In Praise of Dialogue Part 2: The Old Guard

Veering off into an area I venture occasionally, albeit rarely – film analysis: I have a preoccupation with whether or not movies feel comfortable with dialogue. My pet hate is filmmakers behaving as if the fewer words they let their actors speak the better, more especially those who think that the film with the least dialogue wins. Action movies are obviously primed to reject dialogue in favour of the moving image, so it was a surprise and a delight to catch The Old Guard on Netflix and see one so very unafraid of words, as well as a whole list of other things that usually send them to the fainting couch: black women, women directing, women having authority over men, women over 40, solid gay relationships, men kissing, bisexuality and people who aren’t villains having European accents. To name a few.

In my last piece on making dialogue work on screen, my example of a show that did it well was a Canterbury Tales adaptation in which Chiwetel Ejiofor gave a captivating direct-to-camera monologue. I think that man has an eye for a script, so I don’t think it’s a coincidence to see him turn up in #TheOldGuard. Adapted from a graphic novel, the medium that is of all literary forms the most careful about the balance between word and image, it was wonderful to see space for dialogue, even within the demands for economy of the action genre. Keeping the original writer, Greg Rucka, on the screenplay can’t have hurt. I’ve been a fan of Rucka’s work for a while, in the form of Black Magick, which shows a similar interest in power and its use being shaped by its travel over centuries.

My only gripe with the entire film was the very 19th-century book used to represent a “first edition Don Quixote.” That was early 17th Century, good people of the props department, it should have looked like this:

The 1610 ‘Milan’ edition

Most of the online buzz, and I suspect the majority of the fanfic, has been centred on the relationship between the Italian Crusader, Nicky, and Saracen Knight, Joe, played by Luca Marinelli and Marwan Kenzari, and much of it has focused on a sublime speech Joe gives when the two of them are captured, and one of the guards goads him about whether Nicky is his ‘boyfriend’.

“This man is more to me than you can dream. He’s the moon when I’m lost in darkness, and warmth when I shiver with cold, and his kiss still thrills me even after a millennium. His heart overflows with a kindness of which this world is not worthy. I love this man beyond measure and reason. He’s not my ‘boyfriend’. He’s all and he’s more.”

Joe’s speech echoes the traditions of Persian love poetry. The love it expresses is ancient, enduring, unafraid to be spoken and to be heard. So different from what we are permitted, in our daily lives, and even in our modern narrative fiction. I spend a great deal of my time teaching Shakespeare encouraging students to allow themselves words that are big enough for the emotions we feel, and I hate how discouraged writers are from that kind of expression.

Unsurprisingly attention has been focused on this being a gay couple, which is a staggeringly big deal for a mainstream movie, but I’d like to allow a little bit of space to consider the significance merely of this quantity of spoken text. Rom-Coms will often allow a smidge of passion verbalised during the declaration after the final dash to the airport. Apart from that, open, sincere romantic praise is all but banned from cinema. Allowing a character to speak this much in the middle of an action movie is a bold genre statement. Maybe this will spark a movement for passion to be treated as something worthy of words. Clips of this moment have been multiplying on the internet like a swarm of happy, queer butterflies. So many people have been ecstatic to see a film commit to a relationship like this one, so it’s worth noting how all the elements supported it; the big speech was wonderful, but so were the many, tiny looks and touches and throwaway lines that built to a point where the relationship became a given factor in any scene. The work that must have gone into the fight sequences, such that these two were constantly passing each other weapons without even looking, or finishing each other’s moves, was of the kind we see in ballet.

Knowing when to use a line and when a gesture.

We are so used to relationships being scripted in shorthand, and to directors feeling clever if they cut between one long look to a second long look and leave it at that, as if someone having to use words to express feeling is a failure of writing. Hot take: that is the easiest thing to do, and the laziest, because we’ve all been trained since we began watching movies to read that sequence as information that two people are, or will soon be, in love. I have decided to no longer accept cutting between two steady gazes as representative of attraction – no! From now on if you want me to believe two characters should be shagging you have to generate something APPROACHING the electricity you see between Joe and Nicky when they say: “We killed each other.” “Many times.”

A toast, then, to more and better queer representation, but also to the deeply beautiful way the artists of this movie forged moving, convincing relationships on screen, using all the means available. Word, look, touch, gesture, fight choreography…

The found family theme is pretty core to action movies, and I wonder if it hits particularly hard during pandemic conditions. We’re all contemplating our mortality a bit more than usual, and looking very closely at whom we keep in our inner circle. A story of people who have each other’s backs forever is especially seductive.

I’m also grateful on behalf of all the straight girls who’ve spent our whole lives suffering adolescent rescue fantasies for that delicious Mille-Feuille we were served – nicely played, writers.

Spring comes to the South

Here in Sydney, 1st September marks the beginning of spring, and while our little front garden doesn’t get enough sun to have yet heard the call, the neighbouring street are bearing offerings.

Taken on the streets of Newtown, September 2020

It must be so hard for those in the Northern Hemisphere who have endured a shut-in summer to now be going into the longer, darker nights without the usual period of rejuvenation. Here, we are all taking precautions, but are functionally reasonably unrestricted. Our numbers of new Covid cases each day are hovering below 20, and that shifts the emphasis to test-and-trace over a more complete lockdown strategy.

