The last review I wrote for Unconquered Peaks was about Amazon’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, an article in which I commented on how successfully the show portrayed its female relationships. This time, we’re talking about HBO’s new mini–series Sharp Objects, based on the Gillian Flynn book by the same name (as you’ll doubtless remember, Gillian Flynn is also the author of Gone Girl, which was turned into a brilliant movie – if you’ve not seen it, I’d advise you to do so). The plot is fairly simple: as an adult, Camille Preaker returns to her hometown of Wind Gap to investigate two gruesome murders in a purely journalistic capacity. What makes the series so fascinating is its exploration of the way women interact, utilising the show’s main three women – Camille, Camille’s mother Adora, and Camille’s younger sister Amma – as tools to comment on generational distinctions and the complications of maternal and sororal love.
The show, like Picnic at Hanging Rock, is beautiful. The colour palette is muted and subtle, with a wash of green over many scenes rendering them eerie and otherworldly. The show aggressively embraces its Southern Gothic aesthetic, with shots of empty roads, opulent mansions and young girls with trailing hair rollerblading around the place. Day–drinking, taboo undertones and traumatic flashbacks abound, pairing with graphic imagery and the ever–present sound of heightened breathing to create an omnipresent sense of claustrophobia. It is an astonishing feat of cinematography, to transport a person – wherever they happen to be – into the sticky, stifling American South, but Sharp Objects does it, and does it well, and that is one of many things for which it deserves praise.
Another praiseworthy feature is the cast, all of whom are effervescent. Amy Adams, as per usual, stuns in role as Camille Preaker, capable of portraying both Camille’s intense emotional repression and her desire to express herself. Patricia Clarkson essentially reprises her role from Bryan Fuller’s 2002 Carrie, as Adora, a domineering and possessive mother, able to exercise a terrifying amount of control over her two daughters. But it is Eliza Scanlen, a heretofore unknown young actress, who truly steals the show, in role as Amma Crellin: the violent, sexually precocious and attention–seeking younger daughter of Adora. Amma’s character is reminiscent of other famous literary filles fatales – Nabokov’s Dolores Haze, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Lux Lisbon – but Scanlen expertly demonstrates every side of her character in a startling portrayal of the infinite complexity of teenage girls. And when the time comes for the twisted and macabre ending, all three main characters react in an emotive and believable manner, rendering even the most unlovable of them temporarily sympathetic.
Sharp Objects was Gillian Flynn’s first book, and in writing it, she wanted to explore the “dark side of female psychology”, feeling that there was a lack of representation of dangerous and unpleasant women. In both the book and the show, she has succeeded enormously. Her female characters are complex, disturbed, and compulsively watchable. They pose a danger both to themselves and to others. And, like Picnic at Hanging Rock, the men exist only to revolve around the women, fascinated and confused by their intricate mechanisms. Even the most sympathetic male character – Camille’s boss, Curry – is bemused by her, unable to properly articulate his love for her. The show publicises a very clear message: damaged women are difficult, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make an effort.
As for queer subtext, it is very subtle, until it isn’t, and then it is completely blatant. Camille’s relationship with her younger sister is tenuous and complicated, hovering somewhere between maternal care, sisterly affection, and something darker and more taboo. To Camille, Amma is a representation of her own youth, during which Camille was sexualised constantly, and this means that she views Amma in a similar fashion. The most explicitly queer scene is when Amma passes a pill to Camille, mouth–to–mouth: a tense and vividly uncomfortable scene both for the characters and for the audience. Apart from that, the show’s focus is mostly on the way that men sexualise women, rather than on the way women sexualise one another. That’s not to say that female–female relationships aren’t explored: plenty of attention is given to the platonic and familial relationships that women share, but the emphasis is not placed upon sexuality so much.
The show has a blatantly feminist message: women can be difficult, and nasty, and dangerous, and selfish, and they are still people. Women do not cease to be worthy of respect simply because they demonstrate characteristics – anger, jealousy, brutality – which we accept in men. But it also has a second, flipped feminist moral lesson: we should not assume women are innocuous. It is dangerous to idolise them, to infantilise them, to treat them as if they are not people on the basis that they are too good. All three of the main characters are threatening to the patriarchy in their own way – Adora for her dominant personality, Camille for her apathy and cynicism, and Amma for her reclaiming of her sexuality – but all three are able to hide behind the outdated assumptions which are made based on their gender. Sharp Objects very clearly tells us that to underestimate women is dangerous. It tells us that what we should do, instead, is attempt to understand them.