A Clever Woman (2022) – Film Review
Director: Jon Sanders
Cast: Josie Lawrence, Tanya Myers, James Northcote
By Elizabeth Stanforth-Sharpe
Although a written script has great merit for most plays and films, it’s always interesting to see how going ‘off-script’ adds a dimension of characterisation and spontaneity that gives ‘lift’ to a production. Who can think of Jaws now without Roy Schneider’s off the cuff remark, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”, or Pretty Woman without recalling Richard Gere snapping the jewellery box shut, prompting Julia Roberts to burst into unrehearsed laughter?
An improvised film is an art form all its own, and a brave decision to make, especially when the subject matter is serious rather than comedy. Jon Sanders, in association with Tull Stories, has co-written A Clever Woman with his wife, Anna Mottram; an uplifting study of sibling relationship and the process of mourning, and the result is incredibly poignant and beautiful.
“Every strand of emotion”
Sisters, Dot (Josie Lawrence) and Phoebe (Tanya Myers) have returned to the old family home on the Isle of Wight, a year after the death of their composer mother, in order to clear away decades of clutter before putting the house on the market. Memories are stirred and, as often happens in families, the material possessions are not the only thing sorted and sifted. The reminiscences and release of emotions lead to the duo developing a site-specific performance piece, intending it to be performed as a farewell to the island of their childhood, incorporating their mother’s compositions for the pianola, which include songs that utilise the poetry of the Victorian feminist poet, Mary Coleridge. The very real process of creative filtering negates the need for the performance to take place.
Both Lawrence and Myers are accomplished improvisation artists as well as talented actors, who instinctively understand how to balance the conversation and pauses to elicit every strand of emotion, with Tom (James Northcote), a musician who has been house-sitting the property since the mother’s death, their producer/curator Monica (Anna Mottram), and Billy (Bob Goody), Monica’s husband, completing the cast line-up; as an ensemble they give a skilfully understated performance that is delightful to watch.
It’s an interesting and intriguing portrayal of ‘letting go’, working out what is important to preserve in memory or onward journey, and the knowledge that no matter how well we think we are connected to another person, the reality is that we cannot ever know their stories fully, or read what made them tick internally. Bereavement has so many facets, encompassing so many stages of grief and adjustment, and A Clever Woman manages to encapsulate so much in eighty-eight minutes, through heightened communication, meaningful silences, glances, embracing the space, and totally engaging with each other as both fellow actors and owners of their own characters. It is rounded, natural and believable.