtful or less generic than the scarves Emma Thompson mocks Alan Rickman for buying her every year. By a similar token, Alan Rickman doesn’t actually intend to cheat on his wife with Mia but the idea of being desired by somebody much younger and more conventionally attractive than he is is enticing to him in the same way that the idea that being given a gold necklace is enticing to Emma Thompson. The tragedy, essentially, is that he materially damages his marriage by buying a gift that means nothing for a woman he’s not actually interested in. It’s all fantasy but the hurt is very real. And I’m making myself sad just recapping it. Anyway, this is all really works well for me. It successfully says something that has a strong emotional resonance and doesn’t often get said, at least not in this kind of movie.

The actual Hugh Grant bit. Not my favourite. And it’s never been my favourite but it’s even less my favourite when viewed in a post #metoo world. So the summary here is that Hugh Grant has somehow been elected Prime Minister despite seeming in no way qualified for the job (unless you count being floppy and posh which is how British Prime Ministers tend to get elected) and a member of his domestic staff is a pretty cockney woman called Natalie who is played by Martine Mccutcheon. There follows a relatively straight romcom plot that, when condensed, is all kinds of wrong in all kinds of ways. Ignoring for a moment the bizarrely incessant jokes about how fat she is there’s the fact that the basic beats of their relationship are: they fancy each other, she gets sexually harassed by the president of the United States, Hugh Grant get angry at her about it, gives the aforementioned cringe-worthy speech about Harry Potter and David Beckham’s feet which is unironically praised as awesome and patriotic by every other character who mentions it, asks for her to be reassigned so she’s not working with him, and then receives a Christmas card in which she apologies for being sexually harassed and tells him how into him she is. And, look, all of the actors in this story are fine but, no, no no no, no. Although Hugh Grant does dance in this subplot, which is it’s only redeeming feature.

Billy Mack. My second favourite arc in the whole thing is Bill Nighy as Billy Mack, a washed up, ex-heroin addict and faded rockstar, pushing for a comeback by doing one of those awful Christmas signals that comes out every year and tries to crowbar a Christmas theme into an existing song. Mainly this is played for laughs with Bill Nighy giving zero fucks and admitting everything is terrible, and even performing naked on TV. Bbut it ends on this weirdly moving note where, having spent the entire film desperate to claw back the trappings of fame and moaning constantly about having to hang out with his fat manager (there’s quite a lot of fat shaming in Love Actually), he realises in the end that because said manager is basically the only person with whom he’s had an adult relationship he is, strangely enough, the person who means most to him in the whole world and therefore who he wants to be with at Christmas. Then they get pissed and watch porn. Ten out of ten. Would watch Bill Nighy strip again.

Goodness of film: I know this is a copout I use a lot but I’m genuinely not sure this is measurable. I think the Alan Rickman / Emma Thompson and Bill Nighy plots are at least a 4 or a 5. I think the Creepy Stalker, Problematic Mental Health and Hugh Grant bits are probably a 1 or a 2. I suppose it comes out as about a 3 overall? It’s almost like these numbers are invented and meaningless.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 3.5. I was going to give this a 3 but it’s a Richard Curtis movie in which Hugh Grant plays a slightly awkward guy with slightly manchildy qualities (who is somehow running the country). Even though he’s only on screen for about 12 minutes the film is weirdly infused with a kind of essence of Hugh Grant that makes it a much Grantier experience than it has any right to be.

Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason

In this film, Hugh Grant plays a godawful manchild named Daniel Cleaver who he previously played in the original Bridget Jones movie. And because I spent four thousand words talking about Love Actually I should probably try to keep this short. So. Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason has literally all of the plot beats of the first Bridget Jones movie just … again. It even has another scene in which Colin Firth fights Hugh Grant badly and, seriously, I would watch Colin Firth fight Hugh Grant badly for a whole movie. It is the best thing.

There’s also a sort of actually kind of really racist sequence where Bridget goes to Thailand and gets put in a Thai women’s prison where all the prisoners are really interested in her love life, despite the fact that they definitely and explicitly have way bigger problems than she does. I don’t have anything like standing to talk about the portrayal of Thailand, Thai women or Thai prisons in this film except to say that, as a white guy from England, my awareness that I was not being especially asked to think about this place or these people as having any reality or agency of their own made me profoundly uncomfortable.

On top of that, there’s this really weird thing where the film is very specifically set 6 to 8 weeks after Bridget and Mark Darcy get together but a lot of the emotional beats seem to assume a much more established relationship. Like at the end of roughly the first act there’s a bit where she thinks she might be pregnant and her first reaction is that she “couldn’t possibly be lucky enough” to get a boyfriend and a baby in so short a period of time and then, when Mark finds her with a pregnancy test, he is also thrilled at the idea that they could be having a child together. I mean, I’m not judging and I do understand that for some people the desire to have children is very strong but you have been with this guy for 8 weeks. And then the act two conflict comes about when they go to see his parents and the parents ask if they’re thinking about getting married and Mark says no, which Bridget seems to view as this epic betrayal even though, I repeat, you have been with this guy for 8 weeks. And Mark, why are you now saying you’re not certain if you’re even considering marriage when two seconds ago you were overjoyed at the possibility of having a child together? And, obviously, it’s fine to have a child and not be married but it seems like what Mark is saying, and what Bridget is upset about, is that he’s not sure about the long term future of their relationship. And, well, last I checked kids are kind of a long term deal. Like, those things can stick around for months.

tl;dr It’s basically the same movie as Bridget Jones but to add conflict and structure to a story that they’ve already told they need to add some elements that felt, to me, some combination of forced, implausible or racist.

Goodness of film: 2. I mean, Colin Firth fights Hugh Grant badly it. And that’s worth a point on its own.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 2. To be honest, the only reason Daniel Cleaver is even in this film is because he was in the first one. He doesn’t really do much, he’s randomly got a new job so that he can, once again, be professionally associated with Bridget like he is in the first movie, basically it all feels very going through the motions.

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There’s a stage in this kind of project where you realise how far you’ve come and how far you have yet to go. I’ve watched in the region of twenty Hugh Grant movies and I have roughly twenty left to go. Which is a bit daunting, if I’m being honest. It also highlights something, I think, about how fleeting fame both is and isn’t. Because basically the stuff that Hugh Grant is famous for was all released between 1994 and 1999 with a massive build up and a massive tail end where he sort of deconstructs the types of character he made a reputation portraying in quite a narrow window of his career. Anyway, onto the films!

Notting Hill

This is unironically one of my favourite films ever. It is the absolute apotheosis of both Hugh Grant and Richard Curtis. Hugh plays a hopeless, bungling individual who somehow manages to come across as an everyman figure even though he is an unbearably posh independent bookstore owner living in actually quite an expensive bit of London, all of whose friends are also city stockbrokers, small business owners, or those kind of quirky dropouts who somehow exist in films or on television without ever needing to pay rent or buy food. Notting Hill has basically all the same social issue as Four Weddings and Funeral in that it portrays as quintessentialy British and relatable a lifestyle that is accessible to only a tiny, tiny fraction of British people. It also doesn’t help that the film is named after one of London’s more ethnically and culturally diverse areas, but is, well, not terribly ethnically or culturally diverse.

Honestly, I’m kind of assuming if you’re reading this blog you know the plot of this film. Hugh Grant is ordinary bloke. Julia Roberts is screen goddess. They fall in wuv. It should, by all rights, be the most cringe-inducing thing ever. I mean, for fuck’s sake, there’s actually a scene where Hugh Grant says “whoops-a-daisy”. But it somehow works for me. And I should probably say at this point that Notting Hill has probably been part of my mental landscape for so long that I’ve lost all ability to engage with it criticality.

I mean I’m aware it’s got issues. You can read its gender dynamics in lots of different ways, some of which are problematic. Not only is there only one black guy in the film but he’s specifically an American actor, because apparently there aren’t any black people living in Notting Hill in this universe. The portrayal of Bella’s disability is something I am super unqualified to talk about and I suspect mileage will vary a lot here. It’s a recent development so it’s understandable she’s bummed about it and the film does go quite a long way to demonstrate that she still has a perfectly good life, a successful marriage, and a high powered job. But, at the same time, “is in a wheelchair” is kind of her defining personality trait. And there is the bit at the end where she specifically uses that to get special treatment in a hotel. Because, of course, we all know having any kind of marginalised identity means people immediately bend over backwards to do everything you say and give you free stuff.

I also suspect that how you read the central premise of the film (which from a certain point of view is “powerful, successful woman is sad because she hasn’t married Hugh Grant yet”) depends a lot on what lens you’re viewing it through and what narrative assumptions you bring with you. I think the reason I like Anna Scott’s arc in Notting Hill is that it’s very much the arc the hero would get in a more conventional romance. Essentially, she is successful, financially independent, unavailable and emotionally damaged, all of which are classic romance hero qualities. Meanwhile Hugh Grant’s role is to endure and understand her idiosyncrasies, give her unlimited emotional support, and ultimately provide her with a place of sufficient safety that she can be vulnerable.  She even does most of the big romantic gestures, right down to the alpha trope where you demonstrate your affection to someone by giving them a gift that is simultaneously thoughtful and obscenely expensive, thereby reconciling the tension between material wealth and emotional sincerity. And I can see that for some people the “just a girl standing in front of a boy” line could come across as diminishing the value of everything Anna’s achieved but, from a genre perspective, it’s just the classic grovel scene, but switched up because it’s a female character delivering it.

