You can’t help but watch the trailer for 55 Steps and think: shameless Oscar-bait. And then hard on the heels of that thought is: and it was released last year?
In truth, the movie received its premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival on 7 September. But since then, Bille August’s latest feature has made an appearance at the Moscow International Film Festival on 20 April 2018, had a limited release in Germany on 3 May (where it’s known as Eleanor & Colette), and a further appearance at Belgium’s Filmfestival Oostende on 8 September. The question arises: if it’s been seen at a handful of festivals (and you’d think festival programmers would be a bit more savvy than most movie watchers), then why such a delayed release?
Well, the trailer does give it away. Although “based on a true story”, and featuring Helena Bonham Carter and Hilary Swank in the lead roles, this has all the hallmarks of an old-fashioned David vs Goliath story, with Swank as the ambitious and out of her depth lawyer taking on the medical establishment, and Carter as the client who behaves oddly but endearingly, and who, despite having mental health problems that would have most people in real life crossing the street to avoid her, is presented here as someone who’s actually really lovely when you get to know her. It’s depressingly predictable, and potentially patronising, and though there’s a serious issue buried deep in the trailer – the risk of prescribed medication causing more problems than the illness or condition it’s meant to treat – you know that the movie’s real focus is going to be on the two women’s friendship, and the positive impact they have on each other’s lives. What’s wrong with that, you might ask. But if you do, then you’re not seeing how formulaic and depressingly banal this movie already looks, and in a format that’s supposed to promote it and persuade people to pay money to see it.
And one final word: when a trailer adds a quote that calls a performance “transformative”, it’s something of an insult to the make up, hair and costume departments who in this case clearly helped Helena Bonham Carter create her character’s look. Instead of praising the actor or actress, how about acknowledging the work of the production team instead?