DECEMBER 29, 2020
In Lovers Rock, the second installment of Steve McQueen’s heartthrobbing series Small Axe, two lovers — Franklyn and Martha — attend a house party in West London. In “Balmoral,” the second installment of Peter Morgan’s heartsickening series The Crown, two lovers — Charles and Diana — attend a house party, kind of, at a large estate house in Scotland. Both of these events, filled with flirtation, packed with sweaty bodies, and gilded with dread, take place in the year 1980 in the United Kingdom. And I can’t stop thinking about that.
It would be one thing if this was just two series, both released this year, about youthful romance and courtship, set in two crannies of 1980s England so remote from each other and yet so fundamentally interdependent that they might as well be opposite ends of a wormhole. But it’s the dancing, too. Franklyn and Martha, Prince Charles and Lady Di—their stories are told to us in dance. For the lovers of Lovers Rock, it’s one long dance sequence, an unbroken, waxing and waning pulse of energy, filmed with passionate, generous observational fortitude by McQueen. For the lovers and haters of Balmoral, it’s one choreographed humiliation after another, from the scampering imp of Sandringham to the solitary sweats of Buckingham Palace to the glorious coming-out of Australia to the self-immolating cringe of the Royal Opera House. The chosen form of the truth is dancers; it comes to us in movements.
Lovers Rock and The Crown haven’t met; they don’t know each other. That’s true aesthetically — as in, I can’t imagine either McQueen or Morgan would have linked their series intertextually even if they’d known about the possible convergence between them — and it’s true conceptually. That the universe of The Crown doesn’t know about the universe of Lovers Rock is sort of the point, or at least a point, of both series. But the universe knows them, and they are intertextually connected. And that’s what I can’t stop thinking about: this accident of visual storytelling, this convergence. It’s one thing to say that things like this just happen; it’s another to ask what’s really happening when they do.
Dance sequences, especially in historical fictions and period pieces like these, can often serve the kitschy purpose of smuggling in nostalgic music cues, and both these series are guilty of this to a greater or lesser extent. But dance sequences also serve the necessary formal purpose of emphasizing historical figures, people lost to the past, as living things with bodies and desires who move in certain ways and dynamically occupied space on the Earth for a time. Figures whose cinematic resurrections can captivate us and whose nearness to harm and violence fill us with anxiety. The imperative to “see the past” that’s been a part of fictions like these since at least the romantic historians of the nineteenth century is well served by scenes of body moving. To dance is to perform contingency that could easily be lost in the museum-like sterility of the period piece. So, when Diana cuts loose on multiple occasions in her ballet studio, or when the patrons of Notting Hill’s Mangrove spill out into the street and under the surveillant gaze of the police (in Mangrove, the first episode of Small Axe), when Diana publicly scandalizes Charles with her choreographed burlesques, or when Franklyn and Martha perform their growing intimacy at that house party in West London, we feel the material lives of these ephemeral characters with more urgency.
Prince Charles and Lady Di were married the year after the characters in Lovers Rock meet. One of these stories is about the suffocating pressure of white aristocratic inheritance in the midst of immense privilege. The other is a story cordoning off space for Black joy in the midst of a white nationalist state. One is about Billy Joel, and the other is about Janet Kay. Both are about movement, up, down, forward, backward.
I can’t talk about the “Silly Games” scene yet, so let’s talk about “Uptown Girl.” The first thing we know is that Lady Diana is going to die. The Crown is gossipy cruelty theater, and its characters run the spectrum from impotent prigs to malevolent ghouls. My most charitable interpretation of my own desire to watch this show is that it is an immersive account of what it must be like to become naturalized to a life of such dismal malignity. I like it — I tell myself — because it is such a terrifically lean and mean portrait of an ecosystem so poisoned by money and privilege and lovelessness that even nominal kindness becomes a curse. Philip, perhaps the most venal of the show’s many venal pricks, appears to be the only member of the family to treat Diana with kindness when she arrives. But it is precisely that kindness, and his endorsement of her to the family, that gains her entry into an institution that he, better than anyone, knows will destroy her. Philip, we should realize, is kind to nobody; if only The Crown itself were so merciless to its subjects. The Crown is Chernobyl if Chernobyl took place entirely within the exposed reactor core, just atoms breaking each other apart in small spaces, spewing toxic gas across Europe.
