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.

3 thoughts on “In Praise of Dialogue Part 2: The Old Guard

  1. The short description plot of this film suggested to me that I would absolutely hate it — but you’ve convinced me to give it a try. I’ve added it to my queue.

    • I suspect that you, like myself, would most enjoy a backstory/flashbacks/prequels series, telling the stories of the team through different eras. I would like to see all of them in Byronic cravats, for instance.

      • That’s a very positive construction of how I really feel about films like this (immortal mercenaries, action film, revenge mission — that’s a trifecta of reasons for me not to see it), but your commentary on the social aspects of it makes it seem worthwhile.

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