And it’s true that naïve gender reversal doesn’t always code as subversive to all readers. Because, obviously, the wider dynamics of a scene in which a powerful, successful woman begs a man to like her are very, very different from those of a scene where a powerful, successful man makes a similar plea to the heroine. But (and I’m aware I’ve said this as lot) it works for me. I think it helps that Anna Scott is—to me, at least—quite a nuanced and well-developed character, largely due to the fact that Julia Roberts was able to bring an awful lot to the role. Over the course of the film you get a remarkably clear sense of who Anna Scott is, what her public persona is, what she’s like in private, and how those things are different. Taken baldly, the premise of the film is difficult because it’s set against a cultural backdrop which assumes that any woman who prioritises her career over her personal life will be nebulously unsatisfied because she hasn’t got a man. But what you get from Anna Scott in Notting Hill is that there are specific things about her life that make her unsatisfied and that in Hugh Grant and his lifestyle and his friends she finds something that she specifically values. So, to me at least, instead of reading as “career woman needs man to make her happy” it reads as “complicated person with high pressure job, short temper and secret love of whimsy and quietness that is not indulged in their life as it currently stands is better off having found other person to share those things with”.

And I’ve just realised I’ve spent this whole section of my Hugh Grant review talking about a character who isn’t played by Hugh Grant. But this is so much the archetypal Hugh Grant role that there isn’t much to say.

Goodness of film: 5. I love this film.

Hugh Grantiness of film: This should probably be a 6 (out of 5) because this is the Hugh Grantiest Hugh Grant that ever Granted Hugely.

Mickey Blue Eyes

The DVD box for this film is a picture of Hugh Grant looking dorky with a hot Italian-American woman on one side and an old Italian-American man on the other, all above the tagline “They’ve created a mobster”. That basically tells you everything you need to know about this film.

I went into this one with a sense of trepidation because “90s comedy about English guy who finds out his fiancée’s family are mobsters” is, well, an inherently trepidation-inducing premise. I honestly think I wound up liking the film a lot more than I would have if I’d seen it in 1999. I get the impression that its this-movie-writes-itself mix of every mafia movie cliché known to screenwriting with every Hugh Grant movie cliché known to Hugh Grant would have felt pretty tired at the time. But going into it twenty years later with zero expectations and the surprisingly helpful awareness that Hugh Grant would spend the rest of his career parodying his earlier heartthrob image and that at least 40% of the cast would go on to be in The Sopranos made it genuinely quite good fun. I mean, it was terrible and stupid, but it was terrible and stupid in exactly the ways I wanted it to be terrible and stupid.

Perhaps a scene that best sums up why I enjoyed Mickey Blue Eyes far more than I probably should have is the one in which Hugh Grant and his fiancée’s mafia father are on their way to a meeting with two other Mafiosi and, for reasons of plot, Hugh Grant has to pretend to be a Kentucky mobster called Little Big Mickey Blue Eyes. This necessitates the mafia dad teaching Hugh Grant to talk mobster which involves training him to repeat really classic bad mafia movie catch phrases like “fugeddaboudit” and “get outta here”. So you have a situation in which a cartoonish over-the-top Hollywood stereotype of a gangster is trying to teach a cartoonish over-the-top Hollywood stereotype of an Englishman to talk like a cartoonish over-the-top Hollywood stereotype of a gangster. It’s a kind of negative genius.

The plot, such as it is, involves Hugh Grant’s fiancée accidentally murdering Artie Bucco from The Sopranos and Hugh Grant and the mafia dad having to go to extraordinary lengths to cover it up, leading to a climax at their wedding in which Hugh Grant has to fake getting shot so that they can go into witness protection but he does it really badly because he’s Hugh Grant. Spoiler: they all live happily ever after.

Goodness of film: I do not know. 3 maybe? It’s very serviceable for what it is but what it is … is stupid.

Hugh Grantiness of film: I think I have to give this one a 5. He plays a bumbling Englishman who is never entirely sure what’s going on, does a variety of silly voices, and fails spectacularly at doing typically manly things.

Small Time Crooks

This one gave me pause because it’s a Woody Allen film and, obviously, Woody Allen is problematic. And if you’d rather not engage with a film from a director who is the subject of credible allegations of sexual abuse I completely understand that. Honestly, I was seriously considering skipping this one but my sense of completeness combined with the fact that I already reviewed something directed Roman Polanski and a whole bunch of things from the Weinstein Company made me feel it would be hypocritical to draw a line here.

Anyway, Small Time Crooks is about a small time crook (hence the name) played by Woody Allen, and his wife played Tracey Ullman. It’s quite an odd piece in that it starts with Woody Allen planning an overly convoluted bank heist, most of the middle involves Tracey Ullman becoming an unexpected cookie billionaire, and the rest of the plot revolves arounds her aspiration to be part of what I guess these days we’d call the “liberal elite” and his desire to very much not. Part of her arc involves getting Hugh Grant to teach her to be classy and Hugh Grant deciding that he will break up her marriage and seduce her for the money.

I’m never really sure how to feel about stories with the outline “poor person becomes rich, discovers they were better off being poor”. At the risk of oversimplifying, they always feel to me that they’re about justifying social inequality. There’s this intrinsic implication that the only people who deserve to be rich are people who are already rich, and that poor people are poor because they’re happier that way. Which is, y’know, not how it works. And, to be fair, I suspect that part of the problem I had with this film was that it seemed to be grounded in a class consciousness that is very American, and I don’t know to what extent its portrayal of that consciousness felt inauthentic to me because I’m not American, and to what extent it felt inauthentic because it was reinforcing ideas and stereotypes that are harmful no matter which country you’re in.

The core conflict of the film seems to be between Tracey Ullman’s character (Frenchy) who, once she acquires wealth, either wants to or believes she has to act out a particular type of lifestyle that is associated with a particular kind of education and set of values, and Woody Allen’s character (whose name I’ve forgotten … it might be Ray?) who doesn’t. Although I say “who doesn’t” but actually the real issue is that Frenchy and maybe-Ray both uncritically accept what I consider the film’s most troubling assumption: that being rich and having a particular set of values are inseparable from one another. Frenchy feels that because she wants to be rich she has to like opera and classical music and art. Ray-or-whoever feels that because he doesn’t want to like opera and classical music and art he therefore can’t be rich. And, worse than that, now that he is rich that he can’t have any of the things he actually likes (which seem to be eating meatballs and watching movies).

I usually avoid talking about US politics on this blog because it’s a million miles away from being my place to do so, but I found this film particularly difficult in a post-Trump world. Again, I’m very much outside my lane here but I feel that a big part of the narrative that got the Donald elected was one that framed class struggle as being fundamentally about values, not economics. It defined the choice as being between a wealthy corrupt elite, defined by coastal cosmopolitanism, and an honest base of hard working, real Americans, defined by the equivalent of meatballs and movies. With my European socialist hat on, I’d observe that both that campaign and this film present a similar and deeply problematic idea: that the true threat to ordinary working people isn’t uncontrolled corporate interests or rapidly widening wealth inequality, it’s people who like opera.

The annoying thing is that, on account of Woody Allen being irritatingly good at his job, Small Time Crooks is actually quite a well-structured film. The dialogue is sharp, there’s themes and shit, and some very funny set pieces. I just can’t get behind a story that, from my point of view, so fundamentally mischaracterises how class works. And the thing is I do believe that the way we define which types of culture have social cachet is worth examining. And if the film’s thesis was just that eating turkey meatballs and watching White Heat is no less valid or “classy” a way to spend your evenings than eating frogs’ legs and watching opera then I’d have no problem with it. Where it lost me was the point at which it seemed to suggest that you can only enjoy eating turkey meatballs and watching White Heat if you haven’t got any money and you can only enjoy eating frogs’ legs and watching opera if you are not only wealthy, but were born to that wealth. And, for that matter, to suggest that trying to develop an interest in frogs’ legs or opera where you had not previously had one was somehow a betrayal of your essential self.

Anyway. Hugh Grant is in the movie, and it’s actually quite an interesting early example of Hugh Grant As Wrong ‘Un. Basically, he has all the usual Hugh Grant charm and mannerisms, but employs them for sinister purpose.

Goodness of film: I should probably give this a 3 because it is so very competent, and Tracey Ullman is always a pleasure to watch. But for my personal tastes, it came out as a 2 because of all the class stuff.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 3.5. He’s in it quite a lot, but doesn’t show up for long enough that I was thinking “hey, is Hugh Grant going to be in this or not?” quite a while before he actually appears. He’s playing a subversive take on his iconic persona that would later become a secondarily iconic persona. I enjoy this side of Hugh Grant because I think it displays genuine nuance to be able to meaningfully portray a character who is pretending to be like the character you always play but is secretly not.

Bridget Jones’s Diary

Hugh Grant films watched: 4 (v. good)

Cigarettes smoked: 0 (because I don’t smoke)

This one is complicated. Bridget Jones was one of those weird cultural phenomena which we were told very firmly defined what it was like to be a particular sort of person (in this case a woman in the 90s) and which people, therefore, tend to identify very strongly with or react very strongly against.