Anyway, while The Crown is a virtuosic exploration of how the simple act of being an asshole in a powerful family full of assholes can imperceptibly transform itself into a world-historical plague of murder, oppression, and paternalistic abuse over hundreds of years, most of those murdered and oppressed are offscreen. This is a failing of the show, to be clear: that the Irish only show up to kill Lord Mountbatten and the Argentines only show up to rudely start the Falklands War. But such absences are a part of the show’s narrative economy, and, while the exclusion of such violences is shocking in aggregate, we never expect the show to linger on them or represent them in detail. So when we meet Diana and realize the show is going to introduce us to an actual casualty of the royal family —whether by conspiracy or just the curse of association — and let us get to know her, it stands out. Jude Ellison Doyle put it aptly on Twitter that, “all the Charles/Diana scenes are scored like a horror movie. Everytime she shows up, there are these chilling discordant strings, like THEY’RE GOING TO KILL THIS WOMAN.” Diana is the Final Girl whose early, carefree innocence will eventually give way to something else. And so that looming terror hangs over everything, including when she dances for Charles or herself.
The first real dancing we get from Diana is during her effective quarantine in Buckingham Palace in the episode “Fairytale.” At this point, she’s passed the 1980 “Balmoral Test,” gotten engaged to Charles, and, while he’s away on royal business, she’s stuck in the palace, taking royal etiquette lessons, attending arranged lunches with Charles’ mistress, and spiraling into despair. In one scene, we see her explore the palace on roller skates with a Walkman, which is both a compelling illustration of the humdrum scale of her iconoclasm and the outsize impact it has on the royal family. For all its hegemonic influence and aggressive pomp, the monarchy is ultimately a pretty fragile thing, we learn. It’s essentially dead by the time we meet it at the beginning of the series, and, throughout, we see its limited ability to either flex its muscle or understand its world. The discontinuity of lively, too-young Diana rolling through its halls is shocking in part because it’s hard to imagine that something so ordinary could be so upsetting to an institution as seemingly august as this.
Diana on roller skates is not the same as Diana on the dance floor, but we get that a few scenes later. Curiously, though, the following sequence of Diana cathartically dancing in an empty room-turned-ballet-studio has a lot less of the bodily impact the roller skates did. Partially, it’s the staginess of it, the feeling that what we’re watching isn’t really dancing-as-catharsis so much as dancing-as-convenient-televisual-expression-of-angst. In other words, I believe Diana traipsed through Buckingham Palace on roller skates, but I don’t believe her private dancing in the studio the same way. The sequence — Diana practicing a few formal turns, then devolving into wild flailing until she falls down dead on the ground — is a few twists more explicit about the structural irony of the episode than it needs to be. That wealth is a prison, that the most beloved woman in England is also the most alone, that it isn’t great to be a princess — these are premises that the episode begins with, not observations it makes its way around to. This particular dance sequence, while clearly positioned to show us the cruel irony of all this, feels ultimately unnecessary.
What it does do, though is suggest that dancing is how we’re going to be following Diana throughout these proceedings, that her tragedy is one we’ll track in a series of significant, choreographed crescendos. In other words, the dance sequences in The Crown are narrative flashpoints, almost abstract in their relationship to actual dancing. They don’t describe so much as mark nodal points on Diana’s arc. For these characters — if not for Diana, initially — dancing is exposure not revelation. It’s representative of the repressive victory over desire, not the expression of it. People don’t dance because they want each other. They dance because they’ve transcended their homely, horny wants in service of that big, titular metonym: The Crown. The movements of Diana’s unruly body index her evolving relationship with the Windsors.
The next big number is an encapsulation of this. It happens while Diana and Charles are on their tour of Australia, endeavoring to quell the new Australian Prime Minister’s push for independence. They succeed, so The Crown tells it, by dint of Diana’s charm. They begin the trip at odds, partially because Diana’s insistence that she not leave the child William behind for the weeks-long tour bristled against convention, and partially because Charles is still obviously carrying on his affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles. After a knockdown fight somewhere in rural Australia, Charles and Diana reconcile, open for seemingly the first time to actually being in love. Diana will allow some of her freedoms to be curtailed for the company, and so too will Charles; they’ll find compromise in an affectionate, arranged marriage.
The series marks this with the couple’s famous dance at a gala in Sydney. To the strains of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” the couple begins rigidly, procedurally, and we see them in tight close-up, cut off from the dark room by the halo of a spotlight. That is until Charles whispers, “Let’s really give ‘em a show, shall we,” the camera cuts to a tracking long shot, the cameras flash, the lovers giggle audibly, and Diana’s blue dress twirls and tilts to Charles’ still-stiff, if competent, lead. It’s a very good bit of television. The actors playing Charles and Diana — Josh O’Connor and Emma Corrin — modulate beautifully into the lovestruck kids neither got a chance to be in this relationship at its beginning. In the midst of a genuine feel-bad season of television, this scene feels like forgetting.
