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The Hand of God, Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads – BBC and iPlayer

Reviewer: Miriam Sallon

Writer: Alan Bennett

Director: Jonathan Kent

Of course, over the years, Kristin Scott Thomas has played all sorts of nuanced and varied roles, squeezing herself into someone else’s life and experiences, and presenting us, time and again with someone we haven’t met before. So why does it still seem completely miraculous that one of the chicest and most beautiful women alive appears before us, transformed into this slightly fusty and superior small-town woman?

Celia owns an antiques shop, selling all sorts. She got into the business because, she says, she loves beautiful things. But times have changed, stock doesn’t move like it used to, and short of selling chutney on the side (“I shall start doing chutney, madam, when Tesco’s start doing gate leg tables!”) she’s at a bit of a loss.

That is, until she sees Mrs. Ventriss about town, looking a little frail. Her seventeenth-century house is a treasure trove of perfectly preserved antiques, and Celia finds herself regularly visiting poor old Mrs Ventriss on her death bed (a country piece, probably about 1830, in perfect nick, Celia just happens to notice).

As with most of the Talking Heads’ characters, Celia is beyond easy analysis; there’s no use trying to decide if she is a good person, if she in fact gets her just deserts when Bennett slaps her with his nasty little trademark plot twist. Scott Thomas’ Celia is charming and, at times, heart-wrenching, which one would have struggled to say about Eileen Atkins’ tight-lipped, rather more unlikeable interpretation in ‘98. In contrast, Scott Thomas’ delivery transforms the camera from mere witness to co-conspirator; a disapproving but loving friend.

The foreshadowing is a little heavy-handed; one can see why this is a popular GCSE text. And if you were especially keen, you might pause after the first half and exactly predict the second. But it’s so much so that it’s almost just dramatic irony, and the audience watches, waiting smugly for the axe to fall.

Where some episodes have seemed a kind of echo of their predecessor (Jody Comer half-attempting an impression of Julie Walters for example), this production is an almost entirely new understanding of the character, and one is left feeling very differently about Celia than one might have done on watching the original. As with all the previous Talking Heads episodes, the story itself is rather comfortless, but Scott Thomas’ performance is such a treat, one might almost forget to be depressed.

Available here until June 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Delightfully comfortless

User Rating: 3.78 ( 4 votes)
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