A temporary replacement for TMINE’s Orange Thursday feature in which I review a readily available movie you’ve probably already seen
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the past few weeks, it’s that being stuck indoors all day makes it really hard to watch TV. Not only is there paradoxically less time than normal to watch things, I also have less inclination and focus for it.
Even Wittertainment’s Simon Mayo confesses he’s finding it hard to muster his attention sufficiently to watch movies at home. And he’s paid to do it for the BBC’s flagship film programme.
That’s before we start thinking about the fact there aren’t even any new movies coming out at the cinemas any more. Or cinemas.
As a result, TMINE’s Orange Thursday feature – in which I review a couple of movies every week – has withered on the vine of late. Sorry about that.
But not to worry. Because here’s a replacement: Covideodrome, in which I review (whenever the inclination grabs me) a movie, maybe on a streaming service, maybe on TV, maybe even on DVD, that we’ve all probably seen so can talk about. I might take in a few new movies, too. And it’ll happen when it happens. No pressure.
First up is Sliding Doors (1998), a movie you’ve almost certainly watched, probably when you were younger and maybe even hipper (is that possible?), but which you probably haven’t rewatched since – but probably should.
That’ll be coming up after the jump. But first, the trailer. No ads, because we’re not at the cinema obvs and we’re using streaming services. I’m surprised this whole blog post doesn’t just autoplay.
Sliding Doors (1998)
Helen is fired from her job at a PR company. While returning home, she misses the train, but in a parallel universe, she catches the train, which triggers a completely different turn of events.
Stars: Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah, John Lynch, Jeanne Tripplehorn
It’s odd to rewatch Sliding Doors and realise it’s a movie that’s now more than 20 years old. For some reason, it’s indelibly ingrained in my mind as a young movie, a vibrant movie. Yet watching it now, it definitely shows signs of both its age and period.
‘Cool Britannia’ was a concept that emerged in the mid 90s with the election of New Labour and the arrival of Britpop, before reaching its conclusion with the 2012 Olympic Games and dying a fiery, humiliating death in 2016 with Brexit – and Sliding Doors was inextricably bound up in Cool Britannia. It was part of that initial wave of confident, unique movies at the end of the the 20th century that sent the message to the world that ‘Britain is cool and sexy and modern’ – think Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), The Full Monty (1997), Trainspotting (1996) and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998).
Devised, written and directed by former Bread star Peter Howitt (who was nurtured through the process by Sydney Pollack), Sliding Doors is a relatively simple ‘what if’ – how would one person’s life be different if they managed to catch a train, compared to if they didn’t.
Here, London PR woman Gwyneth Paltrow gets fired from her job and then on the way home either learns her boyfriend (The Fall‘s John Lynch) is having an affair with Jeanne Tripplehorn (Basic Instinct) or she remains in blissful ignorance. To make it easier to tell apart the Paltrows from different timelines, the newly liberated Paltrow gets a stylish blonde hairdo, while the downtrodden Paltrow remains mousey.
In timeline one, she then strikes up a relationship with the supportive John Hannah, whom she first meets on the Tube, ultimately launching her own business. In timeline two, she remains with Lynch and ends up working as a sandwich maker to support him as he ‘works on his novel’. That’s very much the Darkest Timeline.
A time and a place
It’s not the first time such an idea has been used – think It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), for example – but its implementation in a romantic comedy was beautifully realised and ensured it a place in pop culture that lasts to this day: The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt recently did an episode called Sliding Van Doors while the latest Netflix romcom Love Wedding Repeat does something similar at a wedding. Hannah and Paltrow are great together, the jokes are funny, everyone is charming and witty, and London looks great.
Yet it is clearly a movie of the late 90s – as the fashions and cars will tell you, but more notably in its themes. There’s that Cool Britannia vibe, with the movie partly acting as a London Tourist Board promotional video, partly as a guide to the best British pop bands of the 90s – as well as Aqua, whose ‘Turn Back Time’ ended up ruling the charts for weeks on the back of its appearance in the movie (which features heavily in the accompanying video).
There’s also the idea that someone in PR could be a heroine and not perceived as a tool of #FakeNews and evil, but actually serve a useful purpose in life.
Then there’s the leads. Paltrow here is post-Se7en and pre-Goop – she’s Brad Pitt’s ex and sporting one of the first decent English accents by an American actress in modern movie history. She’s cool, not an eccentric, easily satirisable harmer of women’s health and purses.
Then there’s Hannah, still riding a wave of popularity from Four Weddings. He’s genuinely likeable and funny.
Together, this was very much their moment.
A man’s guide to romance
Just like Four Weddings and the later Martha Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence, as well as the entire gross-out romcom wave ignited by Knocked Up and There’s Something About Mary, it’s also a rom-com made and written by a man and has a man’s eye view of romance. Paltrow’s relationship with her best friend (Zara Turner) looks like something observed by a man from afar and only just scrapes a pass on the Bechdel Test. Tripplehorn is more a man’s worst nightmare of a woman/mistress than anything truly plausible or well drawn in a character.
It’s also pushing the boundaries of plausibility, even in a movie about alternative universes, that a Monty Python-quoting boatie who hides the fact he’s secretly still seeing his soon-to-be-ex wife (albeit platonically) would be the dream option for any woman. Only a man would think that.
Then there’s the fact that Paltrow turns her life around because she’s met the right man. That wouldn’t wash now.
And you wouldn’t have made the other woman (Tripplehorn) American. This was very much a British man’s view of scary American businesswomen of the 1990s.
Lastly, there’s the ending. Let’s face it – the wrong Paltrow dies. Empowered blonde, living the good life after overcoming the odds Paltrow should have survived, not the mousey, downtrodden one.
The ending does suggest that time is about to repeat itself in the Darkest Timeline, with Paltrow finally free of Lynch and meeting Hannah for the first time. But that other timeline, in which a grieving Hannah has to deal with the demise of Paltrow, still exists, even if the film chooses to overlook it, and in 2020, it’s hard to believe that blonde Paltrow would have bit the dust, rather than the two timelines converging again in some other way. You could do tragic early death for the heroine in 1998, not now. But “ditch your cheating boyfriend, set up your own business and you’ll get mown down by a van” is neither very inspirational nor in keeping with #MeToo.
A sliding scale
But while culturally Problematic now, Sliding Doors is ultimately a joyful movie for which you really have to be wearing your Hater’s Hat not to enjoy. The Hannah/Paltrow romance is one you want to root for, and blonde Paltrow is a great heroine. I want to be back in the London they’re living in, too.
As a movie, it’s always a delight to rewatch, so I’ll also encourage you to own it. I used to do that.