But the show quickly remembers. Charles realizes over the remainder of the episode that the Australian people’s love is for his bride, not himself. He’s jealous, sure, but he’s also caught off guard, having imagined this trip was to be his coming-out party as the future king, not as supporting player to the future queen. Charles’ self-delusion is one of the series’ great subjects — from his frequent, dramatic irony-soaked pronouncements on the innovative future of his reign to a hilarious monologue on his plans for a truly Musk-like disruption of the traditional landscape architecture of the English garden — and his deflation is genuinely epic if only for being so baffling. The dance sequence is perfect because it’s about control. Charles choreographs the moves, he leads his partner, but it’s she who’s the star. It’s just too good to be true.
When Diana surprises Charles with a choreographed dance onstage at the Royal Opera House, that’s just about the end of it. Her playing to the crowd, her unseemly (if obviously and clumsily choreographed) flirtation with her dance partner, the sequence’s intentional showcasing of her lithe body — Diana is surprised by Charles’ furious reaction, but that surprise is no less baffling to us than Charles’ was in Australia. In this sequence, Diana’s in control, not the media, not the adoring Aussies. Diana recognizes her power — or is at least drawn to it — and makes Charles watch it. Rather than “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” the sequence is soundtracked by Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl,” a song about some schlub who can’t believe his luck that he gets to be with such a gorgeous, classy lady. It’s a song about Charles and Diana, a wink that will only be met by a squint and a sneer.
Boy, how it hurts me inside…
Dance sequences, cinematically, are call-backs to the cinema of attractions, the visual aesthetic of those earliest silent shorts in the 1890s and early aughts. Those films were without the time, technical resources, or, frankly, desire to tell stories with images, and so they were spectacles instead. They showcased the power of the camera to capture reality or illusion, not its power to captivate a spectator with story. The shock was reality itself, reflected onscreen. They captured magicians in the act, the contingent splendor of life as it’s lived, and, of course, dancers dancing. As film storytelling developed in the early century and through to Classical Hollywood, driving the cinema of attractions underground, in film scholar Tom Gunning’s famous phrase, dance numbers retained that agnosticism, if not antagonism, toward narrative. A musical number was a break from the forward movement of plot, a dilation of time and narrative sense, a moment for the camera to show you all the things it can see.
There’s an eleven-minute dance sequence in Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock that made me feel the way those early film spectators must have felt when the Lumière brothers showed them leaves rustling or dancers dancing. I don’t mean this purely in the mode of hyperbole, either. McQueen is a formalist, a true heir to the realist aesthetic of those early actualities. Not just the psychological realism of New Hollywood or the narrative realism of Classical Hollywood or even the radical Neorealisms of mid-century, but that uncut, confrontational, patient realism of the attractions. McQueen’s filmmaking ethos — and, to me, what makes him the greatest director of historical films of his generation — is not just about capturing a scene, but capturing a scene in all of its contingent, unrepeatable singularity. Leaving his camera to watch a colander rock back and forth on the ground in the aftermath of a police raid in Mangrove, watching the physical endurance of Solomon Northrup on his toes hung from a tree in 12 Years a Slave, even training his gaze on Viola Davis’ eruptive grief in Widows — McQueen’s long takes are long because they want to show you all the things the camera can see. Photography, André Bazin said in his collection What is Cinema? “produces an image that is a reality of nature, namely, an hallucination that is also a fact.” That’s what Steve McQueen does.
And he does it about as well as I’ve seen it done in Lovers Rock. To be fair, practically the whole movie is a dance sequence. Set at a reggae house party in Ladbroke Grove in West London in 1980, we see a dance party form and disperse, from DJs setting up the sound system to attendees slinking home before church. If this season of The Crown is powered by the prospect of generational change within the British monarchy, this episode of Small Axe is interested in the prospect of generational change for the children of the Windrush generation. That Charles, in his ambitious garden designs, would likely use the word “freedom” as readily as the characters in Small Axe should be as withering a burn on the Windsors as anything Prince Philip is likely to say.
Within Small Axe, Lovers Rock is bookended by the story of the Mangrove Nine in 1970, put on trial for rioting at a protest against police violence and harassment, and the story of a founding member of the Black Police Association. Violence is everywhere in the series, and it makes its appearance here in the faces of aggressive white teens scared away from the house party by the guy working security; in the cop car that briefly considers approaching the house only to drive away; in the attempted rape of one of the party’s guests of honor by a nattily dressed creep lurking around the edges of the dance floor. And, while the party in Lovers Rock is fictionalized, it carries echoes of a similar birthday party in 1981 in New Cross, that ended, not with young lovers in each others’ arms, but with 13 dead in a house fire. The New Cross Fire in part precipitated the Brixton uprising that’s the subject of the fourth Small Axe film. So, while Lady Di’s eventual demise hovers over season four of The Crown, the reality of Black harm and death outside the palace walls is the subject of McQueen’s series, running in critical annotative counterpoint to Morgan’s.