Bridget Jones’s Diary is a very thinly veiled re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice. There are number of quite subtle parallels, like the behaviour of her mother, her relationship with her father, and the implied difference in social class between various characters. Then there are the less subtle parallels. Like that the hero’s name is literally Darcy and that in the film he is literally played by Colin Firth. I think what makes it fascinating as a Pride and Prejudice riff is that most P&P secondary media (like Lost in Austen, Austenland, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Death Comes to Pemberley) tend to focus on the Regency trappings and the romance element, but largely lose track of the fact that Austen was also a social satirist.

BJD, on the other hand, not only parallels P&P in terms of the relationship dynamic but also in terms of its exploration of being an unmarried woman in the time in which it is set. In some ways, it’s here the parallels are most interesting (and also probably most depressing) in that Lizzie Bennett and Bridget Jones are both basically screwed by completely arbitrary social conventions that haven’t changed anywhere near as much as you might expect in two centuries. Lizzie is considered practically a spinster because she’s unmarried in her early twenties and is under financial duress because her family’s estate is entailed away from the female line. Bridget Jones is considered practically a spinster because she’s unmarried in her early thirties and is under financial duress because living alone in London is frankly only just economically viable and, while she has a career, there’s a sense that her culture and her industry won’t take that seriously because they assume she’s just doing it until she gets married.

I do confess to having very mixed feelings about the fact that, with the best will in the world, Bridget Jones is basically bad at everything. And obviously that’s partly because it’s a comedy so the main character being put in embarrassing situations is part of the deal. But when a particular work of fiction has a reputation (whether intended or not) for embodying a particular category of person, it’s a little bit messed up when that person is as presented being so utterly incompetent. With my most generous hat, I can see that part of the point is that Bridget Jones is supposed to be you as your anxieties fear you are, and that’s part of what makes her relatable. But it does make for slightly uncomfortable viewing twenty years later. I mean, Renee Zellweger is incredibly charming in the role, which means you do really like Bridget Jones, but there comes a point where liking her seems almost patronising. So many embarrassing things happen to her, and she makes so many bad choices, that to carry on sympathising with her you have to tacitly accept that she’s not capable of ever doing better, which is a problematic way to feel about your heroine.

The thing is, I do see why Bridget Jones (problematic as she sometimes is) has value, because we still ultimately live in a world where the range of things that the mass media tell women to be is massively narrower than the range of things that the mass media tell men to be. My perception here is that cultural trends in the depiction of female characters tend to pendulum between over-competence and under-competence, neither end being totally unharmful.

I watched an interesting video on YouTube a few months ago about the differences between film!Hermione and book!Hermione in the Harry Potter series. And one of the things it talked about was that while book!Hermione is very clever and good at magic she also has a lot of fears and insecurities, and doesn’t know much about the wizarding world (because Muggleborn). Film!Hermione, by contrast, is (at least according to the video) basically just brilliant at everything. Now, often, when you get a YouTube complaining about competent female characters in stuff it’s somebody from the more conservative end of the spectrum going on about feminist conspiracies and the pussification of culture (or whatever). But what this video pointed out was that by not allowing movie heroines to have flaws all we’re really doing is creating another set of unattainable and unrealistic cultural expectations for women and girls to live up to which is, y’know, not helpful. I’m not sure but I suspect that the power of Bridget Jones for people who strongly identified with the character twenty years ago (and who may still identify with her today) lies in the fact that she’s a female character who is neither invisible nor invincible.

And, weirdly, thinking about it there’s an extent to which Bridget Jones is kind of the female equivalent to a Hugh Grant. She’s bumbling, socially awkward, stumbles into embarrassing situations all the time, and is terrible at pretty much everything she tries. It’s just that with Hugh Grant that automatically comes across as a subversion of a cultural norm that tells us men are supposed to be masters of everything, and therefore we find it endearing. Whereas with Bridget Jones, depending on which bits of media you’ve been consuming most recently, it’s either a liberating recognition that women are allowed to be messy and flawed or else it’s a problematic recapitulation of the notion that women are all insecure, man-obsessed and hopeless.

Also this film has a scene where Hugh Grant is bad at fighting. I love watching Hugh Grant be bad at fighting.

Goodness of film: I’m giving this a 4, even though it’s borderline impossible to tease out the ways it’s problematic and the ways it’s affirming, because it’s often both at once. I mean, I didn’t even touch on the way her relationship Daniel Cleaver starts with him sending her some really not appropriate flirty emails that become even more not appropriate in a post #metoo environment. But the film just has so much heart and such a sense of fun that I can’t not like it.

Hugh Grantiness of film: I have to give this a 5. I know Hugh Grant isn’t in it very much but just like Notting Hill is the epitome of good Hugh Grant, this is the epitome of Evil Hugh Grant. Basically Daniel Cleaver is William Thacker if he’d cheated on Anna Scott, doubled down on his publishing career and ditched his loser friends.

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So it turned out watching every single movie Hugh Grant has ever made was a much bigger job than I thought it was going to be. But I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to know I’m back on it and I’m here to provide you with my extremely important opinions about some movies that Hugh Grant made in 1995 and 1996, the years of no particular theme.

Nine Months

This is a new contender for Worst Film Hugh Grant Has Ever Been In. Actually, that’s a little bit unfair. It’s just you know how there was a furore recently because some young people on the internet watched some stuff from the 90s and were all like “wow, this seems really regressive” and the baby boomers were all like “hell, no, you’re not allowed to have opinions about things because that proves you have no sense of humour / can’t take a joke / are what’s wrong with the world”? Basically Nine Months is everything that you look back at and can’t quite believe we thought was funny in the 90s.

Hugh Grant plays a conventionally attractive man in his mid-thirties who doesn’t want children (it’s funny because he doesn’t have normative ambitions and values!), Julianne Moore plays his long-term partner who does want children (it’s funny because men and women are different!), Joan Cusack and Tom Arnold play a random couple who they meet on a beach and who keep cropping up on their lives for no reason (it’s funny because their children are badly behaved!), Jeff Goldblum plays Jeff Goldblum (it’s funny because he’s Jeff Goldblum!) and the late Robin Williams—who it is now impossible to see in anything without feeling faintly sad—plays a doctor with an Eastern European accent (it’s funny because he’s an immigrant!). The basic plot is that Julianne Moore accidentally gets pregnant and Hugh Grant can’t cope and then over the course of the film Hugh Grant is bullied into deciding he wants kids after all. This is a happy and uplifting ending.

The thing about Nine Months it that there’s kind of nothing wrong with it and kind of everything wrong with it. I think it’s just genuinely been years since I’ve engaged with a media artefact that has failed so spectacularly to speak to any of my values or interests. I mean, in a way it was almost fascinating because I watched the whole film with an awareness that it was making a bunch of assumptions about who I was, what I believed in, and what I would find amusing or affirming, and you’d think it would be right just a couple of times by pure chance. But it never was. The pregnancy as plot device setup put me off. The unthinking characterisation of Hugh Grant’s desire not to have children as a character flaw put me off. The equally unthinking assumption that this was something he would grow out of put me off. The fact Julianne Moore seemed to have no interest in anything that wasn’t babies put me off. The way we seemed to be asked to see the genuinely disrespectful, intrusive and flat-out rude behaviour of Tom Arnold and Joan Cusack’s kids as adorable and uplifting put me off. The way Robin William’s character’s accent seems to be taken as evidence of his incompetence put me off. The way Tom Arnold’s character’s toxic masculinity was presented as a valuable and productive element of his relationship with Hugh Grant put me off. I could honestly keep going all day. But basically what I’m saying is that I found this film off-putting.

With my rational hat on, I do recognise that there are probably people for whom this film is not the apotheosis of everything they’re not interested in seeing a film about. And, actually, although I’ve ragged on it in detail, really my profound distaste for it comes down to three very personal things:

  1. I am not hugely interested in babies
  2. This film is all about babies
  3. This film assumes thinks not being hugely interested in babies is an unforgiveable and unnatural personality defect

I could probably have lived with the first two. It was three that made it impossible for me to appreciate the film on its own terms.

Goodness of film: Like 2 or 3? Obviously, I really, really hated it but it’s actually perfectly competent. There were two genuinely funny moments, one of them involving Hugh Grant attacking a man dressed as a dinosaur (Hugh Grant being terrible at fighting is one of my favourite things in a Hugh Grant movie), and the other being the climatic sequence in which they rush Julianne Moore to hospital, gradually accumulating injured hangers-on who they’ve accidentally run over or assaulted en-route. This goes on far longer than it should and is, therefore, much funnier than it has any right to be.

Hugh Grantiness of film: Maybe a 3? He is the main character but he’s sort of phoning it in a bit. He’s basically allowed to do two things, which are to look uncomfortable around children or look misty-eyed about children. Neither of these things, I feel, play to this strengths.

Sense and Sensibility

This is one of my favourite movies so I feel bit weird talking about in this context. Because I’m not really a film person, the one thing I did get from watching Sense and Sensibility for a reason other “because I wanted to watch it” was that it made me pay attention to the kind of grown up movie things (like framing and visual metaphors and shot/reverse shot) I know just enough about to know that I know nothing about them. And my takeaway is that this film is really fucking artful: the sheer number of scenes that are shot through doorways (because, oh d’you see) or use minute changes of physical position to display emotional nuance are almost hilarious by the end if you’ve been following them the whole way through.

