A new British dramedy proves to us that Anna Paquin has the goods – but the rest of it doesn’t meet her at her level. Sam Brooks reviews TVNZ on Demand’s Flack.
The best moment in the premiere episode of Flack happens nearly a quarter of the way into the episode. Anna Paquin, playing PR-slash-crisis-manager Robyn, struts into the lobby of her office. The night before, in the opening scene, she had to deal with what any of us would describe as the worst day of our working life: One of her very famous clients has hired an underage male prostitute who doesn’t speak any English, and who also happens to have passed out cold or overdosed. With the help of some very heavy-handed, quick-paced dialogue, Robyn deals with the situation and firmly establishes who she is: She doesn’t take any shit, her moral compass has no magnetic north and her personal life is a mess.
Anyway, back to the best moment. Robyn walks into her office lobby, a smile plastered onto her face like her strong smokey eye. She nods to a few people, and then gets into the elevator alone. In a split second, the smile drops from her face and a death mask settles onto her face. We feel the humanity of this person for the first time, or the absolute loss of whatever human Robyn used to be. Then, one floor up, barely three seconds of elevator movement later, the doors open onto her floor and the smile is quickly plastered across her face once more.
This moment tells us more about Robyn than the rest of Flack‘s first hour – which has about as much writing as you can fit into an hour minus ads.
We’ll get to that. What this moment also tells us – or reminds us, if we’ve forgotten – is that Anna Paquin is a performer to be reckoned with.
Paquin has had a notably unique career. Since her debut in The Piano, which made her the second youngest person to win a competitive Oscar – hey Tatum O’Neal – she seemed to disappear until appearing as Rogue in 2000’s X-Men. Looking back at that performance now, it’s a surprisingly vivid and soulful performance, easily the equal of Ian McKellen’s Magneto, and gives that shaky first X-Men film much of its gravitas (and I say that with zero irony, trust me). Her next famous role was in True Blood, a show which seems to have aged 20 years the moment the credits rolled on the season finale, but for all that show’s flaws, it’s hard to deny that Paquin kept the show anchored in some emotional sincerity and heart.
But for me, her landmark role, and her best performance, is in 2012’s little seen Margaret. The second film by Kenneth Lonergan, of You Can Count on Me and Manhattan By The Sea fame, it was a film more noted for its post-production dramas. The film was shot in 2006, and spent a full six years in post, weathering the deaths of executive producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, and debuted in two separate cuts: A two and a half hour theatrical release and a three hour director’s cut.
In Margaret, Paquin plays a teenager who bears witness to a bus crash that kills a woman – and she fears she’s the one to blame. The film then follows her crusade to find justice, even though she doesn’t know what exactly she’s actually looking for; she has no idea what justice looks or feels like. It’s one thing to play a teenager as a witticism factory or a sass production line, it’s another thing entirely to play that but externalize the endless insecurities and contradictions that lurk inside everybody who has yet to take responsibility with a single thing in her life. Margaret, for its myriad virtues, is a flawed and messy film, but Paquin fixes it in an emotional reality that in turn gives weight to the 9/11 allegory the film, not entirely elegantly, aims at.
If there’s a word that describes what Paquin does as a performer, and she’s done this since way back in The Piano, it’s ‘anchor’. She’s an entry point for an audience into a story, whether she’s the protagonist or a supporting character. That’s a highly specific quality for a performer to hold, and to hold it while delivering full, interesting performances is something worth lauding.
Which brings us back to Flack.
Flack is a fun show. It’s fun like Scandal is fun – it’s fun to see competent people deal with crises, as the PR firm at the centre of Flack does. The first episode revolves around a famous man who is being blackmailed with nude photos, and Paquin’s Robyn is required to cover it up. She does this with a writerly version of competence – regardless of how well Paquin delivers it, the dialogue always has the clacking sound of self-satisfied fingers on the keyboard – and with the kind of Complexity™ that indicates a complex human rather than conveys one.
It doesn’t make Flack a bad show, because even at its least strong moments, it resembles a darker, reheated version of The Devil Wears Prada. Lydia Wilson, as Robyn’s even less scrupulous co-worker Eve, is doing an entertaining riff on Emily Blunt’s career-best performance in that film – flutey, haughty humour from the stock best friend is a trope that I would genuinely like to see more of please. Sophie Okonedo, a truly formidable actress, plays the Miranda Priestly role, and despite being one of the finest stage actresses of our time, she’s unable to make sense of the line: “… before the hashtag ‘Henderson poached up me too’ blows up the Twittersphere.” And, you know what, fair enough.
No matter how exciting the show gets, it never matches the complexity or magnetism of the work that Paquin is doing – especially in that elevator scene. The shift in the grey scales of humanity that she shows in a few breathless seconds is something that will stay with me for a long time.
Perhaps the most damning thing that I can say about Flack, and least by its first episode, is that it’s incredibly telling that the best moment in the hour is when nobody is actually talking.
Flack airs tonight on TVNZ on Demand.
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.