That Lovers Rock is a solitary, partial suspension of that violence makes it all the more striking. Given the lead-in of Mangrove, viewers might easily imagine the magical veil to fall, either at the hands of the party’s rapist, the hovering angry white men of the neighborhood, or some other calamity. That those crises are largely averted or extinguished does not make them less a part of the economy of the film. But, like the cinema of attractions, this film is about suspension, about spectacle, about watching the physical world unfold before us in a cascade of choices and changes and risks unique to the exact moment the camera rolls.
While Lovers Rock meditatively captures the movements of the party itself — from the making of the goat curry to the early playing of pop hits to the darts of jealousy between dancers to the chaotic, late-night dub mosh pit that closes out the party — it’s the “Silly Games” sequence that brings the house down. The story of the film is simple: Martha sneaks out of her parents’ house with a friend to go to a house party. She locks eyes across the room with Franklyn, who, like most of the men at the party, is positioned around the outside of the dance floor while the women dance. They dance, they talk, they dance some more. By the time the DJs acquiesce to the birthday girl’s special request to hear Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” — which we’ve already heard several women sing a cappella while cooking in the kitchen pre-party — Franklyn and Martha are just two people on the dance floor with the music.
It’d be an injustice for me to try to describe in detail what happens next. (Please, I implore you, go to Amazon Prime and watch this movie. You’ll know the scene when you see it.) Suffice it to say that, once the song begins to play, McQueen finds two things: first, the predatory creep targeting the young woman in the red dress, and, second, the growing physical chemistry of Franklyn and Martha. The sequence is long, and the longest take is the one that settles around the waists of our lovers, watching their hips communicate, Martha’s hand dropping back as if to balance, Franklyn’s hands sliding down her backside, their tenuous visible connection to the rhythm of the song, the way they themselves appear to be suspended in time. The camera drifts back up to their faces in tight, almost silhouetted, close-up, their smiles and gazes all we see. I said earlier that the dancing in The Crown is abstract. One of the ways that’s true is that it is sexless. Charles and Diana have no physical chemistry whatsoever, genuine or performed. Desires flow through each scene, but not desire for each other. Desire is maybe a weak word for what McQueen captures in this sequence, though. Yearning, maybe. Ecstasy, possibly. Need.
But then the song ends, and the camera’s no longer interested in Franklyn and Martha alone. The DJ fades the song out as the whole collective on the dance floor sings, dropping further and further into harmony, keeping the beat with the feet on hardwood, dancing, eyes closed, yearning, ecstatic, needful, found. McQueen floats among them, seeing their sweat, their veins, their fingertips. This scene doesn’t feel like forgetting. It doesn’t feel like past at all, remembered or forgotten. The scene is present, it’s now, it’s unending. No, I’ve got no time…
Maybe it’s unfair to put a show I pleasantly tolerate alongside a piece of filmmaking that I will remember and think about for the rest of my entire life. But, as they say, this is not just something that happened. This cannot be, one of those things. Dancing, on The Crown, is about the dissociation of personality, the loss of empathy, the abnegation of the self. Dancing, in Lovers Rock, is about collective, community, connection. Which is to say, it’s not about anything. Both The Crown and Small Axe are didactic series, to one degree or another. There’s nothing wrong with that — I’d be thrilled if more historical films took up that pedagogical function with as much passion and perspective as these series. But the thing I learn about them together is that they are irreconcilable, or, rather, they don’t need to be reconciled. The accident of these dance sequences, in these years, in these corners of the fading Empire, doesn’t reveal the commonality of all mankind, the family presided over by the queen. There is no denominator here. There is no movement that ripples across time and space, no shared intimacy between palace and party. The dancers in Buckingham Palace are fragile, but they are protected; the dancers in West London are strong, but they are vulnerable. The violence that mills outside the walls of that Ladbroke Grove house is the violence of Charles’ innovative monarchy, of Philip’s offhand slurs, of the police that keep the Queen safe in her room, of the fleets that protect British interests in the Falklands, of the Prime Minister who protects British interests in apartheid South Africa. It’s not that these take place in two Londons. Lovers Rock takes place in The Crown’s London, however surreal or impossible that may seem. Franklyn and Martha and Charles and Diana and Margaret Thatcher all live there. It’s a hallucination, and it’s also a fact.