There was a really old sketch on, I think, Comic Relief which parodied both the style and production of Downton Abbey and it had this faux backstage interview with one of the actors (actually Harry Enfield) talking about how, because it was a very repressed time, everything is portrayed through “Looks”. And then it cuts to a scene from the spoof costume drama in which everyone is just staring at each other in a really obvious way, and it ends with the family patriarch (Harry Enfield again) saying “Has everyone finished doing their Looks?” And this is has made it basically impossible for me to watch costume dramas anymore because every time two or more characters exchange a significant moment I start to giggle.

Anyway, there are a lot of Looks in Sense and Sensibility. But they are really excellent, Austeny Looks. Everyone wants something different from an adaption of a well-known book and this one just happens to work really well for me. Because it’s an early Austen work, I find the actual book interesting but slightly incoherent, for reasons I won’t bore you with here—but I find this version manages to reconcile that incoherence into something that is both very romantic and a testament to the importance of familial love.

Hugh Grant, of course, plays Edward Ferrars—a perfect, if obvious, piece of casting. One of the nice things about watching lesser known Hugh Grant films is that you get to see him being a character actor (which he’s actually surprisingly good at) but the really odd thing about his role here is that because Edward Ferrars happens to be very much like the traditional Hugh Grant character you get to see him doing character acting and doing the Hugh Grant thing at the same time. Much as I enjoy Hugh Grant playing Hugh Grant there’s a tendency, especially in his later films, for it to be a very surface performance (that’s no reflection on him, that’s a feature of that type of role in that type of film) because it becomes sort of a collection of mannerisms held together with charm, stammering and saying bugger in a British accent. But here he’s playing a character who is just like that for character based reasons, and so he brings a lot of quiet depth to the role.

Goodness of film: 5. I’m biased, but I love this film.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 4. I’d give it a 5 because he’s so good in it but he’s not actually on screen very much.

Restoration

This was surprisingly good in a lot of ways, and quite silly in others. It’s based on a Booker-shortlisted novel, which I vaguely recall reading years ago and remember as a lot more coherent than the film winds up being. All of which said, the movie does weirdly hang together as a kind of whimsical picaresque whose tone veers quite sharply between fart jokes and dead of plague.

The whole thing has this peculiar sense of being at once lavish and also a little bit cheap, which is ironically fitting for something set in and around the court of Charles II. The costumes are fabulous while they’re at court and fabulously drab while you’re in the plague pits and the Quaker-run psychiatric facility. The setting is super vibrant and cleanly realised without that thing which modern historical movies tend to do where you put a brown filter over everything so it looks like the whole worried is covered in poo all the time. And the cast is star-studded, except it’s all people who used to be stars, would be stars about three years later, or go on to have a recurring minor role in Harry Potter. It’s got Sam Neill as Charles II (which, actually, somehow works), David Thewlis as a Quaker who dies, Ian McDiarmid as a Quaker who doesn’t die, Ian McKellen as a paternal servant, Meg Ryan as a mentally ill Irish woman who the protagonist randomly gets pregnant, Hugh Grant (for about five seconds) as an ambitious and scheming painter, and Robert Downey Jr (pre breakdown but post Natural Born Killers) looking shockingly big-eyed and fresh-faced as the main character.

The basic plot is that Robert Downey Jr is a physician called Robert Merivel who comes to the attention of Charles II by squeezing a guy’s heart (don’t ask) and who’s given a place at court taking care of spaniels. This leads into a sort 80s frat house movie plot where Charles insists that Merivel marry one of his (Charles’) mistresses so Charles can keep bonking her without Barbara Castlemaine getting jealous. And Charles is all like “and I’ve asked you do this because you’re a rubbish womanizing wastrel and so I know you definitely won’t fall in love with her” and then he definitely falls in love with her. There is then some intrigue involving a portrait. These are the five minutes of the film that Hugh Grant is in. He gets to wear some amazing shoes. They were so good it took me a while to look at his face, and realise he was Hugh Grant.

Once King Charles finds out that Merivel has fallen in love with the woman that Charles was keeping on special bonking reserve he is exiled from court, stripped of his titles and goes to live with Remus Lupin in a Quaker psychiatric hospital. This is something of an abrupt shift, both for Merivel personally, and for the tenor of the movie. Everything is bad and everyone is sad and Remus Lupin dies of consumption and Robert Downey Jr randomly impregnates Meg Ryan (I should clarify: the character played by Robert Downey Jr randomly impregnates the character played by Meg Ryan). He is exiled, once again, this time from the Quakers although they are slightly more friendly about it (because he did good work while he was there). Then Meg Ryan dies in childbirth. Then there is the plague. Then there is the Great Fire of London. And wow shit got real during the mid-1660s. I mean, seriously, we moan about Brexit. But like you ring up someone from 1666 and they’ll be like “yeah brah, we’ve got 7000 people dying a week and now half the city’s burned down” and we’d be like “but Toblerones don’t have as much chocolate in them anymore.”

Anyway. Robert Downey Jr has grown as a person and won back the favour of King Charles, although really it was kind of the favour of King Charles that ruined him in the first place. So, y’know, a mixed blessing. Point is, he started out as a skilled physician with a good reputation and then his skills deteriorated and his reputation was damaged but now both his skills and his reputation and his favour at Court have been … restored. Because the film is called Restoration. And also it’s set during the Restoration. It’s levels like that get you shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Goodness of film: This is another one where I don’t even. I really liked it but I think it might actually not be very good? But, fuck it, it’s my blog and there’s a scene in which Charles constructs an artificial lagoon under the palace so the mistress he’s palming off on Merivel can gradually be rowed across it looking hot wearing a veil and playing a mandolin on a golden boat, so 4.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 2. He actually does a really good job as an ambitious and scheming yet thwarted painter, but he is in the film for, like, 18 seconds.

Extreme Measures

This one’s a bit odd. It’s basically a medical thriller in which Hugh Grant is a successful young doctor who discovers a conspiracy and all the usual things that happen to successful young professionals who discover conspiracies happen to him. His performance here is unusual because it’s not the subtle character work you get when he’s in something less genre-ey but he’s also not the leading man of a light romantic comedy. So what you wind up with is Hugh Grant putting in a very Hugh Grant performance but in a completely un-Hugh Grant context. You have him blustering and stammering to a nurse and then authoritatively asking for 10ccs of Lidocaine stat. You have him leaning against a wall and saying “fuck” in a despairing Hugh Grant voice only it’s because sinister people with guns are trying to murder him instead of because he’s late for his friend’s wedding.

Also Sarah Jessica Parker is here.

Extreme Measures is a perfectly serviceable mid-90s thriller, although (unless you were super keen to, say, watch every film Hugh Grant has ever been in) there’s no particular reason to watch it over any other perfectly serviceable mid-90s thriller. I will, with once again my bleeding heart liberal millennial entitled snowflake hat on, say that I wasn’t terribly comfortable with its disability politics. The basic premise (spoilers for a serviceable thriller from 22 years ago) is that a renowned neurosurgeon played by Gene Hackman is adducting homeless people, deliberately severing their spinal cords and then subjecting them to experimental nerve regrowth techniques in order to find a cure for … I’m not sure it’s very clear … spinal damage induced paralysis? Wheelchairs in general? A whole bunch of people are in on this conspiracy, including (spoiler again) Sarah Jessica Parker, and every single one of the co-conspirators is a) ultimately willing to commit cold blooded murder to protect these illegal and flagrantly unethical medical experiments and b) motivated specifically by the fact that they or a member of their immediate families is in a wheelchair.

This has two probably unintentional but deeply unfortunate implications. The first is that the moment you see someone in a wheelchair you know that they or someone close to them is actively a villain. The second is that Evil Doctor Hackman is sort of supposed to have a point. There’s a bit at the end where he make a big speech about how important his work is and, as part of this, he gives Hugh Grant an epidural to make him think he’s paralysed which causes him to realise that having a physical disability is so life-destroyingly unbearable that you’ll do literally anything, no matter how immoral, for even the hope of a cure. And, y’know, I am in no way qualified to write about disability issues and I am absolutely not intending to minimise the difficulties faced by people with spinal injuries. But, to me, the film went worryingly close to treating being in a wheelchair as functionally equivalent to being dead. Which, from my limited understanding of these issues, is sort of not really considered appropriate any more.

I mean, other than that (which may well be a deal breaker for some people and a non-issue for others) it’s a slightly silly and largely forgettable movie. I think the thing I most appreciated about it was that Hugh Grant’s tendency to be incredibly bad at fighting continued unabated in it. You often find in this kind of thriller that when your Ordinary Person Protagonist gets thrown into sinister conspiracy world he suddenly becomes an unbelievable (in both senses of the word) badass. Whereas Hugh Grant’s plucky doctor continues to be slightly shit at basically anything resembling physical confrontation. I mean, he navigates New York surprisingly well with a bullet hole through his abdomen but when he has to fight a man with a gun in a lift it’s pleasingly flaily and he ends up shooting Evil Doctor Hackman almost entirely by accident.

