A plague on plagiarism plots

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"The Wife", one of three recent box-office hits with plots about literary plagiarism

If my last movie-based piece criticised the weak plot of The Favourite, this one tackles the odd fact that not two but three recent movies take as their basis an instance of literary plagiarism.

The misappropriation of literary work seems hardly the stuff of inspiration for mainstream Hollywood screenplays: yet Can you ever forgive me?, Colette and The Wife all deal with literary fakery.

Can you ever forgive me? is based on a true story and concerns celebrity author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) who, having fallen out of favour with current taste, turns to faking and selling letters purportedly written by literary giants. The other two films have more in common with one another, however, so for the moment I must set it aside.

In Colette, also rooted in fact, the eponymous heroine (Keira Knightley) marries philandering Parisian literary lion Willy (Dominic West). By his own admission more literary entrepreneur than true author, he constrains Colette to write novel after novel under his name. Eventually (spoiler alert!) she refuses to be exploited, leaves him, takes a wealthy lover and finds fame under her own name.

In similar vein, The Wife sees another (entirely fictional) woman’s writing passed off as her husband’s work. When it wins a Nobel Prize, which he naturally accepts, she finds herself unable to accept the pretence any longer. However, she does not betray him publicly: her rebellion is a private one, though a heart-attack finishes his literary career.

Despite the superficial similarities, these two movies could hardly be more different. I struggle with the character of The Wife herself (superbly played by Glenn Close, beaten to an Oscar by Olivia Colman). As well as being a Nobel laureate, albeit anonymously, she also acts as carer for her ailing, dishonest husband (Jonathan Pryce). Taking time out to escape the Nobel shenanigans, she nonetheless counts out his heart pills and sets his watch to remind him (just as well, as the alarm interrupts the serial seducer’s move on an attractive young photographer).

It won’t do – not for me, at any rate. We keep reading how, in the #MeToo era, movies are built around courageous, assertive female characters. Colette, to be sure, acts decisively to change her situation, even scandalously (for her time) choosing a same-sex lover: it’s a powerful film that deserved a better review than The Times gave.

The Wife, brilliantly played by Glenn Close, is a doormat for the philandering non-author (Jonathan Pryce)

By contrast, The Wife herself is a doormat in the old mould: she’s not only darning the old man’s metaphorical socks but, hell, she’s even doing his job, writing his books and building his fame for him. Perhaps that’s meant to represent a deep contradiction within her complex character: but to me it just doesn’t ring true. Surely the world’s moved on, #MeToo or not.

Returning finally to Can you ever forgive me?, there the central character appreciates the nature of her betrayal of the integrity of writers and literature: and she’s aware she’s behaving criminally, forging documents for illicit gain.

But in Colette and The Wife the moral dilemma is hardly touched on. To be sure, their deceptions are more subtle: no one’s being robbed, the money and fame simply going to the wrong spouse. Yet the wives’ writing work that their husbands steal, and their enjoyment of the fame, should offer all the more fascinating ground for philosophical discussion precisely because the police aren’t about to knock on their door: it’s a private, secret conflict. Colette fights: The Wife covers up. I know which response I prefer.

OK, it’s only a story: besides, cinema is, above all, a mechanism for escapism. Yet, while we’re constantly assured that Hollywood isn’t afraid to tackle challenging subjects, in the end it too often takes the easy, lazy route: characters behave predictably and dénouements are contrived or even cosy.

I’ve got this great idea for a movie story, one fit for the #MeToo age. There’s a husband writing books, because he’s an undiscovered genius, but his careerist wife takes all the credit: but then he comes up with a plot about a wife writing…

No, it’s no good. It would just be plagiarism. And who wants to watch a film plagiarising plots about, er, plagiarism?

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