How can you make a film about women resisting violence, without wallowing in the experience of the violence itself? Two new ‘thrillers’ set me thinking. ‘The Girl on the Train’ and ‘Under the Shadow’ both share a feminist sub-text, but one was infinitely more successful at exploring the dilemmas without brutalising the senses, although you’ll have to search hard to find it at your local cinema.
‘The Girl on the Train’ is an Americanised version of Paula Hawkins’ British novel about violence and sexual intimidation in the suburbs. It follows the story of how one disturbed woman’s gaze out of a train window, increasingly draws her into the lives of the people she sees. Yes, it all goes wrong… with ugly results. By the end, we’ve seen a fair bit of horribly realistic violence, and a hopeful ending which seems to be saying that the End Justifies the Means when the victims strike back… which in real life, is rarely true. ‘Is this meant to be entertainment?’ mused Mrs PGD afterwards. We’ve both witnessed degrees of domestic violence in the lives of those we know and love, and watching it writ-large on the screen didn’t leave either of us the better for it.
On the other hand, ‘Under the Shadow’ is a possibly-supernatural thriller set in Teheran during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Here, we see a strong assertive woman who is finding her life increasingly circumscribed and hemmed in by the attitudes of the men around her. As rockets rain from the sky and residents are fleeing, she stays put in her apartment with her young daughter, when her husband is called up for National Service- because going off to stay with his parents ‘of traditional views’ would be tough going. But the war takes its toll, the apartment block is damaged, and strange things start happening around the home. Personal items go missing- the much-loved medical textbook, the Jane Fonda workout video. Then her daughter starts talking about seeing strange people who say she’s a bad mother. A neighbour talks of a ‘djinn’, a spirit of the air that comes to claim its victims…. And so we move into supernatural-shock territory.
Like ‘The Girl on the Train’, there’s a strange unreality as we become uncertain whether what our protagonist is seeing is actually happening… but ‘Under the Shadow’ carries more than a simple sexual political edge or edge-of-the-seat shocks, because it’s exploring how a whole society keeps women in their place and literally, under wraps. (There’s more than a hint of the superb 2012 film ‘Wadija’, about a young girl growing up in Saudi Arabia.) It's far less violent than ‘The Girl on the Train’, but it does open your eyes to the lives lived by other people in other places, grappling on a daily basis with much tougher stuff than any of us are likely to face.
‘The Girl on the Train’ simply presses the same old buttons, but by the end of ‘Under the Shadow’ you feel you have learned something new. Catch it while you can. Oh, it’s all performed in Farsi, by the way- but you can read English sub-titles, can’t you?