Saturday, 15 June 2013

Film Review: Heart: The Marilyn Bell Story

Heart: The Marilyn Bell Story is a Canadian film about a Canadian hero: 16-year-old Marilyn Bell, who in 1954 attempted the longest swim on record, a grueling 52-kilometer swim across Lake Ontario. It's a simple story-- told far more simply than if it had been made in Hollywood-- but I really liked it. It was well-acted, and the swim and the odds against Bell completing it drew me in.

Role of Women: What I loved about the way women were treated (with one exception) in this film is that they all but ignored a world where women are viewed as less. Marilyn faces opposition to her swimming dreams from many people at different points in the film: her mother doesn't think she can succeed, her coach initially refuses to train her because she's such a novice, her competitor, professional American swimmer Florence Chadwick, refuses to even acknowledge her as competition, and the CNE attempts to cut her out of the Lake Ontario swim altogether. But no one ever mentions that she can't do it because she's a girl. They say she's young, slight, an untested novice attempting a record-breaking swim-- but nobody ever says she shouldn't be pursuing her dream because of her gender. So many films of this sort make the heroine a scrappy, won't-be-put-in-a-box, chafes-against-the-social-conventions-of-the-day type of girl. There is a place for that, but it was very refreshing that they never had anyone criticize Marilyn because she was athletic, or have her coach, male fellow swim club members, or men in the press treat her as a sex object or as less valuable, and she in turn never needs to be resentful of her femaleness.

I also loved the vulnerability of Marilyn's character. Remember in my post One-Sided? I talked about realistic, interesting women? That's what Marilyn is. She's shy, but willing to advocate for herself despite feeling awkward. She's afraid of creatures in the water and swimming in the dark (and the poor girl gets attacked by lamprey eels in the water at night when she starts her epic swim) and needs the help of her coach's hardheartedness to push through her fears and carry on. She laughs, she cries, she has a good friendship with another girl in her swim club, they don't toss in a quick romance for the sake of the modern audience. In short, she's exactly the kind of character Hollywood could use a lot more of. Overall, I think the treatment of women in this film was very positive.

Sexualization of Women: Here's the one niggle I had with the film. Marilyn's opponent, the older, proven swimmer Florence Chadwick, in what I suppose to be an effort to make her seem more "villainous" and so up the tension of the film, is portrayed as a vain, selfish, glamour queen. From what I can find out on the Internet, she wasn't all that glamourous, but in the film they had her unabashedly using her sex appeal to manipulate the men around her, hanging out in her hotel room painting her toenails when everybody was waiting for her to start the swim, generally seeming to care more about her physical appearance than her sport or the world around her. Now, I can't say for sure, but this doesn't seem to me to be the kind of attitude that an extremely talented, successful long-distance swimmer like Chadwick would take towards her sport. Basically, the film implied that she used her glamorous looks and some suggestive behaviour to get the CNE executive to offer her the $10,000 prize for swimming Lake Ontario. I think the film could have created a sense of competition and shown Chadwick as an older, more worldly and experienced opponent without cheapening her like that. Still, this was one or two brief scenes in a movie that falls overwhelmingly on the positive side.

Bechdel Test Pass/Fail: Pass. Marilyn and her mother, Marilyn and her sister, and Marilyn and her good friend Joan all have plenty of conversations about things other than men (mostly about swimming).

Male:Female Ratio: 50:50! Nice-- just like the real world. Out of ten main(ish) characters, five were women.

1 comment:

  1. I should warn, because of the scene with Chadwick and the CNE exec, plus a few instances of swearing, this is not appropriate for younger kids. Which is too bad, because it is just the sort of rad film I would like my younger kids watching. My toddler was pretty enthralled with the long shots of marathon swimming at the end when he woke from his nap, though...