The Topic of Cancer (Part Two)

Have you read Part One?

I continue to be interested in the ways in which films explore the lives of characters enduring terminal illness, and have finally got around to watching Now is Good, the cinematic counterpart to Jenny Downham’s novel Before I Die.

Before I Die

As my previous post may have indicated, my expectations were not particularly high; ‘unforgettable’, declared the DVD’s cover, and my response was ‘I doubt it’. As I’m often resistant to the changes filmmakers inflict on authors’ work (don’t get me started on My Sister’s Keeper), I think writer/director Ol Parker’s changing the title prejudiced me from the outset.

But the joke’s on me, as about an hour later I couldn’t care less about the title, and was wondering why I hadn’t thought to equip myself with tissues before pressing play (and I’m not even usually one for tears no matter how sad I find films). 24 hours later I was in roughly the same position, watching the film again, albeit better prepared on the tissue front. And another 24 hours after that, I was well into re-reading Downham’s source material. For the second time. Suffice to say, I’ve become quite attached to this story.

So just what is it that makes stories about cancer so engaging, and why this one especially? I could go into some pseudo-psychological waffle about how cancer, as it still lacks a cure, is the disease most capable of making humans feel vulnerable. I could even argue that its prevalence serves as a memento mori as most lives are affected by it, either directly or indirectly, at some stage. But these ideas land on the fine line between profundity and bullsh*t, so I’ll leave it there.

Even if such ideas are accepted, they lose their relevance when the novels and films discussed are fictional, or at least purport to be. So I would suggest, although it is hardly original, that films like Now is Good are engaging not because we all relate to the themes expressed on some subconscious level, but because the artistic realisation of character and narrative is almost faultless. It may not even be the presence of cancer within the plot that causes this, although in narrative serious, and especially degenerative, illnesses of any kind certainly provide motivation for the respectful expression of a variety of emotions. When coupled with both good acting and directing, this can make a story seem so truthful as to render it unforgettable.

(A recent example, focussing on polio rather than cancer, is Ben Lewin’s The Sessions).

Dakota Fanning as Tessa Scott

Dakota Fanning as Tessa Scott

For those who haven’t read it (although I suggest you do), Jenny Downham’s debut novel Before I Die is written from the perspective of Tessa Scott, a 16 year-old who had been diagnosed with leukaemia four years previous to the novel’s opening. After undergoing intensive chemotherapy, Tessa has ultimately decided to cease treatment. We are not told how much longer Tessa has to live, only that it is not long. In a similar vein to Rob Reiner’s influential film The Bucket List (2007), she has compiled a list of things to do before she dies. The novel charts these experiences, Tessa’s interactions with her family and best friend Zoey, and her deteriorating health. Tessa’s disease progresses much faster, and more aggressively than medics had originally expected. Soon the 10 items on her list begin to feel too restrictive, and Tessa is far from ready to die, especially once she meets new neighbour, Adam, a young man suffering from emotional wounds of his own.

Parker’s adaptation is largely faithful to the book, and author Downham gives her mark of approval in the form of an associate producer credit. The film unquestionably owes a huge debt to Downham’s original characters and story, which is a lot more relatable, perhaps especially for teen audiences, than comparable films including The Bucket List and My Sister’s Keeper.

Realism is key. In writing her list, Tessa envisages a fast-forward accumulation of archetypal teenage rites of passage, including petty crime, learning to drive, and just generally being a little bit reckless while she still can. Her desires are generally more convincing and obtainable, and require less organisation or money than those depicted in The Bucket List, in which Edward (Jack Nicholson) and Carter (Morgan Freeman) indulge in skydiving, motor-biking and a round-the-world trip.

First on Tessa’s list is sex. Her attempt to lose her virginity provides the film’s frank opening scene. Here Parker refuses to romanticise and idealise – in fact going rather the opposite direction with the character of Jake (Josef Altin), the chosen partner for Tessa’s one-night-stand who initially comes across as a rather reductive and clichéd portrayal of a teenage boy defined only by sexual desire.

Parker isn’t afraid to show awkwardness in this sexual encounter – or lack thereof – and the use of the wig is an elegant and charmingly witty touch. However, here an alteration from the novel fits Jessica Lambert’s description of the changed title – Parker makes things ‘altogether more cosy’. Tessa doesn’t tick off sex on her list quite yet, as Downham had her do. Instead this is saved for her relationship with Adam (Jeremy Irvine, War Horse), in a narrative amendment which both increases the film’s overall romance and panders to the parents of a youthful audience by positing sexual experience within a stable relationship, which is less controversial and perhaps more easily accepted.

With Jeremy Irvine's Adam

With Jeremy Irvine’s Adam

However, this instance of ‘cleaning up’ is not symptomatic of the film as a whole. Once again, graphic detail of the effects of cancer is included. For example, in a less than romantic turn of events, Tessa suffers a posterior nosebleed while preparing for her first date with Adam and is duly rushed to hospital.

It is not only the realism of the narrative, but also of the characters which makes Before I Die so emotive and engaging. Praise is also due to the high standard of performance in Now is Good, which maintains the strength of Downham’s characterisation on screen. The script shows great attention to detail; characters are fleshed out by repetitive verbal tics, such as Adam’s tendency to say ‘no trouble’.

