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Film: How to Build a Girl - Harry Mount

Arts | By Harry Mount

Autobiographical film drama by Caitlin Moran - the Dorothy Parker of the West Midlands

For those who don’t read her columns in the Times or her books, Caitlin Moran is the Dorothy Parker of the West Midlands – and this is her thinly disguised, autobiographical novel of the same name, revamped as a film drama.

Moran, born in 1975, is the daughter of ‘the only hippies in Wolverhampton’. Her father had been a psychedelic-rock drummer in the ’60s, his pop-star dreams destroyed by osteoarthritis. She was educated at home from the age of 11. And from this hardscrabble, bohemian upbringing emerged a teenage wunderkind, working on Melody Maker at 16 on the way to becoming one of Britain’s leading writers.

It is an extraordinary story – literally extra ordinary. As the pop star she falls in love with (subtly played by Alfie Allen as a low-key, melancholy figure) says, ‘It's a miracle that anyone gets anywhere from a bad postcode.’

It’s a miracle, too, to have a film set in the West Midlands (whose beauties are nicely captured by William Cook on page 78). And it’s a miracle in the film world that a female lead (Beanie Feldstein playing the Moran character, Johanna Morrigan) could be played by a short, tubby, jolie-laide actress.

Feldstein is a delight, perfectly capturing the innate comic qualities of the Brummie accent and the agony of being a precociously clever fish out of water in her brief spell at school.

Moran spent three weeks at Wolverhampton Girls’ High School, and Morrigan lasts barely much longer at the film version. In a neat little trick, the posters of her unconventional heroes – Sylvia Plath, Sigmund Freud and the Brontës – come to life on her bedroom wall and boost her spirits in the face of her dreary bullies and the official ‘cool’ brigade. While the trendy teenagers in her class worship Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Morrigan bravely prefers Little House on the Prairie.

When the young Morrigan starts working on a music magazine, you sense her pleasure in the great thrill of journalism and the access it allows her to her pop-star heroes. In one of Moran’s very good Dorothy Parkeresque lines (she co-wrote the screenplay with John Niven), Morrigan says, ‘My future turned up early.’

Moran also has a good memory for a lost era when pop songs were everything. At one moment, a pop star drops the line ‘I was born in a crossfire hurricane’ into conversation, expecting Morrigan to get the Jumpin’ Jack Flash reference instantly.

Still, there’s a problem when journalists turn into screenwriters. They become too writerly, particularly if the film is about a writer. At times, the screenplay reads like one of Moran’s newspaper columns. On several occasions, Morrigan is at her typewriter, tapping away – hardly an action scene. At one stage, a journalist reads out her freshly written copy as it emerges from the typewriter.

That’s one of the limitations of film: how can you broadcast long reams of prose? In the masterly 1981 Granada Television production of Brideshead Revisited, producer Derek Granger (still with us, happily, at 99) overcame the problem by rewriting John Mortimer’s script and getting Jeremy Irons to read out tracts of Evelyn Waugh in that elegiac voice-over.

Director Coky Giedroyc doesn’t pull off the transfer from page to screen as well as Granger. And there are clunking, am-dram bursts of trashy rags-to-riches sentiment. But they are only minor – imagine how Hollywood would have dunked this story in a warm bath of triumph-over-adversity sentiment.

How good that cinemas are starting to reopen. During lockdown, new films have had to undergo a tricky test – are they worth watching on the small screen? This one is.

This story was from September 2020 issue. Subscribe Now