Goodness of film: 3. It’s kind of the definition of adequate.

Hugh Grantiness of film: 4. He’s basically always on screen and thriller protagonist Hugh Grant is surprisingly similar to romcom protagonist Hugh Grant. But it’s nice to see that character doing a different set of things and being slightly panicked and confused for a different set of reasons.

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Many years ago now, a friend of mine showed me one of those online twenty questions things that identifies which fictional character you’re thinking of. I can’t remember what it was called, but I’m sure there’s a million of them these days. At the time, I thought it was kind of mind blowing (in a “when you think about it, this is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect computers to be better at than humans” kind of way). I tested it with some of the most obscure characters I could think of: Fall from Grace from Torment. Syrio Forel from Game of Thrones (back when Game of Thrones was just the title of the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire rather than the name of an entire HBO series). Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It got everything I could throw at it. 

Then I tried a couple of characters from Georgette Heyer novels. And it didn’t have a clue. 

And I suppose this is partly because overtly non-human characters with massive, obvious identifying features and actual signature weapons are easier to identify than relatively ordinary regency dudes, but I suspect that it also highlights quite a significant bias within the community that designed and—for want of a better term—trained the program. Because the thing is that gaming has certain wells it goes back to again and again, and some that it barely ever touches. The twenty questions machine that I can no longer remember the name of was really well set up for identifying characters from stories that involve a lot of stabbing and shooting, not so well set up for identifying characters from stories that involve kissing or curricles. 

It’s almost tediously fashionable these days for people, even people within the board/video/role-playing gaming community to bemoan the way that games lean on fighting, killing, and very occasionally running away or surviving as the core challenges of their interactive experiences. Boardgamegeek lists its board games in eighty-four categories (I suspect that this number is arbitrary, and the categories are probably mostly a matter of convenience and aren’t necessarily all the same size, but bear with me here, I’m making a cheap point). Of those eighty-four categories, ten include the word “war” or a derivation of it (and that excludes categories that are clearly referencing warfare without using the syllable like “Napoleonic”, “Post-napoleonic” and “Pike and Shot”). By contrast there is exactly one category for “Trivia”. And ultimately there’s nothing wrong with that—competitive games naturally involve some kind of conflict, and violent physical conflict is not only a fairly obvious thing to attempt to model, there’s also an extremely venerable history of modelling it. After all, Chess and Go are basically wargames. 

And of course this is to some extent an oversimplification and a mischaracterisation. There are actually huge genres of game that don’t involve any kind of fighting or killing at all. Even if we ignore abstract games (which are about nothing, kind of by definition) there are games about racing bicycles, building towns, not-dying-of-thirst-in-deserts, escaping from rooms, and so on. Hell, there’s a whole surprisingly massive subgenre of games all about railroads. 

Quite a large number of board games—especially the more modern, more lavish kinds of board game—are attempts to emulate other fictional genres. Fantasy Flight Games’ Arkham Files games are attempts to capture Lovecraftian horror (or at least a pulpy, faintly campy pastiche of it). The ten bajilliion zombie games that you’ll find in any halfway-stocked game store are all about capturing one or other flavour of zombie film. Games like Descent and Gloomhaven and many, many others try to capture the essence of—well—of a very particular kind of dungeon-crawling fantasy that is often itself trying to capture the essence of classic Dungeons and Dragons which is itself trying to capture the spirit of a quite specific kind of 20th century pulp fantasy. 

There are quite a lot of genres, though, that have never had the “thematic board game” treatment. Science Fiction and Fantasy are all over the place. Detective stories get Cluedo or Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. War movies get Escape from Colditz. But I’ve never seen a board game based on—say—a courtroom drama. And unless you count Love Letter, I’d never seen one based on a romantic comedy until I picked up Fog of Love. 

Why yes, it did take me nearly a thousand words to get around to telling you which game this post is about. I think by this point I just need to accept that I don’t do brevity. 

When I originally saw Fog of Love in my local games store, I decided to give it a miss. Gamer culture has an occasional tendency to be uncharitable to the point of dismissiveness about more mainstream genres, especially romance. So when I saw a game billing itself as “Romantic Comedy as a Board Game” I at least half expected it to be full of self-congratulatory cheap shots at the genre and its perceived audience. It wasn’t until I saw the game recommended by Shut Up and Sit Down (who long time followers of my ramblings on board games will know I tend to rely on quite heavily) that I was persuaded to give it a shot. 

I’m glad I did. Because while the game isn’t without its flaws, the most important thing I can say about it is that it has tremendous sincerity. One of the things I value most in a thematic board game is for it to make you feel like you are the thing you are supposed to be, and that you are doing the thing you are supposed to be doing. If I am supposed to be a pirate, I want to feel like a pirate. If I am supposed to be fighting a dragon, I want to feel like I am fighting a dragon. If I am supposed to be a workaholic wedding planner in a tempestuous and potentially doomed relationship with a quirky TV presenter, I want to feel like a workaholic wedding planner in a tempestuous and potentially doomed relationship with a quirky TV presenter. 

I should probably explain. 

The Setup

Fog of Love is a game for exactly two players (in theory, although since it’s very much about the journey, it’s well suited to spectators or doubling-up if you want to play it that way). One player is pink, the other blue. I’ll say at the outset that I’m not totally sure whether I find this coding clever and subversive or still quite problematic. Both players quite explicitly get to define their character’s gender independent of their character’s colour—the blue player can be a girl and the pink player can be a boy—and you can play a same-sex couple if you want to, so I think I mostly come down on the side of “subversive”. The game is ultimately trying to emulate a genre that is often normative in all the ways (especially if you assume it’s specifically trying to emulate movie romcoms rather than romance more broadly) and so it makes sense for the game’s coding to at least superficially evoke the “default” assumptions of the romantic comedy and then give the players freedom to play with those as they choose. 

Each player chooses a gender (independent of their colour) by choosing which way up they place their player card. Strictly speaking, unless I’ve missed something in the manual, the game doesn’t actually specify what gender you’re allowed to choose, or which gender corresponds to which side of the card. Again, there’s some fairly heavy coding going on here—each side shows a silhouette and both of them are fairly strongly gender-marked—and I think it’s for the individual player to decide whether that coding is problematically normative or interestingly subversive. If you do feel that it’s a dealbreaker (or even just problematic) that “assign your character a gender using a binary signalling system” is a mandatory part of setup (and in which binary gender may be an assumed mechanic on some cards—I’ve never encountered the mechanic myself so I’m honestly not certain), I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong to feel that. On the other hand, if you feel it’s kind of cool that there’s nothing stopping you from setting your character card to the side that shows a tall person with short hair and no obvious breasts wearing a suit, and declaring that your character nevertheless identifies as a heterosexual woman, then I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong to feel that either. 

Once you’ve chosen your colour and your gender, you pick three Traits out of five options. These traits will have little coloured arrows pointing up or down, each one corresponding to one of six (somewhat clinically named) “personality dimensions” (Discipline, Curiosity, Extroversion, Sensitivity, Gentleness and Sincerity). Your choices during the game will cause you to place either positive or negative “personality tokens” on these “dimensions”, and your overall Satisfaction (this is a game mechanical term) in the relationship will depend in part on how well your relationship reflects your Traits. So if you are a manipulative workaholic, you’ll want to have positive Diligence, but strongly negative Sincerity, while if you’re fun-loving but jealous you’ll want to have positive scores in Extroversion and Sensitivity. Your Traits are hidden from the other player—a key part of the gameplay is getting a sense for what your partner’s personality might actually be like and whether you’re really compatible. 

You then pick one Occupation out of three options. Your job has a relatively minor mechanical effect – it will put one personality token either for or against one of the personality aspects—so for example a Royal Heir has a negative point in Discipline, a Criminal has a negative point in Sincerity, a Wedding Planner has a positive point in Sensitivity and so on. In all the times I’ve played the game so far, I’ve always chosen my occupation for coolness value rather than for the points (why would you not pick Royal Heir if you had the choice). 

Finally, you draw five Feature cards. These are noticeable, external features (whereas Traits are aspects of your personality) and as such they’re not kept secret. The big twist, though, is that you don’t choose your own Features, you choose the Features of your partner. Maybe you really liked his nerdy glasses? Or were really drawn to their broad shoulders? Or perhaps (and this is a real option) you just really, really dug her body odour? The Features you choose let you customise your partner’s Personality Tokens, meaning you can improve the chances of getting a relationship that matches your Traits. Although you might also just want to design somebody who you genuinely think would be cool to be in a relationship with. 

Gameplay

The game has a fairly simple play cycle. You pick a scenario, which tells you how many acts you will play, how many scenes are in each act, and what decks you will draw your scene cards from. From there, players take it in turns to play a Scene from their hand, and then one or other player chooses what happens in that scene, gaining or losing Satisfaction and placing Personality Tokens depending on their choices or the choices of their partner. You can gain Satisfaction if your choices are compatible (which isn’t always the same as making the same choice) and you can lose Satisfaction if your choices are incompatible. There are also some Scenes that just always make you lose Satisfaction (like the “Stupid Fight” scene), some more complicated types of scenes (like Secrets, which don’t go into play immediately, but have different effects depending on whether or not they get revealed) and some scenes that modify or react to other scenes (like a hasty retraction or a weekend in a log cabin). 

