After it cleaned up a pile of awards last week, Alex Casey watches TVNZ1’s Jean to see what all the fuss is about.
At the New Zealand Television Awards last week, one production, one story and one name ruled the night: Jean. It became something of a running joke as Jean, the TV film that first aired on TVNZ1 in 2016, managed to be nominated in almost every single category. The rowdy comedians in the front even began a slow, quiet chant of “Jean, Jean, Jean” towards the end of the night. It won for Best Feature Drama, Best Director: Drama, Best Script: Drama and Best Actress: Kate Elliott, so I thought it was about time I bloody well watched it.
A recipient of NZ on Air’s platinum grant, Jean received $3,256,700, the largest sum ever allocated to a one-off drama. The result? An impressive-looking production that sits comfortably alongside any international biopic period drama you’d happily take your parents to, with the added bonus of preserving a lesser-celebrated piece of New Zealand history. But, just like the journey which made Jean Batten world-famous, there are stretches where it feels like a bit of a slog.
Starring Kate Elliott as Batten, the TV film charts the preparation and execution of her successful world-beating solo flight from England to New Zealand in 1936. Sorry for the spoiler there. Referred to on her Wikipedia page as “the Greta Garbo of the skies,” Batten was a glamorous enigma, who was known to apply lipstick in the cockpit and smile for the cameras, but remained a fierce recluse in her private life. Elliott is well-deserving of her award for Jean, balancing the beaming, charming public persona with the dark, steely obsessive in private.
Miranda Harcourt as Jean’s mother Ellen Batten provides a Dance Moms character from a near century before Dance Moms existed. Pushing her Jean to strive for greatness at all costs, her command over Jean’s life seeps through the silences when they are together. Whether she is enforcing a strict biography-writing regimen of 400 words a day, or protecting her private life from the press – a secret fiancé in Australia does not gel well with her “world’s most eligible air girl” persona – it’s made clear, in more ways than one, there was no Jean without Ellen.
The whispered, breathless conversations that appear throughout Jean run a real risk of slowing the momentum to a sputter, but are saved by the dramatic in-flight action sequences. Violent Mad Max-looking dust storms and a near-death experience in the middle of the ocean work to drive up the stakes far more effectively than people talking in hushed tones about ‘what happened to Amelia’ (Earhart). In the last 15 minutes, Jean’s previously infallible world becomes jeopardised and we see just how treacherous her pursuit really was.
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Aside from a few shonky green screens here and there, Jean is an absolute stickler for detail. Whether it’s the light catching through her white jumpsuit as she lays it out the night before the big flight, or her crunching an Oddfellow under the stars, bored in the cockpit, the world of Jean feels fully realised. The costuming is incredible, her wide-collared coats and silk scarves a crucial part of her armour, and the 30s era is never in question. To recycle a Dolly Parton phrase, it sure costs a lot of money to look this old.
When Kate Elliott took out her award for playing Jean Batten, she took her time to thank the “difficult women” of the world, our more complicated heroes who, due to their gender, have not been remembered and regaled in the same way as our great men. As the woman herself says: what is seen as outrageous for a woman is courageous for a man, a fact that Jean affirms is sadly as true now as it was back then.
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