Friday 17 July 2009

‘We were all right.’

Freefall, written and directed by Dominic Savage for the BBC

Shortly into Dominic Savage’s drama about the financial crisis, high-flying banker Gus (Aidan Gillen) celebrates the closure of a gazillion-pound deal by retiring to the toilet to masturbate. Banking turns him on. Towards the end, as his world is collapsing, a colleague notes ruefully, ‘CDO mortgages aren’t worth a wank’. Quite. To be fair, Gus did follow his solitary celebration with a proper shag on a desk a bit later, but a shag is all it was. The object of his attentions later tells him exasperatedly, ‘I thought after a while we’d fall in love’. But Gus doesn’t do love, not even when it comes to his grumpypants teenage daughter. He is just a banker.

So much for the City. The bulk of Freefall takes place in Watford or somewhere like that, where wideboy Dave (Dominic Cooper) sells discounted mortgages to anyone who’ll sign on the dotted line, including his old schoolfriend Jim (Joseph Mawle), who works as a security guard in a shopping centre. Jim can’t really afford a mortgage, and of course Dave doesn’t explain that the repayments will go through the roof after a year. Cue human drama.

On one level, this is a predictably moralistic film about greed, as the writer somewhat boringly explains (1). But in fact it’s more interesting than that. Gus and Dave are caricatures of recognisable types, the single-minded workaholic, and the ruthless opportunist. A better organised society would no doubt find good use for both. At the moral heart of the drama are Jim and his wife Mandy (Anna Maxwell Martin): it is their greed that matters, or specifically Jim’s.

‘We were all right,’ Mandy tells him when they find themselves deep in debt with Jim having lost his job. ‘It was you who wanted all this greedy, greedy stuff.’ In fact, she is demonstrating a human failing just as pernicious as greed: the tendency to respond to setbacks by pretending everything was ‘all right’ before. If only Jim and Mandy had settled for their modest life together in a rented council house, everything would have been OK. But of course it isn’t true.

Jim encounters Dave for the first time since school while at work in the shopping centre, where Dave has just bought expensive jewellery for himself and his trophy blonde. The contrast between the two men is striking: one in his ugly uniform, plodding about the shopping centre (wife at home looking after the kids), the other smartly-dressed and rushing around with his impatient bird. When they meet again, Dave is positively Satanic in his efforts to tempt Jim to ‘move on’. He can’t believe his old schoolfriend still lives on the street he grew up in: ‘Your mum and dad, they’d be disappointed in you.’ What is Jim going to leave his kids? What is the point of his life? Jim admits that he hasn’t achieved the things he wanted to, and hints that his marriage is not entirely happy.

Now, of course a discounted mortgage was never going to be the solution to Jim’s problems, but the fact remains that his lot was not a very good one. ‘I’m sick of getting by,’ he tells Mandy when she asks what’s wrong with ‘fine’. Perhaps the real tragedy is the lack of any channel for Jim’s aspirations other than a chance encounter with a dodgy salesman. But actually, the moment when this security guard starts looking in shop windows as a potential consumer, rather than just someone paid to guard stuff for someone else, is a moving one. And the moment when his wife sits in the garden of their dream home and shakes her head, saying, ‘I don’t see how… how we can have this,’ should be seen less as a glimmer of common sense than an indictment of a society in which so many people work long hours for pitiful rewards. 

It would be possible to watch Freefall and simply shake one’s head at the greed that has brought us to the brink of economic collapse, but by focusing on the ‘human interest’ side of things, Savage gives us space to think a bit differently, even if his own conclusions are rather conventional. Strong performances from the cast mean we can sympathise with the villains as well as the victims, as well as seeing the funny side of the financial crisis. The final outcome for each character is predictable but nicely done, especially in the case of devilish Dave, who reminds us that a salesman is someone who sells whatever sells.

1) BBC press release, 10 November 2008

Freefall is available on the BBC iPlayer till Tuesday 21 July 2009.


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