It’s all very impressionistic—I send you flowers, we win a trip to Italy, we have a fight over nothing, you randomly get amnesia, that kind of thing—but it comes together to give a remarkably clear sense of what your relationship is like. You find yourself saying things like “I can’t believe that I defended you to my mother, and now it turns out you’re already married!” or (with a bit more detachment) “you know, at the start of this relationship I thought you were a jerk while I was basically a nice person, but I’ve just realised that I’ve actually been a horrendously manipulative arsehole this whole time”. 

Either the great strength or great weakness of Fog of Love, depending on how you approach it, is that it doesn’t really have any set goals. It’s almost more a roleplaying game than a board game. At the start of the game, characters are dealt a hand of Destiny cards (all initially the same) representing ways your character might hope or believe that the relationship could play out. Some are positive (“Love Team” or “Equal Partnership”), some less so (“Dominance” or “Heartbreaker”) or bittersweet (“Honourable Exit”). As the game progresses, each player will discard down to exactly two of these Destinies and, at the end of the game, will choose one to be their Final Destiny. In the final reckoning, your Personality Dimensions and Satisfaction are all added up and compared to the requirements of the Destiny card. If they match, you achieve your Destiny, if they don’t, you don’t. 

But there’s nothing in the game that especially tells you that achieving your Destiny means that you “win”. Indeed it frequently stresses the opposite—the point of the game is to explore the relationship between the characters. Sure it’s nice if you wind up with the partnership of equals that you were both working towards, and it’s good to know that the fictional people you’ve been simultaneously rooting for and messing with for the past hour will go on to be happy. But there’s also something weirdly satisfying about getting to the end of the relationship and realising that because I was going for an Equal Partnership and you were going for Unconditional Love that you will ultimately be happy because I have everything I want, while I will always feel that something is slightly wrong and will never be truly settled in a relationship with somebody who always puts my needs above their own. 

I’m sure there are some people who will find all of this mechanical vagueness positively infuriating. What, after all, is the point of this complex system of tracking a half-dozen different aspects of your relationship plus the individual satisfaction of both parties, if there’s not actually any mechanical incentive to care about any of it? And that’s a valid criticism from a certain perspective. Although taken to its most logical extreme you could make the same complaint against any game—there is nothing intrinsic to Chess that requires you to prefer that you checkmate your opponent rather than that your opponent checkmate you, after all. Perhaps the best way to think about all of the Traits and Occupations and Features and Destinies is as a set of very loose improv promts. I mean yes, you could view your starting Trait choice of “jealous manipulative workaholic” as just giving you a shopping list of Personality Tokens to collect over the course of the game—and if you’re having trouble working out how to make decisions “match the symbols on your traits” is a good fallback—but really the game is set up with the assumption that you should just try to, y’know, act like a jealous, manipulative workaholic. 

Observations and Nitpicks

One of the things I often find fascinating in games is when elements with no mechanical consequences whatosever completely change your perspective of the experience. The interesting thing about Fog of Love is that it’s built almost entirely of elements with no mechanical consequences. Your character’s gender—for example—has no impact on gameplay that I have yet discovered, but the same bundle of characteristics and even the same scenes suggest something very different when you’re playing through them from the perspective of a dude called Chet rather than a woman called Althea. Your occupation puts a single personality token on the board, but it completely skews the way you play your character. The prince of a small European country just doesn’t have the same kind of story as a plucky cat burglar or a driven politician. The game is excellent at making you engage with it on its own terms, to think as much about what will lead to a desirable outcome for the whole story of your relationship about what makes the little points sliders go up or down. 

I will say that some of its features aren’t entirely satisfying from a mechanical perspective, and others aren’t entirely satisfying from a narrative perspective. The game’s core system of using “scene” cards to frame events within your relationship is strong, but the refinements that are built into that—Secrets that don’t come into play at once, minor scenes that can be spent in response to existing scenes, scenes that shuffle other scenes into the deck and so on—sometimes feel a little under-developed. While the game is mostly a sandbox or a set of improvisational toys, it has just enough structure built into it that you can become tempted to pursue mechanical goals, but that attempt is almost always futile. You can’t really try to reveal your partner’s secrets or overcome your more antisocial personality traits—you’ll either get a card that does that or you won’t—and If you start going too hard after the little coloured arrows, you’ll find yourself thinking “crap, I really need to get more greens in my hand” rather than “I am making an effort to be a kinder and gentler person and persuade my partner to be the same”, which dents the illusion somewhat. 

Narratively, something that struck me early on is that there’s very little incentive to change your character’s personality Traits other than a concern that you won’t get enough points in them. If you’re cynical, manipulative and narrow-minded, and your partner happens not to be going for kind, innocent or adventurous, then you can just carry on pursuing your cynical, manipulative, narrow-minded ways without it in at all impinging on your future happiness. And I’ll admit that part of me likes that there isn’t quite the same set of normative value judgements you might ordinarily associate with a romantic comedy, where the immutable laws of Hollywood state that some types of person are inherently broken and that their only hope of happiness is that somebody will come along to change them. I do actually appreciate that in FoL an insecure flirtatious workaholic doesn’t have to stop being either insecure, flirtatious or a workaholic to find love. And maybe—thinking about it—there’s value in a story that’s about two fundamentally flawed people who find acceptance in each other, even if that ultimately comes about because they happened to pick Traits that didn’t overlap. In many ways this is another example of the fascinating effects of the game’s non-mechanical coding. Just as there is absolutely nothing in the game’s rules that says the blue player is the boy, or that setting your character card to the side that shows the petite silhouette with long hair and boobs means that your character identifies as female, so there is nothing that says it is more desirable for your character to be kind, just and secure rather than a jealous irresponsible hypocrite. And ironically because the “positive” and “negative” coded personality traits are mechanically equivalent, I’ve often come to the end of a game and felt that the “just” “kind” “adventurous” person was way more of a cynical manipulative douchebag than the “manipulative”, “cynical”, “narrow-minded” one. 

A secondary niggle I have with the game’s mechanics is that because there are only six different “personality dimensions” with positive or negative options for each, there are only twelve ways that any given Trait or Choice can code mechanically. But there are well more than twelve Trait cards. They are partly differentiated because some traits require you to only care about the distribution of your own Personality Tokens, while others require you to care about your partner’s as well. And this actually leads to some rather clever and nuanced distinctions: a “greedy” person needs to have a personal total of three negative points in Sincerity, but doesn’t at all care if their partner is ragingly sincere. A “manipulative” person, by contrast, seeks not only to behave insincerely themselves, but to actively undermine the sincerity of their partner. You get similar pairs with things like “down to earth” (“I am not curious, but don’t mind if you are”) vs “narrow minded” (“I am not curious, and you won’t be either”), and so on. 

The problem here is that because you do have an (admittedly weak) incentive to pursue personality tokens that match your character’s personality, you’ll tend to pick the choices that give you the points you need, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect the kind of personality you’re trying to portray. A manipulative person and a pretentious person, or a cynical person and a cocky person, or a spiritual person and a person with a profound sense of justice don’t necessarily act the same way. And I should stress that this is a very minor niggle, about as far from deal-breaking as you can possibly get, but just sometimes it jolts you out of the experience when—for example—your partner asks if you’ll convert to their religion, and you realise that saying you will causes you to lose Sincerity even though you feel it’s exactly the sort of thing that your character—a wide-eyed innocent committed to finding happiness though Unconditional Love (both of which specifically require Sincerity to work)—would do. You get similar issues with the changes in satisfaction that come from a particular set of choices. You lose satisfaction for agreeing to lie for your partner, even if you’re a cynical manipulative criminal. 

Conclusions

Fog of Love is really hard to talk about because even by the standards of quirky and unusual games like T.I.M.E. Stories it’s genuinely unique. I’ve never played a game like it and there will probably never be another game like it, because its whole structure is single-mindedly dedicated to its core purpose of recreating the romantic comedy experience in a board game and, despite the one or two gripes I mention above, it basically nails it.

I’ll often try to end my board game reviews by addressing explicitly how I think the game will work for three groups of people: non-gamers or causal gamers, families, and couples (in the “two player” sense rather than necessarily in the “romantic partners” sense).

I’ll start with the obvious one. Fog of Love is explicitly designed as a two player game, so it’s a fundamentally satisfying two-player experience. If you’re looking for something to play with your partner or with the one friend you can reliably get to come over and play boardgames, it’s a really good pick. Obviously you do need to make sure that whoever you play it with is the sort of person you’re happy sort-of-roleplaying through a romantic relationship with, so that’s something you have to take into account. I don’t think that there’s any realistic probability of the fake, movie-level relationship drama in Fog of Love leading to real-life relationship drama (although it does make you consider some interesting questions about real life relationships, like whether it’s really a good thing to be with somebody who cares more about you than they do about themselves, or how you should react when your partner gets amnesia, quits being a massage therapist to become the Crown Prince of Ruritania, and then tells you that they’re really sixteen) but chances are not everybody you know is going to be comfortable spending ninety minutes basically just pretending that they’re going out with you. So, y’know, think about that.