Of course, it’s the character of Tessa, and Dakota Fanning’s portrayal of her, which must provide the story’s hook. In both the novel and the film, events are presented through the filter of Tessa’s experiences, through first-person narrative voice and voice-over respectively. Fanning’s British accent is surprisingly good, and her Tessa is ferociously witty; when interviewed on local radio she harangues the presenter, asking if he has an original angle or is just plumping for ‘the whole dying-girl thing’. This quip is perhaps unintentionally ironic, as the film doesn’t really have a more original angle. But it also doesn’t need one. Tessa is instantly likeable, although like any teenager, she is not always nice. She really puts her father (Paddy Considine) through the ringer, and sharply proffers unsought advice on bedside manner to her doctor.

Now is Good is potentially revelatory of the way minors are treated by the medical profession; Tessa frequently calls doctors on the fact that they pass over addressing her with her prognosis, protecting her from full knowledge of the severity of her illness, in favour of revealing it to her father. Tessa’s derision of this practice is clear, and rightly so; she is mature and old enough to deserve the respect of being recognised as intellectually independent. Similarly, her dad has rather an irritating habit of apologising on her behalf, although Tessa is clearly also mature enough to accept responsibility for her own rude remarks.

Paddy Considine as the world's best dressed dad

Paddy Considine as the world’s best dressed dad

There’s much to praise in the casting of Considine, steady throughout as the put-upon dad who shoulders most of the burden of caring for Tessa’s health, and disciplining her way-faring ways, in stark opposition to her hapless mother (Olivia Williams). For much of the film Considine is tasked with portraying a textbook-like knowledge of Tessa’s leukaemia, and some mildly cringe-worthy flirting with nurses. When he finally breaks down it’s clear that both Tessa’s father, and Considine have been holding a lot back, and it was the heartbreaking dialogue of this scene which finally broke me and set the tears rolling. Together with Edgar Canham, who plays Tessa’s younger brother Cal, these grief-stricken performances make for more compelling and better realised family drama than I’ve seen elsewhere in the genre.

The quality of acting is consistently high throughout, even in supporting roles. Julia Ford, who portrays Adam’s mother Sally, boasts only around 5 minutes of screen time, but plays every moment perfectly. For example, when accidentally revealing Adam’s secret whereabouts to Tessa her facial expression and delivery flawlessly convey the exact moment she realises Tessa didn’t already know. It’s a moment which is probably played bi-weekly in most soap operas, but never so well.

As Zoey, Kaya Scodelario is liberated from a string of restrictive roles which saw her flock around looking dreamy (e4’s Skins, Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights). She’s never been so vibrant and energised. However, the heightened class distinction between Zoey and Tessa, suggested by Scodelario’s tattered costumes, caused me a little discomfort. It doesn’t derive from the book, and, when Zoey falls pregnant, teen pregnancy is implicitly associated with lower incomes. I don’t think the film is trying to make a socio-political point here, but I do think Parker could have been a little more careful in not making it seem as though he is.

Kaya Scodelario as Zoey

Kaya Scodelario as Zoey

As I noted in my original post, despite the seriousness of the subject matter, and the likely inevitable death of the protagonist in the concluding moments, movies charting the lives of cancer sufferers can still find time to be funny. Most of the comic moments in Now is Good come either from Tessa’s dry humour (her dad suggests she go back to school, and after flatly refusing she deadpans ‘there has to be some perks to terminal illness’), or from superb narrative timing, largely originating in Downham’s story, and having been fittingly maintained by Parker. One such moment is Tessa’s fainting during her first meeting with Adam, which humorously resembles a melodramatic swoon.

Although the use of dialogue lifted from the book is always a pleasing touch, the narrative also benefits from its translation to screen in the conveyance of certain feelings which a camera can display without the need for any words. Adam and Tessa’s physical attraction is elegantly expressed as they stand rocking back and forth on a moving bus, just waiting for an excuse to reach out and grab each other. Here lingering and sticky camera work is employed, in conjunction with close shots in achingly high definition.

As always, I’ve a gripe or two to make about some of the changes from the novel. In Lambert’s review, the film drew over-stated but not entirely unwarranted criticism for the idealisation of the character of Adam, who is certainly presented more romantically in the film than the book. On first meeting Tessa, Adam is instantly flirtatious, rather than relatively disinterested as Downham had first written him – and there’s certainly no arguing that Jeremy Irvine is ugly, although Tessa contemplates whether Adam is early on in the book.

The film is largely naturalistic throughout, but there are a few stylised moments which stand out. The opening credits owe rather a lot to Jason Reitman’s Juno (2007) but are none-the-less enjoyable, and music supervisor Liz Gallacher has somehow managed to put Lana del Rey to good use. However, the effect at the end of the film is likely to draw mixed results from audiences. The black-out it is intelligent but a little frustrating. But at least Parker didn’t choose to obscure the audience’s view with swathes of light, or distort sound in order to represent Tessa’s dipping in and out of consciousness – instead he lets us enjoy the end of the film, though it is, of course, a bittersweet enjoyment.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s