For the last few weeks, my Sunday night television viewing here on UK terrestrial television has been dominated by the US-made series ‘Fargo.’ It’s a spin-off from the Coen brothers’ 1996 film of that name, and it’s turning into a compulsive series. I’ll concede that the opening episode was a bit shaky - not through any inherent fault in the writing or the film-making or whatever, but rather because if you’re a big fan of the film like I am, then it takes a while to accept that the series isn’t just an overstretched rip-off of the original film (in case you’re wondering, it’s not).
I do enjoy a good crime drama. I’m a big fan of classic ‘Taggart’ (cynical Glasgow cop played by Mark McManus), I thought the first series of ‘Homicide: Life on the Street’ was brilliant and I also remember watching a great BBC television serial called ‘Rockliffe’s Babies’ when I was growing up in the 80s. None of these can compare to the stunning cinematographic masterpiece that is ‘Fargo,’ nor do they have that essential ingredient which makes this movie stand head and shoulders above most other films I’ve seen.
The ingredient in question is the film’s heroine, Marge Gunderson (played by Frances McDormand). Marge is about as far removed from your archetypal Hollywood heroine as it’s possible to get. Heavily pregnant, Marge is a mature woman who’s happily settled in a sedate marriage with husband Norm. She’s a police chief in Minnesota, a dogged professional whose dress sense is no-nonsense and practical (i.e. her uniform) and at first appearances, she comes across as dull and a bit pedantic. When a state trooper is found shot dead at the roadside, Marge must investigate the homicide: we follow her as she chips away at the case until ultimately she finds herself pitted against a brutal psychopath in a confrontation which is made all the more terrifying because, by then, you really care what happens to her.
‘Fargo’ has now settled itself firmly into my list of all-time favourite films, partly because the cinematography is so breathtaking, but mainly because the characterisation is excellent and Marge herself is so compelling. Eighteen years after its initial release, characters like Marge are still few and far between on the big screen, in a world where a strong female character usually means a gung-ho floosie who struts about brandishing a big gun and uttering the odd cutting remark.
This is a real shame. It certainly puts me off squandering my hard-earned cash in the cinema, because I'm sure that most of the time I'm just not going to engage with either the story or the characters. Though on reflection, perhaps the paucity of well thought-out detailed female characters like Marge Gunderson is a symptom more of a wider malaise within the film industry as a whole.
Because when you come to think of it, it’s a criticism that can be meted out for male characters as well...