A Marvellous example: Why ‘Marvellous’ and Toby Jones have set the gold standard for disability in film
A recurring problem with disability in film is that it is often presented as being apart from the norm and can be scaled up for emphasis. Some of the better known films featuring disability tend to view it as the only subject, as something worthy of comment in itself and something which must dominate the screen.
This is not to say disability should be avoided as a topic for discussion in film, of course. David Lynch’s Elephant Man is a powerful and moving investigation into being marginalised from society as a result of physical difference. Lindsay Anderson’s post-war documentary Thursday’s Children also looks at disability with deaf children learning sign language as it is itself a film about communication, its joys and frustrations, as does Werner Hertzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser to some extent. These films discuss disability thoughtfully and powerful as a result.
But must this always be the case? Must disability always dominate the screen? Whilst there is no problem investigating disability as a central theme, as the films mentioned above do very well, disability must also be allowed to exist naturally on screen without acting as a central theme in itself and there are relatively few examples where this is the case.
The recent BBC TV film Marvellous might be a rare and brilliant exception to this, however. The film is a welcome rarity in that it treats its main subject, Neil Baldwin – a man with learning difficulties from Stoke who was adored by the community and the football club, as a whole and complex person, effect by his disability but not defined by it – like the film itself. Marvellous also benefits enormously from a Bafta-worthy performance from Toby Jones, who provides much needed nuance and personality to his character.
Marvellous has set the bar for a new era in how disability is portrayed on the big screen. Directors, actors and especially producers should take note. The BFI’s ‘Opening Our Eye’s report showed that in 2011 40% of people thought that there are not enough films about people with disabilities. It should be an aim of the film industry in the UK to make this question redundant; if there is a story to be told then tell it. If somebody’s disability contributes the power of that film then use it. But disability should not always be sectioned off as a separate category in itself.
Louie Freeman-Bassett, Communications Assistant at Livability