This leads to the next group I like to consider, which is families. And … yeah this is going to be one where mileage varies hugely. As ever, I don’t have kids, but I think that I might be a bit weirded out by a game where I had to pretend I was dating my imaginary ten-year-old. The game also includes a very small amount of very slightly adult content. Not much, there’s a scene where one of you suggests watching an erotic movie, and there might be one or two more with content on that level (the scene decks are large and I don’t think we’ve seen more than half of any of them). It’s certainly “romantic comedy” level rather than “adult film” level but, as always, comfort levels are going to vary wildly with that kind of thing.

The final group of people I like to think about when I review games are non-gamers, or casual gamers, or non-obsessively-nerdy-four-thousand-word-blog-post-writing gamers. And here I’m going to ponder for a bit. Apologies in advance. I think it’s easy to assume that what puts non-gamers off of hobby-style gaming is the complexity—all the fiddly counters and dice and rules and attacks of opportunity. But I’m not actually sure that’s completely true. After all, people do complicated things all the time. A lot of very, very popular very, very mainstream hobbies are extremely complicated if you get even the tiniest bit interested in them. Look at baking. I mean, why do you need to have more than two types of sugar? How can there even be more than two types of sugar? And people have trouble with the difference between High Elves and Wood Elves. I ask you.

 Sorry, I digress.

Point being, there’s a tendency for gamers to assume that what puts non-gamers off of gaming is all the scary intimidating rules stuff. And perhaps I’m being oversensitive, but I sometimes suspect that this assumption is a bit, well, patronising. It seems grounded in the idea that nerds are intrinsically better at dealing with difficult things than non-nerds. And anecdotally, I’ve known just as many people who were put off D&D by the fact that the game doesn’t have an obvious objective or a clear  winner as by all the levels, classes, and spell slots.

This isn’t to say that I would discourage non-gamers or new gamers from trying Fog of Love. It’s mechanically clean, easy to understand, and has a really neat system where the decks of cards come in a preselected order with tutorial rules mixed in, so the game basically walks you through your first game step by step. It is actually accessible in that regard, and it probably will appeal to people who aren’t super into fiddly counters or who prefer stories about kissing to stories about stabbing. But the structure is unusual, and I’m not totally convinced that everybody will buy into it. It’s a great game, and does exactly what it sets out to do. But as a way to convince people who are sceptical about board gaming to give board gaming a try, I’m not totally certain that “we’re two people who are in a relationship, and we’re going to make a bunch of choices that affect sort of what our relationship is like, and it might end happily or sadly and either way it’s okay because it’s really about the journey and the story” might be a bit of a tough sell.

Just very, very quickly (because I’m aware that this conclusion is getting really long) I’d also just add that there are only four scenarios in the main box, and the first one is basically a tutorial and you don’t really get to play the full game until scenario three. But I should stress that this isn’t like T.I.M.E. Stories or Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. Each scenario is a framework for you to riff around, and so each one is eminently replayable.

tl;dr Fog of Love is like nothing else. It bills itself as “Romantic Comedy as a Board Game” and while that tagline might sound either uninspired or hokey, it at least has the virtue of being completely accurate. It’s a board game that actually makes you feel like you’re improvising a romcom. And that’s really cool. It’s definitely worth checking out if you are even a little bit interested.

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Quick edit: So, in this post I talk about the lack of LGBTQ+ and POC representation in the historical romance category in the RITAs, but it’s been pointed out to me that I may inadvertently have created the impression that there is nobody out there writing historical romance with LGBTQ+ or POC protagonist. It wasn’t my intention to create that impression, and that is very much not the case. There are many excellent writers of historical romance fiction writing about diverse voices, both LGBTQ+ and POC, who I would personally love to see better represented in the RITAs.

So around this time of year I’ll usually do a blog post about the RITAs, although as is typical for my blog posts I’m going to start off talking about the RITAs and then spiral out to talk about a whole bunch of tangentially related things. As ever, I should start the post by congratulating everyone who has been nominated, and saying how happy I am to see an increasing number of LGBTQ+ stories garnering nominations.

I’m going to be talking a bit about representation in the RITAs in this post, with particular reference to the historical category, and it’s hard to discuss these kinds of issues without inadvertently either shitting on or apologising for the awards and the people who have been nominated for them. In particular, I’m going to look at the tendency for books nominated in the historical category to overwhelmingly feature white, heterosexual, affluent protagonists from a very small part of the world and a very narrow band of history (because this is something I’ve seen some discussion of on Twitter) and I’m going give some thought to why historicals might trend that way and what it might mean if they do. I in no way intend this to disparage or detract from the achievements of the actual nominees (either this year or any other).

Jackie Horne over at Romance Novels for Feminists ran some numbers on the LGBTQ+ and POC rep in this year’s nominees and noted a small but definite increase in representation in both areas across the RITAs a whole. And, obviously, these are small number statistics—for example there are 4 finalists in YA romance, of which 1 was written by a POC so depending on how you look at it that’s either 1 (not good) or 25% (actually pretty good, at least relative to the average). When you’re dealing with a large number of small groups, each of which probably contains between 0 and 2 of whatever it is you’re trying to evaluate, you’re naturally going to see quite a lot of 0s. Of the 12 categories Jackie ran the numbers for (and she herself notes they are not exact, as trying to identify the racial identity of authors and characters is problematic in both senses of the word), 8 have 0 authors of colour, 4-6 have 0 protagonists of colour (depending on what you think about Sheik romances and how you identify the ethnicity of a character in a fantasy world), and 7 have 0 queer protagonists. So in virtually every case at least half the categories have no representation of the kind under discussion. And if we’re being super mathematical about it if we assume that those three kinds of representation are independent and random (which they almost certainly aren’t but it makes the numbers easier to work with) you would expect roughly 1 category in every 8 to come up with 0s across the board. And, in fact, that’s almost exactly what we see. Of 12 categories, 2 have no queer protagonists, no authors of colour, and no protagonists of colour.

The thing is, those 2 categories happen to be historical long and romance with religious/spiritual elements (what used to be inspirational) and, while that could be a coincidence, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that if you had to predict which categories would be least likely to include queer or POC representation those are probably the categories you’d pick. I’ve also had a look back at previous nominations and those categories have historically tended to be the ones that were least likely to include LGBTQ+ or POC characters or authors. For the record, I’m not going to touch romance with religious/spiritual elements in this post because it’s not really a subgenre I have much insight into or standing to talk about. But I do want to look at historicals and think about why it might be that this particular subgenre seems to skew so much in favour of a particular kind of story about a particular kind of person.

Subheadings incoming!

Big Fish

Perhaps the simplest structural explanation for why the nominees of the historical categories tend to be particular kinds of people writing particular kinds of books is that quite often they’re actually the same people. And I should stress I don’t mean that as a criticism—these people get nominated year on year because they write great books—but if you have a small number of big names in a relatively small subgenre (there are usually about 5 nominees in historical long compared to about 10 in contemp or about 8 in paranormal) it’s natural that those people will dominate the awards scene. Of this year’s 5 nominees in historical long, 2 have already won RITAs, and 1 has been previously nominated. Of last year’s 4 nominees, 2 were previous winners and multiple-time nominees. And a similar pattern repeats as you look back. And, obviously, it’s not intrinsically wrong for an award for being good at something to be consistently awarded to people who are good at that thing, but it does make it hard for new voices to compete.

A Conservative Genre

Ironically, this subheading sounds like quite a good name for a historical romance. When the question of why you don’t get more LGBTQ+ or POC representation in historicals arises, one of the lines that often gets brought out (either resignedly or apologetically) is “well, historical is one of the most conservative genres.” And, in one way, that’s a reasonable assertion, and sort of ties back to the previous point about the nominations being dominated by a small group of authors who are already popular—not to suggest that these authors are themselves necessarily conservative people or that they necessarily write conservative books, but small-c conservatism is almost definitionally about liking things you already know you like. And while I don’t want to get into the whole question of whether the market for diverse romances is as big as or bigger than publishers often think it is (especially in particular subgenres which are seen as “conservative”) it does follow that if there is a perception of historical romance as a conservative subgenre that will lead to fewer diverse voices within historical romance and that will in turn lead to less representation and, potentially, less acknowledgement of the diverse voices that do nevertheless exist.

Having said that, within the specific context of the RITAs the question of what it means for historical to be a “conservative genre” is rather more interesting. It’s true that judges get to opt out of … I think (I’m sorry, I can’t quite remember) … 2 categories. But since there are 12 categories  I can’t imagine there being that much self-selection amongst RITA judges, especially along the conservatism versus liberalism axis as it relates to those particular genres. I mean, I could see very progressive judges self-selecting out of romances with religious/spiritual elements because they might (not unreasonably) think it likely that they wouldn’t be able to engage with those books on their own terms. And I could imagine very conservative judges self-selecting out of erotic for essentially the same reason. But I just don’t think that even the trendiest and most liberal of RITA judges would specifically avoid historicals. In fact, I can see it going the other way—my trendy liberal experience of my trendy liberal friends is that we’re quite interested in history and historical representation, and are keen to support progressive voices within traditionally conservative media. So I guess what I’m saying is, even if the average reader of historical romance is more conservative than the average reader of contemporary or paranormal romance (and I am no way suggesting that this is really the case) I can’t really see that the mechanisms of the RITA judging process leading to the average judge of a historical novel in the RITAs being more conservative than the average judge of a contemporary novel.

