State of the Union (UK 2019)

Tom (Chris O’Dowd) and Louise (Rosamund Pike)

State of the Union is what now appears to be called ‘short form narrative TV’ and as such it represents, alongside the resurgence of ‘long form TV drama’ (aka serial narratives), the new TV world of VOD. Ten episodes of approx. ten minutes each tell the story of Tom and Louise, a middle-class couple in London with two sons and a wobbly marriage. The episodes are broadcast one per week but all ten were made available on BBC iPlayer immediately and many viewers watched several or all episodes at once.

I think this is probably what some might call ‘Marmite TV’ – audiences might love or hate the programme because of the specific metropolitan middle-class setting. (For non-UK readers, ‘Marmite’ is a yeast-based salty spread, enjoyed by some and loathed by others.) This kind of response is understandable but State of the Union is certainly a high-class product. The script is by Nick Hornby, the successful novelist who has now become one of the most successful UK-based screenwriters in international cinema. The director is Stephen Frears who is arguably the most successful British director of his generation over a long career in TV and film, both in the UK and in Hollywood. The two stars are Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd, both again internationally successful TV and film stars. The 100 minute narrative could perhaps have become a cinema film except for the restrictions of the format and it is this observation that interests me.

Tom and Louise have decided to see a marriage guidance counsellor once a week to try to sort out their difficulties. They meet at lunchtime in a quiet pub where they nurse a pint of bitter for him and a glass of white wine for her. We experience 10 minutes of their chat before they visit the counsellor who lives opposite the pub. The camera rarely moves out of the pub. For most of the time it is just two people talking, joshing and scoring points off each other. How does Frears keep us interested in the talk, apart from relying on his two brilliant actors? The cinematography by Mike Eley is inventive, finding new angles and compositions. Mostly ‘over the shoulder shots’ or shot-reverse-shot, I was intrigued by some of the unbalanced compositions and I almost cheered when the couple found their usual table occupied and had to resort to a sofa, requiring a completely different camera set-up.

The sofa forces a new composition

One of the few scenes outside the pub

The other noticeable feature is the impact of costume design. Louise wears a different outfit for each meeting. She works in the NHS and generally she wears sensible tops and a long loose skirt. It’s summer so she doesn’t need a top coat. When on one occasion she wears a version of the classic ‘litle black dress’ we know something has happened. Tom is a freelance writer and we aren’t surprised to see him wearing more or less the same clothes each time (or perhaps we simply don’t notice what he wears?). When he too changes his appearance more dramatically it makes a real impact. Like Mike Eley, Irish costume designer Consolata Boyle is a long-term collaborator with a host of British (and Irish) film and TV directors. It’s interesting too that the pub setting is open and airy rather than expressionistic. No booths, dark corners and none of the classic features of a gothic West End boozer – nothing to distract us from the two characters and their conversation.

Janet Amsden as the woman in the older couple who have an appointment with the same counsellor

I’m not saying anything about the content of the chat apart from that there are a couple of surreal exchanges. Chris O’Dowd is a past master at this kind of thing as seen in the classic sit-com the IT Crowd. Rosamund Pike gives as good as she gets and sometimes is very funny. Working slightly against her screen persona she also delivers some earthy lines about their married sex life.

If this kind of production brings Stephen Frears back into TV (where he made several excellent TV movies in the 1970s/80s, notably the breakout international hit My Beautiful Laundrette in 1985), I’m all for the new format. I note that State of the Union has already been shown in the US and has won ‘Primetime Emmys’ for the two leads. However, I wonder if future productions will attract such a starry combination of cast and crew?

3 comments

  1. keith1942

    I see Roy has catergorised this under ‘British Cinema’. I have not viewed this but since it is on an iPlayer (Video on demand?) I am curious as to where the ‘cinema’ comes in?

    • Roy Stafford

      I did try to explain that because of the personnel involved, I think that this narrative is worth considering in relation to British cinema. Stephen Frears in particular has a long history of moving between film and TV.

      The whole ten episodes were shown at the Sundance Film Festival as a single 100 minute narrative as part of the ‘Indie Episodics’ strand.

      Film and TV are changing and we need to keep track of innovations like this.

  2. keith1942

    I follow Roy’s point, however, one innovation that bothers me is how words are losing specific meanings.
    Auteur once was a critical tool now it is a marketing tool.
    Film was once photo-chemical moving images now people refer to ‘film print’ for a digital version.
    And ‘4K Blu-Ray’ is not the same quality as ‘4K DCP’.
    Cinema now includes the ‘pop-up’ variety which mostly seem to be non-theatrical presentations.
    ‘Silent London’ has a helpful section that lists screenings of titles from the early period. There is a space for ‘format’ but invariably it reads ‘not known’. When 35mm was the standard you nearly always knew what was going to be presented, even if the quality varied.

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