Life as driven by how we thought the economy worked, however, is over. The jobs that are gone are not coming back. The jobs that are there are creeping into being characterised by precarity and employers asking more and more of their employees, without offering compensation. Our Government, right at the time when they could do the most help by creating public service jobs in a huge range of areas that would be of value to the electorate it supposedly serves (employment support services, higher education, specialised pedagogy, science, journalism, new forms of broadcast entertainment) has instead seized on this as a gift of an opportunity to get away with gutting public sector work and any industries its grift-bloated, boorish representatives don’t like.

cherry blossom

But we are seeing more daylight inch in, and warmer breezes pick us up. And all my endlessly clever, talented, indefatigable friends are being clever, talented and indefatigable. I don’t see a way through for any of us yet, but that just means I need to do more research, consult more people who know things, and be ready to support changes for the better when it becomes apparent what they are. My child still has six years of high school where he’s safe, while we re-shape the functionality of the world around him. There is a chance, a slim chance, that the cracks from which this crisis has ripped the paper-thin veneer, now that they must be seen, may be used to build the walls into new shapes.

Nano Nagle and the Friday Hoydens

The title of this post is not a girl group. Sadly.

Back in that decade or so of feminist blogging, when every day saw reams of new writing online on political topics, self-published by individuals and groups, I contributed to an Australian-based site called Hoyden About Town, and one of the main things I did was put up a series of posts pointing people to remarkable women, from history or from the present day. We called those posts Friday Hoydens (many other contributors wrote them, too). I decided to gather them together here, and was surprised at how many there were, when I pulled them all together.

Nano Nagle

If I were still posting Friday Hoydens, right now I would be writing about Nano Nagle. (1718-1784) My sister-in-law, who has children in the Catholic education system in Australia, has become a little obsessed with how she transformed education in Ireland. At that time, under the foreign British rule of Queen Anne and then George II, Catholics were disbarred by law from teaching, or from sending their children overseas for their education. Nano, which is short for Honora, and her sister were smuggled to Paris in order to be given the best education. But bear in mind that this was pre-revolution France, and as such had its own issues with class, poverty and people being denied their basic rights. Nano saw the poor gathered around begging for alms when she went to church, and decided that her calling was to alleviate this kind of deprivation back in her own country.

In the 1750s she opened a secret school for girls in Cork that “focussed on reading, writing, Catechism (Catholic religious instruction based on a system of questions and answers) and needlework.” This makes her one of the first to teach girls in a school setting; until the 19th Century schools were usually reserved for boys, and girls received what education they were permitted at home. The demand for this kind of education was so great that she was soon running seven schools for both boys and girls across the city.

She was unsatisfied with the way conventional convents kept the nuns cloistered, unable to do good in their community because of a policy of seclusion. She founded a group of lay sisters to avoid this, so that they could work in the the world and give help where it was needed. Like Florence Nightingale, her walking around the town at night, while working to help the poor, gained her the nickname, ‘the Lady of the Lantern’. The real significance of her work was how subversive it was, under a government of occupation that had put in place laws with the specific intention to keep the local, Catholic populace poor, uneducated and dependant on their oppressors, to defeat those goals by getting an education to little girls that empowered them as they grew into the women of Ireland.

There seem to be plenty of places online that speak of her life and work, so she is far from forgotten, but perhaps her fame fails to reach outside certain corners of Irish Catholic education.

Nano Nagle Place in Cork City looks after her legacy, and there is an additional website devoted to recording her history. The Presentation Order she founded still has a presence all around the world.

Other Amazing Women

Here is a catalogue of links to Friday Hoydens that I wrote for Hoyden About Town over the course of roughly 2012 – 2016. They are listed alphabetically by first name. Any or all would be great subject matter for lavish bio-pics. You can find lots more written by other contributors on the home site.


Beate Sirota Gordon

Bree Newsome

Camila Valejo

Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

Chihiro, Ofelia and Coraline

Ching Shih

Deborah Mailman

Dora Chance

Edna St Vincent Millay

Ela Bhatt

Emily Davison

Emma Goldman

Gillian Triggs

Graça Machel

Grace O’Malley

Hellena in The Rover

Héloïse d’Argenteuil

Hildegard von Bingen

Hortense Mancini

Hrotsvit von Gandersheim

Kathy Sierra

Katie Taylor

Linda Brodsky

Saint Lucy

Margaret of Anjou

Margaret MacDonald & Marion Mahony

Maya Angelou

Poppy King

Pussy Riot

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Rosie Hackett

Sally Potter

Sayyida Al Hurra

Sekai Holland

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh

Tina Harrod


Women in Theatre

Women of Firefly

Women Who Direct Films

Yvonne Brewster

Zerlina Maxwell

Shakespearean Hoydens:

Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing

Emilia in Othello

Ophelia in Hamlet

Paulina in The Winter’s Tale

History of Women on Stage

I’m so delighted to say that the Handbook of the History of Women on Stage is finally out in print.

It’s a behemoth, and as is always the way with such things, completely unaffordable for the average individual. However, I do hope that if you have an institutional affiliation you will order it in, and if not that you try requesting it from your local public library.

My chapter, as the Australian representative, is on race and casting practice in Australasian productions of Shakespeare. But it really is staggeringly comprehensive, covering a couple of thousand years and countries including, but not limited to, Greece, Italy, Britain, Canada, USA, South Africa, Russia and Japan. The authors represented are also a wonderful mix of academics and theatre practitioners, with plenty who demonstrate the futility of the distinction.

Cover shows Carolyne as Ariel in the San Vittore Globe Theatre production of Le Tempeste, photograph by Marcia Moretti

Browse the Contents here.

You can order the book from the publisher here.

Only a portion of the contributors