Which leads to something really interesting. Because what I can see is the possibility of the average RITA judge assessing historical romance by a more conservative standards than the standards by which they would judge a contemporary or a paranormal or a romantic suspense. And it’s actually this that I think I want to talk most about because it’s the line of thinking that led me to most inspect my own perceptions and preconceptions.

I’m now going to take a brief digression to talk about Friends.

So No-one Told You Life Was Gonna Be This Way

There was a big kerfuffle on the internet recently about “millennials” watching Friends and getting all judgemental about it. I’d say that this was a storm in a teacup but it wasn’t even that—it was sort of a light breeze in a shot glass. As far as I can tell, some people in their late 20s and early 30s watched or re-watched Friends, and wrote some Tweets along the lines of “hey, this is more racist and homophobic than I remember it being” and then some other people in their late 30s or early 40s lost their fucking minds because some slightly younger people had dared to be critical of a fondly remembered feature of their childhood.  I confess that I am framing this incident in a not-entirely unbiased manner.

The reason this is relevant (and I promise it will become relevant) is that it got me thinking , by the usual needlessly circuitous process by which things get me thinking, about our perception of history.

I suspect (and this suspicion is based partly on things people have explicitly said in public, so it’s fairly well-grounded) that one of the problems people have with diverse characters in historical fiction in general but historical romance in particular is that portraying POCs or LGBTQ+ people in a historical setting as having lives which aren’t unmitigatedly shitty from wall to wall feels “unrealistic.” And even if people will accept the idea of a lovestory with a queer or POC protagonist having an uncomplicatedly happy ending some people believe that including that kind of character in a historical narrative feels forced. We see a black guy in a book set in 19th century London and we think “oh they just did that out of political correctness”. You have two lesbians who live together openly in the Regency and we think “there’s no way that could ever have actually happened”. Except, of course, there were tonnes of black people in 19th century London and there were real examples of lesbians openly cohabiting in the Regency. It’s just that we haven’t built those stories into our perception of history.

This brings us back to the Friends thing. My feelings on representation in Friends went through a bunch of loops and iterations. And, ultimately, I do come down on the side of “well, it was the 90s” which is sort of a deliberately double-edged statement in that, on the one hand, I think it’s important not to judge historical periods (and, fuck, it’s depressing to me that the 90s is a historical period) by modern standards but, on the other hand, we need to recognise that acknowledging how far we’ve come since then means revising how we feel about how we were back then. I think a lot of the backlash against those millennials who dared criticise a show from the 90s was rooted in this weird doublethink of people simultaneously wanting to say “it was a long time ago and things have changed” while also still sort of wanting to hold up their 90s selves as paragons of progressive values. Basically, we feel really feel uncomfortable having liked something that was (arguably) racist and so we jump through a lot of hoops to convince ourselves that not only was it not racist, but that also aren’t the people who are calling it racist the real racists. Sorry, I digressed within my digression.

Anyway, on part of my journey to it-was-the-90s-dom, I went down a weird tangent of imagining would it would be like if I was a person in the 22nd century and my perception of 20th century New York was based on the cultural artefacts that came out of mainstream media at the time. And this was partly just a silly speculative exercise but, when you get right down to it, that’s a huge how part of how our perception of history works. My ideas about life in 19th century England come from Austen, Dickens and, perhaps more importantly, the BBC adaptions of Austen and Dickens I watched when I was fourteen, and have very little to do with actual historical scholarship. For that matter, a lot of my knowledge about the Middle Ages, Elizabethan England, the Regency and the First World War comes from Blackadder. And I think the weird thing is because most of us aren’t historians we honestly forget how much of what we believe about the past comes from fictionalised portrayals of it.

Anyway anyway, the spurious analogy that links these two utterly unrelated concepts together is this: if I was a 22nd century reader whose ideas about 20th century New York had come from watching Friends I would have no idea that people of colour were a significant element of the demographics of the city at that time. If I then read a romance novel set in Brooklyn in the 1990s and it had a black protagonist (we’re assuming I live in slightly dystopian 22nd century where our attitudes to race haven’t moved on, like, at all) I would feel that it was a really forced effort to insert diversity into a historical era in which, from my perspective, diversity just wasn’t a thing. 22nd century me might feel similarly about a story set against the backdrop of the Notting Hill carnival, which would radically conflict with the image of 20th century London that I derived from the film Notting Hill.

I mention this because, as I get older, I do become increasingly aware of how flawed and how limited my perception of even comparatively recent bits of history, even the history of my own country, are. Because, the thing is, I do understand the instinct that says “but there just weren’t black people back then”. Even though I know on a rational level that pretty much all historical societies have been far more diverse than we imagine them being I, like most people, am so inculcated in narratives which exclude marginalised people from history that I have to consciously remind myself that those narratives emerge from a particular cultural context and are not just the “right” way to talk about historical periods. To put it another way, the culture, and set of cultural biases, that one is used to feel neutral, and so deviation from them feels artificial. But the only really artificial thing is that feeling of artificiality. It’s like when people complain about the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in stories that aren’t explicitly about LGBTQ+ issues. There’s this perception that making a character LGBTQ+ is an active decision while making them straight isn’t and that you should make the active decision only if required to. But, actually, the choice make a character straight, or male, or white is as active a decision as the choice them LGBTQ+ or female or a POC. And it’s a mistake to assume one of those choices is “political” when the other isn’t.

To put it yet another way, in my country where Dukes are actually a thing, there are a grand total of 30 (6 members of the Royal family, 24 others), and while the amount of Duchies in the Kingdom has varied a bit over the years, this number has remained relatively stable.  By contrast, although I don’t have access to hard census data for the 19th century, Google reliably informs me that there were 2,651,939 people in London in 1851. And, if we take the extremely conservative estimate that only 0.1% of them were people of colour, that means that in the mid-19th century there were 2650 POCs in London compared to about 30 Dukes in the whole country. So, from a certain perspective, a historical romance about a person of colour set in England in the mid-19th century is 88.3% times more plausible than one about a Duke. But because we’re used to seeing stories about Dukes in the 19th century and we aren’t used to seeing stories about people who aren’t white or heterosexual in the 19th century,  stories about the absolutely tiny number of high ranking members of the landed aristocracy seem natural and normal to us while stories about the proportionally much larger number of marginalised people living in England at the time feel implausible or disorientating, even though they’re actually more reflective of the lives of real people.

So Anyway

As ever this is where I get to the end to the end of a 3000 word blog post and realise I haven’t really got a conclusion per se. Because obviously I’m not actually suggesting we should stop reading, writing or enjoying books about Dukes or, for that matter, white heterosexuals. But I do think we should ask ourselves whether, when we think about historical romance, we are unconsciously thinking about too narrow a definition of history.  Taking a step back, it is incredibly strange that our perception of historical romance is so dominated by Dukes in the Regency which, in context, means that it is dominated by 30 people between the years 1811 and 1820. And, again, I should stress that I love Regencies and I’m fine with Dukes, but focusing all of our attention on so narrow a group necessarily excludes people who are often already systematically excluded by traditional historical narratives. And, of course, it is not the job of historical romance writers to fix broader cultural issues, and the way in which societies elide the historical presence of marginalised people is a massive cultural issue. But we do, I think, have a responsibility to be aware that the parts of history we choose to celebrate and magnify are within our control, both as individuals and as a community.

I could be way off base here but my perception is, especially in the 21st century, marginalised voices don’t become marginalised because people actively set out to exclude them. They become marginalised because when we think about romance or history or, well, anything we fill in a whole bunch of blanks without even knowing we’re doing it. When we sit down to write or read or review or judge a historical story we bring with us our awareness of every other historical story we’ve been told and we often lose sight of the fact that those stories were not actually representative of the world as it is or history as it was.

Ultimately I don’t know for certain why historical romance (long) was one of the only two RITA categories to include no POC authors, no POC protagonists, and no LGBTQ+ protagonists. But I think it’s got a lot to do with the fact that we’ve spent centuries telling ourselves that “history” is only about the exploits of a tiny number of wealthy men from European countries. And while I’m absolutely not saying we shouldn’t continue to produce and enjoy those kinds of stories, I also feel that we will be richer as a community and a culture if we learn to celebrate a broader range of narratives.

romancelandia
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For those who get their news from my blog rather than from Twitter, please be aware that I’ve recently withdrawn my books from Riptide Publishing. What this means in practice is that, for a short while, any titles previously distributed via Riptide (which is to say, anything that doesn’t have the word billionaire in the title) will be unavailable for purchase. I am working to make these titles available again as soon as possible, but it’ll take a little while to handle the logistics of it. I’m afraid I can’t give you an exact timetable but I’ll be starting with the shorter books first, hopefully for obvious reasons.

The only thing I’m still on the fence about is what to do with Sand and Ruin and Gold. While I’m a great believer that, in fiction, length is not an indicator of value I have always been aware that its original list price of $2.99 was a lot for longish short story. I am, however, very fond of it as a piece of work and would like for it to be available so I’m thinking about making it a free download, either here on the website, or for newsletter subscribers.

Otherwise, I’m working as fast as I can and I’m really sorry for the disruption and the inconvenience. Watch his space for more updates.

writing
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