FLIXATION

Hues & Blues: The darkness and light that colour brings to great television

By Tony Jackman 22 August 2019

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. (Photo: Flickr / Victoria Pickering)

Colour and tone have come to play a key role in some of the best television dramas, alongside the actors; hues, light and shade are used the way a painter uses them – to add drama, to bring down the mood, to lift the spirit. Look at Chernobyl, and at The Handmaid’s Tale, as among the best examples of how an exceptional eye for colour can take something really good and make it even better.

The use of colour and tone as central players on the screen is not a new thing, certainly in the movies. The entire film noir genre, whether Grand Guignol or a bordering-on-hokey PI gumshoe franchise, depends on hue, if not always colour – many are black and white, using light and shade to lighten or deepen mood and drama, while a colour film such as Body Heat or the The Postman Always Rings Twice remake, two great examples of the Eighties film noir revival (the genre’s heyday was mid-Forties to mid-Fifties), chose palettes that gave their respective cinematographers central roles, as it were, in the movies. Richard H Kline was behind the camera for the former, while the ever brilliant Sven Nykvist shot the latter. (Sidney Wagner shot the 1946 Postman original.)

Photo of generic film noir scene by Roy Clarke, from Pixabay

It’s not only about colour and tone. Film noir is as bleak as it is black. Films noirs are pessimistic, cynical, don’t hold out much hope for their protagonists. They’ll tell and show you stark reality and woeful consequences, and won’t be trying to lift your spirits or give you a sweet and cuddly ending.

Two of the most impressive television drama series of our times use colour and tone to such dramatic extent that they are as important to what we’re watching as the script and the performances. The Handmaid’s Tale’s palette of reds, teals and soft greens, accented by stark white, is so strong that it’s impossible to imagine any frame of the four seasons without seeing them clearly. In Chernobyl, sickly hues and grim blue-greens are used to illustrate the dense hopelessness of everything.

The crimson of the handmaids’ gowns and headwear in The Handmaid’s Tale suggests their vitality and their subordination, their importance, and how that importance makes them, if not invincible, at least corseted from the likelihood of death. It’s the hue of their belonging, of no longer owning themselves; it portends their defiant spirits and their hope of survival, just as it reminds us of their role as subjugated mothers.

The handmaids can take solace and draw strength from knowing that their chance of ending up on The Wall is counterbalanced by the womb that is, to the commanders, their own future; the red that they wear heralds the blood that must course for them to bear their masters’ children, the blood of their enforced fealty. The red also speaks of the fire in their souls to endure what they must and ultimately survive their subjugation, supposing that, one day, Gilead will be conquered and light return.

The red is most commonly contrasted with the teal of the free (relatively) women of Gilead, the wives of the commanders and other uber-chauvinist men in the conquered former New England – in fact, “Gilead” comprises 21 former states, from the Virginias and North Carolina to Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Teal (apart from being my favourite colour, alongside cobalt blue) fascinates me in the way it is used in The Handmaid’s Tale, chiefly, as a simple and stark contrast to the red; almost as if the “free” women of Gilead are lessened by their circumstances even while supposedly holding power that the red-clad subordinates do not possess – outside of the power of the womb. Their red-hot fertility contrasts with the teal-wearing women’s lack of it; the handmaids’ vitality as opposed to the lifelessness of the attire of Serena Joy and the other wives.

The Marthas, arguably the most subjugated of all of Gilead’s women, thanks to their being infertile yet not having the privileges that come with being wives, are the dullest of all in their hospital-gown green, dowdy in their plain kitchens, tolerated because somebody has to do the cooking and cleaning. Hair tied back to show that their femininity has no worth, the Marthas have only one hold on power: even despots must eat, and the madam of the house sure as hell is not going to do it.

Ever the most chilling character in The Handmaid’s Tale, for me – if there can be a worst character amid so many monsters – is Aunt Lydia. In her militaristic brown apparel she is the ultimate representation of Nazi-like oppression; the plain, lumpen and ethically blind follower who will do anything for cause, country and commander. Lydia has the presence and menace of a Regimental Sergeant-Major with a baton she’s prepared to wield on a whim, or even without one. Then, frequently and always unexpectedly, Aunt Lydia will suddenly show the other woman buried deep within her, the contradictorily caring soul who will leap to the defence of a handmaid she had scolded and terrorised only minutes earlier.

There are other hues, of course, in The Handmaid’s Tale, but that trio of scarlet, teal and dreary green are the ones that make the series the memorable, truly unforgettable piece of television art that it is. And just to be quite clear: it must surely rank in the very top echelon of the craft; this in a time of a golden era of television drama. Elisabeth Moss, as Offred, is unquestionably one of the greatest actors alive, yet Ann Dowd, as Aunt Lydia, has carved a chilling niche all her own in this brilliant series.

And then, along came Chernobyl. How hard to watch is that? It took us weeks, even though there are only five episodes. If ever a series was made not to binge on, Chernobyl is it.

And, like The Handmaid’s Tale, Chernobyl infuses every scene, every frame, with colours that make you almost taste the grim despair and the sense of there being no way out of the horror show that no human being could endure and survive mentally fit.

How the producers were able to create a series, about that disaster, that could captivate the world is astonishing; it’s something you instinctively turn away from, just too much to bear, yet watch you do, and even if, like us, you pushed it aside for a week or more at a time, you do go back to it and see it to a conclusion that you know will have no light, no uplifting denouement. The only coda, as they show us photos of the real people portrayed in Chernobyl in the closing credits, is to remind us that all the grimness was and remains real.

To show us this dank world they chose sickly hues; interestingly, there’s much use of pale greens and teals, as in The Handmaid’s Tale, with yucky yellows that bring unpleasant things to mind; puke, chiefly. “Putrid” quickly comes to mind when watching the consequences of the disaster at Chernobyl: I looked up synonyms for putridity and almost every word offered applies to the scene of devastation: curdled, fermented, rancid, rank, sour, contaminated, defiled, fouled, impure, polluted, tainted, corroded, crumbled, decaying, decomposing, mildewy, mouldering, mouldy, putrefying, putrescent, rotting…

And all of those things, in their subtle variations, suggested by canny use of colour.

For all its brilliance, though, Chernobyl (the series) may not stay in our minds in quite the way that The Handmaid’s Tale will, years from now. Chernobyl is dark, dank, miserable, and hopeless, and once you’re in the tunnel of the story there is no light at the end, and you know that from the opening frame.

With The Handmaid’s Tale, though, we can know that the monsters do get defeated, that the despots do ultimately fall, and that we have, in our own and our parents’ lifetimes, many examples of this to prove it, from Hitler to Amin to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.

Thanks to the best meaning of the red of the handmaid’s clothing – the vitality of blood flowing and sustaining our lives, and the triumph that crimson represents – there is hope, yet. DM

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